Ernest Bramah (1868-1942) wrote science fiction and humorous stories but is best remembered today for his detective stories. He published three collections of short stories recounting the exploits of the blind detective Max Carrados, the first collection appearing in 1914.
Bramah himself is a rather shadowy figure about whom very little is known. He was reclusive to an extreme degree although he was also apparently a rather kindly and amiable man.
Although he was still writing Max Carrados stories in the 1920s these tales belong very much to the tradition of late Victorian and Edwardian crime fiction. They are not true fair-play mysteries since fair-play puzzle-plot mysteries had not yet emerged as the dominant strand in crime fiction. That’s not to say that Victorian and Edwardian detective stories do not adhere to certain rules; they simply adhere to different rules. The first rule was that the solution to the mystery should be reasonably plausible. More importantly, when the solution is explained the reader should be satisfied that the detective really could have solved the mystery with the information at his disposal.
In Victorian and Edwardian times murder had not yet been established as an essential ingredient in crime fiction so the cases investigated by Carrados include robberies, frauds and other non-lethal crimes. That’s not to say that these stories are lacking in bloodshed or necessarily cozy - The Knight's Cross Signal Problem deals with a railway accident but if it wasn’t an accident it could well be a case of mass murder.
Bramah’s Max Carrados tales are in fact rather neatly plotted. Carrados is a detective who relies on logic rather than intuition. He does rely to some extent on physical clues but his usual method when faced with a perplexing case is firstly to consider whether there might in fact be any possible explanations. He then looks for the physical clues, with the advantage that he already knows roughly what it is that he is searching for.
A blind detective might sound like a cheap gimmick that is unlikely to be convincing. In practice the conceit is pulled off fairly well. While Max’s ability to read large print by means of the feel of the printer’s ink on his fingers might stretch credibility a little this particular ability plays no real role in the stories - it’s mostly a means of establishing the idea that a blind man can develop his other senses to a particularly acute degree.
And Max does have eyes, although they’re not his own. He has trained his manservant Parkinson to be his eyes. Parkinson has been trained to be quite exceptionally observant. More importantly, he has been taught to observe without drawing any conclusions of his own. It’s his eyes that Max Carrados needs, not his brain. Parkinson is in fact an intelligent and sensible fellow but it is crucial that he should not attempt to interpret his observations. Max needs to be free to draw his own inferences without having anyone else’s interpretations clouding the issue. This well thought-out use of Parkinson as the detective’s surrogate eyes is typical of the care Bramah puts into his stories.
There’s also a judicious leavening of wit. Bramah had a reputation as a polished crafter of witty, ironic and humorous stories but he wisely refrains from overdoing it. The Max Carrados stories are serious detective stories, although Bramah is equally careful not to overdo the seriousness.
The Max Carrados collection I own is the 1970s Dover paperback The Best Max Carrados Detective Stories which includes ten out of the more than two dozen stories Bramah wrote featuring his blind detective. I also have a couple of the other Max Carrados stories in various anthologies and I’ll discuss these as well.
The Coin of Dionysius introduces us to Max Carrados, and also to his regular collaborator, a private enquiry agent named Carlyle. Carlyle is faced with an urgent case involving a valuable Greek coin of possibly dubious authenticity. He is referred to the well-known and highly respected coin collector Max Carrados for an opinion on that matter. Carlyle is understandably more than sceptical when he finds that he has been referred to a blind man. His scepticism takes rather a knock when Carrados proceeds to solve the case for him.
The Knight's Cross Signal Problem involves a horrific railway disaster caused by a train failing to stop on a danger signal. The signal itself was checked and was in perfect operating order. The signal had to be either red (in which case the engine driver is at fault) or green in which case the signalman had to be at fault. There are no other explanations. Somehow Max Carrados has to find an impossible explanation. This is typical of these stories, with the physical clues merely confirming Carrados’s deductions. A fine story.
Ernest Bramah himself was a keen coin collector so it’s not surprising that his detective hero is a coin enthusiast nor is it surprising that coins figure in a number of stories. The Mystery of the Vanished Petition Crown deals with the theft of a very rare and valuable coin but the theft was clearly impossible. Fortunately whenever Max Carrados has a sleepless night he amuses himself by devising perfect crimes which of course he will never put into practice. He does however assume that if he can think of a way to carry out an undetectable theft than a real criminal might well have had the very same idea.
While murder cases are comparatively rare for Max Carrados The Holloway Flat Tragedy certainly involves murder, although it’s an unusual murder case - Carlyle and Carrados are employed by the victim prior to the event. This is an ingenious and densely plotted story and it almost qualifies as a fair-play mystery since the reader is likely to share Carrados’s suspicions and has at least a chance of coming close to solving the puzzle. The Mystery of the Poisoned Dish of Mushrooms again involves murder, or at least it might. You never know with mushrooms.
The Disappearance of Marie Severe is a kidnapping case. The solution is perhaps a little contrived but it’s clever enough.
The Last Exploit of Harry the Actor
opens with Max and Carlyle visiting the Lucas Street Depository. Carlyle has some items to place in his safety deposit box there. The depository has the reputation of being the most secure in London, in fact it is considered to be absolutely impregnable. After taking note of the impressively elaborate security precautions in place Max advises his friend to remove his valuables from there as quickly as possible. Despite the unquestionably tight security he is certain that something is very wrong. He is particularly concerned about the man with the false moustache. How does a blind man know that another man wears a false moustache? As Max explains it,l it is perfectly obvious. A clever story with a nicely amusing twist at the end.
The Ghost at Massingham Mansions is, obviously, a ghost story. Max Carrados does not believe in ghosts. Nor does Louis Carlyle for that matter, but the events at Massingham Mansions are certainly difficult to explain. This is a delightfully amusing tale told with superb lightness of touch.
The Ingenious Mr Spinola concerns a card-playing automaton and takes a very unexpected turn at the end making it more than just another story about gambling sharks. We also find out just how dangerous it can be to play cards against a blind man. An excellent story.
Those ten stories come from the Dover collection The Best Max Carrados Detective Stories. All are very good and a few are superb.
The following two I found in a couple of anthologies. The Secret of Headlam Height is an odd man out among the Max Carrados stories being a competent if not startling spy story set right at the outbreak of the First World War. The Game Played in the Dark offers the opportunity for Max Carrados to demonstrate just how highly developed his other senses are. This is a thriller rather than a mystery story, in which the odds seem to be stacked against Carrados but he knows that in fact the odds are very much in his favour. On the whole I prefer the stories of pure detection but this one is rather deftly handled.
The Max Carrados stories are certainly more than just gimmickry. While Max’s blindness plays a part in many of them there’s plenty of solid detection. There’s some gentle humour as well. It all adds up to great entertainment. Highly recommended.