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.
Among my at-times multiple versions of various John Dickson Carr titles, I have four Mercury Mystery editions like the one shown on the left above — The Plague Court Murders (1934), The Red Widow Murders (1935), The Unicorn Murders (1935), and The Department of Queer Complaints (1940) — which are of additional interest to me since the novels are all abridgements. So, having just read the unedited text of The Unicorn Murders, I thought it might be interesting to see what was excised from this abridged version.
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!”.
You know the score: a tough-guy PI in a business slump, sitting in his office typing out a letter using one finger (real men don’t type), when in walks a knockout redhead with “everything that should go with red hair”. She needs his help, he’s her last chance. Well of course, sweets, what seems to be the problem? She’s being hunted, y’see, someone wants to kill her. Calm down, baby doll what’s his name? Well, that’s the problem; she’s being hunted by…Martians. It’s a lovely little moment of confounded expectations early on in Brown’s pulpy tale and sets the tone for the number of conventions he refuses to conform to as things progress. And, since he’s far from smug about it, it works very well indeed.