#952: Verdict of Twelve – All the Fun of the Fair in Crime on the Coast (1954)

Another collaborative effort in the style of Behind the Screen (1930) and The Scoop (1931), with six authors each taking up the challenge of continuing this story, published in instalments in the News Chronicle in 1954.

Crime on the Coast (1954) isn’t strictly in the same vein as those previous stories, nor as its companion piece in this volume from Gollancz, No Flowers by Request (1953), since not everyone involved in the writing of this was a member of the Detection Club. Of the six authors taking part — John Dickson Carr, Michael Cronin, Elizabeth Ferrars, Joan Fleming, Laurence Meynell, and Valerie White — only Carr was in ‘The Club’ at the time, with Ferrars elected four years later, Fleming in 1963, and Meynell in 1975. Does this matter? Not in the least, but I’ll get called out if I don’t mention it and so I wanted to get it in early. It also might explain why this volume doesn’t appear to have been reprinted recently despite the interest people would have in the authors involved (well, some of them), since the rights are doubtless more complicated in a way that those of us outside the industry will never really comprehend.

The structure here echoes that of No Flowers by Request, with each author writing two consecutive chapters before handing the tale on, but notably here there seems to be very little evidence of even the slightest chance of consultation or planning between writers. The tone, focus, intent, timeline, and significance of certain events varies wildly, with everyone getting a chance to wrestle things around to their way of thinking and then putting their stamp on events before it’s snatched away from them and someone else hares off in some very different direction. It’s not…good, but the wild variation and consequent unpredictability is a lot of fun.

“I’m unpredictable!”

The first two chapters — ‘The Fun Fair’ and ‘Into the Tunnel’ — are the work of Carr, and set up the story to go in whatever direction his conspirators might require. Reminiscent of some of his early, playful novels like The Unicorn Murders (1935), this sees young Phil Courtney attending the August Bank Holiday revelries of the seaside town of Breston and approached by the beautiful Nita Ross who claims that “twice in the past week someone has tried to kill me”. They enter a haunted boat ride, Carr sprinkles a little bit of atmosphere around via mannequins in the aspect of corpses and…

Valerie White takes over, and does a sterling job of continuing in a similar vein:

There was a wild, straining look about her now. It could have meant anything: hardly suppressed terror, a child’s panic in keeping ahead of some creeping shadow of fear, a streak of insanity coming to the surface, anything.

White also displays a talent for contrast, slipping into almost humorous asides in a way that fits with the sort of prose Carr had mastered long ago (not, of course, that this entire enterprise should be about everyone living up to Carr’s standards):

The sun had re-emerged through a blur of rising steam, and a cataract of warm humanity had tumbled out of its sheltering places in search of further discomforts it could spend the remaining 364 days of the year trying to forget.

It falls to Laurence Meynell to actually advance the plot, introducing a sinister cafe, a sinister stairway, some sinister locals, and sinister laughter. Meynell’s two chapters are easy to dismiss, but they turn out to have the most to offer once the end hoves into view. At this stage I don’t know what else to say about them except that they appear unexceptional and lean rather more heavily into sensation fiction…but the upping of both pace and ante is appreciated.

“See?!”

Perhaps uncertain what to do with Meynell’s new setting, Joan Fleming takes us back to the start, introduces the spectre of murder, and again has a very happy time playing around with good descriptions that make up for any deficiency in plotting acumen, like the man at the scene of the crime whom “Phil recognized as [the type] who always stands on the edge of crowds, on tiptoe, neck stretched, a gleam of excitement in his eye, hoping for the worst”. Murder, of course, requires the police, and Fleming also gives us Inspector A., who is actually pretty well-limned in very little space and time:

It was not in [his] habit to have theories expounded to him; he liked to be the theorizer.

Next is Michael Cronin, who demonstrates how different this would have been if written by detective fiction authors by going all thriller fiction on us: speedboats, searching hotel rooms, being threatened at gunpoint. You have to admire the man’s industry in trying to stir the pot a little and introduce something a little more breathless and exciting for the casual newspaper reader, but we’re now a long way from the potentialities of the beginning, and it all now feels rather rote. I’d be tempted to see the influence of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels here, but Bond’s debut Casino Royale (1953) was published in the same year, and I have no idea how much of a cultural splash that first book made at the time.

Cronin also rather pushes the hand of Elizabeth Ferrars, who must tie this all off and deal with the tendency of previous authors to ignore that which has come before, or to at least leave doors open for previous events to be sewn into something resembling a pattern. It’s fair to say that the developments we’ve encountered were nowhere in evidence from what happened at the beginning, and we require dumps of exposition from newspapers to join it all up, but for a serial designed to do little more than distract commuters for a few minutes it’s a perfectly serviceable ending that manages a half-decent job of working in what came before while extricating our hero and ensuring a happy ending for all.

“Also this.”

On the whole, and with one of the greatest proponents of detective fiction kicking this off, Crime on the Coast is something of a damp squib, but you do at least get a sense of authors having to scramble to deal with what came before without much warning, and that in itself adds an element of enjoyment to proceedings. The prime motivator for many people in acquiring this will be Carr’s involvement, I’m sure, but even the most ardent completist can be assured that they’re really not missing out if they never track it down. Fun, diverting, interesting only for a long as it lasts…in short, this does exactly what it was intended to do, and any deeper analysis both destroys the edifice and undermines the original purpose.

~

See also

Martin Edwards: I must admit I’ve never heard of White or Cronin, but their sections aren’t at all bad. However, as is often the case with round-robin mysteries, the story-line becomes increasingly unlikely as events move on. This is partly because of the need to provide cliffhanger chapter endings for the serialisation in the newspaper.

9 thoughts on “#952: Verdict of Twelve – All the Fun of the Fair in Crime on the Coast (1954)

  1. The Carr sounds like a version of his terrific radio play, “Will you make a bet with death?” that he was also using for NINE WRONG ANSWERS at roughly the same time. I like the idea of these round-robin books but I sometimes wish that they were more tightly controlled with an agreed overall story, perhaps using an in-built multi-narrator structure to get the most of the various contributions (if it’s too smooth and you can’tsee the joins, what’s the point).

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    • The difference between this and something like The Floating Admiral is that this was intended to be a diversion in the paper, whereas TFA is almost designed to be studied ad so the individual contributors really did study it themselves before sitting down to write. This more casual undertaking was always going to struggle to stand up under scrutiny.

      There’s also the small matter of whoever starts it off would get to call the running. Now, while I would be frankly delighted if JDC told me “In chapter 1 I’m going to lay in Clue X which needs to be misunderstood as Thing A in chapter 4 before revealed as Thing B in the final chapter” I can understand other, professional authors having something of a hard time with that 🙂

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  2. I didn’t have high hopes for this and it sounds like my expectations were about right.

    I think there’s a gut reaction to think “why did Carr get the leading chapters? I want his solution.” And yet, there was a period of time where Carr was setting up his stories with absolutely outstanding hooks. The obvious examples are leading things off with a belter of an impossibility – see the opening chapters of The Ten Teacups or The Judas Window – but he could also hook you simply with a character placed in a compelling situation: To Wake the Dead, Death in Five Boxes, The Case of the Constant Suicides, or even a set up as basic as the lead into The Sleeping Sphinx. There’s a run from maybe 1936 to 1946 where Carr’s openings are stellar, with few books requiring the reader to commit to 60+ pages before being sucked in – The Man Who Could Not Shudder being a rare example.

    Unfortunately, by the time Crime on the Coast was written, Carr had somewhat lost his knack. That isn’t a condemnation of the books that were written during this period, it just means you approach them as “here’s a book by a really good author that I like, I’m going to dig in and know it’s likely to satisfy”… which is probably how we approach 90% of books by any other author, because people rarely wrote hooks the way Carr did.

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    • To compare the ending here with Christianna Brand’s wonderfully fleet of foot conclusion to No Flowers By Request shows the wisdom of your suggestion that Carr should have been the one to end it. Much like Christie’s suggested ending to The Floating Admiral, I’m sure he could have done something subtle, simple, and wonderful at the same time.

      And yet…had Carr finished it, no doubt we’d be here now 70 years later saying “Oh, man, this would have been <i<amazing if Carr had been the one to kick it off…”…we nerds are never happy!

      The happy medium seems to me that authors write two, non-consecutive chapters, so that they have a chance to correct any deviation from their intended point as the endeavour progresses. But that also adds the problem of how much can be achieved in a single chapter, and is a whole new headache,

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    • It does, no question, but then what else is it fair to expect? As something to divert commuters for five minutes this fulfils its brief; the desire to judge it by different standards is understandable, but hardly fair

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  3. I already spewed my bile about “Crime on the Coast” on your review of “No Flowers by Request.” So to add something quasi-constructive here, I’ll say the two teams were completely mismatched. Carr should have been paired with writers of his own caliber, like Brand, Gilbert and maybe Lorac, writing three or four chapters each. It would have made for a more consistent and tighter story. I think Fleming and White would have fitted in better with Sayers and Mitchell. Cronin and Meynell could have written an alternative solution to each story like the extras in The Floating Admiral. There you go. I fixed this collection. 🙂

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