Friday, April 27, 2018

John Dickson Carr : A Guest in the House, 1940 ; aka "The Incautious Burglar" ( in The Men Who Explained Miracles, 1963)


John Dickson Carr after the war, went through a period of weariness.
He had done his best, working with the BBC during the war, creating subjects, the most varied, for radio plays, and this overwork probably exhausted his mental energies, or at least reduced them, if it is true that after the war he often elaborated ideas previously had. However, even during the war he had to go to savings, if it is true that a story served as a basis for a novel. This is the case of A Guest in the House (published in The Strand, in October 1940), and then republished as The Incautious Burglar "(in The Men Who Explained Miracles, 1963) from which Carr drew the basic idea for The Gilded Man of 1942.
Marcus Hunt is a collector of famous paintings. In his villa he owns two Rembrandts and a Van Dyck, but for a decision that only he knows, and which is inexplicable even to his daughter, instead of letting them stay where they were positioned, that is on the top floor, he even moved them downstairs, like if you want to encourage their theft.
One evening there are two friends of Hunt gathered together: one is Arthur Rolfe, an antique dealer and art dealer; the other is Derek Henderson, an art critic. They played poker with two other people who left, and now they are there and inevitably talk to each other. At one point, Henderson doing a solitaire, draws an ace of spades; then he takes another. More than eloquent sign of death. But nobody takes notice of it. That night happens the imponderable but everyone expected that it could happen: a thief, who has been waiting for a while outside the villa, after seeing that there is no movement on the ground floor, begins to cut the window glass with a diamond, he enters the room, goes to the wall where the most valuable Rembrandt is displayed, and begins to detach it, not realizing that in the room he’s not alone: ​​there is someone else in the shadow that is observing him. A short time later a deafening noise breaks the silence from the floor below. The first to come and Lew Cutler, another guest of the house, of which little is known and that Hunt's daughter suspects to be someone under false identity. Beneath a mountain of silver tea-service items, including a teapot, and a centerpiece with scattered fruit on the floor, there's a masked man, that for the very blood-smeared clothes, seems unequivocally dead. Especially since the fruit knife, very sharp,  is smeared with blood and lies next to the thief's body.
Harriet Davis, the daughter of Marcus Hunt, arrives. Cutler, acting not as a guest but as a landlord, sends his daughter to his father. Hunt the others in dribs, but Hunt is not there. And not even in his room. The suspect becomes certain when Cutler, who is a sergeant from C.I.D. of Scotland Yard, unmasks the thief and stands before Marcus Hunt. And he must understand how Hunt was killed and why Hunt was disguised as a thief. As if he wanted to steal his paintings. But why? Cutler reveals that he had been sent there because his superior suspected that Hunt wanted to play the old game, to steal the insurance on his canvases. Only then he realized, questioning the girl, that there was no insurance on the paintings. Why then would Hunt try to steal his paintings? And who and why had he killed him?
The police gropes and eventually someone comes up with the idea of turning to Dr. Fell.
Fell must reason on the basis of the indications that are exposed to him:
several pieces of silver service placed on the sideboard had scratches as if they had been piled up to form a pyramid and then rolled down;
Hunt was killed by a knife that reached his heart, inflicted with a knife with a very thin blade, but such that the wound was difficult to find;
the abundance of blood found on clothes.
"The old woman with the bonnet" by Rembrandt was found under Hunt's body. So it was not stolen.
Why murder? Why the attempted theft of uninsured and authentic paintings? Who killed the fake thief?
Fell will find out after talking to all suspects on a sunny summer afternoon, after examining them and weighing their clothes. And the means to find out will be, forcing the suspects to take a swim in the pool.
This is a Fell hurried that appears when the crime has already been consummated. He drinks his usual pints of beer, but he does not wear black suits: he usually appears dressed in a cape and with dark-colored clothes, while here he is clad in a white linen suit. I'll point out the comparison that seems more appropriate to me with another carrian character: Merrivale, who we find most often dressed in white. Why do I dwell on this particular of no importance? Because it would seem to me to have drawn Fell in the manner of Merrivale, it could mean that when Carr was writing the story, he may have already thought about using the story as a basis for a novel, with Merrivale, which came about two years later with The Gilded Man.
However, the interesting thing is not so much this as how the victim dies.
And even all that human blood, unnatural bearing in mind that the wound was not even seen, is an excellent indication. The wound could not be seen. The used knife was extremely thin. Already.
We are faced with an umpteenth variation of death caused by a very thin weapon.
In a novel, always with Fell, we witness an event caused by a weapon and a wound like that: there, however, it is not so much the absence of blood to be remarked (also) but above all the fact that the victim does not become aware of it or otherwise, he benefited from the nature of the wound in her drama. The novel is a famous novel with Doctor Fell: He Who Whispers, which is from 1946. Two stories with Fell presenting two effects of the same modus agendi: a stab wound with a very thin blade, causes a blood spill extremely narrow and death is not sudden. And then all the blood that stained the victim's clothes, where did it come from? Evidently, even  who had hit the victim were hurt. So here's why Fell asks everyone to take a bath in the pool: bercause only with that way the killer would have been unmasked. And in fact, he is unmasked.
The idea behind the death of Hunt, who is not the real thief is based on a true fact: the murder of Empress Elisabeth of Bavaria, the famous "Sissy" who became a consort of Emperor Franz Joseph, who died in 1898 following the attack of an anarchist. This famous death was resumed in many masterpieces of the locked room: before being used by Carr in He Who Whispers, and to be remembered in In Spite of Thunder, had been used elsewhere and Lacourbe even attributes the origin of the idea of ​​the locked room in Le Mystère de la chambre jaune to the murder of the Empress. Another French writer used it also: in Thérèse et Germaine, the third of the eight stories by Maurice Leblanc contained in the collection Les Huit Coups de l'horloge, of 1923 (even though the first three stories were serialized in the daily Excelsior in December 1922.) Another novel that presents it, is Envious Casca by Georgette Heyer, which is from 1941, a year after the publication of Carr's story, which re-presents the same modus agendi by He Who Whispers, which is later (the victim does not notice the severity of the stab, until he dies).
Another extraordinary story by Carr that satisfies all the questions with a simply perfect solution.

Pietro De Palma

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Georges Simenon : La nuit des sept minutes, 1931 from "G.7", 1938

For me last December 23rd was an important day, because I met a friend again that I thought was lost. I didn’t heard Igor Longo for 9 years. I will not be here to say the causes, and what happened to him.

A few days he mentioned some stories that Simenon wrote at the end of the twenties, stories not with Maigret, but with other investigators and based exclusively on riddles: I told him about a volume of the italian publishing house Adelphi, where they were proposed three stories. At first I thought they belonged to one of the two collections,  and then he replied that it would be smarter to buy them in French. My surprise was total when instead I discovered that the volume did not present a selection from Les treize mystères (1929, 13 stories) or from Les treize énigmes (1929, 13 stories), but it was the Italian translation of Les sept minutes or G. 7 (1938, 3 stories): “Three investigations by Inspector G.7 (Adelphi, 2015)”. I bought it without asking what it was, and I did well, because Igor told me that they are magnificent, especially the second of the three, the one that gives the title to the volume: La nuit des sept minutes (1931).
In essence, a preamble speaks about the Inspector G.7, named so because in the introduction, introduces himself to the narrator, who will become his friend and mentor, as a passenger in a red car, of the Parisian taxi company G.7 . The introduction serves and acts as a glue between the three stories that make up the mini-anthology and explains the relationship between the narrator and the Inspector and because he is called G.7. Two short novels are the wings of the most famous story, which lends its title to the collection: L'énigme de la Marie-Galante, Le Grand Langoustier and La nuit des sept minutes.
La nuit des sept minutes is a locked room.
A letter informs the police that such a Ivan Nikolaevic Morozov will be assassinated on June 19 in his own house.
The police, in the person of Inspector G.7, looks for news about this candidate at the morgue, but there is nothing from the judicial register or from other sources: you can only go back to his house, Seine Embankment 11, and to the fact that he has a beautiful daughter, who works in the field of fashion.
In the evening of the hypothetical killing, the walking corpse is guarded by dinner in an Italian bistro until he enters his house, a house previously searched and declared empty: they observe the movements in the room, when he arrives, undresses,wears pajamas, and goes to sleep.
The wait is unnerving. The narrator, the agent Aubier, and the Inspector G.7 mount the guard in front of the house: the narrator can testify that he was always attentive, except in a period of only seven minutes during which he is dozing. This fateful seven-minute interval will be fatal, because it seems that precisely during it, Morozov was murdered, accident they discover later. The emblematic thing is that the house is closed from the inside, out on the damp earth there are only the imprints of the three and Morozov, the victim presents a bullet hole at the heart, but no gun was found on the scene of the crime.
It is obvious that we are talking about murder but since there are no progress, because no one is found in the same house, G.7 loses the case. The same friend of his, reasoning on the fact that the actors beyond the victim are himself (but there’s not doubt about his own mental health), Aubier who has been commanded to plunder but that has no connection with the situation in question, and G. 7 (to which he confiscates the confession that he knew Morozov's daughter from before he knew of his death) inevitably begins to doubt his friend, so much to turn to a private detective to supervise him. He already knew that Morozov, a general of the Russian imperial army, who fled to Paris, squandered his enormous patrimony, and that some time ago he had insured 200,000 francs. But then he also comes to know that G.7 is in love with the girl, reciprocated, and therefore is involved in the affair. However, after a somewhat embarrassing explanation with his friend, G.7 will explain the solution to the matter.
Nice story, easy easy. Full of inventiveness, it certainly shows the legacy from Gaston Leroux (the policemen outside the house in which the story is consummated, it is an all-French feature that brings us back to the memory " Le mystère de la chambre jaune " by Leroux, which will then be repeated in other French writers: Le Piège aux diamants and  La Bête hurlanteby Noel Vindry and much later, Le onzième petit nègre by Jacquemard & Senecal) but above all from S.S. Van Dine. First of all it is respectful of its rules, but then directly applies some characteristics to the story: the writer is a friend of the detective and takes the background of the action (even if he enters the story by committing a policeman to a private detective), the disappearance of the gun is connected to a famous novel of the Vandinian trilogy par excellence, as it is replicated exactly the Vandinian stratagem (applied also after the novel by Alexis Gensoul, Gribouille est mort).  

The only defaillance is given by the smallness of the actors of the drama, another feature that brings us back to the French environment (many novels by Pierre Boileau have for example a few suspects so ultimately finding the killer is not difficult) so soon it is clear who could have killed the general. To explain the impossibility of the locked room there is no reference to tricks concerning the closure of the door or the footprints, but to psychological causes, which legitimize the use of a type of explanation for absurdity, whose tangible proof is acquired not by G.7 but by the narrator himself, in his disbelief. 

Rate sliding, delicious tale. 



Pietro De Palma

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Carter Dickson : Persons or Things Unknown, 1938



Today we will talk about a tale of the wonderful John Dickson Carr, signed under the pseudonym Carter Dickson: Persons or Things Unknown, 1938.
The publishing genesis is rather troubled.
The original collection, The Department of Queer Complaints, that currently includes it, originally included seven stories:
The New Invisible Man
Footprint in the Sky
The Crime in Nobody's Room
Hot Money
Death in the Dressing Room
The Silver Curtain
Error at Daybreak

because two other stories, which originally should have been part of it, The Empty Flat and William Wilson's Racket, were expunged in the 1941 edition, reappearing in another collection: The Man Who Explained Miracles of 1963.
In addition to the seven original stories, the collection also included four stories of various kinds:
The Other Hangman
New Murders for Old
Persons or Things Unknown
Blind Man's Hood.

 
Persons or Things Unknown is a story set in the past, without a fixed character, of the vein that draws on a supernatural false (I remember that there are novels and stories of Carr that instead insist in the other strand, that of the supernatural: although they are always Mysteries, they trespass in the Fantastic): they are stories in which there are curses, ghosts, demons and so on and then instead are resolved in rationally explainable stories. In our case there is a malignant entity.
A large house, near a forest in Sussex, is sold and the new landlord with a historic friend, and another deputy commander of the metropolitan police, get together with their respective wives for Christmas. On the evening of Christmas, the landlord tells a story that happened in that house, so - according to some testimonies and chronicles dating back to 1660 - a malicious entity would have killed a man with thirteen stabs without assailant or even the weapon came found.
In essence, three centuries earlier, at the time of the restoration, the village squirt had promised his daughter, Mary, to a landowner, who had become wealthy as a result of acquisitions during the Cromwell era, such Richard Oakley. When the two were ready to get married, a dandy had appeared in the village, Gerard Vanning, rich and with a lot of future titles, because he had helped the Crown to return to power: now that the king had returned, he was waiting to obtain the privileges that would have been due to him. Although he was obnoxious to many and even to the squirt and his wife, let alone the daughter, he had conquered ground against the girl, while the other was losing it: he felt the discomfort for a gap of social class, culture and ... also wealth . Oakley in fact none was sure, now that the king (Charles II) had returned to power, to keep his lands, for which he would be impoverished.
One day, however, happened something that would have upset the cards again on the table: Oakley following a ruling of the state tending to legalize all that happened until then, maintained his properties, becoming once again an attractive party for the daughter of Squirt. So it happened that -one evening, after dinner while the Squirt and his wife had dozed off, and Oakley and his girlfriend were up, in the last room at the top of the stairs, “the Ladies' Room”, where they undressed, furnished with a credenza, that exhibited a pitcher of water, a few plates, a table, and a few chairs - Vanning arrived, all frightened: he ordered the servants to arm themselves with a staff and to follow him up the stairs. He was there because he intended to beg Oakley, who had matured a reputation also sinister, for some of his walks in the woods at night, to take away the spell and to command a malign entity that had nestled in his closet, to go away.
When he had climbed into the room where the two were, suddenly the door had closed, the light had gone out, had been listened the noises of a scuffle, the rattles, the smell of blood, the screams of the girl, and then when finally the occupants of the house, servants in the head, had broken through the door of the room to get in, they had found a chilling spectacle: Vanning was leaning against the wall, sitting on the floor with a terrified expression, the girl had blood on her skirt, while Oakley lay on the ground in a sea of blood. To the occupants of the house, it came to mind that the only responsible had been Vanning and they would have pierced him if someone had not put everything back to the coroner, not having found the murder weapon: if it had been Vanning, since he had been found inside, the weapon should have been found there also. Instead, nothing.
With the girl fainted in his arms, despite the others had thought about another remedy, Vanning had brought her down and he had reanimated her after pouring a few drops of brandy between her lips.
Moreover, having bolted the door and not wanting anyone of those to return to that room, Vanning had offered, then running away with a terrified look though. And then the hypotheses against Vanning had fallen. Moreover, the fame of Oakley, the figure that some swore to have crossed the village, had leaned on poor Oakley fame as a sorcerer. Soon it was forgotten and some time after,Vanning and Mary got married. Passing the time, no one could have put in doubt the goodness of that marriage, because the two got along and Vanning had become a rich baronet.

However, one evening, after he got drunk, many years after the first murder, he too was killed, essentially shutting a window with his head, and dying of his throat.
At the end of the story, both the policeman and the landlord agree in the same solution that explains what happened three centuries earlier: who had killed Oakley, who had killed Vanning, and which invisible weapon would have been used in the first crime so as not to be found, although it must be a long knife with a two and a half-inch wide blade.

I immediately say that we are faced with another extraordinary story by Carr, that is not as a whodunnit, as a howdunnit. It is not whodunnit because it is clear who may have been to kill and why, on both occasions (and a malignant entity is to be excluded, despite the coroner's conclusions on the occasion of Oakley's death had followed this false theory). In this, the story in question is very similar in structure, howdunnit and not whodunnit - a few suspicious people and therefore in substance security of who may have been - to another story, always signed by Carter Dickson, The House in Goblin Wood (1947). As in that case, however, there is a manifest impossibility that tinges the story by a supernatural veil: in Goblin Wood it was the disappearance of the victim, in our case it is the disappearance of the weapon. But there are differences: there the story presents a fluctuating evolution of first comic situations then highly dramatic, here a conduction that is from beginning to end enveloped in a cloak of pure terror, which melts, as in the catharsis at the end of the tragedy, in the final detector. It is a manner of telling the story that Carr uses in several examples of his production: we find it just to mention one in Hag's Nook (1933): a fact related to the past, which belongs to something obscure, is told in the present: something that is bound to it, it will happen again.
As for the solution, which is sensational, I must remember that a similar solution was used and adapted according it to places and occasions: in fact, the same solution, although presenting minimal differences, is used with truly surprising effects, even in 1944 into a later radioplay, The Dragon in the Pool, contained in the collection The Dead Sleep Lightly (1983), where the weapon used is probably a dagger, except that there is not some dagger.

I do not say here what is the weapon and where it would have been found if a certain reasoning had been made (considering that the room was sifted without finding anything, and that on the two people inside the room, Mary and Vanning, had not been found anything compromising). I only say the trick by Carr fully responds to that saying on the basis of “if you want to hide something so well that they will not find it you have to hide it putting it under the gaze of anyone”, maxim that’s ascribable to The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allan Poe . And he always plays on equal terms with the reader, providing all the clues: among other things he says nonchalantly something, which the reader examines not in its proper value, because Carr cleverly conceals it, when he says what happened to Mary, after the death of Oakley. If one examined the section carefully, but one should examine it at least with Carr's eye, one would find the central clue.
Obviously the average reader is not Carr. And so when the question is resolved, each of us beats his forehead with his hand and says: How didn’t I think about it?
Because we are not John Dickson Carr, The Marvelous.

Pietro De Palma