Friday, February 15, 2019

John Dickson Carr’s The Mad Hatter Mystery

The Mad Hatter Mystery, written in 1933, was the second of John Dickson Carr’s Dr Gideon Fell mysteries. It gives Carr the opportunity to indulge two of his particular enthusiasms - for gothic horror and for farce.

These enthusiasms are obvious right from the start. A young man is found dead, clearly murdered, near Traitor’s Gate in the Tower of London. To make things even more medieval the murder weapon is a crossbow bolt. The farcical touch - the corpse is dressed in a golf suit but is wearing an opera hat that is absurdly over-large.

The victim was a reporter who had been amazing London with his accounts of the recent exploits of the most daring hat thief in history. That the reporter who had been covering the story was found dead wearing a ludicrous item of stolen headgear is both disturbingly absurd and ironic.

Carr was famous as the master of the locked room mystery but The Mad Hatter Mystery is not a locked room puzzle. It is not even an impossible crime. A most strange and extraordinary crime certainly, but definitely far from impossible.

Chief Inspector Hadley finds himself with a multiplicity of crimes to solve - there is not merely a series of hat thefts and a murder, there is also a stolen manuscript. It’s the manuscript of a hitherto unknown Edgar Allan Poe detective story. This makes it immensely valuable and of course it’s a lovely playful touch to have a detective story about the theft of a detective story.

Even with Dr Fell’s help Hadley finds this to be a tough case. Finally we are approaching the end of the book and the mist begins to clear and the truth is revealed. The solution is strange and complex but it’s undoubtedly true. Except that it isn’t. So it’s back to the drawing board. Thankfully the real solution is now obvious. Except that it isn’t. It seems that it will never be possible to get to the bottom of these strange crimes.

This is a dazzling display of plotting pyrotechnics by Carr.

Physical evidence plays very little part in this mystery. Alibis on the other hand are important. Motives are crucial but in this case not always easy to pin down. A major  problem is the fact that the murder is not the only crime to be considered. A satisfactory solution will have to tie together all those crimes, and the motives for all those crimes.

This is a very funny book. Carr loved to add touches of humour to his book and on occasion he would lay on the comic elements with a shovel. Sometimes he overdid it but The Mad Hatter Mystery is a fine example of how to write a very amusing mystery that is still a superbly crafted example of the art of the detective story and to emphasise Carr’s complete mastery he also manages to make it an emotionally affecting novel. However bizarre the circumstances murder is still tragedy.

If you’re a hardcore Dr Fell fan then the good news is that he’s at the centre of things right from the start.

I don’t intend to give even the slightest hint about the ending. All I will say is that some readers will disapprove.

I haven’t read enough of Carr’s work to be able to say whether this qualifies as one of his best books but I certainly found The Mad Hatter Mystery to be insanely enjoyable. Highly recommended.

Friday, February 8, 2019

James P. Hogan's Inherit the Stars

James P. Hogan (1941-2010) was an English science fiction writer. Inherit the Stars, published in 1977, was his first novel. He later wrote four sequels. It has been described as a mystery-science fiction hybrid. Which it is, in a sort of a way. It’s not a whodunit type of mystery but the main thrust of the plot is the search for a solution to a puzzle. The methods used in weighing up evidence, interpreting the evidence and then fitting the clues together to find a solution do bear many resemblances to the methods used by detectives in the golden age of detective fiction.

The book is set in 2027. We get a brief background on the world of 2027 and this is by far the weakest part of the book. Hogan’s ideas on the directions that history might take are silly childish wishful thinking. Technology has solved all problems of scarcity and energy supply and the nations of the Earth have spontaneously decided to abandon nationalism and wars and to embrace a warm and fuzzy universal brotherhood under the benevolent leadership of the United Nations. All races and ethnicities have been erased. All religions have been abandoned. We are all one. It’s John Lennon’s Imagine come true.

With war abolished humanity has decided to embrace the Space Age with enthusiasm. Our future is in the stars! So it can be said to be an attempt to make such an enthusiasm seem plausible, since in 1977 Hogan must have been painfully aware that public interest in the space program had in fact evaporated almost entirely.

None of this nonsense matters once the story gets going. The mystery at the centre of the tale is Charlie (Charlie not being his name but the name that the scientists end up giving him). Charlie is dead. His body was found on the Moon. What makes it a mystery is that Charlie did not belong to any of the lunar colonies or expeditions. And he has been dead for 50,000 years. The real puzzle though is that Charlie is human. This is of course impossible. But nonetheless Charlie remains stubbornly human.

British scientist/inventor/ideas man/all-round genius Victor Hunt is one of the many scientists called in to solve the puzzle. Hunt’s most successful invention is the Trimagniscope which is a device that creates a holographic image of any object that it scans. The clever bit is that it can see inside objects as well. In 1977 this sounded very high-tech indeed. The device is going to be used not only to look inside Charlie’s body, but also to allow the two books which were fund with Charlie’s body to be read without having to open them (since they’re very fragile and would disintegrate if opened).

This is very much hard science fiction. There is zero characterisation. To me that’s no problem. I don’t read science fiction for character studies.

The entire plot is the gradual unraveling of the puzzle. Here we get another intriguing resemblance to detective fiction - as more and more pieces of the jigsaw puzzle are found the picture gets clearer and clearer and then the next piece of evidence turns up and it doesn’t fit at all. Just as fictional detectives find themselves having to scrap elegant theories so the scientists have to do the same. Theory after theory gets discarded. The problem is not a lack of clues - there are plenty of clues but they all seem to point to radically different solutions.

Like any good writer of detective fiction Hogan delights in keeping his investigators on their toes. If they jump to conclusions they end up chasing down blind alleys. There are no red herrings as such. All the clues are real. They are all pieces of the same jigsaw puzzle but it’s like trying to assemble a jigsaw puzzle when you have no idea whatsoever what the final picture is going to be. It’s also, like a golden age detective story, a fair-play mystery. The clues necessary to solve the puzzle are available to the scientists, and to some extent to the reader (assuming he knows a certain amount about evolution, cosmology, vulcanology and planetary formation). The scientists certainly have the clues, but it takes a leap of intuition by Victor Hunt to see that the clues can only be assembled in one way that makes sense.

It’s also amusing that like so many detective novels it ends with the scientist-detective gathering everyone together to explain the solution to the mystery!

Not only does this book have much of the structure of a golden age detective story, it even has definite affinities with that fascinating sub-genre, the impossible crime story. There’s obviously no crime, but there are impossibilities that must be resolved.

It’s one of those hard SF novels that deals with Big Themes. Structurally it might be a mystery novel but thematically it’s unequivocally science fiction. The scope of the book is decidedly epic. Hogan stated in interviews that he was inspired to write Inherit the Stars after seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey. He loved the movie but hated the ending. He decided to try his hand at writing a novel with the same basic theme. There are definite plot similarities, and the feel is very similar. Arthur C. Clarke was known for his profound lack of interest in characterisation. Which by the way I agree with - I think characterisation is an unnecessary distraction in both science fiction and detective fiction. You could say that Inherit the Stars takes the initial premise of 2001 and then takes it in completely different directions. In fact it’s the kinship to detective fiction that differentiates it most sharply from 2001 - Hogan wants an ending that ties up all the loose ends.

Inherit the Stars is ideas-based science fiction and the ideas are genuinely interesting but it’s the slow, devious, tortuous and extremely clever unravelling of a complex puzzle that makes it enthralling. Highly recommended.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Rupert Penny's Sealed Room Murder

Rupert Penny was one of the pseudonyms used by Ernest Basil Charles Thornett (1909-1970), an English author who wrote a small number of mystery novels between 1936 and 1941. Sealed Room Murder was one of his last mysteries, published in 1941. It is, very obviously, a locked-room mystery.

This is a book that makes us wait a long long time for the murder. Private enquiry agent Douglas Merton is hired to find out who is harassing Mrs Harriet Steele. It’s almost certainly someone from within her own household, and what a grotesque household it is.

Harriet Steele had been an acrobat but she is now obese, crude and thoroughly unpleasant. By the terms of a very cruel and malicious will a tribe of penniless relatives lives with her, all hoping that somehow they can find a way to get their hands on the Steele fortune. The will forces Harriet to put up with them but she doesn’t have to like it and she doesn’t have to make things pleasant for them. And she certainly makes things incredibly unpleasant for them.

Now it appears that one of them has decided to strike back by launching a low-level campaign of intimidation. Clothing has been ruined, a very expensive mink coat has been slashed, Harriet’s clocks (she collects clocks) have been sabotaged, and expensive flooring has been hacked to pieces.

Harriet is a monster but the rest of the family are not much better. Merton is inclined to think that they all deserve each other. Except for Linda. Linda is different. Linda is a lovely girl. Linda could not possibly have anything to do with anything nasty or malicious. Douglas Merton is not exactly an unbiased witness on the subject of young Linda Whitehead.

Merton’s presence in Harriet Steele’s ugly and depressing house doesn’t deter the miscreant behind the harassment. In fact things start to escalate. And various members of the household report having items stolen or maliciously damaged.

The book mainly consists of a lengthy first-person account of Merton’s inconclusive investigations of the harassment of Harriet Steele. Merton tells us right from the start that he’s not much of a detective and I think most readers will agree with his self-assessment. The point of this lengthy prelude to murder is to establish the dynamics of the household and to establish that while everyone in the house had reason to hate Mrs Steele a number of people had possible motives for wanting to do away with her. We already know, because we’ve been told, that it’s going to end in murder so this is all by way of getting us to indulge in speculation on the identity of the killer even before the murder takes place.

Once the murder takes place the actual investigation of that crime (by Chief Inspector Beale of Scotland Yard) is quickly disposed of. Which is an interesting and decidedly odd choice on the part of the author because this is a detective story in which the whodunit aspect is of very little importance. It’s the how that is important - that’s the aspect of the story in which Penny has invested all his ingenuity and on which the success of the book must stand or fall.

And the how is very very complicated indeed! There are numerous floor plans and diagrams and they’re all needed. It’s the kind of murder method that no real-life murderer would even contemplate, not only on account of its complexity but also because there are so many ways in which it could have failed. On the other hand it is certainly very clever. If you’re a connoisseur of bizarre murder methods and outrageous impossible crimes then this novel should prove eminently satisfying.

It’s also reasonably fairly clued, although even with plenty of clues the fiendish complexity of the murder will probably be enough to ensure that most readers will remain mystified until Chief Inspector Beale’s final explanation.

While the long long lead-up could be seen as a weakness it’s actually quite entertaining, especially if you enjoy books with a plenitude of grotesque characters. Douglas Merton is an interesting protagonist because he’s a private detective but in fact he’s entirely useless in that capacity (although he’s a pleasant enough young chap). There’s no proper detecting done until Chief Inspector Beale’s arrival on the scene. There are plenty of detective stories in which a brilliant amateur solves a case that is beyond the powers of a baffled and incompetent professional. This is a story in which a brilliant professional solves a case that has left an incompetent amateur befuddled and bewildered.

Sealed Room Murder is a slightly odd but fairly enjoyable book with a wonderfully complicated locked-room problem. Highly recommended.

Rupert Penny’s mysteries were re-issued a few years back by Ramble House. So they’re available, but they’re just a little on the pricey side.