Of late, I have found myself surrounded by invisible men. Entirely fictional, of course, but there have been a lot of them: shooting someone in an empty room in You’ll Die Laughing (1945) by Bruce Elliott, disappearing into darkness in I’ll Grind Their Bones (1936) by Theodore Roscoe, vanishing from rooms and beaches in Thursday’s forthcoming Wilders Walk Away by Herbert Brean, performing miracle appearances and disappearances as I reread Rim of the Pit (1944) by Hake Talbot…everywhere I look, people are vanishing.
Among my at-times multiple versions of various John Dickson Carr titles, I have four Mercury Mystery editions like the one shown on the left above — The Plague Court Murders (1934), The Red Widow Murders (1935), The Unicorn Murders (1935), and The Department of Queer Complaints (1940) — which are of additional interest to me since the novels are all abridgements. So, having just read the unedited text of The Unicorn Murders, I thought it might be interesting to see what was excised from this abridged version.
When a man is found dead, stabbed between the eyes by a unicorn (of indeterminate nationality) — a, yes, fictional animal that can nevertheless apparently turn invisible at will — you don’t expect to find yourself in the GADU. And when a second victim is then killed in the same way but in full view of witnesses, if one can witness an invisible animal, you better hope you’re in the GADU or else things are about to get silly. Well, it’s your lucky day, because you are in a classic impossible crime mystery and things are about to get silly — this book is probably the final time John Dickson Carr had all the ingredients for a classic and didn’t actually write it, instead leaving a few edges untouched so that the overriding impression is slightly more “Er…what?” than “Hell, yeah!”.
Department D3 of Scotland Yard houses the gargantuan form of Colonel March, investigator of the absurd and apparently impossible whose “mind is so obvious that he hits it every time”. It’s a shame March never got a novel of his own, because he has a lovely and direct way of dealing with the problems brought to him, but then he’s not exactly dissimilar to the Gideon Fell chap about whom Carter Dickson wrote so much under his real name of John Dickson Carr. So, yup, it’s impossibilities ahoy as we go through ten cases of the inexplicable thoroughly laid to rest by Carr’s own brand of chicanery and misdirection; it’s true: life is good to us sometimes, and we just gotta enjoy it when it happens…
In what I’m hoping will be the first of a semi-occasional series — look, I’ve made a special header image for it and everything — we are here today to discuss the 1937 impossible crime novel The Ten Teacups, published in the U.S.A. as The Peacock Feather Murders, from John Dickson Carr under his Carter Dickson nom de plume. Puzzle Doctor, wrangler of In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, kindly agreed to reread this one and then exchange some thoughts on aspects of the precise details and workings of the book, and the results of our efforts are below. Suffice to say, if you click to read more of this, there are guaranteed massive spoilers from this point on; don’t say I didn’t warn you…
Following a recent post on John Dickson Carr’s The Lost Gallows over at The Green Capsule, I was reminded of just how much I love a séance in fiction. Now, to be clear, I’m with Charlie Brooker on psychics and other such manipulative awfulness, but have a real love of sleight of hand and up-close magic (as perhaps evinced in my enthusiasm for fair play detective fiction and impossible crimes therein) and a debunked séance is often a great way to explore the little ways a set of circumstances can be misrepresented, and often some fascinating insights come out of it.
So, here are five great séances from detective fiction, alpabetically by author.