#318: The Sinister Six – Murder Begins at Home in ‘Behind the Screen’ (1930)

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Slightly belatedly, here are my thoughts on the companion piece to ‘The Scoop’ (1931), another portmanteau mystery written for radio by some of the luminaries of the Golden Age.  This time around, Hugh Walpole sets the problem of a dead body found in your typical Stage 3 suburban household, and Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley, E.C. Bentley, and Ronald Knox contribute to its unpicking.

It’s a slightly different animal to ‘The Scoop’ in that here each of the six authors must work in the same setting with the same small cast, rather than veering off into their own specialism as was afforded to them in that later work.  In this regard, it bears a striking similarity to the full novel The Floating Admiral (1931) for which this was so obviously the apprentice work; this is a far smaller and tighter piece of plotting, however, and one that deserves a separate consideration on account of its successes as much as its flaws.

It starts simply, and like the best Golden Age stories there seems to be little to add to that initial framing: Wilfred Hope calls in on the family of the young woman he wishes to marry, and as they sit in the drawing room listening to Mrs. Ellis read from a novel he becomes aware of the presence of a dead body laying behind a lacquer screen in the corner of the room.  Blood from the corpse runs out from under the screen, alerting the others to its existence, and the police are called.  For reasons not worth going into here, one of the members of the household must be responsible for the murder — if murder it is — and so begins a GAD novel in miniature.

There are, of course, embellishments.  A strange figure was seen lurking around the house just before the discovery of the body, a wet floor comes into play, and medical evidence would suggest that no-one was capable of inflicting the wound at the time it must have been inflicted.  If nothing else, this has proven to me that I have absolutely zero chance of ever conceiving a legitimate piece of fictional detection, because I looked at the setup at the end of the second chapter and thought “Well, bloody hell, I’ve got no idea where they’re going to go with this…”.  The leaps and bounds made are actually pretty reasonable, and each author should be commended for not suddenly veering off into entirely unrelated territory to work their own ideas or resolve someone else’s plot threads — I don’t know exactly how much collaboration there was, but the focus on taking a small situation and keeping it small is delightful and highly instructive.

And yet, it’s not without some fairly pronounced problems.

Firstly, despite an afterword in my edition in which Hugh Walpole talks about the insistence on playing fair so that this could be solved by listeners by the end of the fifth of six chapters, Knox’s finale is still throwing information at you that you had no chance in hell of ever knowing.  Even the penultimate line reveals a piece of information — related to the layout of the house — which would have made a serious difference in your understanding of what was achieved and how; now, fine, it’s a radio mystery and so providing a floorplan is out of the question, but equally I think even in the era it was written this aspect of the solution would not have been obvious to everyone tuning in.

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“Before listening to tonight’s broadcast, please draw the following picture…”

Also, E.C. Bentley’s chapter is a weird speed bump on the way to the solution that holds things up to tell us essentially one piece of information, and could easily have been adopted into Berkeley’s far more entertaining preceding chapter or even — giving the potential for a couple of last-minute reversals — Knox’s terminating one.  To have what has been a pretty seamlessly-passed and propulsive narrative suddenly begin to shilly-shally 15 pages from the end makes it suddenly feel like a chore, but I guess they had to fill six weeks in the schedule and it’s not like Bentley was busy doing anything else at this time.

Anyhoo.  The eventual solution contains a superb piece of layering, revealing a complexity to events that did not seem possible from such a prosaic start — if finding a man bleeding to death can qualify as ‘prosaic’ in any version of the universe.  True, it boils down to little more that your typical GAD parable of  “Don’t be a bastard otherwise people will be out to get you”, but since that’s an approach that lends itself to a multitude of possibilities I do not seek to find any real problem there.  A certain — hmm, how to put this? — incompleteness that is actually shaping up to be pretty satisfying seems to be on the cards, too, and in more modern times this would be seen as daringly provocative and ingenious in how it overturns the conventions.  Those damn last two lines screw it all up, but that’s not an altogether bad thing; my biggest problem is how unprepared you are for what they spring on you.

Still, one good thing to come from this for me is a newfound appreciation, having never really cared for the woman’s work, of how exquisitely precise Dorothy L. Sayers’ use of language is.  Handing the same baton from one to the next is managed with a minimum of fuss and jarring transitions, but Sayer’s chapter is just that tiny bit more refined that those of her contemporaries.  She captures mood, motivation, malice, and mundanity with a certain pungency, giving us in speech and the clashing of emotional responses a finely-tuned lesson in  bringing this whole enterprise closer to a more human level.  This doesn’t mean I’ll be able to stand the bombastic nature of her novels any more easily, but it’s nice to finally get a glimpse of what others admire so much in her.

~

the_scoop_and_behind_the_screen_first_edition_cover_1983To sum up, these are a couple of very entertaining exercises in the challenge of wrangling a classic detection plot at the time that the genre as a whole was about to really take off.  To see an arch-deconstructionist like Berkeley working in such conventional ways is wonderful, and ‘The Scoop’ might also help cure some of you of that aversion to Freeman Wills Crofts that prickles at the back of your skull.  Not everything done in collaboration by the Detection Club alumni of this era was a runaway success — The Floating Admiral is entertaining, but becomes a slog as it wears on and things discarded are resurrected only to be discarded and resurrected again, and Six Against the Yard (1936) feels like an exercise in nit-picking rather than actual fun — but these two short serials are definitely among the higher end of what was produced in this vein.  Which, of course, makes it inevitable that they’re out of print and therefore a mite tricky to track down.

Well, good hunting.  Those willing to put in the time will find their efforts rewarded.

21 thoughts on “#318: The Sinister Six – Murder Begins at Home in ‘Behind the Screen’ (1930)

  1. I’m a big fan of radio radio drama (as opposed to spoken books, which don’t do it for me at all) – love the sound of these, thanks JJ. Presumably the original broadcasts are long gone but great that these exist – ta!

  2. It has been ages since I’ve read this one, can’t remember the solution. Really need to re-read these collaborative efforts, as I also have Ask a Policeman and Crime on the Coast/No Flowers by Request – though I don’t remember this latter pairing being as good.

    • I have a menory of TomCat not especially rating CotC/NFbR, which is a shame as JDC was involved and so I was hoping it’d be at least passable. Well, you can’t win ’em all!

      • Crime On the Coast begins very promising with two chapters penned by Carr, but the writers who came after him ran the story into the ground by turning it into an unoriginal, two-bit thriller. However, the premise was also used by Carr in one of his radio-plays, “Will You Make a Bet With Death,” which came with his own ending. So you can listen to that radio-play instead or simply read the book with expectations dialed back to zero.

  3. Just like Kate, I can’t recall this one very well and your comments about the last two lines mean that I’ll have to go check if my battered copy is still about somewhere (and still readable – the pages remained hanging onto the spine rather by habit than any more secure basis of attachment). Also, glad you enjoyed – or at least, appreciated – the Dorothy Sayers section, even if you’re unlikely ever to fall for the novels.

    • Well, maybe enjoying Sayers is like building up a tolerance to poison: a little bit, then a little bit more, not rushed, just absorbed over time. Perhaps a steady drip-drip of her shorter works will bring me round. Pretty sure she’s gpt a short story in the Miraculous Mysteries collection, so I might start there next…

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