It’s fair to say that no-one has done more for the curation of John Dickson Carr’s work than Douglas G. Greene: collecting various obscure short pieces in the likes of The Door to Doom and Other Detections (1980), Merrivale, March, and Murder (1991), and Fell and Foul Play (1991), writing the staggeringly comprehensive (and recently reprinted) biography The Man Who Explained Miracles (1995), and enabling, through Crippen & Landru, publication of two — soon to be three — collections of Carr’s radio scripts edited by Tony Medawar.
With Hallowe’en, er, four weeks away, it seemed the perfect opportunity to delve into Greene’s other Carrian collection, the nine eerie radio plays that comprise The Dead Sleep Lightly (1983) and were written for the likes of Suspense and Appointment with Fear for both British and American radio in the heyday of the 1940s and 1950s. However, given the intention of the radio play to foment unease in its audience in an entirely different way to a novel — not least of these being the dulcet delivery of the framing narratives contrasting with the knife chords that literally underscore a the duhn-duhn-duuuuuuhn!! moments — I thought a straight discussion of their contents might not work quite so well. That, plus the need to abstain from explicit spoilers on account of the rarity of this collection, had resulted in me mapping out a slightly different path.
Radio plays are necessarily rather dialogue heavy, see, so in each case I’ve picked out a line of dialogue, or a brief exchange, and am going to use that to explore the themes of each play and, possibly, the wider themes at work in Carr’s work and indeed Golden Age detective fiction. That’s the plan, anyway, but I’m writing this before I’ve written what’s due to follow so let’s see how that intention is borne out…
‘The Black Minute’ (1940)
This is quite a triumph for you, Dr. Fell.
No. Believe me; I don’t want triumphs like this.
The role of the detective in any work of straight detective fiction is to be correct — to solve the problem, find the killer, identify the fraud, banish the demon. Casting aside for a moment the like of Anthony Berkeley’s Roger Sheringham (hence the insistence on ‘straight’ detection above) even “one of us will shown to be a fool” comparison pieces like The Murder on the Links (1923) by Agatha Christie require that the solution to reached, that a detective triumphs, and that all doubts are cast aside. This precise purpose is what gave rise to and perpetrated the popularity of the Golden Age: drawing order from the chaos of a post-WW1 society, finding sense amidst the social upheaval of the depression of the 1930s…it was a golden era on the page only.
‘The Black Minute’ sees psychic — and so, let’s be clear, charlatan — Mr. Riven have his throat slit while conducting a seance in a locked room during which the three other people present were sat in darkness and forming a closed circle by holding each others’ hands. The blatant fakery of the spiritualist has been rich fodder for the impossible crime for decades now, and Fell’s success at unveiling another manipulator should be redolent with an element of the same self-satisfaction that sees Hercule Poirot or Nero Wolfe gather everyone together and work slowly through the suspects and events for the reader’s benefit. But Fell is so weary here, and it’s wonderful.
Fell has something of a track record now of allowing killers to go free, and while telling the murderer here that “you deserve to be hanged”, the human cost of the revelation of Riven’s killer really falls on him in this moment. Yes, he can fulfil his purpose, but the mark in his favour for doing so would, in his mind, be outdone by the damage created elsewhere. The longanimity to take the hit to his ego as far as the outside world is concerned is one of the things I love most about Fell, and it shines out here in all its glory.
‘The Devil’s Saint’ (1943)
I have always kept Ileana carefully guarded from the world.
Almost too carefully guarded, don’t you think?
That, young man, depends on my reasons.
There are certain tropes I’d happily have retired from Golden Age detective fiction at the start of the 1930s, and the Young Couple Finding Love Amidst the Bodies is one of them. A handful of romances do enhance their narratives, but the certainty with which you can pair up The Young Man and The Young Woman in most GAD stories is depressingly operose in a genre that revels in surprise.
So Lord Edward Whiteford’s objection to the Hungarian Count Kohary hiding away his beautiful niece Ileana when Whiteford wishes to marry her is in many ways less an obstruction to their happiness than a trifle to be tolerated for 40 minutes before everything works out fine. And yet — possibly enhanced by Greene’s note that Kohary was played by the wonderful Peter Lorre when this was broadcast — there is in this exchange something which, for me, cuts deeper to the heart of the antagonist in most stories of frustrated idealism. In a genre built so firmly on the rational dismissal of superstition and fear through evidence, the unreasoning refusal to hear of an alternative point of view is a sure-fire way to get your audience’s back up.
Kohary has his reasons, and refuses to share them — a declaration made even more vexing by the fact that we are able to guess precisely what those reasons are: vanity, the desire to control, the refusal to allow someone their freedom or their happiness simply because it has been denied to him for whatever reasons. This false production of mystification once again flies in the face of what the genre was set up to establish: any unsupportive acts or actions are supposed to be baffling to the audience, too, and such manifest selfishness under the guise of moral or ethical rectitude is a wonderful shorthand for creating an antagonist. Magnificently handled.
‘The Dragon in the Pool’ (1944)
You’re not obliged to say anything, Mary. Do you understand that?
This is the fifth spoken line in this play, so don’t think I’m spoiling anything. Mary Prentice has gathered her stepbrother Tony, her fiancee Philip, and Chief Inspector Fielding of Scotland Yard in the, er, swimming pool of the country pile she and Tony inhabit to explain how her father, businessman Andrew Prentice, was killed several months before. For the well-read Carr enthusiast, Greene tells us up front that Carr “borrowed his own method from an earlier short story of making a weapon disappear” [sic] — and the framing will leave you in no doubt which method that is — and I’m not entirely sure this use of it is quite as good as the original, but that’s by the by.
What I like about this line, especially coming so early on, is how Mary is clearly relating something that Philip clearly thinks it’s better to withhold. Much like Alfred Hitchcock’s “anticipation of a bang”, this seeds a fine tension through the core of the telling that adds superbly to the experience. And, when you get to the end, you realise that it doesn’t need this to make the story or the actions therein any more meaningful, so Carr added this aspect purely for the semi-HIBK framing it supplies. The writing of purely speech-based puzzles must provide ample opportunities to delve into the voyeuristic psychology of listening, in the same way that comics and movies are designed along visual lines, and this is one particular instance that really drew that into focus for me.
The tension it sets up — Philip’s subtle suggestion in place of a more attention-grabbing inveighing, hectoring tone, plus Mary’s obvious desire to tell the forthcoming story in spite of this — is a harbinger of an element of criminal psychology that sometimes gets overlooked in the genre’s quest for logic and rigour: namely, and I wouldn’t call this a spoiler as such, that a crime being committed is often treated as a means to an end. So much GAD literature (and I’m not complaining!) sees the crime simply as a way for the criminal to be brilliant so that the detective can be even more brilliant. To be reminded of that is, I feel, rather important.
‘The Dead Sleep Lightly’ (1943)
When you was solving that Vickerly case, you came home cold sober and stood for twenty minutes trying to open the front door with a corkscrew.
Hoskins is Gideon Fell’s manservant, though I’ll confess to having no memory of him from Carr’s novels, and it will surprise no-one that it is to Dr. Fell that he is speaking at this moment. I love this for two reasons, the first being the hint of a larger corpus of cases than those we’ve seen Fell solve — as Arthur Conan Doyle had John Watson imply repeatedly through his records, which Carr, of course, went some way to filling out in the Holmes stories he wrote with Adrian Conan Doyle in the 1950s.
The second reason is that this brings home for me how no-one — no-one, ever — juggled tones as brilliantly as Carr. This is, against the broad slapstick that would at times intrude upon Carr’s later works, a moment of pure comedic subtlety, coming fairly early on in what would in almost any other hands be a pure ghost story: a publisher haunted by messages from a dead ex-lover received over a disconnected telephone. Everything else in this tale is primed for pure atmosphere and sensation, with nary a quirk or humorous aside to be found, and yet this is dropped in without missing a beat or striking a false note. It helps, too, that it’s so perfectly in character for Fell, and demonstrates how at times even your genius detective will have to cudgel his brains to get them working.
I’ve always — well, not always, but since I bothered to start thinking about it — thought that the purpose of such asides was to undercut any potential pomposity in his great detectives without sacrificing their status. The aforementioned Roger Sheringham was a whipping horse for Berkeley’s peculiarly sharp mind that wouldn’t allow the implied perfection of the Great Detective of fiction; Carr, for one, was prepared to put reality aside for characters to still be human while also being magnificent. And the subtle touches like this — my favourite is still Fell carrying a tray bearing a cup of tea in He Who Whispers (1946) — show how to both eat and have cake, when desired.
That’s nearly 2,000 words, and I don’t imagine you’ve missed me enough to want to plough through another 2,000 words right this minute so we’ll break here and come back to the remaining five plays in a fortnight. Why not next week? Because next week sees the return of my In GAD We Trust podcast — woo?!