It 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.
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.