Monday, June 15, 2015

C. Daly King’s The Complete Curious Mr Tarrant

Charles Daly King (1895-1963) was an American who devoted most of his career to psychology. During the 1930s he wrote half a dozen mystery novels and a collection of short stories, The Curious Mr Tarrant (published in 1935). These eight short stories, along with a handful of others written later, have been published in paperback by Crippen and Landru as The Complete Curious Mr Tarrant.

These tales are certainly not conventional murder mysteries. In some cases it is doubtful if a crime has even been committed. They are however stories of detection. In some ways they resemble the school of occult detective fiction that was enormously popular in the early part of the 20th century. Strange events occur, events which at first appear to be supernatural in origin (in today’s parlance they would more likely be referred to as manifestations of the paranormal). In most occult detective fiction the solution really is supernatural although quite frequently the events do turn out to have a perfectly rational explanation.

In the Mr Tarrant stories there is always a rational explanation. Well, almost always. Just to keep us on our toes King does on very rare occasions actually involve the supernatural. These stories are all in their various ways impossible crime stories and they include a number of true locked-room mysteries.

Mr Tarrant is a gentleman of leisure residing in New York City who happens to have a keen interest in odd unexplained mysteries. He pursues this interest on a strictly amateur basis. He is assisted by his Japanese butler-valet Katoh. Katoh is a most useful individual who was a doctor in his own country and is now a Japanese spy, a circumstance which affords Mr Tarrant a great deal of amusement. As he points out, the intelligence Katoh gathers on behalf of the Japanese government could in fact be found in any good public library.

In the earlier stories we learn very little about Mr Tarrant himself. Jerry Phelan admits to knowing almost nothing about Tarrant’s background. He knows Tarrant is wealthy but he has no idea where that wealth came from. It’s not until the sixth story, The Episode of the Vanishing Harp, that we gain a few insights into Tarrant’s character. He is clearly a man out of sympathy with the modern world, a man who values tradition and who regards democratic institutions with a good deal of scepticism. He is by nature an aristocrat. While he is obviously very well-educated with a broad range of interests he does not go in for the kinds of ostentatious displays of erudition that we expect from a Philo Vance or a Lord Peter Wimsey. Nor does he demonstrate any great degree of snobbery. He has his own views and we get only an occasional glimpse into his interior world. This naturally makes him rather interesting - we long to know more about him.

The Episode of the Codex’ Curse deals with a very valuable Aztec manuscript which, like any self-respecting ancient artifact, is protected by a curse. It’s actually a rather weak story but it does serve to introduce us to Jerry Phelan, the narrator of the stories. Phelan serves as Tarrant’s Dr Watson and like most Dr Watsons he’s not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer. The only subject on which Phelan can claim to speak with any authority at all is golf. Golf in fact seems to be his sole interest in life. The story also establishes Mr Tarrant’s credentials as a man who relies on observation and logic.

The Episode of the Tangible Illusion is very much better, in fact quite superb. Young Jerry has fallen in love with a charming girl named Valerie. Valerie is beautiful, wealthy, intelligent, everything that a man might hope for in a woman, except that she appears to be somewhat crazy. Possibly completely crazy. Or is she? Or could her sleek modernist house really be haunted? By 1935 it wasn’t easy to come up with a totally original haunted house story but that’s exactly what King does.

The Episode of the Nail and the Requiem is a locked-room mystery, and a good one (if rather grim). It seems to me that that there are three problems racing an author trying to write a a locked-room mystery: the solution has to be plausible, it has to avoid being a let-down and it has to be fair. In this story King succeeds on all three counts. The solution is obvious but as Tarrant points out ingrained habits of mind prevent us from seeing it. The Episode of the The Man with Three Eyes uses a similar technique - the solution is simple if only you don’t let preconceptions mislead you.

C. Daly King
In The Episode of the ‘Torment IV’ the mystery of the Mary Celeste is repeated, almost precisely, but on a speedboat on a lake. One thing you have to say about King - even when his stories are far-fetched they’re certainly original and the solution to this mystery is both very far-fetched and very original.

The Episode of the Headless Horrors deals with the discovery of headless corpses on an isolated stretch of road. It involves a subject that always delights me, which I can’t reveal for fear of spoilers.

The Episode of the Vanishing Harp is a particularly fine story, involving an impossible crime, an ancient prophecy and an Irish harp dating from the 9th century. 

The final story in the original collection, The Episode of the Final Bargain, represents a distinct turn for the weird. There is a mystery of sorts but this one is more concerned with seriously occult stuff. It’s an interesting tale but it really is radically different from the earlier stories. It also gives us some further insights into Tarrant’s character and motivations.

Some years after the publication of The Curious Mr Tarrant King was persuaded to write a couple of additional Mr Tarrant stories for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. In these stories Tarrant’s Japanese butler-valet Katoh has mysteriously been replaced by a butler-valet from the Philippines who is in fact in all essentials  the identical character - by the 1940s it was presumably no longer acceptable for the hero to have a Japanese spy as his manservant!

The Episode of the Little Girl Who Wasn't There is another ingenious locked-room mystery which Tarrant solves without ever visiting the crime scene, or indeed without ever leaving his own house. His intervention is purely by means of listening to accounts of the case on the radio, making a couple of telephone calls and doing quite a bit of thinking.

The Episode of the Sinister Invention started life as a Sherlock Holmes pastiche. Frederic Dannay accepted it for publication in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine but suggested it be changed to make it a Mr Tarrant story. What’s really interesting is that King has left in the story a number of references to London locations and it’s clear that her has done so deliberately, in fact in one case he has drawn particular attention to such a reference. His intention was obviously to make it clear that this really is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche with Tarrant and Jerry Phelan standing in for Holmes and Dr Watson. This adds to the fun of the story - and it really is a delight, capturing just the right slightly whimsical feel.

The Episode of the Perilous Talisman was published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1951. And indeed it can in some ways be considered to be either a fantasy or science fiction story, or a horror story. Or a detective story. It concerns an ancient Egyptian artifact that possesses certain very surprising powers. Not quite occult powers though. Perhaps scientific rather than magical, depending on how one defines science and magic. The story also involves a shady politician. Now why would a shady politician want to posses such an artifact? Tarrant has a fair idea of the answer to that question.

These are odd stories that cross genre boundaries but they are fascinating and unusual. Highly recommended.

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