#391: Fatal Descent, a.k.a. Drop to His Death (1939) by John Rhode and Carter Dickson

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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:

“Anything interesting?”

“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.”

“Wah!”

“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.

~

See also

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.

~

For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to Inspector French and the Cheyne Mystery from last week because all three authors involved were contemporaneous members of The Detection Club.  No, it’s not very exciting; clues often aren’t.

And on my Just the Facts Golden Age Bingo card, this fulfils the category Book published under more than one title.

50 thoughts on “#391: Fatal Descent, a.k.a. Drop to His Death (1939) by John Rhode and Carter Dickson

  1. I agree, I think Rhode created the mechanics and Carr provided the writing style … I agree with Martin Edwards that it depended upon so much mechanical cleverness that I never would have been able to figure it out. I’ve tried to enjoy this book a couple of times and never managed to resist just skipping to the end because it was just so … impenetrable. Not even Carr could pump life into that problem.
    I think the irony is that the watch came from his employees and apparently one of them just tried to kill him. But I could be wrong.
    What other books do you need a loan of?

    • See, I loved it right up until the ending, where it really does becomes waaaaay too technical and dull. The eventual solution would, in fact, make a great first, false solution, with either of the other possibilities making a satisfying resolution with that having been a worryingly pedantic beginning. As it is, everything works out the wrong way round for my liking…

      As for other books…well, where to start?! In terms of Carr, I only need about 8 or so more, and most of them are late ones. I’m hoping — given that I’m going to do a semi-selective chronological sweep of his books from the late 1930s on — that I’ll have found them when I need them…!

  2. I’m another who has had a copy off the book (the Dover edition too as it happens) on the shelf for an absolute age and still have never read it.

    • I’m glad I got some Rhode under my belt before I did, so you’re in a pretty good position having read Invisible Weapons. I’d say someone is more likely to appreciate it the more Carr and Rhode they’ve read — like, I’m sure chapters 17 and 18 are only there because this was the period of Carr’s career wherein all his books had to have 20 chapters, which is how I justify everything grinding to a halt for 22 pages…

      • Yes, having read Invisible Weapons and Death in the Tunnel, and I imagine I’ll have had a look at Mystery at Olympia too before I get to this, I feel I’ve at least some idea what to expect from a Rhode plot.

  3. I believe Rhode served primarily as a technical adviser here and devised the locked room trick, but Carr, ever the gentleman, insisted Rhode got top billing on the front cover.

    Fatal Descent is an interesting collaboration, but I had two problems with the plot: one of them is that the false solution (probably Carr’s) is better than the actual solution and Dr. Glass blatantly lied about what he saw, or didn’t, when he watched the elevator descend into the elevator shaft. Otherwise, this was an amusing, if imperfect, locked room mystery and remember the nymphomaniac joke actually made me laugh. I wish they had tried their hands at a second collaboration in which their detectives crossed paths.

    • SPOILERS BELOW!! ARGH!! THIS COMMENT SLIGHTLY SPOILS AN ELEMENT OF THE SOLUTION




      Yeah, this is why I think the actual solution would make such a great false one — it requires (AND HERE ARE SOME MINOR SPOILERS!!!) something to be atop the elevator, but Glass is then able to refute that by the assurance that he saw nothing, which then becomes ‘canon’ and part of the established facts of the solution…and allows for one of the others to take its place.

      Ah, well, t’was ever thus…

  4. Thanks for the review, and I’m sorry that this doesn’t sound like it belongs to the top drawer – all the more so given I’ve a copy bobbing its way towards me. 😦

    • 80% of it is great, remember! Chapters 1-16 are wonderfully constructed, it only comes down in my estimations towards the end. But, hey, you may disagree; will be interested in your thoughts once your copy floats into port 🙂

  5. Interesting review – it would be interesting to find out what their writing setup was for this to figure out exactly who was responsible for what. I guess that would erode the point of the collaboration though.

    • Anyone working with Carr is always going to make the joins obvious — his style was so bold and sly, virtually no-one could keep pace with him. The Sherlock Holmes stories he wrote with Adrian Conan Doyle in the 50s really show this; even when they’re not good, Carr’s elbows are in there painting a scene or enlivening a character. Once Doyle was on his own, there can be little doubt it was just a money-printing exercise, because almost all the joy goes out of them (and some of the solutions are…just…I mean, wow, he really needed Carr helping out when that was the best he could do on his own…).

      • I certainly could imagine you would see the differences in prose. I find Street/Rhode an entertaining writer but his style is far dryer than Carr’s.

        And thanks for the mini review of those Holmes collabs. I didn’t plan on getting to them any time soon but it’s good to know that I won’t be missing out by waiting. There is certainly enough great solo Carr to explore to keep me going for years!

      • I suspect that Adrian Conan Doyle had little to do with the actual mechanics of writing; his participation may have been limited to approval on behalf of the estate. As I understand it, Adrian liked to exact a heavy price for the privilege of even mentioning the Great Detective. Possibly the writing credit was the only way JDC could get the book published; Ellery Queen’s Sherlockian Misadventures had to be withdrawn from the market in 1944, as I recall. (Someday I'll persuade someone to read Boucher's Rocket to the Morgue, a roman a clef about Adrian, among others.)

        • There are stories just written by Doyle, though (‘Foulkes Rath’, ‘Abbas Ruby’, ‘Two Women’, etc)…or are you impugning that someone else wrote them and he just put his name on them? I’d be surprised, too, if Carr were solely responsible for thise co-authored ones; they’d’ve been much better overall had it just been his pen in the inkwell.

          • My Swedish edition of Doyle’s and Carr’s “Memoirs” has a run-through of who wrote what in the introduction. When I get home I’ll try to remember to check how the stories where written and by whom. I do remember that around half of the stories were written by Doyle alone.

            • They were originally published in two volumes, I believe, so I don’t think there’s any secret about which ones Carr was involved with. Possibly I’m misremembering, but I seem to recall a post I put up on this very blog about my perfect memory and so therefore I’m definitely not wrong about this or anything ever.

            • Okay, I managed to find my Swedish edition, and also remembered that Doug Greene in his biography of Carr did the same kind of assignment of the stories. It seems the first two stories (“7 Watches” and “Gold Hunter”) were true collaborations. The following two (“Wax Gamblers” and “Highgate”) are mainly Carr’s. The next two (“Black Baronet” and “Sealed Room”) were plotted by Carr, but the writing is mainly Doyle’s. And the final six stories are Doyle’s alone – by then Carr had been taken ill and could not participate anymore in the collaboration.

            • Yeah, “taken ill”. Uh-huh, we hear ya, John.

              ‘High Miracle’ is a gorgeous little story, mind. One of the best non-original recipe Holmes pastiches that can easily stand toe-to-toe with Doyle Snr’s strongest works.

            • Pleased to hear that who wrote what is known … I was only speculating in the dark due to my understanding of Adrian’s stranglehold on the Sherlock Holmes name and my experience with the actual volume is many years old. Frankly there doesn’t seem to be much reason why JDC would agree to collaborate with an inexperienced writer but again, that’s entirely speculative.

            • Not real reason, I agree, except that Carr was evidently a massive fan of Doyle and Holmes and so was probably delighted to get involved in some semi-official Holmes fanboying. Though (equally speculatively) perhaps he wearied of the experience, since I’m sure they could have done more at some point…it’s not like Carr disappeared from the scene after these were published, or anything.

            • I actually think ”Sealed Room” is better than ”Highgate”…

              And yes, Carr was indeed very ill. He was in fact close to dying from an abscess in his posterior – he’d suffered from a fistula for quite a long time, and at around that time it developed into an abscess. This was generally a very bad time for JDC – his illness also made him drink to excess.

              This explains in some way why his stories from this period are all flawed, or worse. The best tale is ”9 Wrong Answers”, and even that has its problems. The other stories are the final two HM novels, and the quite bland short story, ”The Black Cabinet”.

            • Regarding what I call the “fake Ellery Queen” books (the non-whodunit paperback originals that started with Dead Man’s Tale)… according to Dannay/Lee biographer Francis M. Nevins, in the 1960s it was definitely not public knowledge that these were not simon-pure Queen novels. He quotes several excerpts from reviews by Anthony Boucher (who apparently was in on the secret) where he doesn’t come out and say “these are not real Queen books” but he hints at it.

    • Also, would knowing who wrote which bits really erode the point of it in the first place? I call attention, m’lud, to the fun had in The Floating Admiral seeing everyone take turns at unpicking everyone else’s works, dismissing their clues, and then having all that undone several chapters later. That books was exhausting, but knowing where the lines were drawn made it a riot.

        • I’m not saying I’m right, just offering up an alternative perspective (I promise!). I suppose as a “proper” novel it’s better not to know who did what, but sometimes it can be fun — TFA doesn’t really work as a counter-example because no-one really “collaborated” on that, they all just did their bit and moved on. But if two people said “You do the odd chapters, I do the even ones, and we’re working towards this happening at the end…” I think it might be fun to pick apart the different styles and intents as each voice rolled around. This genre, in particular, really lends itself to that sort of process.

          • I think you do make a fair point though. I guess the ideal for the collaboration is that, if it’s meant to be a single work to make it look seamless but it can definitely be fun to see those conflicts of approach and style.

            I am just intrigued by how it was managed. Most collaborations have a senior and a junior partner but clearly both were established and popular authors. It is somewhat amazing that their friendship survived the experiment!

            If I were a book publisher looking to pull it off I would aim to have one writer pen from one perspective and the other from another and then have them review each other’s work to make sure it hangs together.

            • For me, Dannay and Lee were always seamless as Ellery Queen. I *think* I can detect when Hugh Wheeler is in charge in the Patrick Quentin novels, but I could be way off. The other collaboration that I’ve always found seamless is Emma Lathen … never a variation in tone.

            • That is a great point – they so clearly created one voice as a partnership that I would have no idea what traits to look for as individuals.

            • Equally, how much did they actually write as individuals? Sure, perhaps the odd introduction to something or whatever, but how much Frederic Dannay fiction is there to hold up side-by-side with Manny Lee fiction? I’m guessing…none?

              For all we know, Lee wrote the early-period dull ones and Dannay the later, better ones — and that would mark quite a difference in their writing styles. It’s unlikely, sure, but without any data on individual writing I dont see how the detection of joins can even be discussed 🙂

            • It’s a good question. I will say from my somewhat frustrating experience of trying to read them in order than my satisfaction alternated between titles which does make me wonder whether a different cousin took the lead each time but without the data it would be hard to even begin to pick it apart.

              I am sure there is a Dannay and Lee scholar out there somewhere though who has seen original manuscripts or papers that may reveal those secrets…

            • Is it, though possible to detect similarities and differences when Avram Davidson or Theodore Sturgeon were part of the EQ writing team? Because one could then retroactively figure out what was missing in, say, Sturgeon’s writing and therefore (we assume) attribute those aspects to Dannay…

              I’m only semi-serious here, but curious nonetheless.

            • Well, the inner workings of the EQ partnership has been revealed, has it not? Dannay was the plotter, and Lee then took his outlines and rewrote them into functioning novels. We even have a draft of the final EQ novel in the form of Dannay’s outline for “The Tragedy of Errors” so we can compare his contribution to the final outcomes in other novels. (There’s the odd anomaly – the short story “Dauphin’s Doll” is by Manny Lee alone.)

              On the subject of the “ghost writers” (Davidson, Sturgeon et al.), we know that they were brought in because Lee suffered from writer’s block, so in effect they took his place in the partnership – Dannay still plotting everything and the outside writer then making a novel out of his outline (and Dannay and Lee then editing everything into something they were comfortable with). Which is why I don’t really like the term “ghost writer” in this case. First, it’s fairly public knowledge that the partnership was different for these novels, and also Dannay and Lee were still heavily involved in the creation of the novels.

              As for the Patrick Quentin partnership, it does seem fairly obvious that Wheeler became more and more dominant and was the man responsible for steering the novels towards the more psychological thriller genre. Especially since the final bunch of novels, which were written by Wheeler alone, are in that vein.

            • Out of interest, what was the disclosure about the “Ellery Queen” novels that neither Dannay nor Lee wrote (er, A Room to Die In is the only one I can recall at present…)? Were people told at the time “Hey, this ain’t by Ellery Queen, but read it anyway because they endorse it”, or was it just “Hey, a new Ellery Queen book! Woop! You should buy it and definitely not worry about authorship questions!”?

            • I don’t actually know if it was common knowledge that those novels were farmed out. To be honest, I’d prefer if they hadn’t been published as “by Ellery Queen”. I’d have preferred something in the vein of “Ellery Queen presents” instead.

              One sign of the farmed-out novels is that they didn’t feature Ellery Queen or any of his relatives, but as “Cop Out” was actually written by Dannay/Lee that was obviously not a foolproof way to tell. (There’s also “The Glass Village”, but I think that was published well before the farming-out began, but that would also have muddied the waters further.)

              I’ve never had any interest in any of these stories, except for “The Blue Movie Murders”, because it was written by Ed Hoch, and therefore I don’t really have any insight. There’s supposedly one or two that are actually fairly good mysteries.

            • TomCat is complimentary about the impossible trick in A Room to Die In, while admitting that the book around it ain’t that good. That alone make me interested in reading it (indeed, I have a copy somewhere…), but that doesn’t mean I exclude the rest. I don’t know anything about them, so there could be something there to catch my eye. Time will tell.

              I’m with you in preferring an “Ellery Queen Presents” framing, or something akin to the Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators framing. For several decades “Ellery Queen” on a cover as an author meant something that these books did not deliver, so I feel it would have been perhaps fairer to make the distinction. Mind you, I feel the same about all the “Robert Ludlum” books that came out after his death — man, that guy was prolific!

  6. This is an intriguing entry in Carr’s catalogue isn’t it? I can imagine that a lot of people have read a significant portion of his classic era work, yet still have this one bobbing below the radar. It was a bit of a beast for me to obtain at a reasonable price.

    My favorite memory of the book is the solution presented midway. To me, the solution struck me as pure Carr, although I think you comment that you thought it was Rhode. Regardless, it was hilariously brilliant in a mad sort of way. If they had just stopped the book then, as a sort of short novella, I would have said “damn, that’s brilliant!”

    I’m somewhat reversed from you in my overall feelings on the book. I’d say it was good enough throughout, but not five star. In terms of Carr, I’d give this a 3 or 3.5. In that sense, I felt the end was appropriate for the rest of the read. Yeah, it’s a bit complex in a way, but I wouldn’t say I was bored during the resolution. Not a top tier solution, but worthy of a novel-length read.

    • Oh, no, that midway solution is pure Carr; my point is that I saw Rhode’s hand in the structuring, as Carr was very much one to keep his solutions close to his chest (hell, sometimes you’re in the epilogue before Carr tells you how something was done!).

      I was loving it all the way through, as I say, and that end section just…ugh, it’s the pits. I wonder if this is why in part Rhode faded from memory a bit where GAD novels are concerned — a sizeable proportion of his plots ending with the reader going “Uh, yeah, sure, I guess that could happen…?” rather than the “Oh, hot damn, yeah!” of a more proletarian scheme that has quietly and cleverly misled you. Just a thought.

  7. Trying again…When I hit the “Post Comment” button the entire window disappeared on my screen. Arrgh!

    No one seems to have taken you up on your challenge about the gold watch. So here I go. It’s the date, I think. It’s very close to the day that Hitler marched his troops into Austria which led to the Anschluss (March 12, 938). That would be an event that tinges the congratulatory tone of the inscription with a “tragic irony.” Maybe either Carr or Rhode misremembered the actual date.

    I read FATAL DESCENT more than a decade ago. like you I enjoyed the bulk of the book and disliked the overly complicated ending that relies on the ingenuity of mechanics to explain everything. Still I haven’t a clue how it all worked. This reminds me of Rhode’s Peril at Cranbury Hall with its plot obsessed with ingenious death traps the workings of which completely eluded me. I prefer the human element in the resolution of the crimes in a mystery novel. Mechanical ingenuity can be fascinating but it’s so cold and intellectual. A real turn off.

    • Huh, that’s a very interesting possibility. I wonder if that’s what they were going for. It’s entirely possible, as such a large event would definitely be in the public consciousness at the time. Good speculating, John!

      I found mechanical shenanigans fascinating when I first started reading impossible crimes, in part because the workings of such things were new and compelling to me. I’m with you in gorwing rather weary of them, though, which is perhaps why this failes to work for me — when you’re left relying on a trust in the athor’s assertion that circuitry and scientific principles will have the described, desired result…yeah, it’s clever, but it’s not anything as close to satisfying as something more prosaic amd comprehensible.

  8. I liked the technical aspect, but then I like Street and Connington and Freeman and Crofts. I feel quite confident that had Street wanted to kill someone in an elevator by undetectable means he could have done it. Science and mechanics is undervalued in mystery these days.

    There’s also some similarity to Rhode in The Man Who Could Not Shudder and The Reader Is Warned, though these books of course are told with more flair than a Rhode. Rhode fashioned rather a humdrum ghost in Men Die at Cyrpus Lodge.

    As i recollect the Adrian Conan Doyle stories in the collection with Carr are paint by numbers pastiches, drawing on heavily on specific stories by his father. A true waste of paper and ink. The Carr ones are pretty good though.

    For more on what I call the Street-Carr Connection, a blog post of mine from six years ago:

    http://thepassingtramp.blogspot.com/2012/06/street-carr-connection-john-street-and.html

    • Oh, yeah; Street and Crofts are the two GAD authors I’m convinced were just an unhappy childhood experience away from becoming among the most accomplished murderers of their time. Thankfully mechanics and potential won out in their psychology rather than practical applications and we have their fiendish schemes laid bare for our entertainement, rather than a slew of corpses and a gloating letter to the police to remember them by. Well, assuming you can find the books, that is…

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