Department D3 of Scotland Yard houses the gargantuan form of Colonel March, investigator of the absurd and apparently impossible whose “mind is so obvious that he hits it every time”. It’s a shame March never got a novel of his own, because he has a lovely and direct way of dealing with the problems brought to him, but then he’s not exactly dissimilar to the Gideon Fell chap about whom Carter Dickson wrote so much under his real name of John Dickson Carr. So, yup, it’s impossibilities ahoy as we go through ten cases of the inexplicable thoroughly laid to rest by Carr’s own brand of chicanery and misdirection; it’s true: life is good to us sometimes, and we just gotta enjoy it when it happens…
‘The New Invisible Man’ kicks us off with a shooting by gloves that come to life and pick up a gun of their own accord — worry not, it’s a different solution to the similar-sounding novel The Man Who Could Not Shudder (1940) — only for the body to disappear, the people involved to deny any knowledge of it happening, and the apparent victim to have already been dead for several decades. It’s a good little problem, superbly motivated, but I feel the idea is better than the explanation; I get it in principle, but not practice, and feel like there’s something missing to make it as clear as it needs to be (which is a nice way of saying that I’m not sure it’d completely work as described).
Faring much better is ‘The Footprint in the Sky’ with its all-the-evidence-points-to-one-person footprints-in-the-snow problem. There’s one awesome piece of subtle clewing here that’s so, so clever and almost makes up for the fact that the tiny cast makes it difficult to hide who is guilty (you’ll doubtless seize on the key piece of information even when Carr drops it so casually into proceedings). I also love how our heroine wakes up, feels something is amiss, and hears ominous voices downstairs, but must first rush through her morning toilet before going downstairs to find out what’s happening. Aaaah, society, how far you’ve fallen…
Then we have a disappearing room and the riddle of a raincoat turned inside-out in ‘The Crime in Nobody’s Room’. The setup and workings here require a level of artifice which, for me, no-one could manage more easily than Carr; it hinges on an unlikely requirement of a set of flats, and if anyone else from this era had tried to sell it to you I can believe a vast majority of readers would send it back on grounds of sheer ludicrosity. Carr makes it work, though, with his suave authority and the beautiful lightness of his tone. It’s fine as a story — nothing spectacular, mind — and hinges on another of those obscure little cluster-bombs of inspiration that went off inside the great man’s head once in a while, but you’re not going to love it for all time.
Next up, Poe’s ‘The Purloined Letter’ reimagined with ill-gotten cash in ‘Hot Money’ — piles of stolen filthy lucre vanish in a room when the door is under observation and the windows don’t open, and a search of the entire premises fails to turn up the dough. Your enjoyment of this depends exclusively on how much you’re able to buy into the scheme used, and while I like it — I did the thing March suggests at one point, and failed to come up with the key thing (yeah, that’s vague) — it’s also not really especially Carrian. Crofts could have written it, except no-one gets on a train; Ngaio Marsh would delight her fans with this kind of idea; we hold Carr to a higher standard.
Itching for a seemingly-impossible murder where the main suspects have an alibi? Your time has come with ‘Death in the Dressing Room’. Unfortunately it’s a touch transparent and third-tier as a mystery plot, but this does enable you to appreciate just how sublime Carr’s prose is in spite of the odd turn of phrase (a “super-pickpocket”, anyone? Thought not). When he’s good, though, he’s oh-so-very good; I mean, “The hot, smoky room swallowed him up as though he were padded into layers of cotton wool”: c’mon, that’s simply beautiful.
Fun fact, ‘The Silver Curtain’ was the first Carr short story I ever read. I loved it then, and I love it still now: a man enters a cul-de-sac, approaches one of the houses and, in the space a split second while someone observing him glances away, is stabbed in the back by an assailant who somehow ran up to him, jammed a knife in his back, and vanished without being seen at any point. Not only are the mechanics very good indeed, the titular curtain is also used to perfect effect. One of those lovely, compact pieces of construction that has more going on that some novels of over ten times the length, but manages to be clear and fair at the same time.
And then, as if to underline how much of a one-trick pony he isn’t (because, y’know, we were all thinking it), the oddly-titled ‘Error at Daybreak’ does another impossible stabbing in the back, throwing in so many little esoteric ideas and suspicions among our five-strong cast that you’re almost spoiled for choice. And even then Carr manages something of a triple-whammy solution that ties in a goodly few aspects without, again, ever needing to become needlessly complex to shade inconsistencies or flaws from you. There’s one sizeable coincidence, but arguably the same effect could be achieved without it, so I’m willing to let that slide.
At this point in proceedings, Colonel March and the whole Department of Queer Complaints framing vanishes, and the remaining three stories have nothing to do with either.
‘The Other Hangman’ reads a bit like a Frontiers of the Old West yarn, with a ne’er-do-well crook in a small town due to be hanged following the murder of one of his associates. It’s not an impossible crime — which is fine, Carr excelled at all sorts of shenanigans — and ends with the kind of flourish that makes it feel like an Erle Stanley Gardner take on these circumstances. And for all its cleverness in this regard, it’s a shame that there’s not an extra little twist that seems to be winking out at you from the situation as presented, but I suppose Carr wasn’t trying to tell that kind of story.
Then we have ‘New Murders for Old’, which shows Carr wearing his Poe influences at their most brazen and consequently struggles to find its feet amidst these veridical swipes at illusion. Overworked millionaire sent on a recuperating 8 month cruise, returns to find an (in fiction, at least) unsurprising turn of events in his absence…so far, so fine. The addition of a ghostly figure stalking our hero is equally fine, as is the implication of the final line, but the difficulty there is one of something between coincidence and convenience on two fronts. Carr has the skill to explain this way in a paragraph and doesn’t, so you’re left feeling weirdly unsatisfied.
Finally, Carr flexes some historical brawn with ‘Persons or Things Unknown’, in which a centuries-old murder is recounted for the delectation of dinner guests. It’s rather slower-paced than the others, but you can see Carr’s frank fascination with the history of the 17th century bleeding through, and this multiple stabbing when there’s no weapon present is nicely-clewed and has a very enjoyable solution. Its one of those ideas that is all the better for being encountered after 13 pages rather than 300, but I really liked it. It’s also suitably creepy in atmosphere and ends on a lovely little note of acknowledged unease that rounds the collection out in fitting style.
So, overall about the mix you’d expect; Carr’s prose renders even the tamest of these stories eminently readable, so that a disappointment here is typically a star or so better if by anyone else. I believe a couple more March stories show up in The Men Who Explained Miracles collection, and of course there’s the curious miscasting that is Boris Karloff as an eyepatched, rake-thin March in the Colonel March of Scotland Yard TV series still to track down, so it’s nice not to be done with the old ragamuffin just yet. This collection is definitely worth a look if you can track it down, but since that’s true of everything Carr wrote I guess I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know…
John Norris @ Pretty Sinister: I read the revised and updated version of this book which includes two stories previously unpublished in book form that were not in the original 1940 book[so John’s version contains stories mine doesn’t]. According to Douglas Greene’s introduction to this updated book Colonel March was modeled after Carr’s good friend and fellow mystery writer Cecil Street, aka “John Rhode” and “Miles Burton.” If so, then Street must have had a great sense of humor in real life. Something that astonishes me because most of his books are rather lacking in a rollicking sense of humor.
D for Doom @ Vintage Pop Fictions: Naturally, given the author’s well-known partiality for such tales, the stories can all be described as either locked-room or impossible crime stories. The premise of the book allowed Carr to indulge himself in some particularly odd and baroque variations on his favoured techniques, stories which might otherwise have been considered just a little too quirky.