In the style of Sesame Street, today’s review is brought to you by In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel‘s Puzzle Doctor, who kindly leant me this book following years of me failing to find an affordable copy. And, boy, what an exciting prospect it is: no mere “one chapter each” in the style of ‘Behind the Screen’ (1930), ‘The Scoop’ (1931), or The Floating Admiral (1932), this is a proper collaboration between two of the Golden Age’s titans: Carter Dickson, a.k.a. John Dickson Carr, and John Rhode, a.k.a. Miles Burton — two gentlemen who individually devised a greater library of brilliant means of criminal dispatch than almost any other pair you’d care to name.
And so, naturally, they’ve cooked up something a little special here: literature magnate Sir Ernest Tallant — he of Tallant’s Books, publishers of “moral” books “free from profanity and irregularities of behaviour on the part of the characters” — shot in his private elevator having been manifestly alive passing the fourth floor but irreparably dead once he got to the ground. And, of course, there’s no sign of the gun, no-one else in the lift or lift shaft, and the necessity of completed circuits and other such detective fiction folderol means it’s “physically, electrically impossible” for anyone to get into the lift shaft in the first place. Cue police surgeon (and, it seems, sometime psychologist) Dr. Horatio Glass and Detective David Hornbeam, whose raillery belies a longer working relationship than actually exists — plenty of their cases are referred to in true Holmesian style, but this is their only written adventure — and who must dig to the bottom of this conundrum.
I’m not aware of any consensus on precisely how this collaboration worked, but I’m willing to bet — though it may transpire otherwise — that this is very much a Carter Dickson (feat. John Rhode) joint. The overwhelming majority has Carr’s blithe lightness of touch in setup and execution, from the building wherein most of the action occurs:
By day its windows glitter, better washed than any other windows; by night its forehead glows with a great neon sign reading TALLANT PUBLICATIONS, LTD. Day or night, it shimmers white in hot weather and freezes white in cold; you can almost hear it instructing Backward Britain.
…to the problematic side of Glass’ sometimes scattershot deductive method:
The problem with a purely detached scientific attitude … is that people do not understand it. If you call a man a murderer or a woman a thief, they may sit coldly silent or they may display a regrettable wish to smite you in the eye; but they seldom fail to see something personal in it.
In fact, there’s an argument that Hornbeam and Glass’ contrasting approaches mirror those of Rhode and Carr: Hornbeam “more interested in events than people” has the “extraordinarily cautious and methodical habits” of Rhode, and Glass has Carr’s love of character and speculation around a problem, sixteen solutions to any psychological moment a speciality. We get a good primer in both here, with a building full of suspicious types for Carr (“Our Angela” an especially trenchant piece of writing) and the workings of the elevator (including some laborious measuring of distances and times) for Rhode to pander over.
The difficulty comes in trying to resolve these two schools. These were not men known for otiosity in their detective fiction, and so after a wonderfully canny solution at the halfway stage — I saw here Rhode’s hand in giving us the “how” in the first half and the “who” in the second — there is still much to be cleared up. Carr is up for the job, and spins another brilliant set of circumstances for us…but Rhode’s grinding nature seems to call him back to earth, and what is until the end of the 16th chapter a joyously spry and fun detective romp grinds inexorably to a halt. Chapters 17 and 18 are pure tedium — and could be reduced to two sentences: “I suspect I know who the killer is” and “So-and-so is the killer!” — before the final couple of chapters spell out all manner of technical shenanigans far too dull for the ending of such a heretofore entertaining book. Up to chapter 17, it might even have been a 5-star read, as what was coming to trump what had already been was clearly going to be bloody amazing, but, well, no. It isn’t.
In conclusion, perhaps this shows why collaborations never quite became The Thing in detective fiction; Carr and Rhode were by all accounts good friends and doubtless had a great time writing this, but each probably came away a little perturbed at not being able to get it all their own way in the final analysis. More attempts at the same may have honed the eventual outcome to a sharper blade, but this one ends up rather worn down to the nub.
I still hope to track down a copy of my very own, though…
As a complete aside to the above review, and sparked by my immense delight in contemporary detail from this type of novel, I was wondering if anyone could shed any light on the following. This exchange between Glass and Hornbeam occurs about 25% into the book, as they go through the dead man’s pockets:
“Hard to say. The usual lot. Gold pen and pencil. Key ring with eleven keys. Platinum watch and chain, the watch inscribed ‘To Our Beloved Leader, on the Occasion of His Silver Jubilee, from His Grateful Staff, March 10, 1938’. At least, I think that’s what it says. The watch was in his left-hand waistcoat pocket, and it’s pretty well soaked with blood.”
“Eh? What is it?”
“Man,” said Glass, lifting his fists, “what’s the matter with you? Haven’t you got any eye for tragic irony?”
“Oh, that? Yes, I saw that. But I thought you were on to something. Well, as I was saying…”
My question is: what? It’s never referred to again, nothing is made of it, so what’s the tragic irony? Something to do with the watch being in the left-hand pocket? Or am I missing something altogether more prosaic? Answers on a postcard, please; actually, no, put them in the comments below. Much more sensible.
Ben @ The Green Capsule: I’m tempted to say that this is the degree to which Fatal Descent separates itself from the typical Carr novel – in the technical intricacies detailed by Rhode. I’m not sure if that’s really true though; I may just be swayed by other opinions that I’ve read. Over the course of several interviews, Dr Glass comes to learn the mechanisms behind the building’s elevator and how they rule out various avenues for attack – why the elevator doors couldn’t be opened in transit, why no one could have fired from on top of the elevator, the certainty that the victim was alone in the car. I’m tempted to say this is typical for Carr’s better impossibilities – the set up of a puzzle that at first seems to have several potential solutions, each of which are casually eroded by testimony of witnesses and authorities. Perhaps it’s the focus on the mechanics of the elevator that cause other reviewers to suggest that this swerves towards Rhode territory.
Martin Edwards: As you might expect from these two authors, it is a classic “impossible crime” situation, and I thought that the solution was highly ingenious, although it depended upon so much mechanical cleverness that there was no chance that I would ever have guessed how it was done. Once you knew how, you knew who, and I was not convinced that the authors played entirely fair with regard to the question of motive, giving no real details of what drove the killer before the final explanation.