I haven’t reviewed (or read, come to that) a short story collection for a while, and it’s 1954 this month for Crimes of the Century at Past Offences meaning the time is ripe for a long-overdue (har-har) return to John Dickson Carr. I had read a couple of the stories contained herein before, but the majority were new to me, and as ever it’s a delight to see Carr’s imagination wrangle with the shorter form. Given how frequently stories of this ilk fail to conceal their workings and/or killer, it’s also great to see him do both over and over again with consummate ease, as if saying to his contemporaries “C’mon, guys, it’s simple –just do this“. We’ll take them one at a time as is my usual approach with collections — and, yes, most of these were originally published before 1954 and so might be inadmissible. Let’s just get on with it and an independent official enquiry can determine the eligibility of this at a later point.
‘The Third Bullet’ (1937) was originally published as a novella, but is presented here in its more common truncated form. Either way, it’s Carr distilled down to his essence: a shooting in a locked and observed study with too many bullets and both too many and too few guns. Alongside these contortions it’s simply a delight to watch him drop in his supremely loaded character descriptions, like lead investigator Colonel Marquis whose grin “seemed to crackle the face like the skin of a roast pig” or the butler who “had a few stands of iron-grey hair brushed across his skull like the skeleton of a fish”. This is a clever story, no doubt, and if it were any mortal author you’d be delighted with the resolution, but by Carr’s standards this is merely very well-worked rather than the ingenious we might rightly anticipate.
The remaining six stories are each about a quarter of the length of this first one, and run accordingly:
‘The Clue of the Red Wig’ (1940), is from a time when there were still journalists in Fleet Street and concerns a famous young lady found murdered in a public park in December…wearing only her underwear and with her other clothes folded neatly nearby. It’s a little unlikely, but worth reading for the half French-half Cockney reporter Jacqueline Dubois who is put on the story to provide “a woman’s perspective”. Carr captures her perfectly through delightfully mongrel speech — “But I do not mind telling you what will solve your case for you, strike me pink” — which makes it more of a shame that my researches tell me we never saw her again.
The third story, ‘The House in Goblin Wood’ (1947), concerns the adult Victoria Adams — Posh Spice! — who disappeared from the eponymous isolated house as a child when all windows and doors were locked and bolted, and when she returns to visit it as an adult in the company of famed misanthrope Sir Henry Merrivale…well, what do you think happens? You’re lulled astray by an effortless assumption here, an absolute coup of casual plotting, and the resolution is that kind of clever that borders on the ridiculous but is so finely done that you’ll let him have it. A masterpiece in short story writing, this, and I’m wondering if there’s some universe crossover here with the Goblin Wood mentioned in Till Death Do Us Part. Whaddaya reckon? Yeah, okay, probably not.
‘The Wrong Problem’ (1936) will be familiar to anyone who has read The Black Lizard Book of Locked Room Mysteries, and is probably my least favourite Carr story to date. It’s fine, and contains two seemingly-impossible murders that are related and solved from a new perspective, but the one that actually requires explaining veers into the ‘unlikely technical explanation’ territory that does no-one any favours. It’s Carr at his most Chestertonian, which will probably delight some of you, but I’m more a fan of Carr being Carr than engaging in unflattering mimesis of a lesser talent.
The best way to describe ‘The Proverbial Murder’ (1943) is “a product of its time” as it’s rather long on wartime paranoia and pesky Germans. It feels very much like a public information film in story form, complete with a speech at the end about the dangers faced by spies and the like…the kind of heavy-handed moralising I haven’t seen since I stopped watching kids’ TV shows about aged 12. Good to see so much Fell condensed into so few pages, though — he doesn’t show up until about halfway through, and is captured as perfectly as in any of the novels. A masterful piece of characterisation by action and speech that many authors could learn from.
Penultimate story ‘The Locked Room’ (1943) is a difficult one to critique. On one hand the crime under examination is one of those too-small problems that the initiated try to turn into enough of a mystery to hang a whole book on and so Carr is to be commended for keeping it to an appropriate length. On the other, its very brevity and the closedness of the problem — as well as the convenient misunderstanding about the solution, which might be clever or might be stupid — feel like the sort of base level Carr would start at before embellishing upwards, and one aspect of the workings is now antiquated enough to not be the common knowledge required. But then it does contain some lovely phrases, including Fell doing something “with all the gallantry of a load of bricks falling through a skylight”. So overall…
Finally we have ‘The Gentleman from Paris’ (1950), which came in the same year as Carr’s first historical mystery The Bride of Newgate and is equally historical and thankfully less long-winded. The sense of time and place is captured faultlessly — mind you, I wasn’t there myself, so what do I know — and the tiny historical flourishes (a comment on the height of the hats men are wearing, for one) sit in perfect consort with the actual plot. As the story progressed it became evident the direction it was taking, and the solution to the impossible disappearance frustrated me for reasons that I don’t wish to go into here…and then just as I was about to write this off as a sadly wasted opportunity Carr throws in…something…in the penultimate line that makes it all work. I will forgive him that, because it’s a nice final touch and a suitable note on which to end the collection.
So, overall? Well only ‘The House in Goblin Wood’ is really essential, but for me any time spent with Carr is never truly wasted. As evidence of what can be done with an impossible setup, clearly-defined characters, a mostly well-hidden guilty party, a false solution, and then a fair-play genuine solution within 20 pages, however, it’s indispensable. And it’s introduced me to the word “supergigolo”, which I don’t think any of Carr’s Golden Age writer kith would have cause to use at any time in their careers. Also, yeah, none of these stories are from 1954 — sorry, Rich, up to you if you decide to exclude me on this technical point.