2018-02-20

Ellery Queen's short fiction - part two

(This is a translation of the preface I wrote for this Ellery Queen collection.)

If the stories of "The Adventures of Ellery Queen" at least stylistically were of the same quality the tales of this volume are quite different. The stories here were written between 1935 and 1939, and during this time the authors evolved into a glossy, Hollywood-like style where romance and characterisation took a greater role.

The stories of this collection are yet again presented in chronological order, which means that the first few stories are still quite similar to those of the previous volume, while the last four stories present a very different Ellery Queen - our hero has even found a girlfriend in the gossip columnist Paula Paris (first introduced in the novel "The Four of Hearts").


No matter, this collection starts off with "The Adventure of the House of Darkness", where even the title reminds us of the earlier tales. Ellery Queen is visiting an amusement park with Djuna, who persuades him to enter the House of Darkness. Inside, they fall about, having a grand time, until Djuna finds the dead body of a murdered artist.

This is a clever story which is also an impossible crime - how could anyone have killed a man inside a completely dark house? Ellery Queen draws some dazzling conclusions, and this is definitely a highlight of the collection.

And yet it cannot measure up to the following story: "The Lamp of God". This novella presents on of the great  mysteries in the genre ("how can a house disappear without a trace?"). Ellery is asked by a lawyer friend to accompany him and a recently discovered heiress to a house in the middle of nowhere. The inhabitants of the house all seem fairly sinister, and when they wake up the following day, the house next door has vanished!

This is probably Queen's best effort in short fiction, though whether this can actually be called short is a matter of opinion. The solution is fairly obvious (which isn't particularly strange - a house cannot actually disappear) but the authors surround the main problem with a bunch of lovely setups, and Ellery needs to come up with as clever a conclusion as he's ever done.

In "The Adventure of the Treasure Hunt", a pearl necklace goes missing, and Ellery creates a treasure hunt to try to trap the person responsible.

Parts of this story are actually quite entertaining, it just pales in comparison to the first two stories here. The justification for not reporting the criminal to the police dates it quite badly.

A young nurse approaches Ellery in "The Adventure of the Hollow Dragon" and tells him that someone has knocked her out and stolen her employer's door stop, the titular dragon.

With this story the reader will start noticing how the authors are slowly changing their style. The logical fireworks are played down a bit, and even though Ellery gets to show off some, the story doesn't really take off.

Ellery Queen is visiting an actress in "The Adventure of the Bleeding Portrait". Their neighbours are a very jealous artist and his wife. Of course she has an admirer who turns up at the most inopportune times. And then one day, someone has splashed red paint on a portrait of her and the admirer has disappeared.

I must say that this is pretty awful, possibly Ellery Queen's worst short story ever. When I reached the end I really wondered what the point of it all was.


We now move on to the final four stories, all featuring Paula Paris as a recurring character. All four have an overarching theme, taking place in some kind of sporting environment.

The first of these four stories is "Man Bites Dog", where we find out that Ellery is madly interested in baseball. While present at the World Series match between the Giants and the Yankees Ellery and Co. are sitting next to two famous actors, and just next to them is the female actor's husband with female company. And then the husband keels over, poisoned.

Anyone who's read the earlier stories about Ellery might have a hard time reconciling this sports idiot with the earlier academic fop. Still, when the mystery actually starts, Ellery gets to show some of his best routines, even if it is just to be able to focus on the game again. A fairly clever story.

"Long Shot" takes us to horse racing. In this case, there's been threats against one of the racehorses, and then the trainer's daughter is kidnapped.

Ellery again gets to strut his stuff, but this is nothing more than a run-of-the-mill story. Absolutely no fireworks.

Boxing - to be more exact a match for the heavyweight world championship title - is the theme for the next story, "Mind Over Matter". One of the boxers takes an intentional fall, and is found murdered afterwards.

This is in fact an impossible crime, though those elements are so downplayed it's hardly noticeable. Ellery seems to care more about his lost overcoat than the murdered boxer, but manages to tie everything together rather cleverly in the end. A pretty good story, all in all.

The final story, "Trojan Horse", is set in an (American) football environment. In this case, a bejewelled ornament disappears just before an all-important match.

Ellery needs to draw some quick conclusions before the game is over and all suspects have disappeared. The authors don't quite play fair with the reader, because it's more or less impossible to figure out how those jewels actually were stolen even if you read very thoroughly...

Conclusion

 As I said to begin with, this is a varied bunch of stories, though not only stylistically but also qualitywise. The good stuff is truly, truly great, and the nadir is so low that a modern Scandi-noir story is preferable.

However, because the good stuff is so good, I have to recommend this collection to any mystery fan. Just approach some stories warily and you should be okay.

What's even better is that the really good stuff is of the impossible variety. So both "House of Darkness" and "Lamp of God" will be included in my (not so) little project.

2018-02-19

Jan Broberg - eminent editor and critic

This is just a short interlude in the Ellery Queen runthrough. At the time of writing J. J. over at The Invisible Event and Dan at The Reader Is Warned are discussing the top 15 impossible mystery novels as voted by a number of experts, most of whom are well-known to the avid mystery reader. People like Frederic Dannay, Bill Pronzini, Douglas G. Greene and Robert Adey have been referred to here on this blog more than once.

But there's one name on the list of voters that I believe is less well-known to readers in the English speaking world - well, probably to any part of the world that is not Swedish, to be honest. And that name is Jan Broberg.

I thought about calling him "the Swedish Ellery Queen", but that would be an overstatement, because he was never an author, he didn't found and edit a mystery magazine that is still ongoing, and he didn't have that profound effect on up and coming mystery writers. A more apt comparison is probably Martin Edwards, and the wonderful work he is doing with the British Library Classics and the anthologies he is editing for that series of books.

Now, as I said, Broberg was never a writer of mysteries, but he was a huge connoisseur of the genre, editing 18 different anthologies of mystery fiction (and a couple about poetry) and 3 collections of mystery stories by specific authors (Agatha Christie, Georges Simenon and Cornell Woolrich). He also was the editor in a joint venture with two different publishers, where they published a number of never before translated mystery novels.

He also wrote 10 books about the genre, drawing heavily on his network of mystery critics and aficionados around the world. He was an avid corresponder with other mystery greats, and some of these aforementioned books publish parts of that correspondence. He also wrote non-fiction about many other things: fantasy, espionage, poetry and other things that interested him.

Broberg was born in 1932 and passed away 80 years later (coincidentally in my very own home town), having made a profound impact on the Swedish mystery field. One thing I haven't mentioned is that he was one of the initiators of the Swedish Mystery Academy (a similar organisation to the Detection Club in Britain or Mystery Writers of America).

But let's take a closer look at the anthologies he edited. All except one have a unifying theme.


The exception is his first anthology from 1966, called "13 kring mordet" ("13 around the murder"). This is just a general collection of fair play mysteries, featuring stories by R. Austin Freeman, Clayton Rawson, Harry Kemelman, Anthony Boucher and Melville Davisson Post.


He followed that up with a new anthology, "Spionage" ("Espionage"), published in the same year as the previous anthology. As the title indicates, this collection features stories about spies. Most are still fair play mysteries, though - there's stories by Boucher, John Dickson Carr, Margery Allingham and Edward D. Hoch here.

In 1967 we got the anthology "Mord i slutna rum" ("Murders in Closed Rooms"), which just might be the first locked room anthology published. I will return to this in a later post.



Two years later came "Brott och skratt" ("Crime and Merriment"), an anthology of pastiches and parodies. Here we find stories by Carr, Arthur Porges and Agatha Christie.


After these anthologies, Broberg embarked on an even more ambitious project. Over three volumes - "De stora detektiverna" ("The Great Detectives" 1971), "Flera stora detektiver" ("More Great Detectives" 1972) and "Ett koppel blodhundar" ("A Pack of Bloodhounds" 1974) he decided to present one story with each of the great detectives in mystery fiction. The first volume gives us Christie, Carr, Ellery Queen, Raymond Chandler and Arthur Conan Doyle. The second features Allingham, Dashiell Hammett, Ngaio Marsh, Helen McCloy and Rawson. And the third one still manages to find space for people like Jacques Futrelle, Christie (again), Anthony Berkeley, Boucher and Edmund Crispin.

And in the middle of this project, Broberg still found the time in 1973 to publish another anthology, "Upp i rök" ("Up in Smoke"). Again, this is an anthology of impossible mysteries, and we'll return to this in a later post.


The next anthology from Broberg came in 1975 and featured hard boiled mysteries. Called "Hårdkokta herrar" ("Hard Boiled Gentlemen"), it featured stories by Chandler, Michael Collins, Hammett and Ross Macdonald.


One year after that came another Broberg anthology, called "I sista sekunden" ("In the Last Second"). This is based on stories with a dying message and features stories by Doyle, Christie, Queen, Rex Stout and Hoch.


The theme of "Århundradets brott" ("Crime of the Century" 1978) was time. The first part of the anthology featured historical mysteries, the middle part stories set in current times, and the final part stories set in the future. Some of the authors found here are Robert van Gulik, Carr, Christie, Boucher and Isaac Asimov.

"I ett nötskal" ("In a Nutshell" 1980) was another anthology with an ambitious theme where Broberg wanted to show the mystery story's development over time by featuring a story in each of the important subgenres of the mystery field:
Fair Play Mystery: represented by Christie
Had-I-But-Known: Mary Roberts Rinehart
Gentleman Thief: Edgar Wallace
Inverted Mystery: Roy Vickers
Hard Boiled Mystery: Macdonald
Psychological Thriller: Cornell Woolrich
Police Procedural: Lawrence Treat
Crime Novel: Julian Symons
Historical Mystery: Avram Davidson
Real Crime Investigations: Richard M. Gordon
Humorous Mystery: P. G. Wodehouse
Spy Stories: Michael Gilbert
Supernatural Mystery: Gerald Kersh
Science Fiction Mystery: Asimov
Mystery Parodies: Stephen Leacock

This ambitious theme was then expounded on in the next anthology, called "Pusselbitar" ("Puzzle Pieces" 1982). In this volume Broberg took the fair play mystery and broke that subgenre down into several sub-subgenres, with the following featuring:
Ciphers and Codes: represented by E. C. Bentley
Method of Murder: Ronald A. Knox
The Missing Item: Queen
The Locked Room: Carr
Fingerprints: Stuart Palmer
The Least Suspected Person: Patrick Quentin
The Challenge to the Reader: Nicholas Blake
The Double Ending: Boucher
Doppelganger: McCloy
Into Thin Air: Rawson
The Intricate Pattern: Victor Canning
The Fall Guy: A. H. Z. Carr
The Perfect Alibi: Vincent Cornier
The Motive: Jerome & Harold Prince
Dying Message: Hoch

Three years later came "Ingenting är omöjligt" ("Nothing is Impossible"), Broberg's third foray into impossible crimes. Again, we'll come back to this.


Broberg's final anthology for some time was "En fråga om motiv" ("A Question of Motive" 1986). As indicated by the title, this features stories where the motive is a particularly important part of the story, and some of the authors in this one are Queen, Michael Innes, P. D. James, Hoch and Peter Lovesey.


Broberg took some time off from editing anthologies after that, concentrating on some of his other interests. However, 11 years later a new themed anthology was published. This was "Kvinnans list" ("Woman's Wiles") featuring stories written by women with female protagonists. Stories by Christie, Christianna Brand, James, Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky can be found here.


"Det är från polisen..." ("This is the Police...") became the final mystery anthology from Broberg. It was published in 1999, and features stories where a policeman or a team of policemen play the important role. There's stories by Simenon, Hoch, Donald Westlake, Colin Dexter and Vickers in this one.

As you will have concluded, Jan Broberg was a very important person not only in the Swedish mystery field, but overall. His knowledge matched that of the most well-read persons in the genre. I mentioned before that he edited four different series of never before translated novels. In each, he tried to add an extra short story by the author, just to get something extra for the reader.

And each volume (including all his anthologies) had an informative foreword about the author of the novel or the theme of the anthology. They were always written to leave you wanting more, and Broberg always added recommendations on further material to read.

Without Jan Broberg, I might still have read mysteries, but I would never have been the champion of short stories that I am today - and all of us Swedes would have had fewer of the great novels translated into our language. For that, I am profoundly grateful.


2018-02-18

Ellery Queen's short fiction - part one

(This is a translation of the preface I wrote for this collection of Ellery Queen stories.)

This series of six volumes collecting all short fiction by Ellery Queen begins with a translation of Queen's first short story collection, "The Adventures of Ellery Queen".

As many know, Ellery Queen is the pseudonym of two cousins Frederic Dannay (who was the main man behind the plots and concepts of the stories) and Manfred B. Lee (who took Dannay's concepts and created readable novels and short stories from them).

Renowned Queen connoisseur Francis M. Nevins has divided Queen's authorship into four different periods. The first of these stretches from 1929 to 1935 and is the time when  the authors were most influenced by fellow mystery writer S. S. Van Dine and wrote pure logical puzzles where characterisation took a backseat to the mystery itself.

Period 2 stretches from 1936 to 1940 and constitutes the time when the cousins got jobs in Hollywood's film industry. This affected their authorship which became somewhat more "breezy". They were also beginning to get commissions from "ladies magazines" and romantic entanglements became more prominent in their stories.

In 1942 the third period began, lasting until around 1960. The authors paid particular attention to psychological elements and increased the realism of their stories, but also took the time to experiment with the pure fair play mystery. This was also the period where the town of Wrightsville was "invented". Subsequently a fair amount of EQ stories would take place there.

The fourth and final phase of Queen's career, from around 1960 to 1975 when the final Queen story was published, consists of a partial return to the more formal fair play mysteries of period 1, but these are interspersed with extravagant and fantastical settings.

The stories of this volume are written between 1933 and 1934 and are presented here in a chronological order (in contrast to the original American collection). Thus, they all belong to Ellery Queen's period 1 and are pure logical mysteries.


The first story of this collection is "The Adventure of the African Traveler", which was the first short story written by Queen. It was, unlike all the other stories here, never published in a magazine, making its first appearance in the original version of this particular collection. Ellery Queen is teaching detection to a group of three students, and they get to investigate a case where the titular traveller has been found murdered in a hotel room.

This is an interesting story where the solution to the mystery isn't too grand, but the idea of Queen's school of criminology is quite fun and leads to one of those tales where different people draw different conclusions from a specific set of clues. And that makes it all the more a pity that this was never followed up on.

Story number two, "The Adventure of the One-Penny Black", places us in the world of collectors. A man tells Ellery that someone knocked him out and stole a book from him, and when he later got home his other copy of the same book had also been stolen.

This isn't bad at all. Ellery gets to draw some psychological conclusions, though the solution isn't very hard to see beforehand. Some parts of the tale are quite reminiscent of certain Sherlock Holmes stories.

"The Adventure of the Teakwood Case" is a lighter story where Ellery has to solve a case concerning jewel theft and murder in an apartment house.

Some of Ellery's conclusions here feel rather farfetched. The main draw of this tale is the byplay between Ellery and his father. An all right story, nothing more.

"The Adventure of the Glass-Domed Clock" is a very clever story where an antique dealer is found murdered in his shop.

The dying message is one of Ellery Queen's best events. This tale has its very first appearance in an EQ story, and it's a good one. Most readers will probably be too quick to come to a certain conclusion - which almost certainly was the authors' intention from the very beginning. One of the best stories in this collection.

In "The Adventure of the Three Lame Men", Ellery has to investigate a case where a man has been kidnapped from his apartment, and the abductors have left footprints indicating that they are three lame men.

This is a really implausible story where I have a hard time imagining why the culprit would make up something as silly as the resulting situation.

In the next tale, "The Adventure of the Hanging Acrobat", we find ourselves in a vaudeville environment, something the authors seems to be familiar with. An acrobat's wife is found hanging from a rope in their dressing room.

NYPD's finest make a rather poor showing in this story. That only Ellery can draw the correct conclusions from the clues left doesn't say much for the intelligence of Inspector Queen or any of his men. Not the best story I've read.

In "The Adventure of 'The Two-Headed Dog'", Ellery takes a room at an inn. Some of his fellow guests tell a story about a previous guest at the inn. It turned out that he was a well-known jewel thief, but when the detectives come to arrest him, he has simply vanished from his room, but left his dead dog behind. And since then, the cabin he stayed in has been haunted.

This is an atmospheric story, which is a bit unfair to the reader - at least if they are expected to solve the mystery on their own. But the opening is great and the horror elements elevate the story. So all in all a fine tale.

"The Adventure of the Bearded Lady" follows next. Ellery is asked by a lawyer to investigate a case where a doctor, who recently received a large inheritance, has been killed.

This is probably the poorest story in this collection. The whole idea is very far-fetched, relying on one of my least liked tropes in mystery fiction (which to make matters worse is also hidden very badly), and the conclusions Ellery draw from a painted beard on a lady in a painting are just as far-fetched. I mean, come on, really.

In "The Adventure of the Invisible Lover", Ellery needs to prove that an accused murderer hasn't killed a fellow guest at the house where he boarded.

This is a rather clever story with an atmospheric conclusion in a cemetery. In contrast to the previous story Ellery's conclusions are much more down to earth.


Ellery needs to find out why an old lady is buying a whole bunch of cats in "The Adventure of the Seven Black Cats", even though she reputedly hates them.

I don't really see how Ellery can come up with the conclusions he draws, and certain elements of this story never get explained. Another fairly poor tale.

The final story is "The Adventure of the Mad Tea-Party", where Ellery is visiting friends who are all rehearsing a scene from Alice in Wonderland for the following day's birthday party. However, when they wake up the next morning the master of the house has disappeared. And then mysterious packages start to appear...

It's heartening that this collection finishes with its strongest work. There are several touchpoints between EQ and "Alice in Wonderland", but this short story is probably the greatest of these. The setting is appropriate and the clues are well-hidden. One could perhaps accuse the authors of drawing the tale out a bit by adding some red herrings, but on the whole this is one of Queen's very best stories.

Conclusion

Many modern readers have a problem with Ellery Queen's period one writing. It is quite dry and meticulous in its descriptions of the crime investigatons and focus on logic. So one advantage of these short stories is that they are short(!), forcing the authors to focus on the salient bits and to get to the point.

Some of the stories here are truly great, some are fairly poor, so as a reader you'll have to sort the wheat from the chaff.  I do find that the very best stories here ("Glass-Domed Clock", "Two-Headed Dog", "Invisible Lover" and "Mad Tea-Party") are among the finest in mystery short fiction. On the whole I'd recommend this collection to any fair play mystery fan.

However, there are no impossible crimes here, though if the authors had wanted to some of the tales could've easily be rejigged into that type of story. So that's a bit disappointing.

2018-02-16

John Dickson Carr's short fiction - part three

(This is a translation of the preface I wrote for this Carr collection.)

This third and final volume of John Dickson Carr's collected short stories lets us make Dr. Gideon Fell's acquaintance. He is in competition with the previous volume's Sir Henry Merrivale for being Carr's most important creation. We get all five stories with the good doctor here.

The Fell stories are all written between 1936 and 1940, with the exception of the last one which was written much later, in 1957.


The first of them is "The Wrong Problem", which is one of Carr's most atmospheric. Dr. Fell and his policeman friend Hadley come across an old man who tells them a story about his family and how his father and sister were murdered.

As has been mentioned previously, Carr liked to reuse certain setups, and the murder method of this story can also be found in "Terror's Dark Tower", which appears later in this collection and does not feature Dr. Fell. I prefer this version, mainly because of the surprise ending Carr gives us here. A really great story.

The next problem Fell has to solve is "The Proverbial Murder", where he explains how a man could be shot through an open window even though a group of policemen were guarding the house.

Another fine story with an impossible situation that is solved by some fireworks by Fell. The fact that it is set in the early days of WWII adds to my enjoyment of this story.

Next is the prosaically titled "The Locked Room". A man has been robbed and knocked out by a seemingly invisible thief.

There are very few suspects in this story, which is always a drawback. And I'm not fully sure about the solution here. Is what Fell says to explain the knockout really true? But if we accept it, it's another fine story.

We find another reused setup in "A Guest in the House". A burglar is found dead after having broken in to steal a painting from a country house. And then it turns out that the murdered burglar is the owner of the painting...

This plot was later rewritten and extended into the Merrivale novel "The Gilded Man". It's not the most plausible solution ever, to be honest. But if you're able to accept it, it's a rather audacious way to explain the impossibility.

The final Fell story is "King Arthur's Chair". A woman is found strangled on the beach, but there are no footprints leading to her body.

It's a clever story where the setup is somewhat reminiscent of "Error at Daybreak" (in the previous collection), though the solution is entirely different. It's always nice when the solution is so specific that only one peron can have committed the crime.


The rest of the stories in this collection are those tales by Carr that are set in the present time, but do not feature any of his regular detectives. "Terror's Dark Tower" was mentioned previously. A young woman is found dead in a tower room, murdered by a stabbing through the eyes.

A grisly murder method - the same as in the earlier Fell story - and a really good one. Though the solution is the same as in "The Wrong Problem", this story is still quite different. Carr is even heavier on the atmosphere and melodrama here, and even though the reader might be spoiled for the specific solution it's still a tale well worth reading.

The following story is the novella "The Third Bullet", featuring Colonel Marquis in the leading role. A man is shot to death inside a locked room where another man is present, and the house is surrounded by police. Even though the other man has a revolver, the killing bullet doesn't come from his gun.

According to Carr, Marquis was a predecessor to Colonel March before he had finalised the concept of this character. This story, from 1937, is almost long enough to be counted as a full novel, and is deep and meaty enough to satisfy every connoisseur of impossible crimes. The solution for the many bullets is truly great.

This is followed by "The Diamond Pentacle", where the crime itself is a very small part of the story. Instead, it focuses on an impossible situation where a young man makes a bet that he will be able to retrieve the titular jewel from a small safe which is locked (and also placed in a room which is locked and sealed).

This tale was written in 1939, and it is a fairly slight thing. But the solution to the impossibility is actually pretty great, because Carr bamboozles us all with a twist that is superb in all its simplicity.

"Strictly Diplomatic" is also from 1939, and this too is light on crime - they are mainly described in passing. Again it focuses on the impossible situation instead, and in this case it is a young woman who is having tea with a young man in a hotel restaurant. But she leaves him rather suddenly and disappears completely.

The solution here is another variation of Chesterton's "Invisible Man" trick, which I've already mentioned that I'm not very fond of. I guess it might have worked in this case, but I do think the person responsible for the disappearance might have succeeded in their endeavours by other, less involved means.

The following year, "The Clue of the Red Wig" was published. The newspaper reporter Jacqueline Dubois and Inspector Bell manage in a joint effort to solve the murder of a woman who is found on a park bench, only dressed in her underwear.

This might be Carr's most conventional short story, and there is no impossible crime here. Carr still manages to give us a surprising ending after some twists and turns. Not bad at all.

The final story of this collection is "Detective's Day Off", a trifle in this context, written in the late 50s. The impossible situation concerns a man who disappears from a guarded phone box after having stolen some jewels.

The impossibility results from a challenge between Carr and his colleague Clayton Rawson (who solved it in his own short story "Off the Face of the Earth"). Unfortunately, Carr's solution isn't particularly plausible. The story might have gained from being a bit longer so Carr had some more room to make magic.

Conclusion

The stories here are quite varied in quality. The Fell stories are almost all good (and even great in two cases), The stories that do not feature Fell vary even more - from "The Third Bullet" which is simply awesome to "Detective's Day Off" which really is a disappointment. Overall, it's still a very good collection with most stories above average.

Most stories here are of the impossible variety, and the ones that are really great will definitely be included: "The Wrong Problem", "The Proverbial Murder", "The Third Bullet", "The Diamond Pentacle". At this particular moment, I definitely want to add "Strictly Diplomatic" and "King Arthur's Chair" as well.

2018-02-15

John Dickson Carr's short fiction - part two

(This is a translation of the preface I wrote for this collection of Carr stories.)

In the second volume of John Dickson Carr's collected short fiction, we get all stories with Colonel March or Sir Henry Merrivale as the problem solver. The stories were originally published as by the pseudonym Carter Dickson, which Carr used because he during 20 years of his career had so many ideas that it wasn't deemed possible to profitably publish them all under the same name.

The stories about Colonel March were intentionally written as a cohesive series with the same lead character, and were published by the British magazine The Strand. All were written during the late 30s and early 40s and feature different types of impossible crimes.


The first of these tales, "The New Invisible Man" is a breezy story that we'll mainly accept as an introduction to the good Colonel. A man comes to the police station and reports that another man has been killed by an invisible man. If the reader accepts that this story shouldn't be taken too seriously, the explanation just about works.

In "The Crime in Nobody's Room", a man who's been out cavorting and is somewhat worse for the wear gets home to his apartment block, but when he enters what he believes to be his flat he ends up in a place he doesn't recognise at all, and he also finds a dead man inside. He's knocked out, but when later they try to find this flat it turns out that it doesn't exist.

This is much, much better. I'm not 100 % sure that the defect Carr relies on actually works the way Carr maintains, but I'll let it slide, because the rest of the solution is just wonderful. A top story.

"Error at Daybreak" has a setup that Carr often returned to, a man who is lying stabbed on the beach even though there are no footprints and no one could have got near him.

This all seems a bit coincidental. I don't think the explanation for the impossibility could have ever worked, and yet it's quite an entertaining story. So, as an impossible crime it's not particularly good, but as a reading experience it's better.

In "The Hiding Place" a bank is robbed. The robbers are caught, but the money cannot be found. The police suspect that an eminent lawyer has hidden them, but the police cannot find them when they search his place.

The solution here is another variation of the "hiding place that no one notices because it's so inconspicuous". It's one of my least favourites, because I think it leaves so much to chance. And the only reason no one searches it (until Colonel March sets them right) is because the author says that they wouldn't. On the whole, I'm not too impressed with this story, as you might guess.


"Death in the Dressing-Room" takes place in a nightclub where an exotic dancer is found dead after finishing her act.

There's only one real suspect here - okay, maybe two - and the only reason it's an impossible crime is because Carr says it is. There's never any indication during the events of the story that it is an impossible crime, it just turns out to be that because of the killer that Carr "chose". Otherwise, this is not bad at all. The whole setting is interesting and the characters have real, believeable motives for what they are doing.

In "The Empty Flat", a respected lawyer is found dead in an empty flat with a radio blaring next to the corpse.

Another story with an unorthodox solution - this is as you might have guessed fairly common in the Colonel March stories. I did like this better than the previous unorthodox ones, the solution seems plausible to me, even though I'd question the reason for the lawyer to end up in the flat.

In "The Silver Curtain", one man is following directly behind another man who suddenly keels over with a knife in his back.

This is one of the best of the March stories, no, in fact, one of the best Carr stories. The setup is exquisite and the solution is very clever.

The penultimate March story is "Clue in the Snow", where March has to explain how a footprint has appeared in the snow on top of a hedge.

We return to the less orthodox solutions here. Not really top drawer from Carr, it must be said.

And then finally we get "William Wilson's Racket", where Carr makes a connection with an Edgar Allan Poe story. A young lady approaches Colonel March and asks him to explain how her fiancé could have disappeared from an office, even though he was there just a few minutes earlier.

This is again less than serious. If the reader approaches it with this knowledge I'm sure he'll appreciate the solution more. If not, he will probably find it a cheat.


Colonel March is a pleasant acquaintance, but Sir Henry Merrivale is probably (in stiff competition from Dr. Gideon Fell) Carr's foremost detective. This noisy and easily offended nobleman, who works for the Secret Service yet generally solves "regular" crimes, gets the opportunity here to solve two different mysteries. These stories were written later in Carr's career than the March ones.

In "The House in Goblin Wood" from 1947, H. M. (as he's usually called) has to work out how a woman managed to disappear from a locked house without leaving any trace.

This tale has an exquisitely chilling ending - very suitable for another one of Carr's better stories. A fine setup with an explanation that is just about workable (though the plan seemed excessively risky for the murderer).


"Ministry of Miracles" is a novella in which a young woman feels threatened by an unknown assailant. Hijinx and misunderstandings ensue before H. M. enters the picture and sorts everything out.

The impossible elements are minor in this story, but H. M. makes a fine job of finding a least likely suspect and putting snooty old ladies in their place. This novella was published in 1956 and thus became Merrivale's last adventure since his novel appearances ended in 1953 with "The Cavalier's Cup". That novel cannot be said to be among Carr's better works, but thanks to this clever novella H. M. gets to end his career on a high.

Conclusion

The March stories are a bit of a mixed bag. If you go in with an expectation that these are going to be bonafide impossible mysteries with orthodox solutions, you'll be disappointed. But if you're in the right frame of mind they are all enjoyable. And it has to be said that two or three of them are among the very best in the genre: "Nobody's Room", "Silver Curtain", "Emtpy Flat". And as for the Merrivale stories, they are both great.

As you might guess those five stories will definitely be included in my impossible mystery project. A couple of the other March stories might also be included, depending on the mood I'm in.

2018-02-13

John Dickson Carr's short fiction - part one

(This is a translation of the preface I wrote for this collection of John Dickson Carr stories.)

This volume is the first in a collection of three presenting all short stories by John Dickson Carr/Carter Dickson. All? Well, that depends on how you're counting it. It collects all stories that have been featured in a John Dickson Carr collection - however, there are some stories, mainly juvenilia that have only been published in obscure publications.

Such stories have not been included here, sadly. I've read a couple of the juvenilia stories, and they are quite representative for early Carr, though very few of them are actually criminous. Historical romances with some adventure is probably the best description of these.

But what is included then? Well, in this first collection all four stories featuring the French detective Henri Bencolin are present. Moreover, there are a set of stories with none of Carr's recurring detectives. In this volume, the focus is on Carr's supernatural stories and those that are set in historical times.

The four tales about Bencolin are all part of Carr's juvenilia. They were written in 1926-27 while he was studying at Haverford College and was just out of his teens. Their first publication was in the college's own magazine, The Haverfordian. It is clearly noticeable that Carr is not yet a master writer, though his talent is apparent. The stories are weighed down by their atmosphere, yet you can see a hint of the ingenuious solutions Carr would later be famous for. All are impossible crimes.


The first of these four is "The Shadow of the Goat". A man bets several of his friends and acquaintances that he can go into a room, have all the doors and windows locked, and yet disappear from within that room. They wait for fifteen minutes, and then a shot rings out. When they enter the room, no one is there. Meanwhile, a rival of this man is killed at his home several miles away.

The setup is great and the identity of the killer is a pretty good surprise, but it has to be said that the solution is fairly far-fetched and hinges on one of my least favourite tricks in the impossible genre.

"The Fourth Suspect" follows. A man's wife has eloped, and he decides to have it out with his rival. He and his policeman companion reach their house when they hear the sound of a gunshot. The rival is found dead, with all doors and windows locked, and yet no one else is found inside.

This is rather more clever than the previous story, though I'm still not convinced that the killer could have committed the murder the way he did without being noticed.

Then we move on to "The Ends of Justice". Roger Darworth and his cousin Tom Fellowes are rivals for a young woman, and Fellowes is also Darworth's heir. So when Darworth is killed in a room where the door was watched and there are no footprints in the snow outside the window, Fellowes is immediately arrested. But how could he have committed such a crime?

It is clear that Carr is improving as a writer with each of these stories. This has a wonderful setup, and most of the solution is pretty good (though Carr resorts to a similar trick to the one he used in "The Shadow of the Goat") . There is a good deal of melodrama, too much, to be honest, and that lets the story down a bit.

The final Bencolin tale is "The Murder in Number Four". This is set on a train in France where a man, after leaving the boat from Britain, is alone in his closed compartment. And when the train stops, he is found dead, even though two men were standing in the corridor and didn't see anyone enter the compartment.

Carr continues to improve here, offering an extra impossibility and a well-hidden killer. And of course a train setting is always welcome. It's all quite highstrung, as always in Carr's early works.

"As Drink the Dead..." and "The Dim Queen" are also from this time period. The former is strongly reminiscent of the Bencolin tales, but is more of a vignette than a full story. It concerns one of Carr's favourite impossible crime subjects, the goblet that kills people who drink from it. The latter is a less successful romantic story where the reader will probably ask himself whatever that dead man at the beginning of the story had to do with anything.

The following six stories are all from Carr's heyday, the mid 1930s. Carr was partial to reusing certain situations, and the short stories "The Man Who Was Dead" and "New Murders for Old" are clearly the same story, where the latter is a somewhat more rounded version of the former, allowing Carr to get a bit further into the background of the mystery. In these stories, a man is sent on a voyage that takes a whole year, but when he returns home, he reads in the paper that he's recently died...


"The Door to Doom" is like the previous two stories a very atmospheric tale where the supernatural elements never get a rational explanation. In this case we have a man who stays at an inn in France, but the innkeeper's daughter warns him that his life will be in danger during the night.

As opposed to most of Carr's works, which take place in Great Britain, "The Other Hangman" takes place in 19th century USA. It is a very clever story where the means of murder is less interesting than the subtleties Carr engages in. A man is in court for killing his partner in crime. He is convicted of the crime, but then new evidence comes to light.

"Blind Man's Hood" gives us a story where a young woman is home alone, but her house burns down and she is found killed with multiple stab wounds. An impossible crime with a simple and ingenious solution.

In "Persons or Things Unknown", the story we get told is about a man who is killed by some kind of knife or sword in the presence of his fiancée and his rival for her affections, but the weapon cannot be found. The solution is top notch, and a variation of one of this genre's most famous short stories.

The above two stories have similar starting points - the crimes are set in historical times and then retold for an audience in present day. The murder methods are quite different, though, and reading one story won't spoil the other  Both have certain supernatural elements, though they are more accentuated in the former.

The two final tales are also historical mysteries. "The Gentleman from Paris" is an homage to Edgar Allan Poe's "The Purloined Letter" where a will was written by a woman whose room was never entered, and yet the will cannot be found the next day. And like that earlier story, one has to question how clever those policemen searching the room really were.

Meanwhile, "The Black Cabinet" is mainly a romantic adventure story where a young woman is preparing to assassinate the French emperor Napoléon III. The mystery in this story is just a minor feature - though there is a surprise at the very end.

Conclusion

Carr's early stories are drenched in melodrama, but it's interesting to see him hone his craft and how he improves both his writing and the solutions to his impossibilities. The Bencolin stories are the most interesting, both because they feature one of his recurring detectives and because they are simply better told.

As for the later fiction here, some of it is among Carr's very best. The two final historical stories are among the least interesting here, but all the others are very enjoyable.

The impossible tales that I've chosen to include in my project are "The Murder in Number Four", "Blind Man's Hood" and "Persons and Things Unknown".

2018-02-12

The remaining short stories by Agatha Christie

(These are the prefaces I've written for these two final collections of Agatha Christie stories.)

In this final post on Agatha Christie's short fiction, we'll go through those stories that do not feature any of her usual detectives. First we have volume no. 6 which contains those criminous stories that Christie wrote without any of her "usual" problem solvers. All except one were written during Christie's most prolific period between 1923 and 1930. The only exception is "Three Blind Mice" which was written as late as 1948.


It starts off with five short stories that can be categorised as pure fair play mysteries. First is "The Witness for the Prosecution", one of Christie's most famous tales, which was filmed with Charles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich in the main roles (and more recently was made into a TV special). A clever tale about a defense lawyer who believes his client to be innocent but cannot find a way to prove it.

When reading "S.O.S.", you almost feel as if you're reading a John Dickson Carr story. Emotions swell high and the atmosphere gets more and more pressing before we reach the exciting dénouement. A story that deserves more recognition.

"Sing a Song of Sixpence" is a cute little mystery where Sir Edward Palliser gets to act as the detective - somewhat reluctantly. He turns out to be as good at it as his more well-known colleagues.

Next is "Manx Gold", an unusual tale found fairly recently by Tony Medawar who wrote a preface and a postscript to the story explaining the circumstances surrounding its origin. Taken simply as a mystery story, it's not a complete success because it's more or less impossible to follow our young protagonists Juan and Fenella on their treasure hunt.

The last of the pure mystery stories is "Three Blind Mice", possibly most known as the story that the play "The Mousetrap" is based on. It is a novella and quite a meaty one at that. The misdirection hangs on one single thing, though, and any reader who sees through it will have no trouble in finding the villain of the piece. Still an enjoyable piece thanks to its lovely winter atmosphere.

The remaining seven tales of this collection are more reminiscent of the type that mystery critic Julian Symons called "crime novels" - though these are obviously short stories... Accordingly, they are criminous stories where the intention isn't necessarily for the reader to match his wits with the detective (and the author), they are rather simply stories about crime.

The first of these is "The Actress". This is a story about blackmailers and how to get rid of them. A fairly breezy story compared with some of the following ones.

"The Red Signal" gets deep into psychology and mental illness. A young man has fallen in love with a young lady, but it's hinted that she is mentally ill. But is everything really as it seems?

"Philomel Cottage" is another one of Christie's most anthologised stories. Here we have the young wife Alix who suddenly starts suspecting that she's married a man who might have more to hide than expected...

Next is "Wireless" where Christie's weakness for the supernatural (see the next volume of this series) comes to the fore. An elderly lady seems to be contacted by her late husband through the new radio she's had installed.


In "Swan Song" an opera singer gets the opportunity to sing the demanding lead part in Tosca. In this opera the leading role dies - and the parallels to the opera start to pile up...

"The Edge" concerns a young lady who despises the woman her previous beau has married. And when she finds out something sordid about this woman's past she needs to decide how to proceed with this knowledge.

Volume 6 ends with "Accident", where a retired policeman finds it hard to let go when he imagines himself to be face to face with a criminal from the past. The question Christie seems to ask is whether it's always the right thing to try to intercede in such cases.

The seventh and final collection of Agatha Christie short stories gives us those tales that cannot be classified as criminous. The first six stories are purely romances. They were written in the middle of the 1920s, and if Christie had by then already started using her pseudonym Mary Westmacott these short stories would probably have been published under that name.

The first of these is "While the Light Lasts", a dramatic story which is set in the Sahara desert and deals with the eternal triangle.

Next is "Within a Wall", about an artist and his attempts to break out of the rigid patterns his craft has got stuck in. Interestingly a minor character from the Miss Marple canon appears here.

"Magnolia Blossom" concerns yet another triangle relationship where a married woman is torn between her sense of duty and her heart.

"The Lonely God" is a small museum piece who sees to visitors - one woman and one man, of course. The statue becomes a catalyst to the events of the tale.

At a first glance, "A Fruitful Sunday" seems more similar to what you might expect from Christie, but in the end romance wins out.

The last of the pure romances is "Next to a Dog", which sympathetically describes the opportunities a young woman without means or skills had (or rather didn't have) in the 20s.


The following eight stories are romantic adventures. The adventure genre was something Christie liked to return to. Her versions of exciting thrillers are not very similar to what we're accustomed to in the book stores nowadays. They are breezy adventures with suspect women, tough villians and mysterious employers.

The first story of these is "The Girl in the Train", wherein a young man bumps into a young lady during a train journey. From there they get into a number of entanglements before everything turns out all right in the end.

Then we come to "The Mystery of the Blue Jar" where the young man - it's often nice young men... - hears a mysterious scream while he is playing golf. The surprising dénouement raises this tale above the average.

Next we get to follow "Mr. Eastwood’s Adventure". Mr. Eastwood is a struggling author who suddenly receives a mysterious message over the phone. Christie toys with the reader's expectations.
 
In "Jane in Search of a Job" we meet another young lady without means or skills. However, Jane is a bit more enterprising than Joyce, who we met in "Next to a Dog", and responds to an ad where she is offered a job as a double for a foreign princess. An enjoyable kidnap adventure follows.


"The Manhood of Edward Robinson" gives us another young man whose won some money through a newspaper competition. Now he has to decide whether to follow his fiancée's reasonable advice or spend it all on a swanky car. The car it is and during his first trip our hero falls into an exciting adventure with jewels and beautiful young ladies.

The title of "The Listerdale Mystery" might hint that we'll get something we generally expect from Christie, but the mystery in question is not criminous (and not particularly hard to solve either). A family gets to rent a house for a suspiciously low sum of money. A butler who is too good to be true is included in this bargain. Cozy but never particularly serious.

"The Rajah's Emerald" is stolen at a seaside resort, and our young hero comes under suspicion because someone under mysterious circumstances put the jewel in his pocket. The best thing about this story is the young man's name.

In the last of these romantic adventures, "The Golden Ball", the young couple are suddenly imprisoned in a house after a car trip, and the young man has to show his chops when they are trying to escape.

The final collection ends with ten stories where Christie dabbles in the supernatural and horror. As so many other mystery writers, she had a great interest in unexplained events, and in these final tales she lets her imagination run wild. In contrast to the other stories of this collection, which were all written in the mid or late 20s, these stories span from that time period all the way to the mid 30s. The last of these stories was actually written as late as 1958.

The first of these supernatural tales is "The Fourth Man". Four men are sitting in a train compartment, and one of them tells a story about his childhood when he knew two young girls, one beautiful and spoiled, another ugly and stupid. As the story goes on the audience (as well as the reader) realises that something is not quite right.

Then we come to "The House of Dreams" which deals with a young man who suddenly begins dreaming about a house. In his dreams he gets closer and closer to the house, but he always wakes up before he can open the door...

"The Last Séance" is even closer to the horror genre. A medium is about to perform one final séance before giving it all up to marry her young man. She has certain misgivings before the séance, but he convinces her to go through with it.


In Cornwall, there are rumours about a dog, "The Hound of Death", who roams around at night. Our young protagonist is visiting his sister and starts to investigate why a Belgian refugee, a young nun, has delusions.

In "The Lamp", a family of father, daughter and her son move into a new house, but before long they start hearing things in the house, and the grandson begins speaking about a playmate none of the adults can see...

"The Gypsy" appears in a young man's dreams, warning him about different types of events. When the young man dies from a surgery he was warned from, his friend decides to investigate things more closely.

Next is "The Strange Case of Sir Arthur Carmichael", where a doctor starts to investigate why a young man appears to be insane lately. Since the story is narrated in the first person, it has a more personal touch compared with many of the other stories here, which is to its advantage.

An elderly, well-to-do man who is content with his life suddenly begins hearing something he calls "The Call of Wings", which makes him more and more nervous. As time passes, he tries to get rid of his oppressive wealth to ease his burden, but nothing seems to help...

In the story "In a Glass Darkly", a young man sees a murder scene in a mirror he should not have been able to see. He uses it to warn the female murder victim, and soon a love affair grows between them. A clever twist towards the end makes this tale one of the best here.

Finally, there's "The Dressmaker’s Doll" which can also be called a horror story. An old, worn doll turns up in a dressmaker's shop, and soon the doll's aura and appearance has resulted in it taking over an entire room for itself.

Conclusion

The first five mysteries of collection six are all very good, with the exception of "Manx Gold" which doesn't really work as a story (though that is fully understandable since it was never written to be that).

As for the more noirish tales towards the end of the same volume, some of them are quite effective. I'm not particularly fond of that type of story, but Christie does quite well with this genre. I have to admit that I still don't fully understand what happens towards the end of "Philomel Cottage"...

As for the romances that constitute the beginning of volume 7, they are definitely not my cup of tea. I prefer the later romantic adventures, because at least there's some action (and some surprises) there.

The horror and supernatural stories towards the end of this final collection are also quite effective. The surprises are few, but Christie has a deft hand for setting moods. It's not really the kind of stuff I generally read, but I've seen much worse stuff in this genre.

There are no impossible mysteries here, so nothing new to add to my project.