Whistle Up the Devil – Derek Smith (1953)

DerekSmithOmnibusIt feels like ages since I’ve mentioned the top locked room lists cited by John Pugmire in A Locked Room Library.  It’s an excellent reference, providing a top 15 locked room mystery list initiated by Ed Hoch with the help of other luminaries of detective fiction, along with a list of ninety nine novels for “any respectable” locked room library compiled by another set of genre experts.  I’ve by no means read through this list exhaustively (why would I rob myself of future enjoyment?), and yet I feel compelled to drop the following declaration: Derek Smith’s Whistle Up the Devil is easily one of the top locked room mysteries ever published.

Bear in mind, Whistle Up the Devil didn’t even make the original Ed Hoch list – apparently Helen McCloy’s Through a Glass Darkly and Ellery Queen’s The King is Dead and The Chinese Orange Mystery were felt to be better entries, although I can’t imagine that many would agree.  Whistle Up the Devil did make the list of 99, but for that matter so did John Dickson Car’s The Dead Man’s Knock (crap), Night at the Mocking Widow (bad story but bizarre clever impossibility), and The Curse of the Bronze Lamp (decent enough story but tiptoeing the line on being impossible).

Most all of the books on these lists feature a strong impossibility of some sort, some containing multiple.  In the case of Whistle Up the Devil, we’re treated to two air tight locked room.  It’s the solutions to those puzzles though that really separate Derek Smith’s first novel from the pack.

Things start off with a trope that I always love – an unsolved murder from the past.  The Querrin family has a long standing tradition – on the eve of the the eldest son’s marriage, a meeting would be conducted in a locked study wherein a secret would be passed down from father to son.  One such ceremony ended with a knife in the son’s back and the father dead.  Decades later, descendant Roger Querrin decides to “whistle up the devil” on the eve of his own marriage, by locking himself in the deadly room to see if a family ghost might pass the secret on to him.

It’s all kind of crazy stuff – especially given that the knife from the past murder is hanging on the study wall – and Roger’s brother and fiancé aren’t taking any chances.  Unable to talk sense into Roger, they enlist the help of the local police and private detective Algy Lawrence to watch over the ceremony.  Roger locks himself in the study while the police and Lawrence stand guard at the only two exits.  A scream is heard, and when the door is finally broken down, Roger Querrin lies dead on the floor, a knife in his back.

Now, this is as air tight as it gets.  Not only were the two doors to the room locked from the inside and under observation, but the house is surrounded by a muddy flowerbed devoid of any markings.  It’s all so impossible that I thought that Smith was going to have to resort to a Big Bow Mystery solution – no spoiler, since it’s a theory which is even raised by characters in the book.  You see, Smith populates his story with mystery lovers, which means we get a thorough examination of all of the possible solutions.  Detective Lawrence even drags out Dr Fell’s famed locked room lecture from John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man (a la Nine Times Nine) to illustrate how vexing the puzzle is.

And that’s not all!  Smith produces a second impossibility that’s just as air tight as the first.  It occurs late enough in the book that I won’t go into much detail, but a man is strangled in his jail cell – again with all exits under observation.

Admittedly, the story’s a bit thin on plot.  It’s mostly a vehicle to set up, examine, and explain the impossibilities.  Smith paints on enough of a facade for a semblance of a story, but it’s not much.  The characters aren’t much either, perhaps with the exception of the main policeman.  Detective Algy Lawrence doesn’t leave that much of an impression, although at two points in the book he points a loaded gun directly at another character – once as a joke(!!!) and another time out of shear carelessness.

Screw characters and plot though – this one’s all about the puzzles.  And man, the solutions to both puzzles are outstanding.  The solution to the first is at once complex as well as dead simple.  I’m still kicking myself over the relevance of a particular something… well, no spoilers.

But talk about kicking myself – the solution to the murder in the jail is flat out brilliant in its simplicity.  There’s this moment of revelation that I think I only ever experienced before when reading the solution to Carr’s The White Priory Murders (although I recently got a taste of it with The Footprints of Satan); a complete reversal of an assumption that any reader is inevitably inclined to make.

I put this book down feeling giddy.  This isn’t the best story, but it is easily one of the best impossible crime novels ever written.  Thankfully Smith wrote two additional books, and I’ve heard that Come to Paddington Fair is actually better than Whistle Up the Devil.

My edition

It used to be that Whistle Up the Devil was as easy to track down as a copy of Christianna Brand’s The Death of Jezebel (which I will get my hands on some day!).  Thankfully Locked Room International reissued it, and it’s available both stand alone as well as part of The Derek Smith Omnibus: a collection of Smith’s three novels (one being never before published).  The unreleased content was too much to resist, and so I had to go with the Omnibus.

I’m glad I did.  The Omnibus has some nice extras, although I’ll only discuss the ones I’ve gotten to so far.  First, we have an introduction written by Robert Adey (of locked room fame).  It talks about the locked room mystery genre, provides some background on Derek Smith, and details some conversations between the two authors.  That’s all interesting stuff, but the real gold here is the books that Adey name drops – The Broken O by Carolyn Wells, A Nineteenth Century Miracle by Louis Zangwill (brother of Israel), and From Clue to Dock by CL McCluer Stevens (featuring the real life locked room murder of Rose Delacourt).  Yeah, I’ve got some book hunting to do…

The Omnibus also features a letter between Adey and Smith in which they discuss a potential weakness in the solution to the first murder.  You’ve got to love little insights like that.

The one downside to the Omnibus is that it’s large – this is three plus books rolled into one.  I was brought back to my college days with the thick text books that you can never quite read comfortably.  Hey, you can always buy the Omnibus for the extra stuff, plus the individual copies of Whistle Up the Devil and Come to Paddington Fair for convenient reading.

18 thoughts on “Whistle Up the Devil – Derek Smith (1953)”

  1. Yay! Delighted to see you enjoyed this so much — it’s a wonderful book, so airtight on the impossibilities front, and I do love that letter in which Smith suggests a slight amendment to the problem and solution…as you say, it’s the little touches like this, the knowing that someone is still pushing the pieces around in their mind, which really enrich a Special Edition like this. We were robbed of a real talent in the subgenre when Smith didn’t get anything published after this. The Sexton Blake novella is in no way emblematic of other Sexton Blake novellas — so you can understand to an extent why the estate rejected it — but, dude, turning something down because it makes everyone else look bad seems like sour grapes to me…

    And surely, surely we can’t be too far away from a reprint of Death of Jezebel. There are John Dickson Carr novels back in actual bookshops, so Brand must be on the way, right?

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    1. Another nice touch that I forgot to mention is the cover. I had assumed this was another “guy stands looking down a dark street” cover (not that there’s anything wrong with those), but then noticed that it’s showing the police officer’s view of the room where the first crime occurs.

      I’m glad to hear that the Sexton Blake novella is really good (I recalled you reviewed it, but couldn’t remember your rating). When I heard that it was a continuation of a series, I assumed it just wouldn’t be as good – not sure that is solid reasoning, but that is how my mind works some times.

      As for Death of Jezebel – what on earth is going on? I find myself contemplating purchasing $80 ex-lib editions, which is four times more than I can ever imagine spending on a novel.

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      1. Death of Jezebel is a great book, easily my favourite Brand of the seven I’ve read, and such a wonderfully complex mystery. I’m wondering if the Otto Penzler American Mystery Classics line has it in their sites…and if not, I’d like to know why 😉

        The cover of this LRI edition of Whistle is marvellous , eh? One of those rare occasions when the reprint cover is designed to an equally high quality as the original book (the Thriller Book Club edition showing Roger having been stabbed in the back).

        And as for Sexton Blake, I read a few early stories to put Smith’s take in context and sort of wish I hadn’t bothered. They’re pretty standalone, and there’s nothing really to be gained (except you might spend some time wondering when Pedro is going to turn up 🤣). Read context-free with impunity.

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  2. I really liked this one. Didn’t really like Algy (Smith was so adept at the genre, it seems, he even got the unnecessary romance part down, too!) But the mystery was really well-done. I haven’t gotten around to reading the rest of the omnibus, but I’ve heard ‘Come to Paddington Fair’ is also another strong one…

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  3. You might disagree with me, as JJ did, but I don’t think Come to Paddington Fair is quite as good as Whistle Up the Devil. But that’s like arguing which Carr or Christie is slightly more brilliant than the other. Smith was a craftsman of the locked room mystery and, as JJ said, his Sexton Blake novella was turned down because it was too good for a dime thriller audience!

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  4. So glad you liked this one. JJ gifted me an absolutely beautiful hardback copy of this that sits in absolute pride on my shelf.

    I found this book to be so tightly wound it was almost unreal. How Smith made something so so like the interior of a high tech safe lock I’ll never know. It’s felt to me in many ways like the ultimate example of pure puzzle plotting.

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    1. That’s quite the gift you got there! You’re right about the puzzle being tightly wound. Every piece is laid out just perfectly to allow those gears to spin together in just the right way. The trick is that the reader sees the position of each gears, but doesn’t take into account how they change as they spin.

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  5. I had mixed feelings about this one…I definitely agree that the “how” was excellent, but for me the “who” was REALLY obvious because of some rookie mistakes made by Smith. I’ll put this in ROT13:

    Jurarire Fzvgu jevgrf sebz gur crefcrpgvir bs Crgre be Uneqvatr, ur gevrf jnl gbb uneq gb fnl “nzovthbhf” guvatf gung pna or vagrecergrq va zhygvcyr jnlf. Sbe rknzcyr, ba ct. 17 bs gur Bzavohf Crgre vf “fher…gung uvf oebgure’f yvsr qrcraqrq ba Ynjerapr’f nafjre” (jul jbhyq ur or “fher” bs guvf hayrff ur uvzfrys vf cybggvat gb gnxr uvf oebgure’f yvsr?), be Uneqvatr guvaxvat ba ct. 58 gung “vg jbhyq zbfgyl qrcraq hcba Ynjerapr” jvgubhg fnlvat jung “vg” vf.

    But you have a really good one in store with COME TO PADDINGTON FAIR, which is terrific in both the “how” and the “who” departments.

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    1. Reply in ROT-13 as well:

      Gur bayl punenpgref jub pbhyq unir znqr fyvtugyl fhecevfvat phycevgf jrer gur cbyvprzna naq gur ybir vagrerfg. Gur oebgure jnf fb boivbhfyl thvygl gung V unq gb nffhzr vg jnf n unz unaqrq erq ureevat. Gur hapyr sryg yvxr n ovg bs na boivbhf pubvpr nf jryy.

      V jnf irel pbafpvbhf bs gur inthr jbeqvat jura gur crefcrpgvir fuvsgrq gb gur ivrj bhgfvqr bs gur jvaqbj. V ragregnvarq gur cbffvovyvgl bs gur cbyvprzna orvat gur phycevg, ohg raqrq hc abg sbphfvat ba vg gbb zhpu orpnhfr gur chmmyr vgfrys jnf fb crecyrkvat.

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  6. After reading your review last week, I ordered a copy of WUTD for my Kindle – and I loved it. Both the impossibilities are brilliant, although I have to admit I had my eye on the guilty party once I caught on that (rot-13) gur xrl gung Nytl sbhaq ba gur qrnq zna jnf abg arprffnevyl gur npghny xrl gb gur ebbz.

    Great point that this whole book is basically two impossibilities, plus extended discussions of both, with a few other incidents scattered throughout to give the semblance of a plot. I think this could have been even better if Smith had scrapped the unnecessary elements (Algy was looking for his lady, yecch) and condensed WUTD into a novella. In particular, the whole sequence leading up to the naming of the killer just seemed to drag on and on, the exact opposite of what a scene like that ought to be. I think if I ever take a crack at writing my own limpossible-crime mystery, it will be closer to the length of “The Third Bullet” or “The Lamp of God” rather than a full-length novel.

    Anyway, thanks for the pointer! Come to Paddington Fair is also available for Kindle, so I’ll be ordering a copy of that one as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it. There are only so many of these really great reads, and it can be hard not to just gulp them all down at once.

      I’m surprised that you caught onto the thing in your ROT-13 comment. That never would have occurred to me.

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