When a man is found dead, stabbed between the eyes by a unicorn (of indeterminate nationality) — a, yes, fictional animal that can nevertheless apparently turn invisible at will — you don’t expect to find yourself in the GADU. And when a second victim is then killed in the same way but in full view of witnesses, if one can witness an invisible animal, you better hope you’re in the GADU or else things are about to get silly. Well, it’s your lucky day, because you are in a classic impossible crime mystery and things are about to get silly — this book is probably the final time John Dickson Carr had all the ingredients for a classic and didn’t actually write it, instead leaving a few edges untouched so that the overriding impression is slightly more “Er…what?” than “Hell, yeah!”.
Worry not, I have no intention here of spoiling anything about Death on the Nile ahead of spoiling everything about it next month, but I’ve just reread it in preparation for that and some thoughts came out of it that I’d like to get down here for posterity. Also, having tackled Australian and American authors for the 1937 Crimes of the Century, it struck me that I should probably go for the English-speaking trifecta and take on the most English of English Detective Novelists, too, for completeness if nothing else.
The first month of 2017 sees The Tuesday Night Bloggers — again, it’s not a closed group, you’re welcome to pitch in whenever you like — reflecting on firsts, debuts, starting points, and anything else that lends itself to the beginning of something (provided it’s detective fiction-related, of course). So I thought I’d get all dewy-eyed over not just my first Christie but also my first classic detective novel ever, the entry-level drug that started me on this path to blogging, obsessing over obscure classics, and spending every spare moment in second-hand bookshops.
In his lifetime, John Dickson Carr published 76 novels and short story collections, plus a biography of Arthur Conan Doyle and a ‘true crime’ novel predating Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey. Following the closure of the Rue Morgue Press, who had five Carr novels in their books, and the coming disappearance of Orion’s ebook undertaking The Murder Room, who have around 14 or so Carr novels in their ranks, we’re not too far from a point in time where only two Car novels will be available to buy: Orion’s perpetually in-print version of The Hollow Man and the Mysterious Press publication of The Devil in Velvet. So, to return to the question in the title of this post: John Dickson Carr’s out of print — where’s the fuss?
Anthony Horowitz is probably my favourite contemporary author of detective fiction, as his superb Sherlock Holmes novel The House of Silk (2011) and its genuinely exceptional follow-up Moriarty (2013) displayed an affinity for both the milieu of Holmes and the necessary misdirection and construction of a blistering plot that blindsides you at will which seems to elude many who try to walk this path these days. His earlier novel The Killing Joke (2004) isn’t really detective fiction per se, but shows a playfulness with narrative that is aware of many of the tropes of genre fiction and is worth mentioning here precisely because of how much it foreshadowed the work he does in Magpie Murders when it comes to deconstructing the classical detective and his ilk.
William Anthony Parker White, under the nom de plume Anthony Boucher, is widely considered to have been one of the most influential voices of his generation when it came to matters of detective fiction. As an anthologist and reviewer his opinions counted greatly for their insight and fairness, but as well as talking the talk he also walked the walk in a series of seven novels and over 70 short stories published in the most highly-regarded detective and SF magazines of the day.
And yet for all his output, and in part on account of his genre-changing, it’s difficult to know how Boucher’s fictional writing should be remembered. His novels cover no fewer than three different “series”, with the longest-running — centred around Irish PI/Gentleman Detective Fergus O’Breen — comprising only three of them, and the most famous — locked room murder Nine Times Nine (1940) — featuring the marvellous wannabe-detective nun Sister Ursula but succeeded by a follow-up (1942’s Rocket to the Morgue) so inane that most people have probably never picked it up based on reputation alone (which is a shame, because Sister Ursula is one of the most wonderful characters to come out of this era).
I haven’t reviewed (or read, come to that) a short story collection for a while, and it’s 1954 this month for Crimes of the Century at Past Offences meaning the time is ripe for a long-overdue (har-har) return to John Dickson Carr. I had read a couple of the stories contained herein before, but the majority were new to me, and as ever it’s a delight to see Carr’s imagination wrangle with the shorter form. Given how frequently stories of this ilk fail to conceal their workings and/or killer, it’s also great to see him do both over and over again with consummate ease, as if saying to his contemporaries “C’mon, guys, it’s simple –just do this“. We’ll take them one at a time as is my usual approach with collections — and, yes, most of these were originally published before 1954 and so might be inadmissible. Let’s just get on with it and an independent official enquiry can determine the eligibility of this at a later point.
So, as established yesterday, there’s much more scope in Watson than there is in Holmes. The obvious question then becomes: So what do you do with this?
Take the simple cosmetic changes out of the equation — the casting of Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson in the US series Elementary, for instance, easily one of the least disruptive changes it’s possible to get away with — and what you’re left with is the fact that Watson, being our entry into the Holmesiverse, is allowed to do anything that reflects the experience and perspective of the reader. As discussed yesterday, there are aspects of the character, the constants I referred to, that don’t become him — making him the proprietor of a burgeoning dog-walking business, or a respected scholar of nineteenth century Gothic poetry, or giving him a form of OCD which means he must always cross his legs in the opposite manner to Holmes unless it’s a Tuesday in which case…, etc — but let’s put this aside as given and look at the way certain authors have expanded on Watson without desecrating him beyond all recognition.