Come to Paddington Fair – Derek Smith (1997)

DerekSmithOmnibusI’ll admit it – I’m not one for the theatre.  Don’t get me wrong, attending a play is just fine, I’m just not that mad about mysteries that revolve around one.  There’s this whole world of the stage that seems somewhat alien to me, and as varied as the writers and trappings may be, a theatrical murder plot always feels somewhat the same.  Panic in Box C, Puzzle for Players, Cue for Murder – they’re fine enough stories (although there isn’t anything verging on a classic in those ranks), but you kind of know what you’re going to get.  A cast of suspects made up by, er… the cast… of the play, plus a stage manager or two, a security guard, and maybe a stage hand.  We’ll be taken behind the curtain into a world of grease paint, and subjected to 150+ pages of interviews.  Someone will break into a dressing room at night, plus some antics are sure to occur outside of the bounds of the theatre.

I don’t know… it never really clicked for me.  It’s funny, because many similar tropes apply when it comes to country house murders, but for some reason I tend to enjoy them there.

Come to Paddington Fair is indeed a theatrical crime novel, although it seems promising that we have Derek Smith at the helm  Smith only published one mystery during his career, but it was a blockbuster of a locked room murder – Whistle Up the Devil.  When it comes to brilliant impossible set ups and even more brilliant solutions, that’s the title to go for.  Unfortunately, publishers at the time didn’t agree.  Although Smith wrote a few additional stories, none of them saw the light of day until Come to Paddington Fair was published in a limited run towards the end of Smith’s life.  Fortunately Locked Room International has assembled all of Smith’s output into an omnibus, and if you can overlook the minor inconvenience of holding the equivalent of a phone book while you read, this is must have material.

I’ve heard several people comment that Come to Paddington Fair is actually the better of Smith’s two novels.  In a sense I agree.  While Whistle Ups the Devil is an absolute masterpiece when it comes to the impossible crimes, the actual plot is little more than a vehicle for them to occur and be solved.  That’s not to say it’s a bad read in any way – it’s well paced and engrossing – but you’re not going to walk away with more on your mind other than how good the impossibilities are.

By contrast, Come to Paddington Fair is a well plotted mystery novel of the sort that you could imagine being written by most any well regarded golden age author (for some reason Patrick Quentin comes to mind, but perhaps that’s due to the theatrical similarities with Puzzle for Players).  I don’t know what happened between Whistle Up the Devil and Come to Paddington Fair, but Smith seems to have upped his game when it comes to writing.  And in a sense, Smith is writing a very different type of puzzle.

To start with, we know immediately who the killer is, what their motive is, and how they committed the crime.  Or do we?

Richard Merven has spent years in prison for his part in a bank robbery.  Now released, he wastes no time in tracking down the woman who double crossed him, left him for the cops, and ran off with the loot.  She’s since established herself as a well known actress, and during a performance of her play, Mervan stands up in the audience and shoots her in the heart.  Open and shut case.

But of course it isn’t.  Algy Lawrence (returning from Whistle Up the Devil) is on hand to investigate the case and discovers some irregularities.  The most striking is that the shot that killed the actress came from a different caliber gun than the one Mervan used.

There’s plenty more to it, but that’s the blurb I’ll leave you with.  It’s a twisty puzzle, with each revelation leading to an even more problematic mystery.  Algy spars with the leading investigator, who time and time again wants to make an arrest of whatever suspect is in the worst spot for the moment.  In that sense, the story is littered with false solutions, and they’re convincing enough to satisfy.

This isn’t quite an impossible crime, until late in the book when we realize it actually is.  There’s no real spoiler in that, it’s just that a seemingly open set of possibilities is increasingly winnowed down until the point where there are none.  And it’s in realizing that the crime is in fact impossible that leads to the solution.  I myself got swept up in the penultimate solution, which felt somewhat inevitable.  Fortunately I was wrong, and the true solution was an unforeseen powder keg.

And man, what a bombastic solution it is.  It’s at once incredibly complex and yet startlingly simple; you could almost say it’s too clever for its own good.  There was a bit of a whiplash for me – I, like I imagine any other reader, was focused on the wrong problem – and I’ll admit that it took some time after I’d set the book down for the depth to truly sink in.  That’s not so much a bad thing – I’ve come to find that the solutions that challenge you (such as John Dickson Carr’s It Walks by Night) are the ones that really stick with you in the long term.

So, I obviously enjoyed this one, but it’s not without flaws.  Indeed, Smith’s evolution into the more standard mystery form is both a strength and a weakness.  There’s a large cast of suspects at the theatre, and things get a bit bogged down in an endless series of interviews.  I’m sure you’ve experienced this sensation before – the realization that there are still three suspects that have yet to have their scene, all the while sensing that anything left to come out is simply going to be a red herring.  Plus, with the inevitable theatrical mystery tropes I opened with, there’s a sense that we’ve all been through some of this before.

Ultimately, if you were only going to read one Derek Smith novel, I’d still point you to Whistle Up the Devil.  Come to Paddington Fair is definitely the better written of the two, but is that always what matters?  Sometimes I’ll take that imperfect gem that truly dazzles (see also The White Priory Murders).

5 thoughts on “Come to Paddington Fair – Derek Smith (1997)”

  1. I can’t disagree with anything you say — the things that are better here are probably balanced by elements of the structure that get a bit repetitive — and I’m pleased you enjoyed this as much as you did. I remember going into it with no idea of how good or bad it would be, having loved Whistle Up the Devil, and being delighted with the extra depth in character and the ever-more-complex structuring of the central crime.

    Regardless of which is better, I think we can all agree that a third Algy Lawrence book is what we really needed…

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    1. I haven’t finished the Omnibus, so I’ve yet to pick through all of the footnotes, etc. I’m curious if this Omnibus is truly all that Smith finished off, or if there are more works lost to time. It seems odd that someone could create two well polished novels of this caliber (plus the Blake which I haven’t read), and then only produce an additional short story.

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      1. Given the people involved — Douglas Greene was made executor of Smith’s literary properties, IIRC, and John Pugmire is, to put it mildly, clearly a fan of this sort of story — I reckon that if there were anything else to find these two would probably know about it. Never say never, Tony Medawar will hopefully turn up a pseudonym with 15 novels to its name, but I reckon this is all there is, alas.

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  2. Good review. Have you read Smith’s Sexton Blake story yet? I went in with low expectations but was surprised at how good it was.

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    1. I haven’t polished off the Omnibus yet, so I’ve only read Smith’s two core novels at this point. I recall JJ from The Invisible Event having a similar reaction to you – low expectations and delightfully surprised.

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