#872: Little Fictions/The Cornerstones – Max Carrados [ss] (1914) by Ernest Bramah

Max Carrados (1914) was the first collection of stories to feature Ernest Bramah’s eponymous aristocrat, blinded in an accident before deciding to turn his hand to detection, and another entry on the Haycraft-Queen Cornerstones list. Certainly the concept of a blind detective is novel enough to capture the imagination, but does Bramah do enough with the potential here to warrant consideration as one of the foundational texts of detective fiction?

The Raw Materials

Max Wynn, having been left a considerable fortune by an American cousin on the proviso that he adopt the cousin’s surname of Carrados, is blinded in a horse riding accident and, skipping the first four stages on the Kübler-Ross scale, begins a long process of honing his remaining senses. Eventually able to get around with the use of “the dog and stick”, Carrados is able to complete many activities as if sighted: using a typewriter accurately, reading handwriting, signatures, and newspaper headlines (thought not smaller type) by running his fingers over them, able to smell the spirit gum holding a disguise in place. Aided by his manservant Parkinson — and, occasionally, his driver Harris and secretary Greatorex — he turns his not inconsiderable intellect to a vast range of subjects from art to engineering, and acquiring something of a reputation as a dilettante.

This reputation comes in particularly handy when private inquiry agent Louis Carlyle consults him in a forgery case, only for it to transpire that the two men knew each other in their schooldays, when Carlyle went by the name of Calling — having changed his name following a controversy associated with this original job as a solicitor. Following the successful conclusion of that case, Carlyle is moved to call on Carrados more and more frequently, bringing him cases that prove too baffling for the investigator alone. As the amateur’s reputation grows, Inspector Beedel becomes a frequent caller, too, with Carrados taking an increasingly active role in the investigations.

The Foundations

These tales are clearly the result of their forebears, and not only those from 221B Baker Street. Carrados possesses the rubicund affability of Arthur Morrison’s investigator Martin Hewitt, and the stories reveal a set of influences slightly wider than might be expected. ‘The Comedy at Fountain Cottage’ (1913) starts off with the Dickensian absurdity of a neighbour throwing stewed kidneys into a woman’s garden, before ending up like Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Gold Bug’ (1843), and makes about as much sense (and is as much fun) as that sounds, and ‘The Game Played in the Dark’ (1913) owes much to the hard-edged gallantry of Edgar Wallace. However, for the most part, we unsurprisingly find ourselves cast in the Holmes mould.

Carrados’ first case, ‘The Coin of Dionysius’, a.k.a. ‘The Master Coiner Unmasked’ (1913), finds him as a pure Wellington of Detection: knowing all, and therefore jumping to correct conclusions that aren’t actually logically inferrable from the information that hand (if there was more than one coin forger in the Western world, for instance, most of his conclusions could be dismissed as pure surmise…). Though, unlike Holmes, Carrados had no expectation of his knowledge being useful in the pursuit of criminals since he isn’t an active (or even passive) detective when Carlyle first calls on him…

“Do you know, Louis, I always had a secret ambition to be a detective myself. I have even thought lately that I might still be able to do something at it if the chance came my way.”

…and, when his fame as an investigator spreads, it’s assumed to be nothing more than an “eccentric hobby”. Whatever the reason for Carrados’ willingness to be involved in these cases (“It is, well, partly vanity, partly ennui, partly…partly hope.”), he nevertheless seems to exhibit the unearthly prescience of the Wellington of Detection by always gathering exactly the information needed and no more — just happening to examine the correct room to avert ‘The Tragedy at Brookbend Cottage’ (1913), say — and Bramah withholds information from the reader (“Connected with the Arcady Theatre?”) for pure ta-daaah! value alone.

In many other regards, Carrados is little more than a Holmes away from home: relegating the professional investigator Carlyle to sidekick status by enquiring “Do you happen to carry a revolver?”, maintaining an emotional distance from the puzzles he must solve (“Excuse my brutality, Mr Hollyer, but this is simply a case to me and I regard it strategically.”), even playing Holmesian deduction games in his own way:

“You have recently gone into mourning, I see.”

“See!” exclaimed the girl almost sharply. “Then you are not blind?”

“Oh yes,” he replied; “only I use the familiar expression, partly from custom, partly because it sounds unnecessarily pedantic to say, ‘I deduce from certain observations.’”

There are tantalising hints of cases never to be known (“[Carylye] said that they once failed to stop a jewel robbery because the jeweller neglected to wipe his shoes on the shop doormat, as Mr. Carrados had told him to do…”), and he also, as the final lines of ‘Brookbend Cottage’ show, understands women about as well as Holmes. I lay this at Carrados’ feet since Bramah’s own awareness of the inequality of the society in which women were compelled to function (see below) surely makes this more a failing of creation rather than creator…right?

Other facets of his personality really do compel him as more than mere pastiche, however. The magnanimity with which he appears to accept his blindness is something to behold, with Bramah lacking perhaps the insight of Baynard Kendrick where the condition is concerned, but nailing Carrados’ contentment despite his situation. “It always amused him to have people explain how much more he would learn if he had eyes” we’re told at one stage, and the way his own lack of vision compensates by allowing him to consider things the sighted criminals overlook (a telling pause in a footstep, the smell of lavender on a glove) is well-devised. Equally, the man’s moral character is found in his opposition to the death penalty (“The best use you can make of the gallows is to cheat it, Louis… Have you ever reflected what human beings will think of us a hundred years hence?”) and the almost Chestertonian belief that not every criminal is beyond redemption or deserves punishment.

Flourishes

Bramah’s feet are firmly bedded in the familiar, then, but he has more than a few innovations to bring to the Great Detective. First, there is legitimate humour in his writing — in the private moments of character (Carlyle “sipping…black coffee and wondering privately whether it was really very good or very bad,” tickled me especially), in moments of characterisation (“Parkinson’s apologetic eye swept the visitor from head to foot, but so lightly and swiftly that it conveyed to that gentleman the comparison of being very deftly dusted.”), and also in legitimate, open badinage:

[Carrados] slackened his pace. “We are passing a hoarding, are we not?”

“Yes, sir.”

“We will stand here a moment. Read me the letterpress of the poster before us.”

“This ‘Oxo’ one, sir?”

“Yes.”

“‘Oxo,’ sir.”

See also how quickly Carlyle and Carrados fall into similar habits. Their entire investigative endeavour only gets going, after all, because the former decides showing up his one-time confrère’s misguided arrogance will be a good way of “getting even with Carrados” — taking no pity on a man he has only just discovered to be blind. And the amateur’s trenchant sniping at his professional colleague has none of Holmes’ condescension about it:

“What colour were his eyes?” asked Carrados.

“Upon my word, I never noticed,” admitted the other.

“Parkinson would have noticed.”

Indeed, Carrados pours out cold water on Carlyle’s eagerness time and again in the most delightful manner. See, for instance, his utterly gorgeous contempt upon learning of a missing necklace in ‘The Clever Mrs. Straithwaite’ (1913):

“Jewel cases are rarely either important or interesting. Pearl necklace mysteries, in nine cases out of ten, spring from the miasma of social pretence and vapid competition and only concern people who do not matter in the least. The only attractive thing about them is the name. They are so barren of originality that a criminological Linnæus could classify them with absolute nicety. I’ll tell you what, we’ll draw up a set of tables giving the solution to every possible pearl necklace case for the next twenty-one years.”

Additionally, Carrados is not above a manner of open-faced mendacity in order to achieve his aims. No donning of a disguise to dog his quarry here; instead, he brazenly requests that a telegram he wishes to read is resent to its addressee and then interrupts this second delivery to claim it as his own. A meta element of this may even be applied to the narratives themselves, such as in ‘The Tilling Shaw Mystery’ (1913) when we’re informed by our omniscient narrator that Carrados has been playing a mendacious game of his own and we aren’t being led down the route we might reasonably expect:

Afterwards, Carrados often recalled with grim pleasantry that the two absolutely vital points in the fabric of circumstantial evidence that was to exonerate her father and fasten the guilt upon another had dropped from the girl’s lips utterly by chance. But at the moment the facts themselves monopolised his attention.

More importantly, Bramah brings some genuinely complex plotting to his stories. The aforementioned pearl necklace mystery proves to be a quite strikingly elaborate piece of reversal and counter-reversal, and the wonderfully tortuous scheme to rob the world’s most secure safe in ‘The Last Exploit of Harry the Actor’, a.k.a. ‘The Great Safe Deposit Coup’ (1913) — though let down slightly by Carrados’ narration of an excess of detail where the villain’s manner and operation are concerned, pure Wellington — is ingeniously constructed and builds to a dénouement of absurd, delightful, comic opera proportions. More than that, his characters really do stand out — Stephanie Straithwaite especially — so that their actions and the results of them feel organic and satisfying rather than cudgelled into place so that a plot can happen.

Easily the most fascinating on both fronts is ‘The Knight’s Cross Signal Problem’, a.k.a. ‘The Mystery of the Signals’ (1913): a distinctly below-average Holmes pastiche in the worst way, until the closing stages reveal the culprit and their motive and knocks you back on your heels. It’s arguably one of the small handful of excusable instances of hard-R terminology in classic detective fiction, to boot, and drives the point home all the more brilliantly because of it. Were the preceding investigation not so pedestrian, this story alone would be enough to recommend the collection to you, and if you’ve not had a chance to read it — and have a bit of time and some patience to spare — I highly recommend tracking it down at the earliest opportunity.

Interesting Features

An awareness of the stain of gender inequality peers over the top of Bramah’s narratives at times, revealing a social-mindedness that critics of this genre and era are wont to deny could possibly exist before the invention of wifi. When, in ‘The Tilling Shaw Mystery’, Carrados expresses surprise that Madeline Whitmarsh wishes to keep her visit to the detective a secret from her neighbours, she responds bitterly:

“You are a man living in a town and can do as you like. I am a girl living in the country and have therefore to do largely as my neighbours like. For me to set up my opinion against popular feeling would constitute no small offence; to question its justice would be held to be adding outrageous insult to enormous injury.”

Or see Lieutenant Hollyer explain, in ‘The Tragedy at Bookbend Cottage’, the fiscal arrangements within their family regarding himself and his sister Millicent:

“By [my father’s] will my mother was to have [an income] for life and on her death it was to pass to Millicent, subject to the payment of a lump sum of five hundred pounds to me. But my father privately suggested to me that if I should have no particular use for the money at the time, he would propose my letting Millicent have the income of it until I did want it, as she would not be particularly well off. You see, Mr Carrados, a great deal more had been spent on my education and advancement than on her; I had my pay, and, of course, I could look out for myself better than a girl could.”

I also can’t help but wonder if I’m alone in seeing — when Carrados explains to Inspector Beedel his feelings on the struggle between law and the criminal by means of a cricket analogy — the roots of Ronald Knox’s analogy about “playing fair” in detective fiction in his introduction to his Decalogue.

The Judgement

With modern sensibilities quick to jump on the sometimes unsympathetic idiom in which certain old mysteries were written, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to anticipate Bramah’s invocation of blindness to be little more than a gimmick deployed uncaringly simply to stand out in a popular form of literature. As it happens, Bramah has done clever, sensitive work here in giving us a detective whose initial appearance, and the expectations they raise, are deceptive. Carrados is no superman, imbued with savant-like powers as lazy compensation for his disability, but instead lives and breathes as a man plying the full scope of his capabilities with no no small amount of effort. It’s an important distinction, and one many authors today could still do well to appreciate.

Additionally, in the sphere of physically or psychologically unexceptional sleuths, you can draw a line from Carrados to the likes of Anthony Berkeley’s Mr. Ambrose Chitterwick or Leo Bruce’s Sergeant Beef, characters who built on this foundation to bring much of their own innovation to the genre — and, indeed, can find modern parallels still in the likes of Jeffery Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme, who is paralysed from the neck down, or Emma Viskic’s deaf Caleb Zelic. This is not so much about representation as it is the opportunity to break away from the physically imposing likes of Holmes who can do everything from outwitting a suspect to out-fighting them, who doesn’t need to be the obvious superior in every regard in order to enhance his capabilities still further by also triumphing come the end of the tale.

I also think it’s important not to overlook the addition of humour in Bramah’s prose. Quite apart from the complexity of certain plots, and the social awareness of certain motives, the manner of his telling shows that wit and wisdom are by no means uncomfortable bedfellows, and brings much in the way of subtle appreciation of the relationships the characters share. Was anyone really funny in the detection sphere before this? Not Doyle, not Baroness Orczy, not Morrison, not Jacques Futrelle. Perhaps Maurice Leblanc, but his humour came more at tweaking the nose of his hyper-serious forebears. Bramah weaves an easy-going wit easily throughout, never compromising the characters or plotting to do so, and this combination of apparently unsympathetic elements should not go unmentioned.

So, is Max Carrados a Cornerstone? Well, what do you think, eh?

4 thoughts on “#872: Little Fictions/The Cornerstones – Max Carrados [ss] (1914) by Ernest Bramah

  1. Carrados really is delightful ! I’ve read them all (except the Bravo of London and the stories in the Specimen Case) . Later ones give you ghosts and the bones of Shakespeare. Influence on my man Bailey, too.

    What did you think of the ending of Brookbend?

    Apart from the Carrados stories, Bramah was best known for Kai Lung, very tall stories told in a pseudo-Chinese idiom. I read them in high school, and liked them.

    David Langford has a nice article on Bramah here: https://ansible.uk/writing/bramah.html

    Like

    • Brookbend seemed to want to, er, strive for something in its ending, I guess, but it seemed a little pointless to me. That said, I like my subtext nice and bold 🙂

      More Carrados will be read when I can find it — ditto Bailey. This early experience has been very positive. Of course, they’re both OOP and difficult to find in anything other than shifty (and shitty) Kindle editions, but hope springs eternal…

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  2. Like so many of the creations of Victorian/Edwardian writers other than Doyle, I know Carrados only through an episode of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes and, while that ’70s series is charming in that slow-paced, stilted kind of way that a lot of ’70s series were, the more I read about the original stories themselves, I begin to find it a little reductive. Each story seems like it is trying to tie these stories back to Holmes even when their originals went out of their way to distance themselves from Doyle. This is made all the more apparent when you realize that Robert Stephens (cast as Carrados in their adaptation of “The Missing Witness Sensation”) had just played Holmes the year before in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and, if memory serves, his performance as both detectives share a great many similarities. I owe that series a great deal for providing me with an amuse-bouche of Thorndyke, Carnacki, Martin Hewitt, Van Dusen, and many others, but I am left wondering if the attempts to cast these characters as detectives caught in the shadow of Sherlock Holmes misses the point of their creators in the first place.

    Liked by 1 person

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