Thursday, September 11, 2014

John Dickson Carr’s The Department of Queer Complaints

John Dickson Carr’s The Department of Queer Complaints was published in 1940, under the name Carter Dickson (a pseudonym he often employed). It contains seven short stories featuring his intriguing detective Colonel March. Carr in fact wrote nine Colonel March stories, two of which unfortunately were not included in the 1940 edition of the book (which is the one I have and which is reviewed here).

Colonel March heads D3, a little-known department of Scotland Yard. It is popularly known at the Yard as The Department of Queer Complaints. Any case which seems outlandish and impossible or which sounds like the purest fantasy finds its way to Colonel March. Most such cases turn out to be the products of over-active imaginations but some turn out to be very serious indeed. An ordinary policeman, even an experienced detective, would be able to make no sense of them. Colonel March however has the kind of mind that can take the inexplicable and the bizarre and find a rational explanation. Colonel March’s cases have nothing to do with the occult although some are so puzzling that at first most people would assume that only magic or the supernatural could account for them. Colonel March knows better. It’s just a matter of looking at them in the right way.

Naturally, given the author’s well-known partiality for such tales, the stories can all be described as either locked-room or impossible crime stories. The premise of the book allowed Carr to indulge himself in some particularly odd and baroque variations on his favoured techniques, stories which might otherwise have been considered just a little too quirky.

It is of course impossible to say very much about these kinds of stories without risking spoilers so I will confine myself to giving merely a hint of the flavour of these tales.

In The New Invisible Man a man who takes rather too great an interest in his neighbours witnesses a murder committed by a pair of white gloves. This is a rather light-hearted story and it’s a great deal of fun.

The Footprint in the Sky stretches credibility just a little too far. The footprint in question, at a crime scene, is found where no footprint could possible be found. It is a story which, to my tastes, crosses the line into mere gimmickry and even silliness.

The Crime in Nobody’s Room concerns a murder in a flat. It is not all that unusual for bodies to disappear but in this case the flat itself disappears. It’s rather enjoyable even if the solution depends on a plot device that is rather convenient. But then as Leslie Charteris once observed, coincidences do have a habit of coinciding.

Hot Money has Colonel March trying to recover money stolen in a bank robbery, money which then disappears. This is by far the weakest story and left me feeling just a little cheated.

Things improve markedly with Death in the Dressing-Room, a story involving a Javanese dance in a night-club and a murder. It has a clever and intricate plot that comes together very neatly indeed. A great story and probably the best one in this collection.

The Silver Curtain takes Colonel March to France, to a fashionable casino and a neat impossible crime. A young Englishman who has had very bad luck at the tables almost falls victim to even greater misfortune. 

Error at Daybreak has another impossible crime. A financier suddenly drops dead on a beach. A brief medical examination indicates murder but there was nobody within a hundred yards of him and nobody heard any gunshots. The cause of death points to an unusual murder method. The police have a suspect but little evidence, but luckily Colonel March is on hand. This is another fine story. It uses devices that have been used often since but they’re handled with skill.

This short story collection was the basis for an entertaining 1955 British television series, Colonel March of Scotland Yard, with Boris Karloff as Colonel March. The 26 episodes included adaptations (some more faithful than others) of the seven original stories.

One oddity is that in the TV series Boris Karloff sports an eye-patch. The stories frequently mention Colonel March’s “eye” rather than “eyes” but make no mention of an eye-patch and no explicit mention of a missing eye.  

Any short story collection is likely to be somewhat uneven but five successes out of seven is not a bad result. Colonel March is a genial and rather appealing detective which gives even the weaker stories some entertainment value. On the whole I think I can safely recommend this one.

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