Yes, this was supposed to be The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935) by Ellery Queen in preparation for the forthcoming spoiler-filled look at Halfway House (1936). Yes, you all warned me that book was awful, and you were correct. Let’s instead board a cruise ship stuffed with munitions at the outset of the Second World War and watch the eight — or is it nine? — passengers slowly get to know each other until one of them is found murdered in their cabin, the corpse peppered with fingerprints which do not match those of anyone on board. Aaah, I feel better already — man, I love the work of John Dickson Carr; the idea of having never discovered it makes me feel a little unwell.
Anyway, first a sort of…thing. Not a confession as such, more some context. See, I was aware that Carr had written an ‘impossible fingerprints’ book, though I didn’t know which one it was, and I have carried a secret fear with me ever since learning of it: namely, that the solution would bear a striking resemblance to an episode of Jonathan Creek in which…well, in which there’s similarly an ‘impossible fingerprints’ problem. And, while it wouldn’t be an exact fit, a part of me upon encountering the impossibility herein spent about 150 pages trying to make the Creek-y answer fit this setup — huge amounts of fun, incidentally, especially as they couldn’t be more different. I recommend thinking you know the vague shape of an impossibility and turning out to be wrong; the mind turns all manner of corkscrews, and finds clues in the most unusual places…
Boats have been pretty good to Carr; anyone who isn’t impressed by the trick in The Blind Barber (1934) isn’t paying attention, but we can all agree that radio play Cabin B-13 is a little piece of genius. Here he cranks maximum atmosphere out of the deserted staterooms and empty corridors, the passengers essentially “ghosts wandering about in an over-decorated haunted house”, the surroundings leant the eerie resplendence of the Overlook Hotel vibe long before anyone had heard of the Overlook Hotel:
From the lounge, Max wandered into the Long Gallery that opened out of it. The Long Gallery was all deep carpets, deep plush chairs, book-cases, and small bronze figures holding lights. There was nobody here either.
Max Matthews — injured in a fire, now free from hospital following a long recuperation, walking with a cane — is, these details aside, very much ensconced in the habiliments of the typical Carr hero: a bit green, rather keen to jump to a conclusion, and the other character don’t exactly compel themselves to the memory: I kept getting George Hooper and Dr. Reginald Archer mixed up, and Valerie Chatford, the ostensible heroine, seems to be there to act mysterious and pretend like there isn’t going to be a love story. Interestingly, the crew are the ones who stand out, but of course they also the marine equivalent of servants and really just there to fill in the background. Which is not to say that Carr falls down in capturing them — one has a mind “like a railway yard, full of bewildering points and switches”, and the Hon. Jerome Kenworthy wearing “a dinner jacket without any dinner to pad it out” is divine — but the focus is so tightly on atmosphere and bafflement that I feel a little short-changed in a way that I didn’t with, say, The Reader is Warned (1939).
But, see, the puzzle is a doozy. The matter of the fingerprints is very smart, if a bit difficult to get too excited about, but the who and the why must be about the best in the panoply of criminals offered in Carr’s career. I spotted one clue without even realising it was a clue — I’m wise to the way Carr drops things, even if I don’t know why they’ve been dropped — and, while this probably isn’t strictly fair (it would need a floorplan nowadays) it’s also very entertaining to have the revelations of H.M. initially interrupted by a bunch of crew essentially going “Ooo-er, remember when that thing happened? And to think that I didn’t realise how relevant it was!” because of just how much has been secreted in the prose and how many chances you’ve been given to pick up on key details.
My feeling on this is that it’s right at the peak of second-tier Carr: unmarred by too many filigree’d touches, untroubled by disconnected ideas, and with a watertight and brilliant scheme at the core — as well as possibly the most perfect ‘reverse clue’ in the genre, one I’ll be rhapsodising about with anyone else who’s read this when conversation gets around to it — but also oddly unmemorable in anything striking about the population or their actions. This is the era of Carr to dive into if you’ve not read him before, and as a companion piece to And So to Murder (1940) it’s even more highly recommended. Each balances the other while being small, gorgeously formed, and winning through in a way that compensates for the faults in its partner. And since the years to come would bring The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941), The Emperor’s Snuffbox (1942), She Died a Lady (1943), Till Death Do Us Part (1944), He Wouldn’t Kill Patience (1944), and He Who Whispers (1946) I think we can officially say that Carr has hit his stride!
Sergio @ Tipping My Fedora: The atmosphere of the liner travelling in a blackout, fearing attack from within and without, is wonderfully eerie and Carr’s construction is pretty much flawless. Chapter 11 is especially notable for how he turns the clock back 45 minutes to show us two sides of an event that lead to pandemonium and the dramatic disappearance overboard of one of the suspects during a submarine attack. The impossible crime element is always a an extra joy in Carr’s work, and here is beautifully dovetailed into the plot. But it is his dexterity at dealing with clues and suspects that is so awe-inspiring.
Dan @ The Reader is Warned: I confess to not always being that bothered who the killer is when I am reading a Carr, particularly if I am resting in the joys of the impossible elements, but in this instance it was a genuinely shocking and surprising reveal. The whole denouement builds in fast pace, and the ending explanations are very rich. It’s an ending that doesn’t just explain or justify the events of the book, but enriches everything you have read, making the whys and hows all the more clever and all the more harrowing.
Ben @ The Green Capsule: Of all of the revelations, perhaps my favorite is the reason for even having an impossibility – a theme that Carr returns to time and again in his books. It’s easy as a fan of the genre to get so fascinated by the “how” of the impossibility, that we sometimes don’t question why the impossibility needed to exist in the first place. Why murder someone in a locked room? Why leave a body surrounded by untouched snow. And in the case of Nine — and Death Makes Ten, why is there a set of unmatchable fingerprints? In pretty much every case where Carr addresses these questions, it’s that answer that is the savoriest part of the whole puzzle.