You’re doubtless aware of the superbly wide-ranging Golden Age-focussed Shedunnit podcast run by Caroline Crampton, and I was delighted to be asked to contribute to an episode about locked room mysteries and impossible crimes. The results are now online for your listening pleasure.
No, I’m not back from hiatus. But if you think I’m going to let today’s reissue of three more Freeman Wills Crofts novels — Sudden Death (1932), Mystery on Southampton Water (1934), and Crime at Guildford (1935) — pass without comment, you’re mad. Plus, in my absence WordPress has foisted a new post-writing setup upon us all, and I need some practice because I hate change. But the world’s a negative enough place right now, so let’s dwell on the exemplary work done by HarperCollins in bringing Crofts back for us to enjoy; some people have been waiting years to be able to afford some of these titles, and it’s a wonderful thing to have them in general circulation.
The devastation wrought by the First World War in the sheer quantity of life lost saw an upsurge in the popularity of spirit mediums, to the extent that no less an authority on the rational than Arthur Conan Doyle fell under their spell. Given that this rise in open chicanery coincided with the birth of the detective novel, it surprises me that The Psychic Killer took such a long time to appear in GAD, perhaps owing to its intersection with the impossible crime and the associated difficulties of explaining away the tricks on the page — The Reader is Warned (1939) by Carter Dickson being easily the best example of a very, very small subset.
Malice Aforethought (1931) by Francis Iles, possibly the most famous novel of uxoricide ever written, begins with a line so classic it distracts you from the opening being, well, a bit dull. This Way Out (1939) by James Ronald, similarly concerned with a dissatisfied husband wishing to dispose of his wife, is happy for you to be immersed in the commonplace before hitting you with brilliant lines of its own, but would surely be more more famous if it began with the following from approximately a third of the way through: “While dawn on slippered feet crept through the silent streets Philip lay in bed examining schemes for killing his wife”.
A seam of superb Japanese detective novels and short stories have crossed the language barrier in recent years, teaching even the most culturally ignorant of us to tell our honkaku from our shin honkaku. And here to give us a sense of the work involved in making that happen is literary translator Louise Heal Kawai.
The discovery of a bullet in a body in a fire in “one of the most peaceful and law-abiding parts of Thameshire” ushers in a game of Murder or Suicide? that will be familiar to the seasoned GAD reader. And since the Chief Constable would “rather have a few murders than [Scotland Yard] nosing round in his area” it falls to his nephew, constable Laurence Sadler, and Sadler’s superior Inspector Trenton to get to the bottom of Antony Mullins’ death. But even Sadler and Trenton, as the local men, are unprepared for the characters who seek to inveigle their way into proceedings, and the complexity that will unfold as a result.
It was my understanding that William Shakespeare invented the word “eyeball”. The noun eye was extant at the time, as was the concept of a ball being something round, but that Shakespeare was the one to take the two principles and conflate them. It turns out he didn’t [see the comments below this post], but presumably someone did, and that’s all I really need to be the case for this opening paragraph.
As a reader, there’s a tension to be found at the heart of every writer’s work once it’s a closed set, especially when they’ve scaled the heights that John Dickson Carr did: with nothing else to be added, at what point does The Decline set in? From Till Death Do Us Part (1944), arguably the pinnacle of his glittering career, it’s a sawtooth diagram of quality all the way to Papa La-Bas (1968), arguably the nadir, but at what point does a downward trajectory become the prevailing trend rather than the occasional, forgivable oversight? It’s obviously impossible to pick the precise moment — helloooo, subjectivity — which inevitably makes such a moment impossible not to look for.