#845: 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 7-12

The final six trips aboard the Maurevania during the Golden Age of radio, with Dr. John Fabian leading us through the apparently impossible.

Whether by design — to add a little variety — or by necessity, to allow him to explore the ideas more fully, Carr’s use of the Maurevania as a framing device becomes decidedly less consistent in this final tranche. The idea of a cruise liner for the background is an inspired one, the range of humanity that would pass through providing many opportunities for stories and skulduggery not unlike Hercule Poirot’s summary at the start of Evil Under the Sun (1941):

“Let us say, you have an enemy. If you seek him out in his flat, in his office, in the street — eh bien, you must have a reason — you must account for yourself. But here at the seaside it is necessary for no one to account for himself. You are at Leathercombe Bay, why? Parbleu! it is August — one goes to the seaside in August — one is on one’s holiday. It is quite natural, you see, for you to be here and for Mr. Lane to be here and for Major Barry to be here and for Mrs. Redfern and her husband to be here. Because it is the custom in England to go to the seaside in August.”

But here, as the series winds down, we find more generic “problem of the week” standalone stories, many of which could do away with the Maurevania altogether.

Exhibit A: ‘The Lair of the Devil-Fish’ (1948), in which adventurer Edmund Stanley has sought out a land-locked bay in Cuba, drawn by the promise of an old legend about a sunken ship stuffed with silver…a ship that was apparently pulled down into the depths by a giant “slimy tentacle”. Atmosphere abounds in the barbarous nature of the man who once owned the land, who would “flog men to death if they couldn’t work [and] crucify women in trees if they didn’t please him”, and the inevitable whispers of voodoo practices and general mysterious doings.

One man descends to the location of this rumoured wreckage and is attacked, and when a second follows to find out what might have happened…well, however far Carr is out of his usual comfort zone, it’s fair to say that he’s unlikely to actually write something so Jules Vernian as a giant octopus. The stretching of Carr’s narrative legs here is fun to read, though he’d hardly be so revered in the genre today if he wrote a lot of this kind of thing — it’s not terrible, and even the greats need a bit of a change of pace from time to time, but this veers such a long way from the Cabin B-13 usual that it’s hard to know what to make of it.

For an author whose subtly brilliant ways of killing his characters have made him so rightly revered, Carr’s scheme in ‘The Dead Man’s Knock’ (1948) — no relation to the 1958 novel of the same name — is perhaps among the most brilliant he ever conceived. A scientist in possession of one of those intangible pieces of knowledge that will change the world is under guard in an isolated Swiss cabin: “The old boy can’t be hurt in any way. Poison, small-bomb, long-range rifle, aircraft; we’ve ruled out everything! He’s as safe as though we’d put him in a bank-vault! And yet somebody’s going to kill him tomorrow night. How?”. Could the answer be found in the ghostly taps that mystery writer Mary Hayes keeps hearing in her hotel room…?

I loved this. Not only is the manner of intended murder beautifully imagined, the strands pull together neatly, the ending is a piece of pure suspense writing that would have come across this beautifully only on the radio (on screen, especially given limitations of the time, the acting would never have quite pulled it off, but the potential for sound design here is vast), and the villain’s scheme does something more villains should that allows for a delightful late surprise. Again, as with the previous episode, there’s really no sense to Fabian’s framing of this, but this time the result is handled almost perfectly (the reason, I’d suggest, that this is one of the few plays not to have the good doctor offer some closing remarks). Breathless, brilliant stuff.

Thriller writer Leonard Wade is ‘The Man with Two Heads’ (1948) — and having “actually [seen] himself lying dead” is in understandable turmoil. Writers writing about writers always makes you suspect an aspect of autobiography, and Carr’s take here on the brilliantly successful Wade does nothing to reduce that, with Wade speaking of “the fear you can’t keep it up; the fear your invention will run out; the fear you’re losing your grip” — given the close deadlines Carr was working to with these scripts, and the heights he had achieved already in his illustrious career, one feels this might have been the easiest piece of dialogue he ever wrote.

The trick here is as plain as day, but the scheme behind it is something akin to genius — you might be wavering on which of two people is Wade’s true adversary, but you can’t help but appreciate the intelligence of their design. Again no closing remarks from Fabian here, with things simply building to a smash ending and the music coming up to usher the programme off-stage. The lack of Fabian’s softening reassurances, especially in light of the increasingly personal nature of some of these crimes, makes it feel like the show is growing up, and that’s a touch I’m fully behind.

“Oh, of course I won’t go out onto the balcony of our rented honeymoon villa from which a woman who was my doppelgänger vanished impossibly and without a trace several years ago” Lucy Courtney assures her husband Tom, shortly before going out onto the balcony of their rented honeymoon villa from which a woman who was her doppelgänger vanished impossibly and without a trace several years ago. And thus ‘The Bride Vanishes’ (1948). Josephine Adams didn’t fall or jump from that balcony — there was no scream, no splash, no unobserved exit back into the house — and yet in a mere 15 seconds she was gone forever, and history is repeating itself.

A lot of work has to be done to make this a viable problem and solution, and again the radio medium is perfect for the different features to be introduced with clever sound effects and suggestion. We have Carr working at perhaps the full stretch of his hokeyness again — if you’d told me that Paul Halter had plotted this, I’d believe it without hesitation — and his commitment to the mystery is what makes it work so well: half measures would fall flat, so the only option is to go steamrollering in and see the thing through without pause or regret. And it works, sublimely, not least on account of some great creepy dialogue (“A pleasant prospect — to be shut up in the dark, at three o’clock in the morning, with a criminal lunatic…”). The motive is nonsense, just an easy and quick way to explain away a well-handled puzzle, but the last line reveal it enables is a nice touch. Fun all the way through.

Another play sharing a title and nothing more with one of Carr’s novels, ‘Till Death Do Us Part’ (1948) takes us inside the marriage of Professor Erwin Krafft and his wife young wife Cynthia, and it’s clear from the off that something sinister is afoot. The perpetrator of this malignant air is not intended as a surprise, and the root of it is an old and flea-ridden nag that the Golden Ag had flogged thoroughly past the point of death by now, but there’s still a great surprise dropped early doors and then a magnificent reversal and reveal and reappraisal once things really get going.

We find ourselves more in the realm of suspense again here — the key piece of revelation should really be observed, but must instead be told to the audience long after it happened simply to puncture the balloon Carr has set rising — and the motive for such actions is again perhaps a little too easy. But, well, the dialogue really does crackle, the situation is delightfully compact (it would make a superb episode of Inside No. 9), and Carr again builds to a great final line payoff that is going to become increasingly familiar to crime fiction fans in the months ahead. Not a masterpiece of detection, but for sheer thrilling entertainment — sat, clenching the antimacassar ever more tightly, unable to oppose the contraction of your fingers — it’s the tops.

A certain amount of discussion is always going to be had about the best order in which to experience an author’s own recycled ideas — should one read them in novel form first, or chronologically, or is there an even better third way? It’s a discussion had in the comments of these posts at times, given that Carr reused some ideas from Cabin B-13 in books subsequent to these two series. I mention it again here at the final flush because ‘The Sleep of Death’ (1948) is a slightly reworked version of ‘The Devil’s Saint’ (1943), which I first read in The Dead Sleep Lightly (1983), and knowing how the story was going to end made reading this version even more delightful.

Count Kohary is reluctant to allow Ned Whiteford to marry his — the Count’s not Ned’s — niece Ileana, and invites the younger man to spend the week at their château, on the condition that Ned sleep in the Tapestry Room…in which, over the years, several men have died of unknown means. The double game being played here is so finely poised that you really do need to go back and reread it once the ending hits — the dialogue is simply magnificent, and the sense of unease fostered through loose comparisons to the likes of ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ (1842) and Dracula (1897) is simply about the best work done with the least amount of showmanship you’ll ever encounter. Baffling murders, a two-header showdown, and that resolution…this is something of a masterpiece in Carr’s output, and deserves recognition as such.

And so, farewell to The Island of Coffins! It’s been a marvellous time, and reminded me of so much that Carr did so brilliantly — not, of course, that one easily forgets the brilliance of John Dickson Carr, but to experience the man working at full tilt is an experience that is always worth returning to. The discovery and printing of these scripts is a genuine delight, further reinforcing the essential nature of the work Crippen & Landru are doing, and we can all be thankful to them for their continued efforts and the editors Tony Medawar and Douglas G. Greene for such sterling work in bringing these together for our enjoyment.

It’s tempting to attempt a listing of these plays from best to worst, but lists are always so dependent on interpretation in the moment and so always age so badly; undeterred, and fully intending to use the above excuse to back out of these rankings when it suits me, I would suggest the following at present:


1. ‘The Sleep of Death’
2. ‘The Blind-Folded Knife Thrower’
3. ‘The Nine Black Reasons’
4. ‘The Dead Man’s Knock’
5. ‘The Island of Coffins’
6. ‘The Most Respectable Murder’
7. ‘The Man with the Iron Chest’
8. ‘The Man Who Couldn’t Be Photographed’
9. ‘The Curse of the Bronze Lamp’
10. ‘Till Death Do Us Part’
11. ‘The Street of Seven Daggers’
12. ‘A Razor in Fleet Street’
13. ‘The Footprint in the Sky’
14. ‘Below Suspicion’
15. ‘The Bride Vanishes’
16. ‘No Useless Coffin’
17. ‘The Man with Two Heads’
18. ‘The Count of Monte Carlo’
19. ‘Lair of the Devil Fish’
20. ‘The Dancer from Stamboul’
21. ‘The Power of Darkness’
22. ‘Death in the Desert’
23. ‘Death Has Four Faces’

Now I just need to track down the other collections of Carr’s radio plays; expect a review of them in 2038…

~

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

10 thoughts on “#845: 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 7-12

  1. I loved reading this and the previous posts. There are some really entertaining episodes in this series and I enjoyed getting a chance to revisit them this way and hear some alternative perspectives on some of them, particularly given your much greater knowledge of Carr’s oeuvre. These stories are delightfully diverse in content, theme and style and I only wish more survived as recordings so we could hear some of the sound design that Carr’s excellent and specific directions suggest. This is definitely the next best thing though…

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    • I’ll admit a very slight hesitancy going in, just in case the quality wasn’t up to what we’d hope from Carr, but the standard is superb — easily the top 12 of that ordering I’ve attempted are wonderful, and everything up to ‘The Man With Two Heads’ has more than a few points of interest.

      Fascinated now to see how the later novels build on these ideas…and, yeah, in the absence of any “new” Carr, this collection is so much more than most of us would have ever hoped for.

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  2. Carr’s work for radio is often remarkably vivid, creating it’s own special audio pocket universe. As you say, this rediscovery is a major event and utterly enthralling. It’s a shame so few of the broadcasts survive but who knows, maybe they’ll turn up! And at least the Suspense episodes are mostly extant.

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    • Having listened to some Suspense episodes, I did almost feel as if I could hear how this would sound when I was reading them…if that makes sense (there is a lot going on grammatically in that sentence). Maybe it’s the clarity of his descriptions, or the simple notes on character voices as and when they appear, but something about this almost felt as if I was listening to it at times.

      As you say, a major event, and wonderful that we’re the ones alive to enjoy it happening. Encore!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. “The Lair of the Devil-Fish” stood out as different, pleasantly and entertainingly different, but there was more in the premise than Carr got out of it. And, of course, the radio-play is the only version of the story. It would have been fun seeing Carr explore the horrors of the deep sea in a novel.

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    • but there was more in the premise than Carr got out of it.

      Agreed; needed to be a four-part story, that one, with plenty of watery intrigue. The potential was vast, and the change of pace appreciated, but overall it still falls short of the many, many superb examples of the form here.

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  4. Darn it. I was planning to hold off on reading this collection, but your review is going to force me to at least peck around at some of the stories. I’m excited by your take on the collection and it sounds like much more than I had hoped for. I suppose this got you out of the rut of mediocre reads, eh?

    Your brief description of The Sleep of Death suggests that it might be similar to The Door to Doom, which I hold to be an absolutely amazing story. Hopefully they turn out to be different, but yeah, it’s such a good scenario that I’d happily read three variations of it.

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    • I’ve not read ‘The Door to Doom’ — I do actually have the collection, though — so I dunno at the moment. Maybe they’re the same, or maybe one just sprang from similar roots. By the time I read it, I’ll have doubtless forgotten about this one and will be equally clueless.

      And, c’mon, you were really going to hold off reading the first legitimately new JDC collection for decades…and possibly the last one ever?

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      • Well, I’ve got The Department of Queer Complaints, The Third Bullet, Fell and Foul Play, The Men Who Explained Miracles, and some other to get through first…. But at least I was smart enough to buy this collection already, as I’m sure it will be impossible to get our hands on it in three years!

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