#841: 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 2, Episodes 1-6

Another six tales of intrigue from aboard cruise liner the Maurevania, with ship’s surgeon Dr. John Fabian keen to baffle and then elucidate us from his eponymous quarters.

As these series have progressed, Fabian has taken on less the role of framing device and more that of the active sleuth — the author’s voice pointing out the clues and bringing to the attention of the characters the mechanics by which these cases are resolved. Divested as he is of anything approaching a character — none of Gideon Fell’s bumptiousness, Henry Merrivale’s overblown self-pity, Henri Bencolin’s youthful aggression, even John Gaunt’s wastrel status — he’s something of a pale presence and easy to forget. Not that all sleuths need to be ‘character’ detectives, far from it, but I remember the stolidly bland Dermot Kinross of The Emperor’s Snuff-Box (1942) more clearly than I do Fabian, and I’ve been reading about Fabian for three weeks.

However, Fabian’s complete absence of personality makes him a good foil for mysteries told exclusively through dialogue, and we’re here for the plots rather than the guy solving them. So, let’s begin…

Series 2 opened with ‘The Street of Seven Daggers’ (1948), a street which “was said to mean certain death to…anyone who walked in it after midnight”. Wealthy Edmund Parrish travels the world debunking such superstitions, but his daughter Emily is convinced that this street in Cairo “full of invisible people” will be the death of him. Two great things are done here — the first is establishing a suitably eerie backstory for this murderous alleyway, and the second is a wonderful piece of clewing-in-dialogue — before Parrish enters the dead end street and, observed by Fabian, Emily, and a policeman, ends up stabbed in the back and, bafflingly, in possession of two wallets…

This is, of course, ‘The Silver Curtain’ (1939) from The Department of Queer Complaints [ss] (1940), except that the curtain has been removed and replaced with…something of a different hue that might veer into spoilers. Carr clearly liked this trick, since it was also used in the likes of ‘Death Has Four Faces’ (1944) on the radio, and it’s difficult not to appreciate his fondness: it’s a good trick, and plays out very well every time with a slightly different refinement in the setting, characters, or clues (here it’s that dialogue indication, I’d wager, that made Carr keen to rework this yet again). I loved this story when I first encountered it, and I’ve enjoyed it every time since. It would take a hard heart indeed to feel otherwise.

Carr reached back into Colonel March and his Department of Queer Complaints for ‘The Dancer from Stamboul’ (1948), with New York homicide detective Jim Canfield heading to foreign climes in search of poisoner Lydia White: “Outwardly she’s what’s called a lady; inwardly she’s vicious in any way you can think of”. The one problem? He doesn’t actually know what she looks like, and the lady he identifies has two men vying for her attentions who are likely to kill him if he tries to arrest her.

Things build to a pitch that ends up like something out of Hamlet albeit on the radio, with the two competitors for Madame Almah’s hand ending up in a duel (“These gloves, sir, are new and soft. I hope you won’t mind them…across your face!” — absolute quality, that line) that would probably provide a hint towards the sort of books Carr was yearning to write if we wished to analyse his output in that way. And it ends up turning on the type of clue that I honestly think might be the hardest to play well: not so much negative evidence, where the absence of an item or action is telling, but proof positive evidence where so much is indicated that…well, something Gricean is going on, to say the least. This isn’t the most memorable of stories, but it might be among the ones that most rewards rereading time and time again.

We go full Adventure with ‘Death in the Desert’ (1948), which again hints at where Carr’s brain was increasingly finding itself where matters creative were concerned: “The 1890s, when men’s moustaches were heavy and ladies’ dresses were long”. Starting off like a proto-Death on the Nile (1937), this sees six passengers on a steamer heading up that very river and plenty of suspicion brewing between them (the Obligatory Post-WW2 Kraut possibly stinking out most living rooms as the reddest herring ever to flap around a room). It’s the drunkard Denis Brent who ends up commanding our attention, however, as there’s certainly more going on with him than meets the eye…

What I found most interesting about this is the negative light in which the armed forces are painted early on, and the bitter attitude displayed towards them throughout — almost like something by Henry Wade. Oddly, and disappointingly for Carr, this gets thrown over by the end, with its apparently stirring derring-do that feels like a propaganda play broadcast about six years too late. One might forgive it with an earlier date stamp but, as it is, there’s an element of jingoism here that feels outmoded and cloth-eared. Carr undoubtedly had his reasons for writing this type of tale given his literary inspirations, but it’s out of place in a series such as this and so feels even weaker on that account.

‘Death in the Desert’ can be forgiven, though, because it was followed by a story that might just be a masterpiece. ‘The Island of Coffins’ (1948). Fabian calls this sobriquet “a tantalizing phrase — sandpaper to the curiosity”, implying that Carr might not know how sandpaper works, but the story is really something. Summoned by a light flashing out the Morse code for “life and death” when passing an island off the Abyssinian cast, the Maurevania weighs anchor and sends Fabian ashore to see what the situation is and what if anything can be done.

The situation he discovers, and the cast of grotesques who enable it, really should be encountered as pure as possible, which makes writing about it something of a challenge. In many ways, the plot requires too many events of too ridiculous a hue and stripe to pull together for any sort of coherence or sense to result, but Carr was so good at this weird, outré type of thing that he really is the only person who could write this type of story. It’s bizarre, uncomfortable, discombobulating, thrilling, tragic, and oddly melancholy…and shows what makes Carr such a special talent in this genre. Not an impossibility in sight, either, so it’s stuff like this that will hopefully convince any doubters that he was so, so much more than just an engine for making the miraculous pedestrian.

I imagine the revelation that greets us near the beginning of ‘The Most Respectable Murder’ (1948) — that Michel Vautrelle’s young wife Ninette wants a divorce from her fusty, erudite husband as she is in love with the young and attractive Charles D’Arville — is supposed to evoke a sense of conflict. But since the lady in question also says the line of dialogue “Books! I wish I could burn every book…”, one feels that Vautrelle is perhaps better off without her.

Vautrelle’s response to this declaration of rending is a magnificent Carrian flourish, and the locked room murder that results is neatly (if oddly — rot13: ubj qbrf Snovna trg ubyq bs gung urnqyrff xrl?) clued and cannily resolved. This setup and trick was apparently repurposed for The Dead Man’s Knock (1958), which makes me only more curious to read what I understood to be a poorly-received entry late in Carr’s novel-writing career. It’s not an original concept, but it takes two old, hoary notions and finds what feels like an invigorating twist upon them. I’m not sure if the motivation for the locked room works, but in every other regard this is something of a triumph.

For once, common sense prevails and ‘The Curse of the Bronze Lamp’ (1948) is the same story as The Curse of the Bronze Lamp, a.k.a. Lord of the Sorcerers (1945) — indeed, this is simply an amended version of the 1944 radio script of the same name from Appointment with Fear. Helen Loring returns from Egypt with the spoils of some tomb raiding, including a bronze lamp that, mystic Alim Bey tells her in front of the press gathered to cover her departure, guarantees “she will never reach [her room in England] alive” as she will be “blown to dust as though she had never existed”. Sure enough, upon reaching England, Helen races through the door at Severn Hall…and has vanished when her fiancé follows her moments later.

Superintendent Blake, dispatched to find Helen’s body, shows how much fun a one-appearance policeman can be (“Are you getting larky with me, bald-head?”) and the trick here is far more enjoyable in short form than stretched over a full novel — indeed, it’s such a clever idea that you can understand why Carr wanted to make a novel of it: the possibilities of Egyptian curses and, especially, the motive behind the impossible vanishing would have been right up his alley. Some concepts work best over a smaller word count, however, and this is certainly one of them.

That, then, is the first half of the second series of Cabin B-13, and quite a set of tales it is. Amusing to note that Fabian is still incorrect at times about the types and titles of stories he’ll be telling next week, though given the clear influence of Arthur Conan Doyle in ‘Death in the Desert’ there’s perhaps an argument that these never-to-emerge plays would form the basis of an extended canon much like the Sherlock Holmes cases Watson hinted at and the likes of Carr would go on to write. If a second Golden Age of radio mystery ever emerges, these titles and ideas would be grist to the mill of anyone wishing to extend the life of Dr. John Fabian. And, if that happens, I was definitely the first to mention the idea and so should get a cut of the profits.

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See also

Brad @ AhSweetMysteryBlog: What a gift C&L has given us in compiling together all twenty-three scripts from the two seasons of Cabin B-13. There are wonderful murder mysteries bearing Carr’s definitive stamp, a combination of Grand Guignol terror and jaw-dropping impossibilities. In “The Blind-Folded Knife Thrower,” a young woman seems to be threatened by the ghost of her hated mother, who is able to enter her bedroom and terrify her despite the bars on the windows and her fiancé guarding the single door. In “The Bride Vanishes,” a young woman is targeted for murder on her honeymoon due to her resemblance to a previous victim who disappeared from the balcony outside her wedding suite. 

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

Series 1

Series 2

Episodes 1-6
Episodes 7-12

Appendix

8 thoughts on “#841: 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 2, Episodes 1-6

  1. So glad you’re enjoying these Jim, I’ve been a fan of his radio plays ever since I first picked up Douglas Greene’s DOOR TO DOOM, probably before you were born (eek!) As the sole author of CABIN B-13 the deadlines got tighter and tighter for Carr, so no wonder titles changed at the last minute and material got recycled. He certainly had little expectation that anyone would repaint his scripts (though at least one made it into the DR FELL DETECTIVE collection). Your detailed reviews make me want to go back and read them all again – thanks buddy!

    Liked by 1 person

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