The Gentleman From Paris – John Dickson Carr (1950)

GentlemanFromParis

I wouldn’t normally write about a single short story.  At least, I think I wouldn’t.  As much as I love a short mystery, I’ve mostly avoided the form since I started reading through John Dickson Carr’s library.  I know that a few of his shorts share elements with a novel or two, and I’d rather ruin the abbreviated form if it comes to that.  Of course, that shouldn’t keep me from digging into other author’s short stories, but somehow I’ve formed a bit of a habit.

Well, here I am, talking about a short story… by John Dickson Carr no less.  I’ve been making my way slowly through The Quintessence of Queen #2 (#1 is reviewed here), and figured I might as well read the one Carr story contained within.  Suffice to say, it was good enough that I’m actually writing more than a blurb about it.

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Black Maria M.A. – John Russell Fearn (1944)

BlackMariaFor my second John Russell Fearn read, I decided to go with the first novel in the Black Maria series.  From what I’ve read, this run of books contains some of Fearn’s better work, so it seemed like a good way to get a firmer sense of the author.  Plus, these novels are kind of hard to lay your hands on, so I didn’t exactly have much to choose from.

Black Maria M.A introduces us to Maria Black, the headmistress of Roseway College for Young Ladies.  Black has a reputation with the girls as a strict disciplinarian, although we don’t get to experience this first hand, as Black immediately leaves on a summer vacation trip to New York City.  Well, it isn’t exactly a vacation – Black has been summoned by the lawyer for her deceased brother, Ralph Black.  Ralph established a massive fortune as the first person to can broccoli (you read that right), and then branched out his business into a sprawling enterprise.

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The Moai Island Puzzle – Alice Arisugawa (1989)

MoaiIslandPuzzleThe Moai Island Puzzle is my first foray into honkaku – Japanese puzzle mysteries steeped in the style of the classics of the golden age.  Thanks to Locked Room International, a handful or so are available in English translation, and I’ve had a number kicking around my To Be Read pile for a while.  That I finally read one was on a bit of a whim.  I was looking for an off the wall impossible crime, which naturally meant reaching for a Paul Halter.  I remembered though that JJ at the Invisible Event had ranked The Moai Island Puzzle as his favorite release by Locked Room International, so I decided to go for a new angle.

The book is absolutely loaded with puzzles, with chapter names suggestive of the type of problem within – Locked Room Puzzle, Bicycle Puzzle, Moai Puzzle, Suicide Puzzle, Jigsaw Puzzle…  If you’re a fan of impossible crime fiction because you’re drawn in by the promise of a mystery that’s going to get your mind working, this one’s definitely for you.  Better yet, the novel is fashioned very much in the fashion of a 1930s GAD novel.  We start out with a map and a list of dramatis personae, then end with a challenge to the reader before the denouement.  Very Ellery Queen-esque, at least in the early sense, although I’ll argue much more successful.

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Death from a Top Hat – Clayton Rawson (1938)

DeathFromATopHatClayton Rawson was a real life magician, and he imbued his debut novel with seemingly every trick up his sleeve.  The set up of Death from a Top Hat is an impossible crime lover’s dream – multiple locked room murders, a “no footprints in the snow” crime scene, and a suspect who vanishes into thin air.  It’s no wonder that this book made position number seven on Ed Hoch’s famed 1981 list of top impossible crime novels.

We encounter the first puzzle – a locked room murder – within mere pages.  A magician is found strangled to death inside his apartment, his body spread out over the form of a pentagram.  Occult objects litter the room, but the real strangeness lies in how sealed down the crime scene is.  Both doors to the apartment are locked and bolted from within.  Scraps of handkerchief have been pushed into each keyhole – from the inside.  A couch is pressed up tightly against one door.  All windows are secured and show no sign of being tampered with.

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The Five Matchboxes – John Russell Fearn (1950)

TheFiveMatchBoxesAn anonymous letter tips police off that a man will be killed at an exact time and place.  The police stake out the location, even posting a man in a hall right out the murder room.  Right on time, a shot rings out, and as police break down the door, they find a victim lies dead of a gunshot in an airtight locked room.  And sitting there, on the table, are ten teacups.

Er, actually it’s five matchboxes.  Forgive me though if I make the obvious comparison to The Ten Teacups by John Dickson Carr.  John Russell Fearn’s novel was published thirteen years after Carr’s, and it checks all of the boxes when it comes to the set up.  Man shot in a locked room?  Check.  Detective posted directly outside the door, with even more police watching the building from outside?  Check.  Mysterious note announcing the exact circumstances of the murder?  Check.  Puzzling collection of objects found at the crime scene (five matchboxes rather than ten teacups)?  Check.

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The Dead Man’s Knock – John Dickson Carr (1958)

deadmansknock“Fly open, lock, to the dead man’s knock”

The Dead Man’s Knock marks a return of John Dickson Carr’s series detective Dr Gideon Fell following a nine year hiatus.  Carr had published Fell novels on at least a yearly basis throughout the 1930’s, and almost as reliably in the 1940s, aside from a smattering of gaps.  Below Suspicion (1949) marked an end to the detective’s run, as the author took a detour into historical mysteries starting in 1950 with The Bride of Newgate.  It’s interesting to note that although Dr Fell had been abandoned, Carr’s other contemporary series detective, Sir Henry Merrivale, would still feature into a smattering of books up until The Cavalier’s Cup in 1953.

At that point, Carr was pretty much focused exclusively on the historical mystery genre.  While locked rooms and other impossibilities would make fleeting appearances in each book, the stories were more plot driven swashbuckling adventures soaked in historical trivia – not something that appeals to me on paper, but with Carr at the helm they hit the spot.  Interestingly enough, only one contemporary mystery was published between 1952 and 1958.  Patrick Butler for the Defense (1956) was a spiritual sequel to Below Suspicion, but didn’t actually feature Dr Fell.

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The Skeleton in the Clock – Carter Dickson (1948)

skeletonintheclockHow on earth was The Skeleton in the Clock not on my radar?  Well, I mean, I obviously knew about the book – I’ve owned it for a few years and it’s shifted positions in my To Be Read pile enough times as it is.  It’s just that I didn’t realize it was going to be this good.  Let me explain.

Although I’d describe myself as being more of a fan of John Dickson Carr’s series detective Dr Fell, my favorite run of books may well be the near dozen early Sir Henry Merrivale novels published under the name of Carter Dickson between 1934 and 1940.  The set ups to those books were classic – confounding puzzles that set the standard for the genre of impossible crime.  Better yet, Carr wrapped these stories in a smothering atmosphere of pure dread.  Rooms that kill, ghostly hangmen, killers who commit their crimes by mere thought; I just love this stuff.  Granted, there’s a natural explanation behind it all in the end, but these are stories that make you question whether you’re dealing with something much more sinister.

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