#835: The Island of Coffins and Other Mysteries from the Casebook of Cabin B-13 (2020) by John Dickson Carr [ed. Tony Medawar and Douglas G. Greene] – Series 1, Episodes 1-6

It is perhaps unsurprising, given the impact of John Dickson Carr’s radio play ‘Cabin B-13’ (1945) from the series Suspense, that a series of mystery and suspense plays should take that title when Carr returned to radio work. Unrelated to that original beyond apparently using the same ship — the Maurevania — as a framing device, the two series of Cabin B-13 (1948-49) nevertheless comprised half-hour problem-of-the-week plays in the same vein, related by ship’s surgeon Dr. John Fabian from his eponymous quarters

The plays were believed largely lost beyond a few recordings online, until the 23 scripts turned up in the early 1990s — and, despite the huge popularity of Carr as a proponent of Golden Age detective fiction, they have only recently achieved publication thanks to the continued sterling work of Crippen & Landru. Collected here by Tony Medawar and Carr’s biographer Douglas G. Greene are the plays and, after each one, an often fascinating page of “Notes for the Curious” filling out the context of each one and some of the idea or characters seen within them. Rather than tackle all 23 plays at once, I’ll divide them over the four Tuesdays in September in order to drop slightly more digestible chunks of prose onto your, er, eye-plates.

The excellent introduction by Medawar does a superb job of putting these plays in context — and has previously spoken about their provenance and background on an episode of In GAD We Trust — so I’ll not repeat any of that information here, and shall simply go through the first six plays of the first series. Ready? Then let’s away…

First, ‘A Razor in Fleet Street’ (1948) in which — after an atmospheric introduction by Dr. Fabian (“I am reminded how the tides and storms of a thousand voyages have wrought nothing more strange, more sinister than man’s desire for adventure in the strange ports and lands we touch…”) — we meet American Bill Leslie and his English wife Brenda. Bill’s excitement at being in London for the first time (“It’s put a spell on my imagination ever since I was a boy…”) is tempered by Inspector Radford arriving to tell him that he’s the spitting image of wanted murderer Flash Morgan and must stay in his hotel room for the week they’re in town to preclude Morgan being able to steal Bill’s identity (the Standard newspaper having improbably published his photo and remarked upon the likeness — and we think the Press of today are irresponsible!).

Bill, of course, does not consent, and heads out to beard Morgan in the lair Radford so kindly provided the address of, a barber shop on Fleet Street (just down the road, as is pointed out in the Notes for the Curious, from Sweeney Todd). Cue a so-Cockerney-it-hurts barber, a dead body that no-one could have killed, and suspicion falling about Bill’s ears with the sort of cacophonous tintinnabulation that will hopefully live with him for a number of years. Like the best impossible crimes, this hinges on a simple oversight, though it is perhaps the sort of thing that has passed out of experience these days. It’s a neat idea, and Fabian’s narratorial interruptions (“A dead street, hushed and shadowy, with St. Paul’s like a grey cloud far ahead…”) wring every last ominous drop out of the scenery.

When Bruce Ransom, “the greatest romantic film star in the first decade of talking pictures” dismisses his social secretary while travelling through Europe, she opts — instead of the more traditional employment tribunal — to invoke the name of Satan in bringing a curse upon him. Thus he becomes ‘The Man Who Couldn’t Be Photographed’ (1948) and upon visiting various photographic establishments to get some headshots done finds that something demonic in the resulting photos terrifies those who develop them, resulting in the photos being destroyed before Ransom can see them for himself.

There’s something rather genius in this — it repurposes an idea I’ve encountered in a couple of different places, the provenance of which I’ve never been sure about — and the only shame is that you, the reader, must sort of trust that the idea is correct. There are all manner of unlikelihoods, such as a certain character possessing a certain object, just casually carrying it around with them like they’d expected to require it at some point that afternoon, but in the rush to get through the mystery you’ll probably sweep those aside (or you would have if I hadn’t pointed them out to you in advance). So while this may lack impact in terms of you simply having to trust that the core principle is true, it’s very much the sort of thing that only Carr could get away with and, as such, highly recommended.

After a superbly Carrian opening in which Stephen West urges a policeman in his train carriage to arrest him just as they pull into Birchespool station, ‘Death Has Four Faces’ (1948) piles in plenty of potential — Steve’s avoidance of his comely actress fiancée, the wartime experience that left him psychologically crippled (surely one of the most purely horrific things Carr has ever devised) — and then seems to run out of time to do much with it. Some great touches enrich this, like the receptionist at a hotel dscouraging Steve from staying the night because they’re having trouble finding staff to prepare the rooms, but it builds to a delightfully convoluted pitch and then…ends.

As a piece of suspense theatre it was probably a magnificent listen — the descriptions of sound effects in the script make it clear that Carr had very particular parallels in mind, and they’d doubtless come across very well — but as a piece of prose it lacks, and the conclusion would be disappointing in any medium. It also has nothing to do with the radio play of the same title collected in The Dead Sleep Lightly (1983) and broadcast as part of Carr’s earlier series Appointment with Fear…which, since that was a reworking of the classic short story ‘The Silver Curtain’ (1939), only adds another layer of complication to Carr’s bibliography.

Fabian himself plays a small role in ‘The Blind-Folded Knife Thrower’ (1948) — interrupting Madeline Lane who, about to disembark the Maurevania in Lisbon, is helping herself to unspecified drugs from his storeroom. Claiming she wants them for her mother, whom she is joining ashore, Madeline’s explanations are interrupted by her father and she leaves in a rush. Fabian covers up the real reason for their talk, telling the elder Lane only that they had been speaking of Madeline’s mother…an admission met with much surprise by Mr. Lane, since Madeline’s mother has been dead for the last ten years.

Clearly madness is to play a part in this, and the eventual direction is subtly communicated, well-misdirected, and neatly explained. Again, the impression of Carr being a master of the medium comes across in the use of repetitive sound effects relating to the eponymous knife-thrower, building a sense of grim oppression and a deepening lunacy that it will be difficult to escape. All told, this is another superb effort, though be aware that Carr would recycle the clever method for his impossibility here in the Sir Henry Merrivale novel Night at the Mocking Widow (1950) — so if, like me, you’ve not yet read that, you may want to skip this until you have.

The vanishing of Vicky Fraser, who “disappeared like a soap-bubble under the eyes of witnesses” is the focus of ‘No Useless Coffin’ (1948) — doubly mysterious because she also disappeared several years ago from a “cottage with all the doors and windows locked” and miraculously reappeared in the same circumstances three nights later. When Fabian uses some shore leave on Gibraltar to meet up with a newly-betrothed young couple who are acquaintances of Vicky’s, the four of them head to the cottage from whence she vanished…and she vanishes again.

It this sounds familiar, it’s because this is an early version of Carr’s short story ‘The House in Goblin Wood’ (1947) that some people will tell you is the greatest impossible crime short story ever written (it’s included in The Third Bullet [ss] (1954) if you wish to judge for yourself). Clearly Carr is still feeling his way with the concept because, while the method is replicated, only half of what is probably the key clue gets presented here (and it would have been a doozy for radio — such a shame!). The motive, too, is different in this case, leaning into the situation in the 1944 setting that was no longer the case at the time of broadcast…but, in all honesty, the trick is such a popular one (though it’s always seemed impractical to me…) that I’m sure it caused a sensation when first broadcast. The prose version, however, is the surperior.

Finally for now, ‘The Nine Black Reasons’ (1948) starts with Frank Bentley discovering a dead body in a sauna (don’t worry, the weapon used isn’t an icicle…) and then adds the second string of Helen Parker’s uncle being shot by a stranger while asking for directions in his hotel. How can these events be linked? The answer makes a surprising amount of sense, if you’re willing to overlook the coincidence of Frank and Helen having travelled together on the Maurevania a couple of years previously (their meeting reminded me of the coincidental encounter that kicks off The Unicorn Murders (1935)), and the way everything unfolds demonstrates Carr’s sheer genius of construction.

The semi-comical, semi-horrible juge d’instruction Monsieur Bo is described late on as a “French Mephistopheles” which will, of course, bring images of Henri Bencolin to the mind of any Carr acolyte, but I don’t think for a second that this was a deliberate attempt on Carr’s part to get Bencolin out of retirement — it’s too glib a passing reference, and the case is solved by Frank’s moment of inspiration while the Frenchman comically swats at flies which are not there like a sober Nick Noble. Interesting to see Carr trying — and carrying off — something a little different here, with this reading like one of Robert L. Fish’s Kek Huuygen stories (1964-73) told from the wrong perspective.

These six plays represent a promising start for this series, with only ‘Death Has Four Faces’ falling short in my estimation. It would have been wonderful to hear these as intended, but the recently-realised enjoyment I get from reading radio scripts is, perhaps, the next best thing. Let’s hope that the standard is maintained as I work through the rest of these.

~

See also

Aidan @ Mysteries Ahoy!: Perhaps the most baffling of the stories though is the second, The Man Who Couldn’t Be Photographed. In this story a conceited actor throws over his girlfriend causing her to curse him that he will never be able to be photographed again before committing suicide. Several days later he visits a number of photographers in Paris, each of whom tells him that his photographs have not developed and refuse to allow him to visit again. This one is very clever, if perhaps requiring a specialized knowledge that few will have, but I thought it was done very well.

~

The Island of Coffins (2020) by John Dickson Carr [ed. Tony Medawar and Douglas G. Greene]:

Series 1

Episodes 1-6
Episodes 7-11

Series 2

Appendix

18 thoughts on “#835: The Island of Coffins and Other Mysteries from the Casebook of Cabin B-13 (2020) by John Dickson Carr [ed. Tony Medawar and Douglas G. Greene] – Series 1, Episodes 1-6

  1. I was excited to see this crop up on my feed (and thank you for the quote and link). I had been curious what you would make of these and particularly your thoughts on how some of these relate to the wider Carr library. It always strikes me as fascinating that authors were able to redevelop and reuse ideas so often in the Golden Age – no doubt a reflection of less market crossover back then.
    I was surprised at how engaging I found reading the scripts to be. I did listen to a couple of the surviving recordings and found that they pretty much matched what I expected them to sound like – a testament to Carr’s careful specifications of some elements of sound design.
    Really looking forward to reading your thoughts on the others!

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    • I get the impression that Carr had a very good eye for what could be reused and improved, and what ideas were perfect just the way they are. Much the same way as reading a book of Bill Hicks’ material shows him refining the focus and purpose of each joke, each turn of phrase, seeing another use of the same idea — refined, reframed, redeployed savagely or more kindly — is a wonderful way to watch Carr’s ideas come together.

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      • When I realized that some of these ideas are repeated elsewhere I wondered if I should set the volume aside until I had read all the big hitters but I ultimately decided not to. As you point out many ideas get refined or reused in different contexts so there are some I may not spot, even if I come across them again. I do look forward to considering why those changes were made when I get to them.

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        • I know that you mean; I’ve read Carr up to this point in his career, so some of the ideas in these series are new in his ouevre rather than repurposed from earlier, and I’m happy to experience them chronologically. Doubtless the books have a lot of other things going on as well, and if they don’t…well, at least I’ll be able to admire (or despise…) his prose on the way to a conclusion I already know.

          Some people will want to read about them in the novels first, and I can totally understand that — horses for courses — but seeing them refined (he obviously reused them for a reason, right?) will be an interesting experiment.

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  2. Thanks for highlighting this one and I am glad it is off to a good start for you.

    I encourage anyone interested in what arguably could be last “new” Carr stories ever published to read this. Yes – I know these are not really new Carr works, but this is about as close as it comes for one of the most celebrated of all GAD authors.

    So Crippen & Landru do a great job once again, but their books go out of print quickly and then escalate in price significantly for used copies. Get it while you can

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    • Yeah, do you know why numbers reprinted are so low? It seems that someone like Carr would sell in relative droves, but C&L keep a relatively tight cap on numbers and so things become unavailable (in physical form, at least) quite quickly.

      Is this predetermined by contracts — as in, whatever estate only allows 200 copies, say — or is it more likely to be a small press only willing to financially risk a relatively small number of physically printed books? I’m not criticising their approach, I’m genuinely interested.

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  3. Thanks for the review, JJ. I have this volume on my metaphorical—or rather, non-physical—TBR pile in my Kindle. I’m not sure I’d enjoy short stories, much less screenplays, but I don’t have much that is left of the Carr corpus to read and enjoy… 😭

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    • I think one gets the most out of them if comfortable reading dialogue-based stories (hardly a surprise, that), and I know that format isn’t to everyone’s taste. In my case, I’m delighted to discover, via various reprints, that reading plays is something I really enjoy, because I would have suspected otherwise before getting the chance to read so many of them.

      I hope you’re able to enjoy these, because the likes of ‘The Man Who Couldn’t Be Photographed’ are legitimate delights.

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    • Ah, superb! Thanks so much for the link — anything by Medawar and/or Kierans on Carr is well worth the time to read, so it’s great that this is so easily available.

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  4. This collection is superb! Showing Carr at the top of his game, experimenting with the possibilities of a different medium, which he understandably returned to once his health began to decline. The only drawback of these radio-plays is the familiarity of the plots and tricks, but its adds some depth and perspective to his bibliography knowing where they originated. Now I know why The Dead Man’s Knock struck me as his last hurrah as a locked room specialist.

    I look forward to your discussion of the remaining stories. 🙂

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    • but its adds some depth and perspective to his bibliography knowing where they originated

      Exactly — and it’s fascinating to see Carr play with the different presentations of the problems, and the limitations and benefits of each medium. The reworking of ‘The House in Goblin Wood’ in the second half of this series is particularly interesting in that regard.

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  5. Marvellous review Jim. The plays are such great fun. Couple of points – first, the original CABIN B-13 play made its debut on SUSPENSE in the US, and was then heard again later on its UK version, APPOINTMENT WITH FEAR. And secondly, worth linking to the broadcast version of the first play:

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  6. I groaned when I saw you were reviewing this because I was pretty sure that you hadn’t read Night at the Mocking Widow yet. I recall some previous review describing the general puzzle for the one story and figuring it was a similar solution. It’s unfortunate that the stories aren’t tagged with the warnings up front, but I suppose that would ruin some of the fun for someone who has read the novel-length versions, as they’d go into the short stories with expectations.

    That reminds me: there is a story in the collection The Door to Doom where in the first few page or so you can tell that it’s going to end up being the same puzzle as The Wrong Problem. I’ve put off reading it for that reason, but I remember the set up being historical and I’m curious if it will actually end up being the better of the two stories.

    I still have yet to read any of Carr’s radio plays, although (as another poster pointed out) I need to stock the pantry because these might not be available for long. I suspect I’ll leave the plays for last, under the assumption that it would be better to encounter a particular plot/puzzle/solution in full prose form. A fair assumption? I mean, I get that the trappings can be completely different, so it seems like there could be a script that actually better positions some story elements.

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    • I wil get to the Night at the Mocking Widow in due course, and I’m sure I would have loved it had the disclosure not been known to me…but I’ll also be interested to see how maintained the apparent impossibility can be over the length of a novel.

      It works perfectly here because the information is provided and utilised in neat, perfect style with virtually no time to consider what’s going on before the answer is presented. And while, as I’ve said elsewhere, Carr doubtless reused certain tricks because he found a way to improve upon them (and possibly because even he must have run short on ideas at times…), it seems a harder misdirection to sustain over 230 pages. But he’s also fooled me more, possibly for longer, with less, so let’s see when I get there.

      I’m very much lookig forward to The Door for Doom. All I need to do now is track down those C&L script collections (13 to the Gallows and, er, the other one whose title eludes me) for the full set of radio reprints. Nice to have something to work towards…

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