Thursday, June 14, 2012

Derek Smith: Whistle Up The Devil, 1953

Legendary novel, as much as the author himself would seem to be.
Very little is known about him. Doug Greene, recently revealed that he had with Derek Smith a sort of correspondence, and even Bill Pronzini met with him. Few and scanty biographical: Smith was born in 1926 in the outskirts of London, and has lived all his life in the house, not ever getting married and staying close to his mother until she died. Smith had amassed such a collection of books, thousands, including many first editions, which would delight those who know me, that when he died, ten years ago, who had been instructed by him to take care of his collection after his death, had major problems seem to access it, because the books were stacked in piles, in the midst of dust and moisture loss from the ceiling. Apparently, according to Pronzini, that even a part of the second floor had collapsed under the weight of books.
Derek Smith wrote only one work worthy of passing into history of the Locked Room, but .. this is enough. In fact, another novel that he wrote "Come to Paddington Fair" was never published in their mother tongue, but only in a limited edition in Japan: it seems, however, that this isn’t a Locked Room, but an impossible crime.
Whistle Up The Devil can be considered one of the novels born along the lines of the example given by Carr and Rawson: not only a novel based on Locked Room, but also a symbolic monument to the greatest novelists of Locked Room that preceded the same Derek Smith . So Whistle Up The Devil becomes in itself a novel that transcends even the same plot, becoming part of that trinity of the genus that composes The Hollow Man by J. D. Carr and Death from a Top Hat by C. Rawson, all novels as if to emphasize its uniqueness in the genre of which are examples, have their own  Locked Room Lecture.
The novel is remarkable for the impact and intelligence with which it is built, so that the ingenuity of the idea is somehow obscured by the veil of mystery and atmosphere of the plant. Obviously, since even the small number of suspects, the solution to a suitably experienced player in the genre, does not seem difficult to imagine, contrary to what may seem to a common reader. The fact is that the figure of the murderer is readily detectable only if you have some encyclopedic knowledge of the genre: in other words, those who have not read a novel (and I do not make the name) will not understand right away who it is.
Beyond this, the novel is imposed for a first offense of a show that traces its origins not so much on mechanical tricks of illusionistic as at use of human capabilities in diverting attention from a certain object of attention and direct it to another.
In addition to the original crime, there is a second, more simple in construction but not less spectacular, the explanation of which is identifying the key person, who has been mentioned above.
But the merit of the goodness of the novel is also knowledgeable in the use of narrative tension obtained with false solutions that pave the real ones, no less spectacular, indeed ..
The plot hinges on a "family secret" or as the Querrin is passed from father to son (I speak of more son), a month before the wedding of the latter, and that is also linked to a certain room of the family residence, called "the Room of Passage", the story requires, however, that at some point, something has gone wrong and mysteriously the father (Thomas Querrin) that his son (Martin Querrin) are dead, the father later to seizures, son stabbed in the locked room from the inside. And before that he had felt a terrible inhuman scream coming from the room. Since then, he says that the father's ghost haunts the room in question.
The last two scions of the family are Querrin Roger and Peter. Roger, who is engaged to Audrey, decided to revive the tradition of family and "blow the whistle to the Devil" will remain in the room in question defiantly discrediting the tradition which says that room to be haunted. The point is that the tradition has it that those who agree to spend the night in the room, taking the secret with courage and honor, to be spared, while those who die will spend the night disputing these rules.
Audrey is so apprehensive. And so is Peter, his future brother in law. So that is aimed to Castle, Chief Inspector of Scotland Yard, who tells him the inability of police to deal with the matter. However, Castle remembers his friend Algy Lawrence is an amateur detective, who has already worked brilliantly with the police, and he prospects the case.
Roger wants at all costs to spend the night in the room so as to dispel the curse that hangs over it, and then you decide to watch it: Algy and Peter stood in the hallway that connects the room to the rest of the house, while the sergeant Harding parks under a tree outdoors, watching from outside the door that connects the room or outdoors on a garden full of flowers, whose land because of the rain is ideal because it will let anyone trample his prints.
Despite what the impossible occurs and Roger is killed in the locked room, closed by him at the inside, stabbed with the same dagger with which he had been killed long before Martin. Only it seems that it can only be killed by a ghost, as neither Peter and Algy have seen anyone leave the room, nor Sergeant saw someone to enter or to exit from the door-window, nor the dagger with which Roger fingerprints has been killed, even those gloves, nor even the rain has soaked the soil fingerprints. So a puzzle to be crazy. At some point it would seem that the suspects can concentrate on a certain Turner, vagrants seen wandering around the estate, and so he is arrested.
Algy goes to jail for questioning, but before he is able to find anything, although he and the sergeant are in the adjacent room, Turner is killed, in the cell locked by the sergeant before.
Paradoxically, everything seems to turn to the indictment of the poor Algy, although it remains unclear because he would kill Turner.
At this point, for Algy, find the murderer of Roger and the murderer of  Turner (obviously he is the same) is not just a matter of principle but also the only way to convince the police that he was not the killer. And so, after Audrey's uncle, Craig Russell, who also lives in Querrin House, thought to nail the murderer with his deductive explanation of events, failing miserably, it will just Algy to resolve the matter and give a face a crafty murderer.
What I want  observe is that in this novel, curiously, there's not the figure of the detective, the one that imposes itself on others, as that of a character that should be less than: D. Smith, if gives to the first a vague description, and certainly not attributable to that of a detective who solves mysteries important oddest, connotes instead the round figure of Audrey's uncle, Russell Craig, even comic character, swindler, trickster, who loves the good life and the flesh: already more than mature, he bustles with the waiter, with one in particular,  with satisfaction of both. So if Algy is romantic and goofy, and women doesn’t  know, Uncle Russell is even defended by his women. An unabashed Don Giovanni, whose virility is loved by women, is opposed to a moderate Don Ottavio.
However one of the most interesting features of the novel is the Locked Room Lecture, which declares openly be the same novel, a tribute to Carr and Rawson:
Do you remember the Case of the Dead Magicians? A spark of interest showed on the Inspector's rugged face. "You mean that odd affair in America, round about 1938? Yes, I remember. Homer Gavigan handled that for the New York Police Department. Though I believe most of the credit went to a man calling himself"—the Inspector's voice held a high pitch of unbelief—"the Great Merlini."
"That's it. Merlini solved  the mystery, then wrote upthe case as a novel, calling it Death From a Top Hat. He collaborated with Ross Harte—they used 'Clayton  Rawson' as a pseudonym." Lawrence digressed slightly. " There have been four Rawson books to date, though only three have been published in England. More's the pity. Every one is first rate”.
Castle stirred restively. Lawrence said quickly:
"Here's the point. Merlini devoted the bulk of Chapter Thirteen to a lecture"—Castle groaned—"on the general mechanics of the sealed room murder. He indicated that everysuch crime falls within one of three classes, namely----"
The Chìef Inspector held up his hand.
"I've read the book," he growled. "And before you go any further, I'm also well acquainted with Doctor GideonFell’s famous Locked Room Lecture in The Hollow Man"
'Published in the U.S.A.," threw in Algy irrepressibly, "as The Three Coffins. . . . I'm glad you know it. Fell and John Dickson Carr are experts.” (Derek Smith, “Whistle Up the Devil”, Gifford, London 1953, pagg.108-109).
Moreover, the novel retains the same basic approach of Carr's novel: the hapless protagonist of the story, Roger Querrin here, there Professor Grimaud, defy the forces of darkness, the underworld and end "apparently" destroyed by them.
The novel by Derek Smith confesses his addiction, in the construction of plot and dramatic staging, just by the writers mentioned in his dissertation: by each of them, you could say, he is inspired. In particular by some.
“..there was no opening at all in that room. No secret panels, whether the size of a man or a sixpence. And that knife certainly wasn't shot through the keyhole or a Judas window."
Not very much. We've exhausted nearly every possibility in Class One. Roger definitely wasn't the victim of any elaborate trickery such as Rupert Penny described” (op. cit. pagg.110-111).
But other authors have mentioned before the dissertation, in the course of events narrated in the novel.
In the dissertation, Derek Smith through dialogue between Castle and Algy Lawrence, examines the three classes about which Carr and Rawson had placed their focus, reaching the final deduction, which does not explain how the murderer has completed his crime, but only where he was at the time of the murder.
“We've eliminated Classes One and Three. Therefore the killer's method must be somewhere in Category Two."
The Inspector nodded agreement, though he still looked worried.
"You mean that the room only seemed to be sealed because the murderer tampered with the door or the windows."
"Yes. But," warned Algy, "be careful. There's a big headache in store. This room wasn't just locked. It was also guarded."
Castle swore. He said :
"Don't confuse me, curse you. Our conclusion is that the killer was in the room with Querrin. When he knifed Roger, he somehow contrived an escape.”(op. cit. pag.112).
Algy nails the murderer only collecting ideas.
I only say that in my opinion, Derek Smith, if declares that the models are Carr and Rawson respectively, and then he quotes The Hollow Man and Death from a Top Hat, in fact, the elaboration of the idea behind the creation the first Locked Room in Whistle Up the Devil, runs two other novels by Carr: The Third Bullet and
The Peacock Feather Murders, both 1937 novels.
Before concluding, I note that among the influences on this novel, there may have been that of Hake Talbot. His Hangman's Handyman (1942), written before that of Derek Smith, contains a dark curse connected to a family secret, as it happens in Whistle Up The Devil.
Derek Smith may have taken something also from Talbot?
I leave my readers to be in agreement or not. But I think it is quite possible.

Pietro De Palma

Friday, June 8, 2012

Rufus King - Murder By Latitude, 1930

I imagine that many have realized that Rufus King is one of those writers that I like very much. And not just because he could write very well (he was a born writer), but also because he is one of those authors, who were acclaimed in his time, and then just as quickly forgotten. But if by other authors, it may also include, in his case, it becomes a puzzle: why Rufus King was forgotten?

Rufus King probably I think (and I wrote in my essay published two years ago on the Blog Mondadori) in the first fifteen years of its production, was a highly original author, or at least enough to be copied as a model, but then paid other authors in the meantime risen to the headlines, library duty, changing the tenor of his stories and his characters conforming to the characteristics of others.

But since I'm basically a romantic, I love to remember those who have been forgotten, in my opinion not a good reason: so I am pleased to recall Rufus King.
Murder by Latitude, is remembered as one of his six novels most characteristic and emblematic: some will have identified some characteristics typical of gay work. Of Rufus King, nothing is known because he was so reserved that in comparison, Derek Smith, "was well known." And his photos are few.

The features gay, are scattered: I'm not going to list them: if they will be in or not I'm not interested. The fact is that the characteristics of gender (masculine friendships, but not both) are mentioned in the novel several times for various male characters, although the most recognizable is that between Gans and Swithers (but also hinted that there is between a character and a sailor of engine room).

Beyond this the novel has a characteristic typical in Rufus King: the wise use of power, that insinuates itself at first, then becomes palpable and finally spasmodic, with surprising end and never predictable. Even here, the suspense is the host.

Gans, the radio (the radio operator of the time we would have said) is found murdered on board the steamer "Florida": why should someone kill a radio operator? To prevent it from passing a dispatch of utmost importance to Lieutenant Valcour, the Metropolitan Police of New York, on board too, along with other passengers. Embarked, because even if you do not have the physical characteristics, he and other police authorities know that among the passengers is the murderer of Larry Lane, a rich man, killed in the toilet of a nightclub in New York and robbed . The killer was also seriously injured friend of Lane, but he has survived and he has helped to make the identikit and emphasize the physical data of his assailant. Now the killer is on board the Florida, because he wants to get to Cassie Poole, rich lady of high society, previously married to their first marriage Lane. Cassie after having divorced (and others) from Lane, was married to Ted, a man much her junior, met at the beach. The killer wants to kill her? He will really kill her? But why?

You will find that Cassie at the time of her first husband, had adopted a child for a short time, Toody, who then had, at the age of nine years, repudiated, along with his aunt, while paying an annual check.

There's a testament that Cassie should not have done, in favor of her new husband, who forces the killer to make a widow, to make void the last testament, and instead re-reverse the previous. For Valcour it is one of the most difficult investigations of his career: to discover the murderer, among false rumors, strange disappearances of objects (a silver thimble, a long needle and embroidery scissors snap, pitch), among reluctances,  among smugglers of jewelry and phoney characters identified, while the ship is abandoned to itself, in the sea.

The ending is really surprising: in some ways, is very similar to the final catharsis of The Twin Siamese Mystery by Ellery Queen, another vandinian writer as Rufus King. Some critics argue (I think that may be right) that the name Queen could be the answer to Rufus King. 

In the novel of the Queen, Ellery and his father are in a villa ( where it wears a dark tragedy), which is located on top of mountain ledge ,while below the flames devour the woods and there almost to attack the house; here the characters are on a ship which is at sea, which is isolated in the sea (because the radio operator died), and whose rudder was damaged and whose instruments (compass) has been deliberately altered, so that it goes drifting: here is the final cathartic is the crash on the rocks (which allows the ship to run aground), but then we will be questioned  until (Valcour, Sohme the captain and the player .. ) about why the sky should show the route, is not that usual: the stars are not what the captain had seen many times before; in Ellery Queen novel there was the rain that saved the house from the fire, that throughout the novel had been the background increasingly present of the drama of the villa. In both cases, the characters of the plays are saved, but in both cases, the killers commit suicide.

It is not clear who might be the murderer or murderess (is the magnitude of the writer), until a few lines from the end, because Rufus King, hides and conceals clues to his liking, generating tension, modifying it and literally grow through various interventions :for example when he pointed to one of the characters as Dumarque, unusually for his height, wears  high heels. Rufus King heinsinuates doubts. The chapters are intentionally very short so as to break the speech several times, are deliberately  presented false suspects, but why?  The murderer is a great actor, has a strong will, generated hatred resentment and greed. And then the ending will be tragic.

It presents the objects stolen, some of which we see that fall within one of the assassins, but others do not: what is it for? They are used to generate tension.

Before the murderer is a man, then you know that woman, then that could be a woman disguised as a man, then another.  Slender male hands, hands and torsos hairy manly, heterosexual and gay friends, men face feminine, masculine women from hard expressions, men who use high heels, like women: you could say that this novel is a classic of ambiguity.

In some ways, the isolated ship at sea, on which two murders are perpetrated (the second one with the needle, dials a novel  by Ellery Queen with Drury Lane: in that novel the needle is dipped in curare whereas here it is forcibly inserted into the neck and broken in), prefigures a kind of enlarged locked room, and the elements that sweep the sea, though accelerating voltage, also serve to isolate the action on board the ship, and to prevent the murderer along with others, of course, could save themselves.
And the presence of different latitudes, each call to a different chapter, means that the ship while moving, may be localized on the sea only by means of the calculation of the latitude and not through other means, for which it is properly isolated in the middle of the sea. And from there you can not escape. The use of various latitudes, also serves to focus the reader's attention even more on the events aboard the ship.

For the rest ... a masterpiece

Pietro De Palma