Whistle Up the Devil by Derek Smith

Originally published in 1953
This title is collected in an omnibus edition with Come to Paddington Fair and Model for Murder

Roger Querrin died alone in a locked and guarded room, beyond the reach of human hands. Algy Lawrence …could not explain the mystery of this “miracle” murder. And then, faced with a second crime which could not possibly have been committed, he began to wonder, at last, if somebody had conjured up an invisible demon who could blast out locks and walk through solid walls…

You find me sitting down for the second time to write up my thoughts on Derek Smith’s Whistle Up the Devil having contrived to accidentally delete all of my scheduled posts that were supposed to go out last week. To say that was frustrating is rather an understatement than better that then my first thought which was that they had gone live and simply no one had found them interesting enough to respond to. That, of course, could still happen…

Whistle Up the Devil has been on my TBR pile for nearly as long as I’ve been doing this blog. That is not entirely unprecedented – I have a bad habit of reading half of an omnibus and leaving the rest untouched for years (for example, The Dead Shall Be Raised and Murder of a Quack by George Bellairs). It may also reflect though that while I admired the ending of Come to Paddington Fair, I found the first half of that novel pretty uninspiring.

The novel begins with Algy Lawrence being asked by Chief Inspector Castle to visit Querrin House in the countryside in his stead after he has been called away by the Yard to work on an urgent case. We learn that Castle is concerned for the safety of his friend Roger Querrin who is about to get married as he is insisting on recreating a family tradition that had led to the death of an ancestor.

Lawrence tries to decline the request but his curiosity gets the better of him and he joins the vigil, assisting the local police in providing a perimeter around the room’s entrances and windows. Inevitably however history repeats himself and Querrin is discovered dead with a knife in his back. The entrances to the room had been under constant observation making the murder seem impossible.

Okay, so plenty to discuss here but before I get into the investigative portion of the novel I do want to stress how well I think the first two chapters set up the conditions of the crime and point to some possible points of interest. One thing I particularly noted is how quickly this material is set up and the clarity of the descriptions of the space and of the various players’ positions. The impossibility is clear and it is easy to see why the conditions of the crime would appear so puzzling to those keeping guard.

I should also say that the family legend of supernatural doom and destruction is a favorite trope of mine in this sort of fiction and while this is not as outlandish as some (for example, Paul Halter’s The Lord of Misrule), I think it is sufficiently simple that you could accept both the idea of the family ceremony and also the reason why a supernatural event might be tied to it. As starting points for stories go, I think this is pretty solid.

Unfortunately, I was less pleased with the body of the investigation. Part of the issue here is connected to the book’s pacing. After getting things off to such a quick start, throwing us into a potential murder case on the day it is supposed to happen and giving us an account of the wait for something to happen, the sudden deceleration that occurs once questions begun to be asked struck me as quite jarring.

Perhaps it also didn’t help that the cast of potential suspects provided is fairly small and contained a character in the form of Uncle Russ, an older man with a predilection for young, attractive women, that I found boorish rather than charmingly roguish as I suspect I was supposed to. Meanwhile the female characters are almost entirely characterized and described in terms of their sexual appeal.

Derek Smith was clearly a huge enthusiast of the impossible crime story. There are references and call-outs galore to writers like Carr and Clayton Rawson that will no doubt be a source of delight to some. I get the appeal of those moments – I am, after all, also a huge Doctor Who fan and get the joy that comes with seeing things I love get name checked. Here however I felt it gets in the way of the story and highlights the artificiality of the detective story format and contributed to the sense that we went from a place of apprehension and suspense to something rather more self-aware. Halter, of course, is just as well read and similarly draws influence from classic works but those parallels feels more like treats for the widely-read impossible crimes enthusiast to spot and appreciate for themselves.

Things do pick up a little with the introduction of a second impossibility which offers another take on the idea of a crime being committed under the detectives’ noses. I do feel that the ultimate explanation of how and why that second murder took place struck me as a little less clever than the first but as secondary crimes go it is solid enough and I do appreciate what it ends up adding to the story overall.

While I may have felt that the middle of this novel seemed to sag, I will say that the solution is at least interesting and I enjoyed some of the developments that occur in the final few chapters. I also appreciate that while the crime may seem complex, the solution to it is quite simple and the tricks worked are pretty clever and make sense – even when the killer seems to be taking some pretty big risks. Occasionally I have complained about problems of motive with impossible crime novels but that is not the case at all here – indeed one of the aspects of the novel that impressed me most was that there was some thought given to the psychology of what was happening in the discussion of the crime at the end.

I also think Lawrence’s explanation is laid out very well. Each aspect of the solution is clearly and logically explained, making it seem all the more convincing. Is it flawless? Perhaps not. The author acknowledges one problem, admittedly more to do with plotting clarity than feasibility, in a letter included in the edition I read where they also describe how they would have made some small changes to tighten an aspect of the solution. Overall I felt quite satisfied, even if it lacked the excitement I felt as the impossibility came into view towards the end of Come to Paddington Fair.

Overall I felt that Whistle Up the Devil offered up some points of interest, even if it didn’t manage to sustain the excitement of its first few chapters. Personally I think there are some stronger titles in the Locked Room International library but it is certainly worth a look for puzzle fans, especially as the omnibus edition represents some excellent value for money.

The Verdict: Offers an intriguing opening and some clever points in the solution but I was a little frustrated by the pacing and some of the choices made in the investigative section.

Come to Paddington Fair by Derek Smith

Come to Paddington Fair
Derek Smith
Originally Published 2015

Come to Paddington Fair is quite a curious novel and, as much as I was enjoying it, I spent a fair portion of the book waiting for something impossible to happen. It was being republished by Locked Room International after all.

The usual pattern of an impossible crime novel is that you are presented with an incredible crime and the detectives break it down to show how it could have been performed. Here the book opens with what seems to be a clear assassination committed by an easily identified suspect but our detectives will not accept that solution and soon find evidence confirming that view.

Before going further though let me step back and explain the circumstances of the murder, at least in a vague way.

Chief Inspector Castle receives two tickets to attend a play from an anonymous benefactor. At a key moment in the play the male lead is supposed to shoot the female lead using a gun filled with blanks. We learn that prior to the performance the male lead has been behaving erratically and routinely arriving on set inebriated and they have had a big fight, though we do not yet know what they are arguing about.

During the play at the moment at which the on-stage shooting should take place, a man in the audience produces a gun and appears to shoot the female lead before failing to make his escape. The man is arrested and recognized before being taken into custody on the suspicion of murder.

There are some fantastic ideas at play in this story and I did admire the careful construction of this plot, particularly in the ending which caught me wonderfully by surprise. The plot the killer has devised is simple which I tend to find makes for some of the most successful mysteries.

I particularly enjoyed the theatrical setting which I feel is well observed and filled with believable types of character. There is plenty of backstage rivalry as well as the usual resentments about others’ success and several characters are quick to acknowledge that someone else’s misfortune might be the start of their own success if they are promoted from understudy for a performance or two.

Another aspect of the book I responded strongly to was the way it provided the reader with a seemingly disconnected story strand in the opening chapters and trusted that we would wait for the linkages to become clear. At first this seems completely disconnected from the rest of the tale yet I felt that it stitched together rather well with the main narrative once the connection was understood.

Once the investigation gets well underway, I did find my interest was waning at moments. This is partly because it takes on a rather technical tone based upon opportunity rather than motivation and there are relatively few big revelations in the middle third of the novel. I also suspect it had something to do with my finding Lawrence and Castle a trifle dull as investigators.

Things change considerably in the final third of the novel however as an impossibility finally comes into focus and some characters’ motivations become clearer. I thought the ending was a cracker and I felt that the killer’s plans made a lot of sense. Finally, there is even a Challenge to the Reader page heading into the final chapters – something that always will make me smile.

So, where does that leave me on Come to Paddington Fair overall? I think that the ending significantly raised my enjoyment of the book yet I have to acknowledge that I found the middle of the investigation to be solid but uninspiring fare. This slower section becomes more understandable once you see the impossibility come into view in that final third and it is quite thrilling to see it dealt with as quickly as it is here – something that is only possible because of the facts established in the middle of the novel.