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