When I think about the true sweet spot in John Dickson Carr’s career, it’s 1938-1939. The Crooked Hinge, The Judas Window, The Problem of the Green Capsule, The Problem of the Wire Cage, The Reader is Warned. Not only is that a lot of books that start with the word “The”, but it’s a list that contains some of his very best work – titles matching some of his strongest puzzles with intriguing plots. Fortunately, I’ve been disciplined enough to hoard a few titles from this period to enjoy at a later time – Death in Five Boxes and Fatal Descent.
Fatal Descent is notable in that Carr shared writing duties with another prolific mystery author of the time – Cecil Street. Street’s writing career spanned roughly the same period as Carr, although he published quite a few more novels, mostly under the names of John Rhode and Miles Burton (I’ll use “Rhode” going forward to avoid confusion). I’ve never read any of his work (his books typically go for $50 dollars at least), but I’ve seen him classified as part of the “humdrum” school of GAD – not exactly an exciting endorsement, especially with money on the line. Still, some prominent members of the GAD blogosphere attest to Rhode’s quality, and so if you’re interested in learning more, I’ll have to point you to a Rhodes scholar (eh, see what I did? Well, it is a somewhat US-centric reference…).
Walking into Fatal Descent, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I haven’t read a multi-author GAD novel yet, and so I was curious to see how much of 1939-era Carr would peek through to the surface, as well as what influence Rhode would provide.
Perhaps it goes without saying (due to the dual-author format), but Fatal Descent is a non-series Carr novel. The story follows Dr Horatio Glass – a police surgeon – as he finds himself mixed up in a murder at a prominent publishing house. Ernest Tallant, owner of a publishing empire, steps into an elevator on the fifth floor of his headquarters and arrives at the bottom quite dead. He’s been shot at close range, which poses a problem. The elevator never stopped on the way down, and as we learn from extensive research, it is quite impossible to have gained access to the elevator shaft under the circumstances.
I’m tempted to say that this is the degree to which Fatal Descent separates itself from the typical Carr novel – in the technical intricacies detailed by Rhode. I’m not sure if that’s really true though; I may just be swayed by other opinions that I’ve read. Over the course of several interviews, Dr Glass comes to learn the mechanisms behind the building’s elevator and how they rule out various avenues for attack – why the elevator doors couldn’t be opened in transit, why no one could have fired from on top of the elevator, the certainty that the victim was alone in the car. I’m tempted to say this is typical for Carr’s better impossibilities – the set up of a puzzle that at first seems to have several potential solutions, each of which are casually eroded by testimony of witnesses and authorities. Perhaps it’s the focus on the mechanics of the elevator that cause other reviewers to suggest that this swerves towards Rhode territory.
Dr Glass fancies himself to be somewhat of a master of solving impossible crimes, although no one else on the force seems to agree – especially Chief Inspector Hornbeam, who arrives soon after the crime to take over the investigation. The relationship between Glass and Hornbeam is an interesting contrast to Carr’s typical Fell/Hadley and Merrivale/Masters pairings. In his typical series work, the chief investigator (Hadley/Masters) would constantly latch onto a false thread, while the series detective (Fell/Merrivale) would mutter riddles suggesting the truth lay elsewhere. In the end, the series detective reveals the chief inspector to have been a fool by showing that the truth was the opposite of what had been assumed.
The Glass/Hornbeam pair doesn’t fit this mold. Although Glass thinks of himself as the brilliant sleuth in the bunch, Hornbeam is actually quite perceptive and makes some key discoveries in the case. In fact, Glass is fairly human for a Carr detective and throws out a number of false solutions for the impossible shooting that turn out to be, well, false.
That’s fun though. I’m a big fan of false solutions and we get quite a few, including an absolute whopper midway through the book that is so brilliant that I would have been fine if the book just ended there. The story continues though and we get another murder, a hair raising elevator scene, and a thrilling reveal of the killer. My one complaint is that the final chapter that explains how the trick was accomplished is a bit drier than some of Carr’s better efforts.
The book read slightly differently from other Carr works, which I assume is due to Rhodes sharing some level of the writing duties. The prose lack the typical Carr flourish, and there was somewhat of a different sense of humor.
At first glance, Glass compared her head to a beautiful sofa cushion, and wondered why.
The differences were subtle though and I could imagine reading this thinking it was a normal Carr work without really noticing. I found it interesting that Carr and Rhode chose to set the story in a publishing house, and there seems to be some barbed commentary running beneath the surface regarding how the business works.
Overall this was an enjoyable read, although it isn’t quite in the same class as the other novels Carr published in 1939. Does this have to do with the split author duties? I’m not sure. The book definitely didn’t have the same level of atmosphere and tension that you get from The Problem of the Green Capsule or The Reader is Warned. The puzzle was still tight and kept in the foreground throughout, which is what I like in my impossible crimes. The solution itself is clever, although not exactly one that spins your mind around. The reveal of the killer was a nice touch, and I love the core of the trick that was employed to evade detection.
My copy of the book was published by Dover Mystery Classics, and seems to be one of the more affordable editions available (although I still had to hunt it down). I wasn’t really a fan of the format of the book. The pages were fairly large, and although the story ran for 149 pages, I get the feeling this would be closer to 220 in a conventional GAD format. That somewhat threw off my sense of progress through the book.