The Island of Coffins by John Dickson Carr, edited by Tony Medawar and Douglas Greene

Book Details

This collection, published by Landru and Crippen, contains radio play scripts that were produced for The Casebook of Cabin B-13 and broadcast between 1948 and 1949.

A limited cloth-bound edition included an additional script for Secret Radio as a pamphlet. As this limited edition is now sold out I will not be discussing this story in the review below.

The Blurb

John Dickson Carr, the grand master of locked room mysteries and impossible disappearances, was also the master of the creepy radio play.

For the first time, all the scripts for the classic 1948 radio series, Cabin B-13, are printed in this volume, and they are classic Carr.

The Verdict

Almost all of the Cabin B-13 stories offer intriguing impossibilities to explore and showcase Carr’s imagination and versatility as a writer.

More than 70 years after the series was first broadcast, it is possible to see Cabin B-13 as the final flowering of the truly great days of radio.

From the introduction by Tony Medawar

My Thoughts

The Island of Coffins is a collection of radio play scripts that were written by John Dickson Carr for a CBS series Cabin B-13. The show was designed to be an anthology in which a different story with elements of mystery and adventure would be introduced each week by Dr. Fabian, the ship’s surgeon aboard the Maurevania, a liner that travels the world. Each adventure would supposedly relate in some way to the destination that the ship was visiting and draw upon Fabian’s experiences, though he does not directly feature in all of the plays.

Nearly all of the recordings appear to have been lost and so this collection will be the first chance for many fans to experience these stories. As an experiment I listened to one of the stories after reading the script and I am happy to report I found it just as involving to read as it was to listen to which I think is a testament both to Carr’s engrossing storytelling style and to the care taken in the limited directions he provides.

The show ran for two series, both produced in 1948 though the broadcasts continued until early 1949. The scripts for all twenty-three episodes are collected here and each are presented with illuminating notes that provide background on the story and the way elements were reused in other Carr stories or radio plays. These are excellent and certainly enhanced my enjoyment of the stories, though readers may want to exercise a little caution as they may inadvertantly spoil themselves for other stories.

Almost every story in the collection features some element that could be considered an impossibility, though some are stronger than others. The exception is Death in the Desert, a story from the show’s second series, which is a sort of adventure yarn and has no mystery elements at all to speak of. The notes to that story do at least help explain why it is part of this series, though I think that story does feel a little out of place and was probably the one I enjoyed least in the collection.

The other twenty-two stories though present some wonderfully varied and imaginative situations. I think this is particularly true of the eleven stories that constitute the program’s first series which feature some of the program’s most intriguing problems and impossibilities.

One of my favorites is The Blind-Folded Knife Thrower, the first story in which Dr. Fabian plays a really central part beyond introducing the adventure. In this story a young woman returns to visit a house where her mother had committed suicide years before by drinking acid and receives a message to expect to be visited by her ghost. Carr does a brilliant job of creating an unsettling atmosphere with the use of some very chilling imagery and I thought the solution was quite clever.

I similarly really enjoyed the story that followed it, No Useless Coffin, which is set on the island of Gibraltar a short time before the outbreak of World War II. Dr. Fabian is part of a group who visit a cottage which had been the setting for a miraculous disappearance when one of the party had been a child. She had disappeared from the cottage when all of the doors and windows were locked and fastened from the inside, reappearing several days later without explanation. When she disappears again Dr. Fabian has to work out where she has vanished to and how it was done. I thought it was an interesting concept and enjoyed the explanation of what happened.

Perhaps the most baffling of the stories though is the second, The Man Who Couldn’t Be Photographed. In this story a conceited actor throws over his girlfriend causing her to curse him that he will never be able to be photographed again before committing suicide. Several days later he visits a number of photographers in Paris, each of whom tells him that his photographs have not developed and refuse to allow him to visit again. This one is very clever, if perhaps requiring a specialized knowledge that few will have, but I thought it was done very well.

Among the other mysterious offerings from this first series are locked room murders, a murder in the steam room at a Turkish bath, a strangling in an untouched expanse of sand and the activities of a strange jewel thief who always carries a heavy iron box with them when committing their crimes. Most of these stories possessed some point that intrigued me and the only one that didn’t work for me at all was Death Has Four Faces, a story about a former pilot who struggles to deal with a nervous condition. I found the action in that story a little hard to follow.

Apparently Carr was struggling to generate enough material by the time he got to series two which means that several stories rework previous scripts for Appointment with Fear and Suspense. Reworking is not a problem of course if you’ve never encountered the material before which would no doubt be the case for almost all of Carr’s audience but in some cases the revised scripts do not feel quite like the scripts around them.

Still, this second series is quite varied in its impossibilities and I appreciate the greater variety of geographic settings (there are several stories set in parts of Africa and the Middle East). Where I have problems with these stories, other than Death in the Desert, it is because those ideas can feel a little rushed or cramped. One examples would be Lair of the Devil-Fish, a story about a diving expedition, which has some clever ideas but seems to rush through some key moments, not giving them enough time to have their full impact.

The other issue that I had with quite a few of this batch of stories is the reliance on the instant love trope. This had been present in the first run of episodes too but by this stage it feels overused and sometimes a little unnecessary – as though Carr is adding it out of an expectation rather than because it is necessary to the plot. This is an issue I have with some of his novels too but it is more noticeable here given the shorter format of the stories. Still, in spite of these grumbles there is still plenty to enjoy here.

One of my favorite stories from this second batch is The Most Respectable Murder, a story about a murder that takes place in a locked room. Dr. Fabian tells the listener in a rather overenthused way that it is a totally new solution to a locked room – possibly hyperbole – but I liked the other aspects of the crime and appreciated the consideration of characters’ motives.

Another favorite is the story that opens the series, The Street of the Seven Daggers, in which an American businessman who is keen on debunking superstitutions learns of a street that kills anyone who walks down it after midnight and decides he will walk it himself. The villain’s identity will likely jump out at readers but I enjoyed the simplicity and the clarity of the setup as well as a few of the clues that Carr provides.

The other story I really liked was the very last one, The Sleep of Death, which feels rather like a love letter to Poe. While it is perhaps a little out of place in the series – we may question exactly how Dr. Fabian could have heard this story – I really enjoyed the atmosphere and the tone of the piece.

Overall then I thought that this was a really enjoyable collection that read far more easily than I expected it to. While the script format may be daunting to some, Carr does a superb job of setting up intriguing situations and providing the reader with just enough detail to imagine a scene without getting too bogged down in detailled directions. It all makes for an engaging read that I think speaks to the writer’s imagination and versatility.

2 thoughts on “The Island of Coffins by John Dickson Carr, edited by Tony Medawar and Douglas Greene

  1. Excellent summary of a an enjoyable collection. I encourage anyone interested in what arguably could be last “new” Carr stories ever published to read this. Yes – I know these are not really new Carr works, but this is about as close as it comes for one of the most celebrated of all GAD authors.

    So Crippen & Landru do a great job once again, but their books go out of print quickly and then escalate in price significantly for used copies. Get it while you can.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Scott – I completely agree with what you say. It’s a superb collection and you’re right to point out that there surely isn’t that much other “new” Carr material left out there.

      Like

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