Slightly belatedly, here are my thoughts on the companion piece to ‘The Scoop’ (1931), another portmanteau mystery written for radio by some of the luminaries of the Golden Age. This time around, Hugh Walpole sets the problem of a dead body found in your typical Stage 3 suburban household, and Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley, E.C. Bentley, and Ronald Knox contribute to its unpicking.
In a career that does not exactly lack for belauded titles, The Burning Court might just be the most belauded of John Dickson Carr’s oeuvre. Opinions diverge sharply on what I would consider all-time classics like The Plague Court Murders (1934) or The Hollow Man (1935), but arguably only this and perhaps She Died a Lady (1943) seem to enjoy universal adoration. So for the Carr acolyte like myself, approaching every book fully intent on getting the most possible out of it, there’s now the extra twinge of almost needing to love this so as to be taken seriously when discussing the man and his work. Five years from now, you don’t want “Yeah, but you didn’t enjoy The Burning Court” being thrown in your face like the castigation it is.
You may (but then you you may not) be aware that I’ve started a thing here on The Invisible Event where every three months I pick a work of classic detective fiction and discuss it with another GAD blogger, being entirely unmindful of spoilers so as to really get into the details involved. Well, another is on the way — which book do you think it could possibly be?
After the disappointment of last week, I should dive straight back in to another dense impossibility and to hell with any lingering doubts. But, well, my meretricious moods find me yearning for a little comfort reading, and so it’s back to Doug Selby and the gang. Here we find newly-elected D.A. Selby and Sheriff Rex Brandon contending with obstreperous reporters, influential businessmen, political opportunism, and a host of tangled stories and motives when trying to unpick the riddle of a dead body found bearing a note that states the intention of the possessor to have killed someone else…but no second body to back up the claim. And hold onto your hats, because that’s not the only thing that doesn’t add up.
In the orchestra of John Dickson Carr’s detective fiction, his early years from It Walks by Night (1930) up to arguably The Arabian Nights Murder (1936) are very much the accordion section. Events occur in concentrated bursts, with clues and characters squeezed together to make the notes of the plot emerge, only to then be drawn apart before inexorably squeezing together again for another dense exposit you must pore over in order to follow the necessary developments. From The Punch and Judy Murders (1936) until the 1940s he wrote in the fine, clean, overlapping lines of the harp, and then the violins took over… but enough of this analogy, back to this book and the wheeze of a bellows working overtime.
Most fans of Golden Age detective fiction (GAD) will be aware of the portmanteau novel The Floating Admiral (1931) in which many luminaries of the form each contributed a chapter in turn to a murder mystery plot (pity poor Anthony Berkeley, who had to unravel all the clues and events to provide a coherent solution in the final chapter). I’m imagining that slightly — but only slightly — fewer of you will be aware of the precursors to this novel written in the preceding year, where the same sort of approach was taken for two mysteries to be broadcast on radio.
What the hell? This blog — preserve of the expired author, occupying as it does a dusty corner of the interwebs free from contemporary scrutiny — has now featured two living authors on consecutive weekends. Clearly I’m courting popularity. Next thing you know, there’ll be a guest post by Ed Sheeran [please note: I have no reason to believe a guest post by Ed Sheeran to be forthcoming]. And this one isn’t even an impossible crime. Where does this road lead? Rave reviews of Cozy Baking Mysteries? Who even am I any more?
Last week, I was moved to reflect upon the end of the archetypal Golden Age detective novel, and this week I’m moved to reflect on its beginning. The essential ludic air at the heart of the best of the genre is not quite there in The Duke of York’s Steps, but one can feel the inalienable ingredients of the form straggling into line to give shape to a story that retains fidelity to a type of plot that, at this stage, was understood if not quite mastered. If anything, the mystery feels almost over-subtle — like Antidote to Venom, it seems a trifle unlikely that such a set of circumstances as these would come to warrant criminal investigation — and so approximately the first quarter is spent trying to manufacture the necessary traction for the detection to begin in earnest.
At some point between 1940 and 1960, puzzle-oriented detective fiction began an inexorable shift into what has now become know as crime fiction, wherein plot machinations took a back seat and character, setting, and ambience became more prevalent. Where detective fiction was mostly interested in the fiendish puzzle, crime fiction was more about the challenge to the status quo, and the effect this has on the people involved. And Wilders Walk Away, Herbert Brean’s debut novel, might just be the perfect peak between the two, because I do not remember having read a puzzle that was so intricately invested in the status quo. What emerges is necessarily a little confused about what it wants to be.
A little while ago, while secondhand bookshop haunting as is my wont, I stumbled upon a copy of Paul Gallico’s The Hand of Mary Constable (1964) — a book I have recommended here before for the brilliant way it shows up the tricks of the séance through a combination of perspicuous writing and trusting its readers’ intelligence. My copy was a rat-eared, much-abused paperback and this was a lovely hardcover for a very reasonable price…and yet I vacillated for some time (like, a few weeks) before buying it.