Wednesday, January 10, 2018

John Dickson Carr : The Case of the Constant Suicides, 1941

In 1941, Carr published a novel, not as long as others, but that is rightly considered a cornerstone of his production: The Case of the Constant Suicides.
It is a particular novel, in which not only three homicides occur in locked rooms, but also in which there is an extraordinary atmosphere (in Scotland), great moments of narrative ability, and a hilarious, extremely brilliant humor, which makes reading this book extremely enjoyable.
The plot is original; nevertheless one of the subplot derives directly from the story The Empty Flat of 1940, but published only twenty-three years later, in 1963: the novel opens with two historians, who collide in the pages of a newspaper, repelling the lunges of others.

Alan Campbell, historian who writes a column on a newspaper with literary pretensions, The Sunday Watchman, reviewed the book "The Last Days of Charles II", by a certain K.I.Campbell. His review did not cut him off, but he nevertheless revealed historical inaccuracies. But that are not the same for K.I Campbell who responds in kind. Soon a simple blow and answer becomes a querelle, in which the public participates, flooding with letters the newspaper that at first benefits from the media quarrel, but then begins to worry when the findings on the fact that Barbara Villiers, Lady Castlemaine, with red hair and tiny hair, begins to look at her anatomy, specifically. In this media hubbub even a scholar enters, such a Gideon Fell who says his own, which does not agree with either one or the other thesis. So the quarrel is silenced when the two now, pissed off blacks, even forgetting the object of the dispute, they shake each other, beating blindly Alan Campbell that at some point of the blow and response had been offended on his expertise as a historian and had been turned to the charge of not understanding women, he wanted to see K.I. Campbell fry in boiling oil.
Alan Campbell, who has taken the train to go to Scotland, by some of his relatives, who does he find occupying his bunk? Just K.I. Campbell, who now he discovers she is a woman. It is urgent to understand of whom the compartment is and the berth because both claim it
Is called the attendant, who with his own embarrassment and disappointment of the two, reveals that the bunk has been reserved for a certain Campbell, without distinguishing whether he/she is male or female. Also there is not a seat in the whole train, not even in third class. After new positions, and after Alan has decided to leave the bunk to the woman, the scholar, Kathryn, offers to stay there and to divide the bunk, with all due respect to the car attendant who would pay to get out of that unfortunate situation. It goes without saying that the two young men, even though scolding each other, soon know each other, understanding that they are cousins ​​of the third degree, and going to the same place. And to the same relatives.
One of their relatives has died, Angus Campbell, falling from the tower of Shira Castle in Inveraray. The two, who are distant relatives, children of cousins, were called to attend a family reunion. When they come to the castle, along with a certain Swan, a journalist directed to their own relatives to interview Elspat, the lover of the old Angus, also she an elderly woman of exceptional character who never wanted to marry, initially they are not well seen by the woman, on the basis that they do not belong to the Church of Scotland but to the Anglican Church.

The two are accepted by Elspat after Alan gave her a lecture on the Church of Scotland, and after they entered Alistair Duncan's legal family and Walter Chapman insurance agent. If the two are eventually accepted by Eldspat and Colin, brother of Angus, it does not happen for the journalist Swan who runs into a series of terrifying gaffes . The acceptance becomes complete when Alan agrees to swallow a high-grade whiskey, and drunk it then begins to duel with Colin, brandishing the Claymores, wearing checked tablecloths and using swords to poke Swan's ass.
At this point, another of the subplots of this novel shows: the old Angus had recently stipulated an insurance on his life for thirty-five thousand pounds. Chapman wants to prove that the flight from the tower of Angus was suicide, because he would not pay a pound, while Colin is willing to prove otherwise. For this he invited at Shira Castle his friend Gideon Fell, a delightful discoverer of arcane and diabolical murderers, as well as a great pipe smoker and whiskey drinker, entranced by his friend's offer to try "the loss of the Campbell" .
Gideon Fell begins to investigate the events of Angus' death. And here is an inexplicable series of facts: the diary of Angus has disappeared; Forbes, the associate of Angus who had quarreled with him before his death, disappeared; a strange suitcase has been found: its part has a cage as if it had contained an animal: before the death of Angus, it seems that Forbes had left it on, in the room of Angus. According to some testimonies, it had been left under the bed already , while other subsequent testimonies deny that at the time of the exit of Forbes it there was; the room was closed from the inside; the bed was in disarray and the victim wore pajamas at the time of his death; on the handle of the window there were only the imprints of Angus
Then there is someone who swears he saw someone with a disfigured face looking out of the castle late in the evening.
An omen. Then the missing diary reappears.

Fell is afraid that Colin wants to dispel the tower's tabu and the mysterious ghosts or fantastic and invisible animals enclosed, spending the night in Angus's room, and that he is in danger of life, since he has not yet understood how Angus is dead. And his fear becomes certainty, when Colin flies in turn from the tower window. Once again the question arises: suicide, accident or murder? But once again the room has been closed from the inside and under the bed a new suitcase with a cage, a sort of portable kennel, is found again.
At this point Fell understands what was contained in the suitcase. And thinking of an attempted murder, he wants to find Forbes to question him. But he can not do it because when they find Forbes in his hut, he is hanging by the neck of a noose formed by the belt of his bathrobe. Also this time the door is closed from the inside by means of a bolt.
At this point, however, the Fate shows: Colin flew from the top of the tower, without anyone was pushing him, but because someone had put something under his bed; and moreover he is not dead either. No, he broke his femur, an arm and something else.For the killer it's a bad blow. He wanted kill him. Yeah, but ... why? Why would anyone want kill Colin?
And why would someone kill Forbes?

It is true that a good-bye letter was found inside the shack in which Forbes takes the three dead, but it is also true that Elspat's susceptibility, the disappearance and the reappearance of the diary, the dramatic economic conditions in which Elspat had lived , Angus and Colin, convinced Fell that the first death was the consequence of a suicide: Angus already wanted to kill himself, only that he wanted to do it in his room, with the shutters closed. But the dry ice enclosed inside the suitcase, which, turning into carbon dioxide, forced him into an extreme yearning for life, to run from bed to shutters, open them, lose balance and fall, smashing. Thus, flying out of the window has revolutionized Angus's intentions: if he was found inside the room, Forbes would have been accused of a crime not his own and Angus's vengeance against his former partner would have materialized (and Elspat and Colin would have take advantage of the £ 35,000 insurance); but flying out of the window, he confirmed the suicide hypothesis, vanishing the agent killer, and also has flown the proof that would have tied him to Forbes
The moment Fell knows that Angus wanted to kill himself, and he was not killed, and with a letter Forbes accuses himself to have killed him and then excuses his death, Fell knows that it is a false letter and consequently also the same death of Forbes turns from suicide into murder. Is there a killer who kills for what? For everyone to think that the two brothers were killed by Forbes and that Forbes then killed himself; who does not know that Colin has escaped; and he does not know that Fell has even understood how Forbes was killed. When it was found, in the house there was a stink of very strong paraffin, and above all the lamp in the house was turned off and the paraffin over, and the curtain of darkening (a tarred panel to be applied to the window: the novel is written during the War and the German bombardments over England). Why did not the killer leave the curtain in its place? Because evidently so it did not have to be. So Fell thinks and thinks and analyzes the things that there should be there, because that is a fishing hut, and then there are equipment to fish, and yet lacks the only thing that should be there and instead is not there and that is instead found elsewhere: a removable fishing pole
Why did the killer take her away? Because it was used to put the Locked Room trick into execution. For doing this, Fell uses geometry (I underline “to geometry”: remember, I'll explain why!). The room is square. The door is in the middle of one side, and the window in the middle of a side adjacent to the base (not opposite, mind you). The bolt is new and as such reflects the little light in the room. Through a hook with some wire, passed through the mesh of the grating of the window and connected to the fishing pole, the killer has hooked the loop of the bolt and diagonally pulled it to himself, closing the door from the inside : that's for the reason that  the curtain had to be removed from the window; that’s because he emptied to the lamp as if the flame had exhausted (but no volunteer, while noticed the car's license plate, noticed lights from the inside exit outside from the shack); that's because he made disappearing the fishing pole.
The killer wants you to think of two deaths by murder, because insurance pays. Because so he cloggs. Who is the killer then? Elspat, the old Elspat? One of the two young people? A third brother, Robert, escaped from Scotland many years before because he was involved in a scam and a shootout, and sheltered abroad? Who could he be? Or maybe one of his descendants, maybe a son, also interested in 35,000 pounds? Who could he be? One of the two Campbell, Kathryn and Alan? Or the self-styled journalist Swan? Or the Chapman insurance agent? Fell rebuilds, acquires information and nails the killer, but this time he offers an escape, provided he maintains his intention, that is the death of Angus is presented as a murder of his, and that he also takes the death of Forbes and the attempted murder of Colin: if he does this, Fell guarantees him 48 hours to return abroad. Only in this way Elspat will be able to live the last years of his happy life that his Angus did not commit suicide.
This is a masterpiece!

Carr in 1941 was at the height of his form, and not yet tried by the war as witnessed his later production (eg She Died a Lady), when his house was destroyed by bombing.
A masterpiece I said because in addition to being three crimes brilliantly resolved one by one, with brilliant and brilliant expositions and first-rate reasoning, Carr demonstrates his human side, demonstrating that of Fell.
Fell is not a member of the police, he does not care that the offender pays or does not pay the sum of his faults, but that he is put in a position not to harm; and here he even offers him an escape route, which he would not have deserved, because he is a ruthless murderer, driven by greed, who deserved quite another fate. Yet Fell, to allow Elspat to enjoy the last years of his life without regrets and without remorse, does not hesitate to allow the murderer to save himself as long as he is blamed even for what he has not done.
But the novel is a masterpiece also for the narrative ability to fascinate the reader, especially through steps of great humor through which Carr succeeds in revealing the story and having fun.

Among the many characters, great importance is given to the two Campbell, two scholars of history who first face each other on the pages of a newspaper with great flair and bordering on the vilification and personal offense, and then they meet (coincidentally) each other in the same compartment of a train that runs to Glasgow; a very crowded train, in which due to a mistake (another case) end up in the same compartment that has a single berth. After each of the two claimed possession of it, after each of the two asked for another and leaving the other (but obviously can not be done because, other fatality, all the compartments are occupied), the black atmosphere is solved when he gallantly offers to spend the night standing in the corridor, leaving the bunk to her. It is Kathryn Campbell who softens her tones and offers half berth to him: what does this mean? They will sleep next to each other (if not one on the other). God makes them and he binds them! Carr does not even say this time as it ends, however, he does so with an effective dialogue:
“A sense of intimacy, uneasy and yet exhilarating, went through Alan Campbell They were both crowded close to the window. The two cigarette-ends made glowing red cores, reflected in the glass, pulsing and dimming. He could dimly see Kathryn's face.
The same powerful self-consciousness suddenly overcame them again. They both spoke at the same time, in a whisper.
"The Duchess of Cleveland -'
 'Lord William Russell -'
The train sped on.”

Gorgeous! And the reader immediately understands that between the two has already established something more than a friendship, although each of them remains perched on his/her positions.
You will reach the end of the novel to the full consciousness of being in love.
To indicate this stage, we will use the first three stanzas of a song well known at the time of Carr, "I Love a Lassie" by Sir Henry "Harry" Lauder, inserting them into a pompous and bombastic dialogue:

"Colin lifted the shotgun and waved it in the ait as though conducting an orchestra. His bass voice beat against the windows. 
'I love a lassie, a bon-ny, bon-ny  las-sie -
Swan, drawing his chin far into his collar, assumed an air of solemn portentousness. Finding the right pitch after a preliminary cough, he moved his glass gently in time and joined in.
'She's as pure at the li-ly in thedell-!
To Alan, lifting his glass in a toast to Kathryn, there came a feeling that all things happened for the best; and that to­morrow could take care of itself. The exhilaration of being in love, the exhilaration of merely watching Kathryn, joined with the exhilaration of the potent brew in his hand. He smiled at Kathryn; she smiled back; and they both joined in.
'She's as sweet as the heather, the bon-ny  pur-ple  heather - He had a good loud baritone, and Kathryn a fairly audible soprano.'Their quartet made the room ring. To Aunt Elspat, returning with a set of bagpipes - which she grimly handed to Colin, and which he eagerly seized with­out breaking off the song."

It is the evolution of the dialogue between K.I. Mills and Douglas Chase in The Empty Flat: there Carr didn’t go so far because the brevity of the narrative system of a story prevented him from accumulating and resolving the tension even with dialogues of love.
The dialogue shows once again, if ever there was a need, as Carr was a writer in the true sense of the word: if the thing interested him, as his colleague Georgette Heyer, Carr would have been able to churn out nonchalantly romantic novels.

Whereas Carr proves again the change of course and his versatility, and how he also knew how to face a brilliant part with great verve and spirit, in several really funny steps: this is what we had already highlighted analyzing The House in the Goblin Wood , where to the tragedy that is about to consume, Carr opposes the hilarity of Merrivale's slip and buffoon fall for the stairs due to a banana peel. Before the repeating gaffes of Swan that make him disliked by Elspat and Colin; then the drunkenness of Alan and Colin, of very old whiskey, with a consequent duel with the Claymore, covered with checked tablecloths to indicate hypothetical clans, and subsequent thrust against the buttocks of poor Swan, the intended victim, at Kathryn's instigation, she too shines; Swan who is honored by two buckets of water from the top of the tower by Elspat, just when the atmosphere had reassured and he had returned to the castle; again Swan took a shot with a cal.20 first by Colin and then by Kathryn, after another drunk.
Who says that the essence of Carr is in the story and that Carr would improve with several pages less says something absurd in my opinion: the essence of Carr is not in the story but in the novel! Without the ability to narrate, to change the tones, to change the atmosphere, to move from the tragic to the comic, to amaze, naturally having space and time, Carr loses much of his expressive power. Carr is not like Hoch, like Commings, like Rawson who manage to synthesize in a few staves what he can do in many. Although the greatness of his art is expressed at the highest levels even in stories. Few, however, rise to the rank of masterpieces.
This novel is extraordinarily interesting also and finally as Carr's response to a provocation by Rawson. Mind you, the provocation is only in Carr's ropes, not in Rawson's. We have mentioned in the case of a story by March, how Carr had responded with his invention to the invention of a novel by Rawson. Here I read another Carr response. It is expressed in the solution of the locked room in the Forbes shack . What does Fell say? Here:
Duncan, do you know anything about geometry?'

Who had already talked about geometry?

“X” – Merlini announced –“ is the center at the circle; BC is 9/2 inches long, and BA is 3 inches. What’s the diameter of the circle? No calculus required. Nothing but common ordinary sense…I eyed the diagram suspiciously and hazarded: ”The square of the hypothenuse of a right angled triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two”…”That’s it”, Gavigan said. “Nine and one half squared minus thew square of – of –“. He bogged down. “No. we can’t solve a triangle with only one side and one angle given. We’ve got to know the length of XC in order to find XB”…”Not this time you don’t”. Merlini grinned…”Time’s up. Go to the foot of the class, both of you. …The answer is right in front of you all the time: I asked for the diameter and I gave you the radius. You can multiply by two, can’t you (Clayton Rawson, Death from a Top Hat, Chapter 20 “Dead end”)
"Then the murderer, carrying this fishing-rod, walked out of the hut by the door. He closed the door, leaving the knob of the bolt turned uppermost
'He went round to the window. Pushing the rod through the mesh of the grating - there was plenty of room for it, since I myself could easily get my forefinger through those meshes - he stretched out the rod in a diagonal line, from the window to the door.

fishing pole with wire and hook
door with internal bolt provided with an eyelet

Window with grating

Why do not we think about a Carr answer?
The Rawson novel is from 1938, that by Carr is from 1941.
I do not believe too to many coincidences. And therefore…
Also for this reason I say this work by Carr is a little masterpiece.

Pietro De Palma

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