#154: Obelists Fly High (1935) by C. Daly King

obelists-fly-highSometimes it can be difficult to know where to start.  C. Daly King’s third detective novel Obelists Fly High is such a time in my life.  Is it good?  No.  Is it terrible?  Yeah, it probably is.  Now I have to explain that, and give examples from the text to back up my opinions, and it should all just fall into place.  But it’s not simply a case of hurling invective at King and his attempts, because in some regards this is very clever — well, no, there’s one development, at the start of the fourth…section (they’re not really chapters) which borders on the very canny indeed.  At the same time, I really did not enjoy reading this; it is hideously overlong, here’s a competent short novella in here at best, but explaining why is going to be like nailing jam to the ceiling.  Ah, well, here goes…

Part of the difficulty is how evidently pleased with himself King clearly is.  Take his character names: the comely Fonda Mann, her uncomely sister Isa Mann, the fire-and-brimstone preacher Manly Bellowes.  Har-de-har-har.  Then he sort of stops trying: the novelist Hugh L. Craven (?), philosopher Isadore Didenot (?!?), psychologist Dr. L. Rees Pons…are these clever or just half-arsed?  By the time we got to research scientist Hood Tinkham (yeah, me neither) I’d stopped caring.  The first three are moderately diverting.  The rest are, let’s be honest, just bollocks.  And, frankly, this is sort of the book in a nutshell.

It starts with the epilogue, which opens mid-action and doesn’t represent the final pages of the story, so wouldn’t be the epilogue even if placed at the end of the book.  Again, I think King thinks he’s being clever when he isn’t.  In fact, it’s all the more irritating because of the falseness of our detective Captain Lord (that’s doubtless a joke, too) referring to the unmasked murderer in carefully gender neutral and non-named terms.  Y’know, to preserve suspense.  The fact that the prologue is then the last part of the book — for, really no reason again — and would have made a lot of sense if put first compounds this felony.  The reviews I encountered before reading this had a common “nothing is quite what it seems in this book” air to them, and that’s true only in the one occasion mentioned above.  The rest of it is just pointless.  And really, really dull.

You actually need about 10 pages of the 80 you get before the murder.  Then Lord sits around and cogitates a lot, goes and talks to the pilots, has some conversation where people knock religion or science, they change planes a few times, there’s a bit in a snowy field, some more cogitation, a lot of alibi checking, then an accusation and admission…end credits.  But, oh, the alibi checking!  Dear, sweet Methuselah’s beard, the alibi checking!  It goes on and on and on…then is summarised in a table which you can check (don’t, it’s not worth it), then goes on some more.  Even Freeman Wills Crofts was looking at his watch come the end of that section, and I’ll admit to just jumping about 20 pages only to find it was still going on.

And, once unmasked, the killer’s original plan — pre-Lord’s intervention — is absolute drivel.  It’s honestly not even worth going into, and becomes difficult to untangle come the pro-as-epi-logue because, well, it’s so muddled and too lazy and stupid to even want to untwist.  By that point, I think I was angrier with a collection of paper, glue, and ink than should normally be attainable and just wanted to get the thing done and out of my life.  Its one good idea is stretched diaphanously thin over far too much evidence of having no clue how to go about a murder mystery, with nothing approaching an interesting idea well-executed, and topped off by a lazy reveal which then has a garbled load of tosh dumped on it in the misinformed hope that this qualifies as intelligent plotting.

If you truly, deeply hate someone, and wish to deprive them by removing from their life the joy that detective fiction can be, give them this book and tell them it’s the greatest mystery novel ever written.  To paraphrase Christopher Hitchens: were it possible to give a book an enema, you could print what was left here on a matchbox.  Avoid avoid avoid avoid avoid avoid avoid.


See also:

Vintage Pop Fictions: Obelists Fly High is a bit of a trainwreck but it’s such an odd and intriguing trainwreck that it’s worth a read if only for its curiosity value.

GADetection wiki: While his works have too much plot creativity to ignore, they have too many other problems to be actually good. One might also point out that Obelists Fly High lacks the fabulous plot complexity of Ellery Queen or John Dickson Carr. Its story could be compressed to novella length without any harm.


The only decent thing to come out of this experience is that I can now cross off the category Plane from my attempts to complete the Golden Age Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt at My Reader’s Block.

49 thoughts on “#154: Obelists Fly High (1935) by C. Daly King

  1. Zero rating for a book ! I think it is unprecedented in the history of blogging.
    Well, at least you didn’t give negative rating ! 🙂


      • I’ve encountered quite a few books in other genres that I’d give negative ratings to but I can’t think of any in the crime genre. At least not in the golden age of crime fiction. Not even Gladys Mitchell.


      • I have rather specialized in this, in my blog’s series “100 Books you should die before you read,” and I can truly say that “I Shot My Bridge Partner” by Matt Granovetter deserves a negative rating. Most of the subjects of my series are merely at the 0.25 out of 10 level, or that vicinity, but this one is a solid -1.

        Liked by 2 people

        • I just read your review, Noah (thanks, JJ, for providing the link), and I will honor its excellence by not trying to be clever myself. I don’t think OBC is anywhere near as bad as the bridge mystery, and that might be JJ’s point about why he thinks it might no work here. But I have faith in you, Noah, that if you think this title merits inclusion, you would find the best take on it.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. 😳😳
    I thought I would be typing up a lament as to how I’ve not managed to locate a copy… But looks like I don’t have to feel regretful. Will you be trying anything else by C. Daly King?


    • Hmmm, not any time soon — too many other books! Perhaps if there’s something I can find a consensus on I might try him again, but I’m certainly not going to be rushing back: on to Frances and Richard Lockridge, and Jonathan Latimer, and E.C.R Lorac, and Gilbert Collins, and Peter Dickinson, and Richard Forrest, and George V. Higgins, and Michael Kurland, and Jan Ekstrom, and then more Carr, and Christie, and Gardner, and Penny, and Burton, and Bruce, and Thompson, and Queen, and Stark, and Quentin, and…well, you get the idea! 🙂


  3. So sorry you didn’t enjoy this one JJ and I think you are much too hard on this, especially as it was not meant to be taken seriously. There was so much rubbish being published at the time (and yes, I’m thinking go much of the output of Wentworth and Marsh) that this attempt to do something clever and unusual deserves quite a lot of credit. I loved its playful gamesmanship, but then I remain a dedicated postmodernist 🙂 Better luck next time mate


    • Yeah, but there’s a difference between “Not make to be taken seriously” and “Not any good on any level” — this is definitely the latter in spite of the former!

      And, really, you’ve hit my exact objection right on the head: how much actually clever stuff is in here? The restructuring makes no sense, the sole good idea is squandered…I’m just not seeing the cleverness that is often touted when this book is discussed…

      Ah, well, as you say, let’s hope for better next time 🙂


    • I loved its playful gamesmanship

      I enjoyed King’s short story collection The Curious Mr Tarrant for just that reason. My take on King is that his style and his approach worked OK in the short story format, but much less well when applied to a novel. A novel does require discipline and structure (I’m revealing myself here as a bit of an anti-postmodernist).


      • I’m starting to think the same thing about Clayton Rawson, as his stories are typically excellent but the two novels I’ve read are — to be nice about it — rather hard work (even if DfaTH was quite clever)…


  4. Free! Free! Free! Free! Free!

    I bought a beautiful Collins Crime Club edition of this years ago, for it was lauded as one of the most unusual and hard to find mysteries of the classic era. It was also hard to read. In fact, it was nearly impenetrable. And I have sat here for years, carrying the guilt that I didn’t like this oddity all by myself. Until now . . .

    I’d feel more sorry for you, but I’ve been dealing with Sophie Hannah’s Closed Casket, which sits like a clotted fungus on my bedside table. I swear I can hear unholy music, like in The Omen, whenever I open its pages. Unlike you, however, I have made the joyful decision to return it, unfinished, to the library from whence it came and to cleanse my palate with some real Christie. This travesty actually made me long for something by Halter. In fact . . .

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sophie Hannah’s Closed Casket…sits like a clotted fungus on my bedside table. I swear I can hear unholy music, like in The Omen, whenever I open its pages.

      There’s a quote for the paperback cover if ever I saw one!

      Liked by 3 people

        • The single fart joke is an extended sequence of paragraphs at the end of chapter 10, in which the word “fart” is not used. It is, in fact, so delicately expressed that “the release of some gas” is as close as it gets. The character who releases the gas, Orville Rolfe, is apparently in the book specifically for the purpose of remarking how fat he is at every opportunity.


      • The introduction of Orville was the last straw. The conversation about rhinoplasty, the whole initial request for a will change, and the sadistic insistence by Lady Agatha to be called Athie felt so forced that I began to wonder if Hannah and Matthew Pritchard are pulling some scam in us. Maybe I will revisit in the future, but life is too short and too much good reading exists to bother any further with this for now.


  5. Michael Lord might be the worst detective I’ve ever encountered (on multiple levels). The (unwarranted) arrogance of King really dominated the book for me. There were a couple of clever ideas, but they were overwhelmed by the other areas of incompetence. I’m kind of embarrassed that this book is still sitting on my shelf.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Two comments: (1) If anyone wants to dispose of a printed copy of this book, I’d be delighted to receive it and might even pay the postage, if you select the “slow boat to China” postal modality. (I’m in Canada.) You’ve all made me curious. I remember reading this about 30 years ago and being underwhelmed, but not to the level of this … this might even be a candidate for my “100 books you should die before you read” series.
    (2) In a general sense, I have learned over the years that it is possible to learn a lot from really, really bad art in a way that is not possible with really, really good art. When you watch, say, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, the selection of viewpoints and the structure of the plot, etc., are perfectly appropriate and don’t require a moment’s thought from the viewer. When you watch, say, “Plan 9 from Outer Space”, you’re constantly thinking, “Oh, why did he do THAT?” or “What’s behind THAT dialogue choice?” and deciding what choices you would have made had you been in the director’s chair. And that’s a way in which you can learn about direction. And that’s why Harry Stephen Keeler (and possibly C. Daly King) is worth your time!

    Liked by 1 person

    • (1) Noah, no-one would be more delighted than I to see you resurrect “100 Books You Should Die Before You Read”, but I wonder if this is even that good — there’s almost no fun to be had in taking this apart, and it seems a shame to inflict this upon you for that purpose (that Charlaine Harris post in this series still cracks me up…)

      (2) I had this exact revelation today when I gave up on the book I was planning on writing about for next week’s Tuesday Night Bloggers — so much more goes on in one’s head when you simply cannot follow the reasons for the choices made, and inevitably I find myself thinking around the problems and how to stremaline them by making a different choice here, another piece of charater motivation there… Reading The Problem of the Green Capsule, I reached the end and my brain was like _____________ because there simply was nothing to think on account of how awesome that book is, and anything I thought was going to be a waste of time anyway! Yes, if I can find a way to wrangle this, it may form the basis of my TNBs post next week; watch this space…


      • Oh, yeah, sorry Noah — meant to say that I’d leant my copy to someone but if/when I get it back you’re most welcome to it. However, John is making a far more tempting offer if one is able to mangle their way through two of these books…!


  7. I don’t remember enough about Obelists Fly High to make a worthwhile comment, but vaguely recall being mildly positive about the book. Or was it Obelists at Sea I liked? In any case, the C&L collection of King’s short stories about Mr. Tarrant was better and far more memorable than his full-length mystery novels.

    I am also agast (pun!) by what I’m reading about Hannah’s second travesty. Why not write the third one over the desecrated gravesite of Christie herself?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I enjoyed ‘The Nail and the Requiem’ in one of Mike Ashley’s collections, so if I return to King it’ll most likely be via the medium of short stories rather than novels. But in either case it won’t be any time soon!

      As for the new ‘Poirot’ novel…well, I don’t even recognise these as fan fiction, since they seem to fail to fulfil even those criteria. Least said, soonest forgotten.


  8. Hannah names the central female figure, a children’s mystery writer, Agatha. This is as clever as it gets. The rhythms are wrong, the humor is forced, and there is nothing added of Hannah’s own talent to justify this. But I have to be fair: having only gotten through two chapters, I don’t really have a right to carp. Thus, it will not be the subject of a post of my own until the fateful day I actually complete it.

    Hopefully, if there is a third one, Edward Catchpool’s combination of sociopathy and whatever other form of behavioral disturbance that plagues him will manifest itself strongly enough that he will either turn out to be the killer and be arrested or he will be committed and thus remove his own nasty presence from this dreary scene.



  9. People in the UK will have had a chance to watch Andrew Marr’s rather superficial series on genre fiction, which has been airing over the last couple of weeks (really, the Open University should know better than to lend their name to this kind of stuff). In the first episode they will have seen Ms. Hannah attempting to explain Christie’s work to us poor simple viewers. Rather like watching a Teletubby lecturing on quantum physics… luckily I didn’t have anything heavy to hand whilst watching, or I would be shopping for a new TV now. To add insult to injury, when Marr begins to discuss Christie, the camera pans lovingly over some Poirot book jackets… by Sophie Hannah!

    Liked by 2 people

  10. I read OBELSITS FLY HIGH a long time ago. But I must’ve missed the nonsense with the names. I don’t remember any of that. They’re not even subtle! How did I miss or forget that? Usually that ‘s something I pick up on and definitely remember. The only thing I liked about this book was the revelation at the end highly reminiscent of that train book by Christie. That’s it. Back in 2004 or so I had a copy of ARROGANT ALIBI (very, very, VERY rare) and attempted to read it, but it bored the hell out of me. The plot seemed like a rehash of THE SCARAB MURDER CASE with all sorts of Egyptology business and messing with a sarcophagus. And really… who would want to re-read a book that reminds one of Philo Vance? I ended up selling it to a ravenous mystery collector who wanted a full set of C Daly King’s mystery novels. Made a very nice profit. Then I tried to read OBELISTS AT SEA. No luck with that one either. There is a character called “the Jewess” in the book and I just kept laughing every time anyone was talking about her. Laughing in disbelief, that is. The way we laugh at Archie Bunker and Donald Trump. The disparaging talk about that one character got to be so absurd that I just closed the book. I never finished that one either. Clearly King is remembered only for his short story collection featuring Mr. Tarrant. Some of those are true classics. Should left well enough alone with those and never attempted a novel.

    As for CLOSED CASKET: When I found a copy for a mere quarter at a book sale I had to have it so I could see for myself just what Hannah had done to Poirot. There’s no way I’d shell out real money for a brand new copy. Interesting that someone dumped it within a few weeks of acquiring the book. Book club edition too, FWIW. Can’t wait for the farts and fat shaming. Sounds absolutely hysterical. I hope I survive to the end.

    Liked by 2 people

    • This in part exemplifies why I try not to get too excited about books in advance; there’s little more disappointing than a book trading on some reputation that you, once you read it, fail to see justified in any way. And it’s doubly itrritating when you’ve searched for ages and probably paid out quite a lot for it (which is also the root of my reluctance to spend more than a certain amount on a book).

      And, well, the more Closed Casket talk that goes on here, the mre tempted I am to try it. I won’t, life is too short and Noah’s got me tempted to pick up Rocket to the Morgue for a second time, but there’s a sort of “horror of looking away” in effect now…


  11. I don’t think I’ll try either of Hannah’s pastiches (apparently there’s an earlier one, even worse than this) – I’d feel I was being disloyal. What’s that rumbling sound I can hear, somewhere beneath my feet? Must be Agatha turning in her grave…
    Perversely, though, I am tempted to try the C.Daly King, just to see if it comes into my ‘so bad it’s good’ category. I take full responsibility if I do… I know you’ve warned me…


  12. I’ve read his stort stories, and I should probably stop there! For what it’s worth, they were decent on the whole. Some were dumb, some were really dumb, some were good, and even the dumb ones at least had something interesting going for them. Except one, the booth stabbing one. Just bad.


  13. Pingback: » An Impossible Crime Mystery Review by Ray O’Leary: C. DALY KING – Obelists Fly High.

    • I think this one tried to be too clever — the prologue and epilogue aren’t, if memory serves, where the story actually begins and ends…so why make that claim and then immediately fail to follow through on it?

      The management of the poisoning-to-schedule is magnificent, but the rest struck me as lots of slow chaging of planes and sitting in a house. Been a few years, however, so I appreciate that may not be wholly accurate 🙂


      • I read it 22 years ago, when I was 15, so my memories might not be accurate either! It was slow, but that’s what plane travel was like in those days – not the intercontinental Iong-haul flights of today. (Or rather yesterday. 😦 )


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