Saturday, September 19, 2015

From O. Reader

The Plot Thickens...
From a young age I have enjoyed detective stories. I probably started at kindergarten with Enid Blyton’s series about the Five Find-Outers, with the regular policeman called Mr Goon and portrayed as an idiot. Words like “politically incorrect” sort of come to mind today. Indeed, an internet search shows that contemporary reprints of the Blyton canon have censored them for the fragile sensibilities of modern readers.
But it was when I went up to the ‘big school’ that I discovered Agatha Christie. My obsessive nature had already kicked in, because I know that I read 36 of her books, probably straight off. How did I know? Because I made a list of everything she’d written up until then, and crossed them off as I read them. I know it totalled 36 because something snapped inside my head at that point, and I gave a scream, threw a book across a school corridor, and didn’t touch another Agatha Christie for many decades.
A contributory factor was no doubt discovering John Dickson Carr – the master of the macabre. For Carr, character was two dimensional, pure cardboard. All that mattered was the puzzle. He specialised in the principles of conjuring, and “magic” often featured in his plots. Impossible mysteries, particularly of the “locked room” variety, were his speciality. You could forget the cardboardity of character – all that mattered was not even whodunit, but HOWdunit?
I came to Carr via the radio. He’d lived in Britain for many years, and actually wrote many radio plays himself that were broadcast on the CBS network in the States. But Britain had a reputation for much longer plays than those normally heard on American radio – basically because the need for sponsors and advertisers never reared its head for the BBC. I remember being glued to my valve portable radio (the size of a large brick) under the bedclothes, listening to Carr’s The Hollow Man, hoping that a parent wouldn’t come upstairs and make me turn it off.
The Americans called The Hollow Man, The Three Coffins. This was a shame, because in a sense, it spoiled one of the plot twists. But there were two impossible murders in the same book.
A professor warns his friends that he may receive a strange visitor and be in danger. They are to watch the door of his study, but not intervene unless called to do so. A strange visitor does indeed come to the house, wearing a mask. Obediently they let him hammer on the professor’s door. The professor opens and there is a scuffle. The visitor forces his way into the room and the door is slammed shut. Concerned witnesses knock on the door but are told to go away. Then a little while later a gunshot is heard. Battering the door down, they find the professor dying on the floor from a gunshot wound. But – there is no gun. And no second person. He’s gone. He’s been the Hollow Man. There is no conceivable hiding place. OK, so the window is wide open, but there is snow on the ledge and it appears that only Spiderman could have exited that way.
Next chapter, a man is walking along the middle of a road in the snow. There are several witnesses to events including a policeman. A voice shouts “the second bullet is for you” and a gun is fired. They race to the man who has fallen down, shot in the back. The gun is lying in the snow a few feet from him – no fingerprints of course, and footprints in the ever-convenient snow show that no-body else had been near him.
Those were two of the three coffins in the American title.
Whodunit? More important, how was it done? WELL, I’M NOT GOING TO TELL YOU, AM I! You will just have to read the book, or cheat and Google it.
Another one was called The Reader is Warned - and the subsequent radio serial The Listener is Warned. It was all about a strange character called Pennick, who claimed he could think you dead. And if he did, you were! And - horror of horrors - THE NEXT VICTIM COULD BE YOU!
It was written at the start of the Second World War, and I guess the idea of thinking murderous thoughts and Hitler and Mussolini falling off their perch to order, sort of struck a popular chord in Britain.
It is probably safe to say that a modern CSI unit would make short work of the problem, but in Carr’s day it worked.
Carr, like all good detective fiction writers from the “Golden Age”, was a master of deception. It’s like the magician’s scantily-clad female assistant bouncing around on stage. She causes men in the audience to focus all eyes on her face (I said HER FACE, her face which is UP HERE) and their female companions in turn to glower at THEM – all to give the performer his edge in the art of misdirection. In like manner, Carr spun a convoluted web with added attractions that made you miss the “clues” that were staring you in the obvious. It meant that books were often read a second time, unless of course you cheated and read the end first!
Decades later I tried to return to Carr’s work, but apart from a couple of exceptions (the above two being examples) I now found much of the canon unreadable. So I sold off the collection to help pay for my daughter’s wedding. Did very well out of it too.
Nowadays, I still like puzzles, but character and wit of writing score much higher. So I read writers like Josephine Tey (Golden Age) and Ann Cleeves (modern) for character, and Simon Brett and Catherine Aird for wit – this is my favorite chewing gum for the eyes of the moment. The puzzles seem to do better as radio plays or as TV or film dramas.
As Sherlock Holmes never actually did say in the books – it’s elementary my dear Occasional...

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