While Cabin B-13 became the name of the series of radio plays written by John Dickson Carr, I’m using the Tuesday Night Bloggers’ chosen topic of travel to look at the original play of that title which was broadcast on 9th November 1943 for the radio series Suspense (if you’ve 25 minutes to spare, you can check it out for yourself here) and from which that later series was inspired. If it also gives me a chance to cast some light in the direction of Carr’s oft-overlooked radio work, well, more’s the better.
It’s described in its own broadcast as a tale looking at “strange – very strange – happenings aboard an ocean liner” and set in “happier peace-time days” as newlyweds Ricky and Anne prepare to go on honeymoon in Europe. They deposit their bags in the titular cabin, Anne goes onto the deck to watch as ship leaves New York…and returns to find not only that her bags are in a different room – one booked in her maiden name, no less – but also that the room she originally used doesn’t exist, and with witnesses swearing that she was never in the presence of her husband to begin with.
What this gives us is a neat reversal of Carr’s earlier novel The Blind Barber (1934) – equally ship-based, though that was rather more farcical – in which a dead body appears in the middle of a cruise apparently without any of the passengers dying. There, as here, the key lies in one throw-away moment of speech, in an assumption made all too readily and easily given the context, but here Anne’s rising hysteria is exploited beautifully in allowing this to happen. Trust Carr, too, not just to make the husband disappear, any fool of an author could have thrown him overboard, but also have him being in her presence and then see this denied by someone who has no reason to lie. Suddenly the hopelessness of that situation, with however many weeks left at sea ahead of her, make the setting an apposite choice; no stopping at the side of the road, no pulling the emergency brake and demanding answers – either someone figures out what’s happened, or madness awaits…
As historical documents Carr’s radio plays are really rather fascinating, perhaps even more so than his novels. Mark Green put up this excellent post yesterday, as part of which he explored the possible options available to a modern police force when confronted with some of Josephine Tey’s mysteries to highlight just how different these things are now. One of these differences plays a key role here, too, as it seems that married couples would travel on a joint passport and Anne’s inability to produce one – being only a few hours married, she claims, they had yet to arrange one – is taken as another sign of her instability (one is also reminded of the role played by a spot of grease on a passport – so significant that I seem to remember it being the title of a chapter – in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express).
Where other mysteries would render the ship setting equally as valid as a house or an island or even a small town – and this is true of The Blind Barber, which simply relies on the closed circle people involved – what particularly works with Cabin B-13 is how the aspect of travel and the milieu of the ship are integral to the trick. Virtually everyone drops a telling line in there somewhere, and it falls in so perfectly with the setup established – the problems and occurrences you feel would be faced by such a group of people in those circumstances – that you don’t even notice the scatter of clues even thought you’re sure they have to be in there; one line in particular gives the whole damn thing away, and is brushed past without so much as a sniff of suspicion – utter brilliance.
From a Carr perspective, it’s also interesting to experience something which is told almost exclusively through dialogue (and it highlights the problems he occasionally had with writing something you’d believe someone would say…). A few sound effects here and there, and a bit of narration, fill in the picture, but it’s a beautiful example of how to paint a picture without the usual tools – robbed of his devastating adjectives and sinister overtones, shed of his comic touches and the sheer irresistible momentum of a Fell or Merrivale. And he still runs rings around you.