#710: “And what would you call the right surroundings for reading a ghost story?” – The Dead Sleep Lightly (1983) by John Dickson Carr [ed. Douglas G. Greene] Part 2 of 2

Two weeks ago I looked at the first four plays in this collection, so let’s get on the with final five.

‘Death Has Four Faces’ (1944)

GORON:
You cannot tell me he offered ten thousand francs to have a bottle of cough medicine carried through the English customs.

‘Death Has Four Faces’ is a slightly reworked version of Carr’s earlier Colonel March short story ‘The Silver Curtain’ (1939). Retaining the key ingredients — young man losing his money at a casino, offered a princely sum for a simple job, arriving at the agreed rendezvous only for someone to get stabbed in the back while standing alone and in clear view outside a house — and the beautifully simple solution. In both versions, Carr identifies the key elements that communicate the essential ingredients well (no mean feat, given how visual the core conceit is) and the slightly askew pacing in the first half of this does well to set up a superbly, arrestingly sudden finale.

I picked the quote above for possibly obvious reasons, but they bear repeating: the puzzle plot is a joy for the unexpected and frankly incongruous details it throws out at you, and I can think of few authors who managed this as well as Carr. And of those who did — Rupert Penny, Arthur Porges, Clayton Rawson, Hake Talbot — none who had his fecundity and ran the gauntlet of possibilities to such a dizzying extent. In a relatively short space here there’s not only the small matter of how the man was killed but also what he was killed for making absolutely no sense, and both are explained away so neatly, and in a manner that makes perfect sense in the narrative, that it staggers the mind somewhat.

Because setup is all well and good, but puzzle plots live and die on their resolutions. Carr wasn’t perfect — the examples in this collection alone make that perfectly clear — but he also rarely gave us complications purely for the sake of complications, a tenet some authors of modern crime fiction (including a few big name titles I read while on break) would do well to abide by. Carr was not the fountainhead of the puzzle plot nor the impossible crime, but you’d study him over anyone else if you wanted to know how to do both properly.

‘Vampire Tower’ (1944)

DR. GRIMAUD:
Here’s a human soul…say “mind” if you like the word better…locked up in its own tower. Secret and apart and impenetrable. Existing only to gloat when it draws the life from fellow creatures. It’s a modern version, the true version, of the old vampire legend.

The recent version of Dracula (2020) on the BBC had — besides two exceptional central performances from Claes Bang and Dolly Wells — almost nothing to offer the vampire myth. Hell, the above four sentences do more to progress the entirety of vampirism than did those 270 minutes of television…and ‘Vampire Tower’ isn’t even about vampirism. That’s all you get with regards the eponymous monsters but, damn, just read the above quote again and pretend it doesn’t make you shiver.

In keeping with the revisiting of previous works, this is an impressively abridged version of one of Carr’s novel masterpieces, Till Death Do Us Part (1944), divested of series sleuth Gideon Fell and any locked room murder, but retaining the opening fairground encounter, the central deception, and the core motivation. Definitely read the novel first, but then marvel at how adroitly Carr keeps the main ingredients simmering here — we would pour plaudits on anyone else who managed to distil the essence of that tale to such a concentration.

Far from only loving his fidelity, however, this shows Carr’s simplicity of tone and clarity of image when conveying his key ideas. It’s not that you need to understand a visual principle here, as with ‘Death Has Four Faces’, but that the allusion of the title seeps through sufficiently for the situation to feel real and the stakes to be worth investing in. I have no proof, but I feel that any modern attempts at this would over-egg the references — a character called Harker, someone described as ‘batty’, etc — under the impression is was being subtle and clever. Carr is, and frequently was, more than happy to be subtle, and to leave the cleverness up to the simplicity of his ideas.

‘The Devil’s Manuscript’ (1944)

JAMES COLSTON:
I have studied fear for twenty years. I have experimented with fear…I have done that for one purpose. To capture on paper those subtle forces that mend the soul or destroy it. The slow, fine toil of getting the words just right.

I think ‘The Devil’s Manuscript’ might be something of a masterpiece, and I would have loved to hear it on the radio before reading it in this collection — I think it loses something in simply being words on a page, and with the correct production and a cast who understand its finer points it would make its way onto any list of ghost stories you’d care to make, up there with the very best of M.R. James. Which is even more impressive when you consider that it isn’t really that sort of story at all.

So the above quote, the speaker of which is himself an author of ghost stories, is rather fitting. The conjuring of atmosphere is somewhat easier when you have more or a palette to work with — descriptive language, say, which an audio drama tends to throw out — but then the palette can become so rich that it starts to get difficult to know where to begin, and which choices will have more of an effect. Did they hear a scream or a caterwaul? Is the ghostly presence glowing or lambent? A writer walks this tightrope with practically everything they put down…and the idea is that you don’t even notice it.

So, to an extent, this harks back to what i was saying in part one of this post — Carr’s use of tone was exquisite, judged to a fine art so that he’d freeze your blood one minute and drag a chuckle from you the next. And let’s not forget that he did this while writing rational detective stories, a genre not exactly renowned for this sort of content by the time Carr got there (yes, yes, I know about Carnacki; I’ll get to him in due course, I promise). Also, if you’ve not read ‘Lost Hearts’ (1895) by M.R. James then, y’know, do. I had a quote from that story stuck on my wall for about ten years, that’s how profoundly it affected me.

‘White Tiger Passage’ (1955)

HENRI DUCHENE:
For I have already told you the clue, my friend. I have already told you the clue.

As great as the preceding play is, ‘White Tiger Passage’ is that bad and worse. Greene insists that this is a comedy and I’ll have to bow to his greater experience, but there aren’t any jokes beyond someone shouting the first lines of what might be a bawdy limerick in a fancy restaurant and the crash of some plates being dropped in response…and Carr was a good enough comedian that he’d have at least one other joke in there somewhere. Maybe, as I posit with ‘The Devil’s Manuscript’ this comes across better when listened to than when read.

Henri Duchene, darling of the Sûreté, is in England to capture a serial killer who has been operating in France, and reporter Bill Stacey wishes to improve his position by getting in on the action. Bill buttonholes Duchene who, as outlined above, claims to test the reporter’s acumen by giving him a clue to the killer’s identity…and then Duchene himself is killed and it’s up the Stacey to solve the case and see the killer brought to justice. Except the clue makes no sense beyond the very basics, applies to about half a million people, and is needlessly misleading in a rather key way. If this is comedy, you can keep it.

I remain fascinated by the question of fair play in detective fiction: is it really possible to give the reader all the information they’d need? It’s up for a surprising amount of debate — just ask Scott K. Ratner — but the times when it obviously falls down, as here, it’s immensely frustrating (which is, in part, what makes me believe it’s possible, because otherwise it would not vex us so readily, hein?). The talent Carr displayed in rambunctiously overturning the expected trappings of any genre he chose to deposit himself in makes me see this as the occasional misfire that such sustained brilliance as he achieved at his peak was bound to produce from time to time, but doubtless someone out there loves it.

‘The Villa of the Damned’ (1955)

SEPTIMUS GOODLAW:
No honest priest, signora, is ever shocked. He knows too much of human nature.

‘The Villa of the Damned’ is another fabulously atmospheric piece, and a surprisingly tightly-plotted one, too, even if the pacing is once again all over the place. The impossible puzzle relies on one of those principles that, while believable in fact, remain somewhat difficult to make convincing in fiction. Paul Halter has tried to use this twice in the works of his that have thus far been translated, and he made about the best fist of it anyone can in one of them…but it remains an at best translucent ploy that won’t fool anyone paying attention for even a moment. Thankfully, it’s a very minor element here, and much remains to be praised.

We’re in the phase of Carr’s career here where he’s already guaranteed greatness and so is playing around with staging and hiding in plain sight things that your human nature will make you overlook: like an honest priest, Carr is aware of the foibles of his flock, and has engineered so many of the events here to play to their nature. I’d have been tempted to make one character here into Henri Bencolin, to give that delightful gentleman a final fling, but that would perhaps tip the hand Carr is playing. It doubtless works best with a cast of unknowns stumbling into the unknown, with only reputation to guide them.

One criticism here, and one that applies to a moderate proportion of Carr’s works, is that he cadges perhaps a little too much in terms of genre trappings, so that certain elements don’t pay off as fully as they might. We’ve seen this elsewhere — the slightly overstuffed melodrama of novels like The Ten Teacups, a.k.a. The Peacock Feather Murders (1937) and Death in Five Boxes (1938) spring to mind — and it could be addressed here by trimming that opening section, but, well, t’was ever thus, eh?

~

So, there you have it. It’s an interesting collection, and fascinating to see Carr apply himself to such a range of styles within a very different medium. If you can find a copy for sensible money — or, hey, if someone wants to reprint it… — then the Carr fans amongst you don’t need telling to jump at the chance, but it’d be difficult to urge you too strongly to pay over the odds for this: it’s entertaining, and invites some curious introspection on Carr’s output, but it’s also far from essential. People like lists, so if I were to order these from best to worst I’d probably say:

1. ‘The Devil’s Manuscript’
2. ‘Vampire Tower’
3. ‘Death Has Four Faces’
4. ‘The Devil’s Saint’
5. ‘The Black Minute’
6. ‘The Villa of the Damned’
7. ‘The Dead Sleep Lightly’
8. ‘The Dragon in the Pool’
9. ‘White Tiger Passage’

But that may change tomorrow, so get your disagreements in now while it’s still fresh…!

12 thoughts on “#710: “And what would you call the right surroundings for reading a ghost story?” – The Dead Sleep Lightly (1983) by John Dickson Carr [ed. Douglas G. Greene] Part 2 of 2

    • Thanks for the link — I’ve not yet listened to any of these, which is mainly why I’ve tried to pick out themes from particular lines. Sure the essential content gives an overall indication of their quality, but the production would no doubt make a big difference, too.

      Maybe I should try and record some, eh? Might be fun…

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  1. You didn’t ask for recommendations but … I’d start WITH DEVIL IN THE SUMMERHOUSE:

    [audio src="https://archive.org/details/SUSPENSE/42-11-03_Devil_in_the_Summer_House.mp3" /]

    And the the BBC production of The Clock Strikes Eight:

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  2. You’ve given me another of the key foundational quotes:

    “Because setup is all well and good, but puzzle plots live and die on their resolutions.”

    It’s so true, but people are so often fooled by a dazzling premise. I have a personal nostalgia for Van Dine’s The Bishop Murder Case, but I consider it the perfect illustration of the problem: what good is a fascinating riddle if it has a solution that fails to live up to it (in this case by having little to do with it)? The problem abounds even for the great puzzle plotters— Carr’s Crooked Hinge fails to work entirely for me because I don’t feel (yes, feel— it’s a matter of subjective sufficiency) that its surprise is balanced by sufficient clueing to satisfy (me). But at least his solution DOES surprise, which is more than I can say for Van Dine, whose solution fails on both counts, bringing to mind what I call “small coffin idiocy”— I can understand why a mortician burdened with a coffin a few inches too small for the corpse might not be able to get either the feet in or the head in once the other is in place, but I see no excuse for not being able to get at least ONE of the two in. Surprise and inevitability work in opposition, each making the other difficult to achieve, and so it is a marvel when a great puzzle plotter— Carr, Christie, Brand, a few others— can pull off both, and kind of hilarious that Van Dine, for all of his first act virtuosity, can’t pull off either.

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    • This, I feel, is why the puzzle plot still hold so many of us in its thrall after close to 100 years — because when a resolution is worthy of the setup, it’s simply magnificent to see. I remember Brad @ Ah Sweet Mystery positing a setup of a body found soaking wet in the middle of a sand bunker on a golf course during a summer day, with no footprints in the sand and other things, and it illustrates the point perfectly: thrown in as many baffling elements as you like, but then the job is to resolve them in a way that feelas natural and inevitable and surprising. No mean feat.

      Love that “small coffin idiocy” idea, too; I shall definitely do some thinking on that premise and get back to you one way or another.

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  3. “…a bawdy limerick in a fancy restaurant and the crash of some plates being dropped in response…
    You just described every post-1950 Dr Fell novel.

    Thanks for the post on this collection. My mind tends to compartmentalize off Carr’s radio plays as something lesser that I’ll get around to eventually, and it’s nice to hear that there is content to actually be enthusiastic about.

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    • Not so much “lesser” and “different”. Carr was too good at this not to appreciate, understand, and utilise the differences between the two mediums — as Sergio says above, these were doubtless made to be listened to rather than read, but the reading of them, and the lack of options he has for getting his intent across (it’s either dialogue or described sound effects, right?) make you appreciate how cleverly he adapted some of his ideas.

      The different versions of ‘The Silver Curtain’/’Death Has Four Faces’ would make a wonderful comparison based on their method of delivery. I lack the insight to do this, but you can read both and come to an understanding of your own to see what I mean.

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