#838: 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 7-11

Another tranche of seeming impossibilities from John Dickson Carr’s radio series Cabin B-13, tales of murder and bafflement told by Dr. John Fabian, ship’s surgeon aboard the Maurevania.

This week we’ll look at the second half of the first series, wherein quite a few ideas are tried out for radio that would be utilised elsewhere. Since Carr had a habit of improving on his ideas when he reused them, I’m not so desperately concerned that I’ve had revealed to me some of the mechanics of books I’m yet to read. However, some of you may prefer to read the novels first, so I’ve made sure to reveal the titles that are spoiled (for want of a better word) — without, obviously, giving any details away: it would be weird to warn you of spoilage only to go on and spoil it myself, eh?

Anyhoo, let’s go…

The Man Who Must Choose Between Two Equally Tempting Women always strikes me as an especially Carrian motif, though without good reason: it crops up in The Bride of Newgate (1950) but that’s about it as far as I can remember. Well, it’s also the basis of ‘The Count of Monte Carlo’ (1948), as Barton ‘Bart’ Stevens, “young and with money to burn”, carries on a dalliance with a woman he christens “Dolores” despite being betrothed to Janet Derwent, with Dolores herself being similarly engaged to the wealthy Jean Ravelle. When Dolores dies and Janet claims responsibility, Ravelle accuses Bart and we’re in a holy hell of a mess.

The principle at play here is one of those John Rhodian scientific endeavours — Fabian even gives us chapter and verse on his sources, if we wish to look it up ourselves — that will always be disappointing because the listener is never going to know how likely it is before being so heavy-handedly assured that it is possible. Continuing the motif of spoiling books in Carr’s oeuvre that I’ve not read (and he’d not written) yet, this is apparently reused in the Gideon Fell novel In Spite of Thunder (1960), though I doubt the extra wordage would allow for it to be any better prepared. As a result this is…fine. Well, no, it’s disappointing. Maybe if the trick had been worked more than once it’d set things up better. Instead it’s sudden and unsatisfying.

‘Below Suspicion’ (1948) has nothing to do with Below Suspicion (1949), being instead an early version of the short story ‘King Arthur’s Chair’ (1957). Another movie star — this time the voluptuous beauty Valerie Blake — marries, at the peak of her popularity, a possibly over-protective man and moves to an isolated island in Italy to live out her days in obscurity. In time, and for reasons that will become clear, she summons two old friends to her aid, but they are unable to free her from her now dissatisfying marriage before murder intrudes.

We end up with a dead body alone on a large rock, strangled, and no footprints in the sand except the victim’s, and apart from one very canny clue that seems nicely designed for radio there’s not much to go on here except the explanation we get given and have to accept (perhaps these things were more familiar in the 1940s). What’s disappointing here is that the motive makes no sense, the killer’s actions make no sense, and the killer’s late and sudden confession makes no sense — you can have any one of them, but more than that starts introducing contradictions that the music swells and covers before you have a chance to start raising objections.

“Last night I travelled back three hundred years in time. I saw things through a dead man’s eyes” — so begins the unbelievable story of Ruth Gale in ‘The Power of Darkness’ (1948) (though the idea of the ruins of ancient Rome being “silent…deserted even of tourists” seems far more unlikely to me). Visiting Bianca da Carpi’s villa in Rome, where Nicolo Orsini, the Duke of Urbania was “hacked to death by his own servants”, Ruth and her fiancé Alan Stannard find themselves taken back in time to the time of that murder: the houses outside the villa disappear, and a dying man can be seen crawling along the ground towards them…

This is the original form of ‘The Villa of the Damned’ (1955), collected in The Dead Sleep Lightly (1983), and again it’s the later version that is the superior in my mind. Not that there’s anything wrong with this per se, but when revised this was slightly tighter, slightly more atmospheric, and slightly easier to see how people could get swept up in such a grand-scale deception. As ever, maybe the telling improved merely reading it, but something about this feels off. Also amusing here is the habit Carr seems to have gotten into of Fabian promising a particular title the following week only for that not to be the title of the play that is broadcast. Here he promises ‘Nobody’s Hand’ and and a footnote assures use that “Carr never used the title ‘Nobody’s Hand’ in Cabin B-13 or elsewhere” — about the fourth or so instance of this in the collection.

The French author Paul Halter is, on account of his fondness for writing impossible crimes, said to the the modern heir to Carr’s mantle, and ‘The Footprint in the Sky’ (1948) night just be the most Halterian thing Carr ever put to paper: gongs said to presage death and destruction, talk of sleepwalking, a casual mention of a gymnastics trophy, a woman who “wants to know why she hasn’t been hanged for murder”…all the ingredients, stirred and spicily flavoured. When Marcia Tate loses her memory and can only remember the murder of her beau — the only footprints in the snow to and from the scene being made by her moccasins, which are too small for anyone else to wear — it falls to Fabian to try to figure out what might have happened.

This will sound broadly familiar to anyone who has read The Department of Queer Complaints [ss] (1940) since the central ploy is the same as the identically-titled story therein, also published under the title ‘Clue in the Snow’ (1940), and had previously been used for Carr’s radio show Appointment with Fear in an episode entitled ‘The Gong Cried Murder’ (1944). The trick is probably a little hoary now, but I liked it at first encounter and retain a huge fondness for it still — sure, the numinous element of the gong probably falls flatter now than it ever did, but on the whole this is a good tale, well told, with a superb ending.

Series 1 of Cabin B-13 ended with ‘The Man with the Iron Chest’ (1948) — not ‘The Eyes of the Blind’ as promised at the end of the previous episode. It is this empty chest “lined with lead, two feet long and nearly as deep” that jewel thief John Gornov carries with him on his assignments, much to the bafflement of the international police. When tracked to his hiding place in Athens, Gronov manages to make the chest and his latest spoils disappear under the eyes of the police: a rigorous search tearing apart the office, furniture, and even a bust of Socrates, finding nothing despite a witness seeing them there only a few moments before.

There are two strands developed here, and both have superb motives behind their realisation, with the empty chest not serving the purpose I had imagined for it and instead being put to an interesting use that has a quite excellent punchline. In true style, this story was used as the setup for a future novel I’ve not yet read — Behind the Crimson Blind (1952) — but the nature of the trick, while pleasing and managing to elude me, isn’t exactly so complex or devastating that I’m worried that book has nothing to offer me now. Indeed, knowing how this element works will make for interesting reading there, I hope.

All told, these five plays contain an interesting mixture of ideas that will be familiar to the Carr aficionado. It raises the interesting possibility of seeing the workings of particular tricks refined, rewritten, tinkered with, and repurposed to better (or perhaps worse…) ends in later incarnations, and that’s always going to be of interest with someone like Carr for whom no actual new material is going to be forthcoming. We take what we can get, and thankfully what we’ve got here is more than worthy of our time and attention.

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See also

TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: “The Power of Darkness” is indelibly “one of his most audacious impossibilities” with two people traveling “back three hundred years in time” and witnessed “a whole suburb disappear” to reveal a scene from centuries ago. Dr. Fabian keeps telling everyone he’s “not a detective,” but he certainly had a guiding hand in revealing the sordid truth beneath this time shattering miracle. Some of you probably know how fond I’m of these rare kind of time-tampering impossibilities and enjoyed this one as much as the other version Carr wrote. The episode was originally intended to be titled “Last Night in Ghost-Land.” A much better title and a pity it was never used for another story. 

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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

Episodes 1-6
Episodes 7-12

25 thoughts on “#838: 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 7-11

  1. Well, that’s three novels spoiled for you so far by my count. Behind the Crimson Blind is actually the best of the three. It starts off pretty strong (although different from other Carr novels), but be warned that it contains some severely questionable passages in the second half.

    It is good to know that I should hold off on reading this until I’ve read some of the short stories, although I’ll still buy it now since I know it’s going to become impossible to find in a year or two.

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    • While ordering this I stumbled upon an upcoming Anthony Berkeley book that hasn’t been republished in 95 years. Tony Medwar wrote the introduction it seems. Out in October. I can’t recall if Tony mentioned this in the recent interview.

      Liked by 1 person

    • So I bought this the first day it came out and reviewed it quickly based on a read of a half dozen plays. Then I read one that evidently uses a trick for a later Carter Dickson novel, and I stopped. Now I am going to proceed extra cautiously because, as you or someone else mentioned, Ben, I would rather come upon the trick first in a longer work than in a play and then just enjoy the variations when I come upon the trick again.

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    • See, I’m enjoying these enough that I don’t mind having the books that followed them spoiled. If anything, I’m more interested in seeing how the plots are filled out, and what about these extant tricks Carr wanted to rework or reframe. Part of me recoils in horror at the idea of knowing the workings of tricks ahead of time, but Carr was always about more than just the impossibilities, and it’ll be fun to compare the essential elements that he drew on, knowing how they fit inside the larger mosaic of a novel.

      At least, I hope it will… 😄

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  2. Excellent. Definitely one for my bookshelf. Radio plays are so niche, it takes a name like Carr to make their publication feasible. Not counting the misguided effort of Ken Greenwald’s The Lost Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1993), only Ellery Queen’s The Adventure of the Murdered Moths and Other Radio Mysteries (2005) comes to mind. I also have a copy of Charteris’s The Saint’s Choice of Radio Thrillers (1946), but generally cull these plays from old magazines and contemporary books on radio play production or else resort to unpublished scripts.

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    • There’s Anthony Boucher and Denis Green’s The Casebook of Gregory Hood and Carr’s The Dead Sleep Lightly with some additional radio-plays published in The Door to Doom, but, after that, it’s slim pickings. Collected radio-plays fill only a small space on the niche shelf of the niche corner, while there’s plenty of material out there to cobble some worthwhile collections together. It’s actually kind of surprising nobody has yet put together a collection with manuscripts from The (New) Adventures of Nero Wolfe considering Wolfe and Goodwin still have a dedicated fandom of their own.

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      • Thank you. I left out Carr’s plays, as they were discussed here; but I wasn’t aware of the publication of scripts for Gregory Hood episodes. I’d like to see the publication of a collection of Lucille Fletcher’s Suspense plays (“The Night Man,” “The Hitch Hiker” and of course “Sorry, Wrong Number” have appeared in print in/since the 1940s). Not that I mind listening and transcribing what I hear and using that as a foundation for a reading (an essay on Carlton E. Morse’s serial I Love a Mystery based on my listening experience appeared in an anthology in 2021). If BearManor can publish a poorly edited fragment of an obscure “soap opera” (Lady of the Press, 2015), there should be justification for publishing radio mysteries. That said, even Morse did not manage to revive his series when he published Stuff the Lady’s Hatbox (1988).

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        • I’d like to see the publication of a collection of Lucille Fletcher’s Suspense plays (“The Night Man,” “The Hitch Hiker” and of course “Sorry, Wrong Number” have appeared in print in/since the 1940s).

          Don’t forget “The Thing in the Window.” A fantastic play with a plot that could have been plucked from the pages of Carr’s The Department of Queer Complaints. You could easily put a classic collection together with a dozen of the best episodes from Suspense.

          Liked by 1 person

    • Even then, I think these only got published by C&L because of Carr’s popularity in the genre they cover — I couldn’t see a mainstream publisher taking this sort of thing on, more’s the pity.

      And, of course, these are so enjoyable that the difficulty in tracking down the other Carr radio collections — 13 to the Gallows and Speak of the Devil — is all the more keenly felt…!

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  3. . . . the difficulty in tracking down the other Carr radio collections — 13 to the Gallows and Speak of the Devil — is all the more keenly felt…!” I don’t get the problem: both those books have been sitting comfortably on my shelf for years. If you ever make your way out here, you can curl up and read them both.

    I second TomCat regarding the Nero Wolfe scripts. Having heard, I believe, every available episode they would be right up a true mystery lover’s alley. The Casebook of Gregory Hood and The Adventure of the Murdered Moths collections are also both wonderful. Harry above alluded to a “misguided effort” of Sherlock Holmes scripts. I haven’t seen that one, but Purview Press gathered twelve “lost” episodes from the 1944-45 season when Basil Rathbone played Holmes. The good news is that they’re quite fun and were all written by Denis Green in collaboration with Leslie “The Saint” Charteris. The “bad” news is that, as mysteries, they can’t compare to the scripts written by Green and Boucher. A great many of these can fortunately be heard, but I would love to see some of the best in print.

    A more complicated but no less rewarding offer would be the wonderful year of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar when the show was broadcast in fifteen minute segments nightly. That meant one full adventure a week, and they were sensational! I’ve often wished I could mount a reading of YTJD episodes with a company of players, just like mom used to hear each week on the radio! Fortunately, these are all available for your listening pleasure.

    And finally, attention must be paid to Broadway Is My Beat, which is a truly poetic detective noirseries about Inspector Danny Clover who covers “the gaudiest, the most violent, the lonesomest mile in the world.” You can listen to this entire series, too, and yet it is so literary in the way people speak and in Clover’s observations (and weekly emotional breakdown) that I imagine it would look scrumptious on the page.

    Yes, it’s probably true: if there are 2,357 of us around the world who passionately read classic mysteries, only about 38 crave radio scripts. Thank God Crippen & Landru caters to this miniscule niche. The downside is that they seem to only print 38 copies, so it always becomes a mad dash.

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  4. There are, of course, additional Carr radio scripts in the FELL AND FOUL PLAY and the MERRIVALE, MARCH AND MURDER anthologies Greene edited for IPL. The Sam Spade series, with Howard Duff, is great fun and very droll. Of the police procedurals I think THE LINEUP is really well done, much better than DRAGNET!

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  5. Plays are in general a neglected genre for reading in my view, you get a lot of plot per page which is appealing.

    I liked this collection a lot, but the repetition of tricks was a little disappointing. The Man Who Couldn’t Be Photographed was my favorite, that solution was fresh to me.

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    • I’m trying to order them from favourite to least favourite at present, and there’s a lot of quality that makes it quite a difficult undertaking.

      And, yeah, the cheer quantity of plot and action or relevant information per page is pretty damn high. Stripped of any scene-setting there’s still the need to fill the space with something, and a lot of the time that results in a speedy tale. Fun stuff.

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