One evening, responding to a phone call from the local hospital requesting that he identify a man involved in an accident, Mr. James Tovey, Fruit and Vegetable Merchant on London’s Praed Street, discovers he’s the victim of a prank and that no such call was made by anyone at the hospital. On the short walk home, he encounters a group of men outside the local pub and…there endeth his story, for he is stabbed and dies shortly thereafter. With the group all claiming innocence, and talk of a scar-faced sailor seen in the vicinity, the event is put down to a senseless tragedy until circumstances link it to another death on the same stretch of road. And another. And another.
While Freeman Wills Crofts’ work has caused me much delight over the last few years, that of his fellow ‘Humdrum’ John Rhode/Miles Burton doesn’t inspire in me quite the same raptures. Rhode (as I’ll call him here) writes swift, events-focussed novels, and constructs plots with the same deliberation and consideration from multiple sides…so maybe it’s that his plots always feel like a single idea with some people bolted onto it. Here as in Death Leaves No Card (1944) or Invisible Weapons (1938) I come away with the impression that he read about a single obscure murder method and thought “Yeah, I can get 60,000 words out of that”.
In the style of Sesame Street, today’s review is brought to you by In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel‘s Puzzle Doctor, who kindly leant me this book following years of me failing to find an affordable copy. And, boy, what an exciting prospect it is: no mere “one chapter each” in the style of ‘Behind the Screen’ (1930), ‘The Scoop’ (1931), or The Floating Admiral (1932), this is a proper collaboration between two of the Golden Age’s titans: Carter Dickson, a.k.a. John Dickson Carr, and John Rhode, a.k.a. Miles Burton — two gentlemen who individually devised a greater library of brilliant means of criminal dispatch than almost any other pair you’d care to name.
Right, the dust has settled on The Problem of the Wire Cage, so it’s time to pick another book to get all spoilerful over. There’s no mystery here, that book has been picked and its title is in the title of this post, but allow me a paragraph break otherwise I have no idea how I’ll work one in.
We’ve all done it — in the excitement of finally stumbling across a novel by an author we’ve heard a lot about (or maybe heard nothing about, if you’re feeling adventurous) you snap up a book, take it home…and it lingers and lingers on your TBR, staring at you every time you go near your bookshelves to pick something out. The guilt of its unread-ness builds inside of you, but the inclination to actually open it and read it never quite matches the initial rush of blood to the head that saw you buy it in the first place.
While we can be thankful for real-life developments in forensic science that enable the speedier detection of criminals, there can be little argument that it was the death-knell of good detective fiction. Dull Inspector Arnold and his genius amateur sidekick Desmond Merrion spend so much time combing through the minutiae of the physical and mental aspect of the crime in Death in the Tunnel, and come up with such entertaining possibilities while doing so, that a crime scene tech in one of those all-over white body suits could never be a fifth as much fun. It makes me all the more appreciative of this kind of classic approach, knowing that this sort of book has seen its heyday pass.
Over the summer, I read certain sections of Masters of the Humdrum Mystery by the blogosphere’s very own Passing Tramp, Curtis Evans. Certain sections because, to be perfectly honest, Curtis has done an amazing job in analysing so much of the work of J.J. Connington, Freeman Wills Crofts, and John Rhode/Miles Burton that it’s clear I need to do a lot more reading to get the most out of what he has written. Upon (in fact, while) reading A Smell of Smoke I went back to see what insight Curtis could offer to explore Street’s motivations or intentions, but there is no mention of it at all; no fault of his, as Street published over 130 novels under his two most famous pseudonyms, but I suspect I know why it doesn’t get a mention: it isn’t very good at all.
There is a branch of Mathematics known as combinatorics which studies the interactions of countably finite discrete sets. Or, in English, it’s the formal study of combining things in all the possible ways they can be combined. It’s a little bit like doing a jigsaw by picking up one piece and then going through the box to try every other piece to find one that fits with that piece, and then going through again to find another piece that fits with those two…and so on until you’ve finished the picture. Approximately a third of the thesis I wrote in my final year of university was based in a combinatorial approach to solving a particular problem (I shall spare you the details), and the formalisation of what sounds like an exceptionally dull way to go about something took on for me a particular beauty in the context of all the mathematics I has studied to that point.