Crime on the Coast & No Flowers by Request by Members of the Detection Club

NoFlowers
Crime on the Coast & No Flowers By Request
Members of the Detection Club
Originally Published 1954/1953

The Detection Club produced several collaborative stories in which members contributed a section making up a part of a bigger mystery story. Perhaps the most famous of these is The Floating Admiral but there were several others including the two efforts contained in this volume.

This book is a very slim volume as each of the stories is only about seventy-five pages long. The list of collaborators is a little less star-studded than the one in The Floating Admiral with the first story featuring few familiar names other than Carr’s. No Flowers by Request boasts a more familiar lineup of some of the leading female crime writers of the decade who likely better known to modern readers.

Crime on the Coast

Authors: John Dickson Carr, Valerie White, Laurence Meynell, Joan Fleming, Michael Cronin, Elizabeth Ferrars

The first story in this double-header originally appeared as a serial in the News Chronicle in 1954. Each of the authors gets two consecutive short chapters, just eleven or twelve pages, to make their contribution to the story each picking up from the conclusion of the previous author.

The first two chapters are the work of John Dickson Carr who sets up an interesting adventure scenario in which a mystery author arrives at a seaside fun fair at the urging of his publisher. A ‘fat man’ urges him to take a ride on Ye Olde Haunted Mill which he declines on the grounds that it is a romantic ride for two and is surprised when a very attractive young woman he had never seen before calls him by name, urges him to take the ride with her telling him that it is a matter of life and death.

The first two chapters are quite amusing in spots and do set up an appropriately mysterious situation for the succeeding writers to work with. Characterization is slight but that seems appropriate for this sort of story where the writers are trying to change directions and introduce new elements and the action is pretty well paced, although I think things get a little tangled towards the end.

I am not familiar with the other contributors’ styles having only read Laurence Meynell’s work before (and I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t found I already had a tag for him on here) so it is hard to judge the success of the other collaborators. If our measure is whether the works feel consistent enough that a reader might be persuaded they were the work of a single writer then I think it succeeds but personally I think that misses the point of a collaborative story. For me these stories should be about celebrating the differences between the writers rather than an exercise in literary craftsmanship.

As such I feel ambivalent towards this story. It is competent if not particularly exciting work and will do little to make you seek out a story by, for instance, Joan Fleming or Michael Cronin if they are new to you.

No Flowers By Request

Authors: Dorothy L. Sayers, E. C. R. Lorac, Gladys Mitchell, Anthony Gilbert, Christianna Brand

The second story appeared in the Daily Sketch in 1953 and follows a similar format. Each author gets two chapters although there is a little more variation in the lengths – Sayers and Brand each get 18 pages whereas Lorac and Mitchell contribute just 12.

The story concerns a widow whose children have grown and decides that she will work as a housekeeper. She accepts a position working within a house in the country for a couple, an artist and his invalid wife, whose niece lives with them along with an injured airman and a nurse.

Sayers’ opening chapters set up the situation in which she and the niece are left alone in the home with the invalid wife and asked to check in on her. When they do they find her in a bad way and try to summon the doctor but are unable to get him to come out. She dies later that night, apparently of digitalis poisoning.

Unlike the previous story here each of the authors is able to put more of their storytelling style into their chapters. For example Mitchell gets to deal with some of the mutual suspicion that develops within the home. Their writing is still clearly a little constrained in scope and style to make sure it fits alongside the others’ work but I think it is easier to see that it is the work of multiple writers.

I feel that the story also benefits from the creation of a much stronger central character in the form of Mrs. Merton who is a rather formidable personality. She is not a particularly pleasant character but she is consistently portrayed across each of the chapters and it does feel like she plays a more active role in her story than Philip Courtney ever does in Crime on the Coast.

I found the solution to the puzzle to be more interesting and complex than I expected, holding together pretty well. Brand’s final chapter is, perhaps, a little confusing and I did have to reread the final few pages to be sure I understood an aspect of the ending but I think she does manage to pull the clues together to reach a convincing conclusion that fits the situation, clues and characters well.

I do think it is easily the more successful of the two stories here. It is not a perfect work and I can’t shake the feeling that any one of these authors given the premise to work with on their own (and an extra hundred pages) might have created something even more imaginative and satisfying but it is a pretty successful collaboration that does at least represent its authors.

Overall

When I bought this collected volume I spent no more than a dollar on it and I do not regret that purchase but I do not think I would feel the same if I had spent much more than that. It is an interesting curio and I do think the second tale is a pretty engaging short story. Do be aware that it is a very short volume however and that few of the authors are shown to their best advantage.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Written by more than one person (What)

The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories edited by Martin Edwards

CCC
The Christmas Card Crime and 
Other Stories
Martin Edwards (ed)
Originally Published 2018

I may have mentioned this before but I am terrible when it comes to adhering to schedules. For this reason my week of Christmassy reads is beginning with less than a week to go.

Whoops.

The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories is the latest British Library Crime Classics anthology of seasonal short stories. Last year I reviewed Crimson Snow which I found to be an entertaining and varied collection of stories, albeit one that was a little inconsistent in terms of quality. I am happy to report that I found this to be an even more satisfying collection.

There were a lot of things for me to love about this collection, not least that it features so many authors that are new to me and who write in a variety of styles. There are several inverted stories, a heist tale, an impossible crime or two as well as some more traditional detective stories. It is a good mix of stories!

Some of my favorites from the collection include Selwyn Jepson’s By The Sword which is a clever, dark story with a fun kick and Cyril Hare’s Sister Bessie which manages to go even darker. I also really enjoyed the title story for the collection The Christmas Card Crime which packs a considerable amount of incident into a small number of pages.

The disappointments here are few. Usually if a story doesn’t work for me it is because of their length – there are several which are just a few pages long. The only two that I think failed were Lorac’s A Bit of Wire Pulling and Carr’s Blind Man’s Hood which I just couldn’t get into. In the case of the latter there is an argument to be made that my expectations may simply have been too high.

Overall I considered this collection to be a delight and had a wonderful time reading it. The book feels really well balanced and there are several stories in the collection that I can imagine returning to when the season rolls around again. I consider this to be one of the best anthologies the British Library have published to date and highly recommend it.

Continue reading “The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories edited by Martin Edwards”

A Graveyard to Let by Carter Dickson

GraveyardtoLet
A Graveyard to Let
Carter Dickson (aka. John Dickson Carr)
Originally Published 1949
Sir Henry Merrivale #19
Preceded by The Skeleton in the Clock
Followed by Night at the Mocking Window

Frederick Manning is a successful and respectable businessman but his children have become concerned that he is acting erratically and may be keeping a mistress. There are even rumors circulating that he may be embezzling money from his charitable foundation. When they confront him about it he says he will reveal a secret at a dinner to which he has invited Sir Henry Merrivale with the promise that he will perform ‘a miracle’.

At dinner he upsets them by talking about how little he wanted children though he says he will make some provision for them and implies he will be disappearing soon. Then the next morning as the Police sirens approach he calmly dives into the swimming pool fully clothed and when the party look for him in the pool they find he has vanished leaving all of his clothes behind.

Up until now I have stuck tightly to those novels that John Dickson Carr published under his own name because of how much I have enjoyed the character of Dr. Gideon Fell. I never doubted I would get around to trying some of the Sir Henry Merrivale stories but there was always some book I wanted to get to first.

The reason I have deviated from this approach comes down to the premise of this story that grabbed my imagination from the moment I heard Dan describe it on an episode of the impossible crimes mystery podcast The Men Who Explain Miracles. The idea of a disappearance from within a swimming pool seemed an entirely novel take on the idea of someone vanishing from inside an observed room and I was really curious how Dickson would manage it.

Since learning about this novel I have, as it happens, encountered a short story by Ed Hoch with a similar premise albeit that has someone appearing out of a swimming pool. Both stories are excellent and make good use of this concept to create striking moments that appeal to the imagination. I did have a moment’s worry that the solutions might be similar too but I was very happy to discover that they take create distinctly different answers to these challenges.

I really admired the way Carr sets a mood and builds up a sense of anticipation in the novel’s early chapters. By opening the novel in a moment of conflict we are thrown right into the story and have to make judgments about the characters involved. I certainly was curious what could be driving Manning to be so blunt and cruel to his children and wanted to know more about their relationships with him.

The moment in which he disappears is wonderfully theatrical right down to the detail of his underpants bobbing up to the surface. It is perhaps not one of Carr’s trickier puzzles – the method used is quite simple and may occur to some readers pretty quickly – but it is logically worked through and clearly explained at the end.

Even if the reader can work out the way in which the vanishing was worked they will still have plenty of details to pick up on while we may also wonder where he has gone and what he is planning. While the second half of the novel is much less flashy than the first it can be just as exciting and mysterious, packing in some very enjoyable reveals.

I also found the novel to be really quite funny, though I do acknowledge that humor is highly subjective. Not every joke hits and a few of them, such as his reason for visiting Washington, may be predicted but there are amusing moments spread throughout the narrative.

One of my favorite sequences comes near the start of the novel where Sir Henry messes with a police officer near the turnstiles in a subway station by suggesting that he can use a voodoo incantation to walk through turnstyles without paying the fare. It is not only amusingly written, there is a puzzle there that readers may ponder about how a trick was pulled off. That method wouldn’t work today but I could still appreciate the cleverness of the idea and the grudge the officer holds is referred to at several later points in the story with amusing effect.

While I can understand why this story isn’t more highly rated, given its simpler solution, I found the case to be thoroughly enjoyable. The scenario is bold and imaginative and I enjoyed my time spent with these characters. It is certainly one of the most entertaining experiences I have had reading Carr and I would happily recommend this to anyone who comes across an affordable copy.

To Wake The Dead by John Dickson Carr

WakeTheDead
To Wake the Dead
John Dickson Carr
Originally Published 1938
Dr. Gideon Fell #9
Preceded by The Crooked Hinge
Followed by The Problem of the Green Capsule

Christopher Kent, after getting somewhat merry and having an argument with a friend, makes a wager that he cannot make his way from South Africa to London by a certain date without using any of his own money or his family name. He has achieved this with some time to spare and with remarkably little incident but, having burned through the money he earned on his journey, he stands outside his friend’s hotel feeling tired and hungry.

A card flutters down from the sky with a room number written on it and that gives Kent an idea. He goes to the dining room, declaring that he is the occupant of Room 707 and is delighted when the staff begin to serve him breakfast. That delight turns to horror however when he is asked by the manager to return to his room to search for a bracelet left by a guest the previous day. On going into the room he discovers a woman lying dead, strangled, on the floor and no sign of the bracelet. Worried that he will be blamed for this death, he slips through a side door and goes to see Dr. Fell with whom he has had a lengthy correspondence and who he hopes will be able to get him out of this mess.

My approach to reading John Dickson Carr has been a little chaotic, picking titles based on their availability to me rather than based on order of publication or their reputations. I knew coming to this one that it regarded as being a fairly average Dr. Fell story, with it placing as eighth best in JJ’s rankings of the first ten Fell novels and getting a fairly mixed review from Puzzle Doctor. It is however available to purchase as an e-book making it one of the few that it is easy to get your hands on without visiting secondhand book stores or relying on a library sending you their copy.

Coming to this with expectations of a middling title, I was rather delighted to find that I really enjoyed the opening to this novel. While there is admittedly not an impossible crime or locked room to be found here, I loved how tightly controlled the crime scene becomes and the strange little details that point to something odd going on.

For instance, Kent is absolutely certain that when he checked the room that the bracelet that he was sent in there to find was not in the dresser. A few minutes later however the staff enter the room themselves and, in searching that same dresser, find it easily in one of the drawers. Similarly, the various staircases and elevators were under observation throughout the night and the hotel staff were accounted for so who was the man observed in uniform in the corridor around midnight and how did he gain access to the floor?

The other thing I noticed early on in the novel was just how fast the action moves. Once Fell arrives at the crime scene, little time is given over to reflection or to discussing what they have already learned and instead we seem to be learning some new detail every few pages. There is even a rather remarkable interview that takes place at the halfway point of the novel that unexpectedly addresses many of the problems with the case,  suddenly making sense of them, but even that creates further difficulties for our investigators to resolve. Until the murderer is caught and Dr. Fell explains what had happened it really never lets up.

The explanation for what had taken place is, as is typical with Carr, ingeniously plotted and I loved that one aspect of the solution is sitting in plain sight for the reader and yet is easily overlooked. That revelation was, for me, the most satisfying moment of the novel and one that really appealed to my imagination.

I think the killer’s plan is really rather cleverly worked out, even if there is one aspect of it that I found a little less than satisfactory. As always, I am keen to avoid spoilers but I think I can say that it is a case of an aspect of the story that is fairly clued and yet feels like it is a lazy and convenient way to work around an obstacle. I did not personally consider it to be cheating on Carr’s part because I do think it was hinted at beforehand but I know there are plenty of readers who do. I would agree though that it is the least satisfying aspect of the resolution.

Like JJ, I did find however that there is one aspect of the initial setup for the crime that I expected to have greater significance than it actually turned out to do. As in, actually being meaningful at all. And yet because the whole story sort of starts from that small but ultimately quite unimportant plot detail, it is a little hard to just write off as a coincidence as we are later told to do. It didn’t affect my enjoyment of the story – it just is a rare little untidy and out-of-place thread in an otherwise extremely tight work.

I really enjoyed my experience reading this and tore through the book in a single sitting which is always a sign that I was engrossed. I think it boasts a fantastic story hook and while it may disappoint by not being an impossible crime, it is really cleverly plotted and structured in spite of a little clunkiness in one aspect of its solution. Like Nick, I consider this to be underrated and while The Case of the Constant Suicides remains my favorite Carr so far, I enjoyed this about as much as I did the similarly audacious The Problem of the Green Capsule.

This excites me because if I found a book that many think is middling in quality to be this entertaining, I can’t wait to discover some of the books they think of as great.

Deadly Hall by John Dickson Carr

DeadlyHall
Deadly Hall
John Dickson Carr
Originally Published 1971

Deadly Hall was one of John Dickson Carr’s historical novels, published towards the very end of his career. I would say that it seems to have a fairly poor reputation but that would imply that it is a topic of conversation. In fact remarkably few blogs I read have reviewed it and when it is mentioned it is usually in passing or as part of a list.

My expectations therefore were fairly low but there were a few parts of the scenario that gave me hope of a good read. Firstly, the New Orleans setting can be a rich source of gothic tension and dread which we all know Carr can do so well. And secondly the mention of a treasure hunt seemed quite promising and offered a different sort of mystery than my previous experiences of the author have provided.

The novel is set in 1927 which, though historical at the time of writing, was well within the author’s own lifetime. Jeff Caldwell, an author who has emigrated to France, receives a letter from a childhood friend asking him to visit the home that friend has inherited in Louisiana. He does so and we learn about a treasure of some gold that is supposedly hidden on the property that no one has been able to find. We also hear that some years earlier a man died in the middle of the night apparently falling to his death while walking up the staircase with a metal tray.

Another death will take place but since it happens exactly at the halfway point in the novel I do not intend to provide any details of that event except that it takes place in a locked room. This is rather a late point for a first death to occur in a novel and I do think it reflects that the novel suffers from some awkward pacing and structural issues. More on that in a moment.

There are two problems that the reader is tasked with solving. Firstly, is there a treasure, what is it and where is it hidden? Second, who or what is responsible for the deaths?

The first question was, for me, the more entertaining of the two though because I had been treating that element of the novel as being something of an afterthought or a bit of narrative color it came as a surprise to me. It is in this aspect of the story that I feel the author pulls off a rather wonderful trick that is simple but imaginative and had this been a short story focused on that part of the plot I would be full of praise.

Unfortunately the second question suffers because of the pacing of the novel. While Carr primes the pump by giving us some background on the historical death, the characters are existing in a rather aimless state. Even with the promise of a treasure hunt, they mill around talking about the fate of the house but there is little movement or action. Until the death happens, this strand of the narrative offers little to excite the reader.

Things improve once the body shows up but even then the investigation feels a little dry and long-winded. Accusations are made and we get some further background on the family but the crime lacks the genius or appeal to the imagination of Carr at his best. This is a shame because when the time comes to explaining how the thing was managed, Carr presents us with a pretty clever solution. Had the setup and execution of the investigation been a little tighter it is easy to see how this story might have had more impact.

Beyond the problems with the scenario itself, I feel the quality of the characterizations is also disappointing at times. While Jeff and Penny shared some amusing interactions and back story, the other characters often seemed a little flat. Being set in the South, the book also features some inelegant and misguided attempts to write African-American dialect for the servant characters that will grate on some readers.

The book works a little better as a historical, though it is far more self-conscious about making its references to events and aspects of the time than my previous experience of a Carr historical novel. There is a tendency for characters to predict historical developments that would take place within a few years and while those comments certainly help to place the action within a timeframe, they also have the unfortunate effect of making everyone seem very prescient. On a more positive note, I thought that the journey down the Mississippi by paddle steamer was very evocative and did a fabulous job of setting the mood, as did the references to prohibition.

Deadly Hall is not a great Carr by any means but I don’t want to suggest that it is without merit. There are some good ideas here which is remarkable given the author had been active for about forty years by this point and I think with a little reorganization and change of emphasis the story could have been tightened and improved.

While it may be a little lacking as a murder mystery, I do think the way Carr resolves the mystery of the hidden treasure very cleverly and for that trick alone I give him props. It shouldn’t be anyone’s first Carr read. I wouldn’t even suggest getting to it as early as I have done in your exploration of his work but it shouldn’t be discounted too quickly either. Even a lesser Carr work is still quite readable!

The Case of the Constant Suicides by John Dickson Carr

ConstantSuicides
The Case of the Constant Suicides
John Dickson Carr
Originally Published 1941
Dr. Gideon Fell #13
Preceded by The Man Who Could Not Shudder
Followed by Death Turns the Tables

I am never entirely sure how best to approach dipping into the works of a classic author. I can certainly see the appeal of selecting their most famous or successful books at first but then what do you have waiting for you once you’re done?

After starting out with the wonderful The Problem of the Green Capsule, my next few experiences of Carr’s work were of books generally reckoned to be second or third tier works. Some, such as The Problem of the Wire Cage, exceeded expectations while The Witch of the Low Tide felt messy and left me disappointed and underwhelmed. It was time to go to a safer choice…

I am pleased to say that The Case of the Constant Suicides is the best work I have read so far from Carr. It manages to balance its humorous and mysterious elements perfectly to create a book that is as entertaining as it is perplexing.

The story begins with members of the Campbell family being summoned to Scotland following the death of Angus Campbell who seems to have jumped out of a window at the top of a tower and fallen to his death. It turns out that he has very little wealth to speak of but did take out several heavy life insurance policies whose combined payouts ought to add up to a very healthy sum for the inheritors.

The problem is that if Angus did commit suicide those contracts would be voided and the estate would be worthless. The family want to believe that he wouldn’t have committed suicide, knowing the financial pressures it would create for the family, but the alternative of murder seems inconceivable – the tower being too tall and the room being thoroughly locked – so what caused Angus to take the plunge?

It’s a cracking good start for a story and Carr does a superb job of constructing the rules of the locked room, stating the facts clearly. Since starting this blog I have learned that the concept of a mysterious string of identical historical deaths will always grab me and here is no exception.

I knew from early on that this was the book for me when we first see Alan and Kathryn encounter each other on the train. Carr gives the two characters a delightfully entertaining backstory and seems to relish throwing them together. They bicker and spar, make pointed comments and soon it becomes all too clear that they are attracted to each other.

It should be pointed out that these two characters, while related to most of the different suspects, are external characters. This is different from the approach Carr takes, for instance, with Brenda and Hugh in Wire Cage, where they become involved in the case and so need to present evidence and track down the real killer. Some may feel that this subplot is then tacked on, contributing little material evidence, and yet I found it immensely enjoyable and I think it works brilliantly as a device for the family to come together and to share pertinent information with our heroes.

The bulk of the sleuthing however is carried out by our old chum, Gideon Fell. As usual, he manages to see right through some of the noise of the case to find its key points. I think what interests me most about the character is how amoral he is shown to be. There is a moment where he tells the family that, should he find it was suicide, he will sit on the story and find a way to persuade the insurance companies.

Another aspect of the novel that I think bears closer scrutiny is Carr’s decision to write in dialect for his English readers. Should you have read my review of Lament for a Maker another Scottish mystery set in an old castle, you will be aware of just how much I can dislike authors doing this. Carr escapes that trap because it’s only used in short bursts and typically the meanings are easy to infer from their context.

Some may grumble at all the ‘we’re in Scotland’ tropes happening here but I found them to generally be quite charming and amusing. The jokes aren’t mean-spirited in tone which I do think helps keep things light and they are not so frequent that you can’t ignore them.

Towards the end of the novel Carr stacks several other murders on top of the first death, a move which I have found to be the undoing of some of his other works. I am happy to say though that this was something of an exception with one of the secondary crimes more interesting to me than the main case in terms of how it was executed. When the explanations are given for each death, I was suitably impressed by the ingenuity on display and on the way the remainder of the story holds up.

Overall, I was extremely impressed with this Carr read and I look forward to spending more time with Dr. Fell in some of his further adventures. Hopefully it won’t take me quite so long before I come across another top-notch read. As always, I’d be grateful for suggestions shared (I may not have reviewed them but I have experienced The Hollow Man and Til Death Do Us Part).

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: An academic (who)

The Man Who Could Not Shudder by John Dickson Carr

manwhocould
The Man Who Could Not Shudder
John Dickson Carr
Originally Published 1940
Dr. Gideon Fell #12
Preceded by The Problem of the Wire Cage
Followed by The Case of the Constant Suicides

Martin Clarke has purchased and refurbished a historic home with a reputation for being haunted. As you might expect, he decides to throw a haunting party in which he invites some friends and a few experts in their fields to spend the weekend and see if they observe any ghostly apparitions or paranormal phenomena.

Several centuries earlier the owner of the house had died at the precise moment the grandfather clock stopped and more recently an aged butler was crushed by a chandelier after apparently swinging on it. Soon after the party arrives, an equally strange and improbable death is added to the list as a gun appears to have leapt off its wall mount and shot someone. And that is just one of the strange things that takes place in Longwood House that weekend.

I didn’t have much in the way of expectations coming to this novel having heard precious little about it. My reason for reaching for it now is that I read in the incredibly helpful guide at Justice for the Corpse that my planned next read to feature Dr. Fell spoils a key twist in this one. That book, The Case of the Constant Suicides, has now been shelved until later in the month. Also I should take a moment to suggest you check out that guide before reading this because the novel does spoil the solution to a famous Agatha Christie story.

While the story could lend itself to quite an atmospheric, gothic style it is remarkable just how little atmosphere Carr creates in this piece. This is actually quite appropriate given his choice of a more skeptical character to narrate the tale and the composition of Clarke’s party, favoring open-minded but skeptical guests. However, it may well disappoint those who were hoping to see the characters more affected by the prospect of a haunting.

There are some nice touches along the way and the murder, when it does come, is appropriately bizarre and does take place in some intriguing circumstances. We have a shooting occur in a room with just one person present in the room yet the doors and windows and all under observation within seconds of the shot being fired. When the weapon is identified, there are no fingerprints to be found at all and not even any telltale signs of the handler wearing gloves. While the witness’ claim that the gun moved by itself off the wall and shot seems incredible, it is at least partly confirmed by the physical evidence of the room.

While this seems to be one of the most baffling setups for a story I have read to date in a Carr novel, I expected that the investigation would focus more tightly on the mechanics of how the crime was committed. Instead a substantial part of the narrative focuses on trying to work through some contradictory accounts to discover the killer’s identity.

There are some good moments along the way, not least the explanation of the significance of a key, and I did appreciate that the story boasts its fair share of “how on Earth did I miss that” revelations. When the explanations come however I was left with mixed feelings, being struck both by the comparative simplicity of the solutions but also the convoluted way in which they are worked.

And then there is the second crime. While not as ludicrous or frustrating as the one in The Problem of the Wire Cage, I felt it served less of a purpose in the story other than to string the investigation out for a little bit longer.

So far I have only read a handful of Carrs and I am still getting to know the author. I can say that of the four novels I have read, this is the one I found least entertaining though it is still an interesting read. While I liked some elements of the story a lot, I feel it misses some opportunities that its setting and plot might have afforded.

For those interested in reading some different takes on the novel, I would suggest these reviews from Puzzle Doctor, The Green Capsule and Pretty Sinister Books all of whom are more enthusiastic. And while he doesn’t have a full review on his blog, JJ lists the book as one of his Five Carrs to Try. Clearly I am odd man out on this one but hopefully I will enjoy Constant Suicides much more.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Reference to a man/woman in the title (What)