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

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