The recently-published The Island of Coffins (2020) brought several of John Dickson Carr’s previously-unavailable radio plays to public attainability, and gave many of us the chance to appreciate the Master in a slightly different milieu. Shortly after reading that wonderful volume, I was lucky enough to acquire Speak of the Devil (1994), the script for the eight-part radio serial Carr wrote for broadcast in 1941, and it is to that which we turn today.
It is 1816, and Captain Hugh Austen of the Second Foot Guards has made himself the “laughing-stock of London” by spending the last year searching for a woman he claims to have met at a ball before he headed off to the Battle of Waterloo…a woman he instantly fell in love with, and whom no-one else believes exists:
You’ve questioned every person who was at the ball that night. You’ve spent a year’s wages questioning servants. Does anyone know this mysterious girl? Has anyone seen her? No!
When man-about-town Thomas Tring, who “has never been beaten at anything” takes umbrage at the attention the delightful Lady Cynthia Mercer is paying to Austen over himself, the man’s wounded pride sees him take a daring bet with Austen, inspired by the imminent public demonstration of parachuting from a hot air balloon by Monsieur Georges Pepotin:
I propose that you and I shall make the ascent in the car of the balloon tomorrow: just the two of us. I will wager a thousand guineas that only one of us reaches the ground alive. (Carefully) Need I add which one?
What’s impressive is how quickly Carr establishes all this in the first episode, opening with some brief narration to orient us in our era and then dropping in a “Greek chorus” of three dandies who discuss Austen before cutting to the man himself. The dialogue is wonderfully mannered (“…we thought the Frenchman was going to be shot out like a demnition catapult.”) and the characters do that thing you have to accept in radio dramas of narrating actions that the relevant people can see anyway without it intruding on the scene. Tony Medawar’s characteristically superb and thorough introduction, sweeping through Carr’s historical fiction, contains a wonderful reaction from Carr when told that by one listener how wonderful it was “how you seem to be seeing it as well as hearing it”, and you can really get a sense of the work that has gone into achieve that effect so effortlessly (if that’s not a contradictory state of affairs…).
It’s a shame that the tapes of this broadcast have been lost, because the balloon ride itself strikes me as being a delightfully atmospheric affair, ending in a calamitous crash which — in one of those weird plot developments Carr somehow manages to make work despite their ludicrosity — brings Austen once more face-to-face with his beloved. And having been warned that the pursuit of this nymph will see him subjected to “worse things than you are likely to see on the battlefield”, Austen must again confront the loss of the good lady when yet another barrier is placed in his way…a barrier that will lead him to question his very reason.
Whether or not Speak of the Devil qualifies as an impossible crime — we’re very much in ‘he said/she said’ territory, where it’s a matter of disbelieving what you’re told instead of what you’ve encountered or seen for yourself — the clanger dropped at the halfway point is pure Carr, a delightfully timed and weighted surprise that would send shivers down the spine at exactly the right moment. You need to be compelled to continue with the serial after swallowing the coincidence of Austen encountering this lady again, a development that many may have found improbable and unpalatable, and structurally there’s a symmetry to this which is difficult not to admire. Throughout, there’s a tension between the fantastical — that balloon flight is discussed in terms of almost dreamlike lustre — and the quotidian, such as the naive faith placed by Mary Adair in the “wonderful” Prince Regent, a character we’ve already met and know to be a bloated, pompous “very fat Humpty Dumpty” apparently undeserving of such veneration.
There’s also a good grounding found in some humorous touches, such as the fate of M. Pepotin after his parachute jump, or the lawyer Elias Godfrey who “seldom touches strong waters” and yet always ends up with a drink in his hand (“a glass of milk punch, well dusted with nutmeg…” being perhaps the most diverting), or the foppish, sighing delight one dandy expresses at Tring’s skill for tying a cravat. And these jokes work because they, too, are grounded in the historical milieu Carr has so fully surrounded himself with — no winking self-reference to fictional characters, no wry asides on marvels at the time which would be commonplace when this was written…the jokes work because of how straight-faced Carr tells his tale, and how eager he is for you to take it seriously.
Carr was also a plotter of no small genius, and all the atmosphere and historical touches in the world won’t convince you if the plot fails to deliver around that overpowering coincidence. With previous form in writing a headlong rush that proved to be a canny, clue-packed novel of detection in The Punch and Just Murders, a.k.a. The Magic Lantern Murders (1936), Carr is adept at dropping in a couple of subtle pointers to the eventual solution to the conundrum that presents itself, with one excellent question — met by the stage direction (Dead silence) in chapter 8 — which had completely failed to occur to me in the rush. You shouldn’t come in expecting the tightness of Punch and Judy, of course, but there are a surprisingly large number of questions which have been raised throughout and which turn out to have very sensible answers that feed directly into the events we are taken through.
Speak of the Devil may fail to deliver on the brimstonian presence promised in its title, but there are enough Carrian conceits here to satisfy fans, and the whole endeavour contains more than enough points of interest to make you wish you could sit down and listen to the whole thing as originally broadcast. Medawar also includes some fascinating Notes for the Curious at the end, which contains the delightful revelation that the sinister ‘Man in Black’ herein was carried over not just in principle from this show to Carr’s work on the radio programme Appointment with Fear — where a character so-named acted as the framing device, introducing the weekly mysteries — but also in practice: the role being played by the same man in both cases. And the point about John Bellingham is wonderfully made, and provides a superb finishing flourish to the whole endeavour.
For fans of Carr, Golden Age radio mysteries, or historical romps, Speak of the Devil provides not just a brisk and very entertaining time but also a fascinating insight into the stream of fiction that would come to predominate Carr’s output in the latter half of his career. If you’re lucky enough to find a copy, you’re in for a very enjoyable time.
Sergio @ Tipping My Fedora: I thoroughly enjoyed this historical romp, with its cliffhangers at the end of every episode (my favourite come at the end of episode three, with Tring and Austen in a balloon that is expelling its toxic gas into their faces, their only option to shoot into it and probably blow themselves up).
Rejoice! Next Saturday will see the public availability of the spoiler rich discussion Brad, Moira, and I had recently about Five Little Pigs, a.k.a. Murder in Retrospect (1942) by Agatha Christie. You voted for it, so hopefully you’re excited, and for those of you who want to reacquaint yourselves with the book before listening…well, sorry for forgetting to tell you sooner.