Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Carter Dickson : King Arthur's Chair, 1957 (Death by Invisible Hands: U.S. Edition)

Dedicated to Douglas G. Greene

Published for the first time in August 1957, in the magazine Lilliput, signed by Carter Dickson (although having as main character Gideon Fell), the story King Arthur's Chair, also had another title: Death by Invisible Hands, used for the American edition. It appeared in fact on the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine of April 1958, and the same illustration for the cover was imprinted on it.
It's an extraordinary "dark" tale, in which the theme of the double peeps everywhere, full of metaphorical symbols and meanings, connected with some of the "seven deadly sins", a story that I particularly love. Moreover, the work is one of the many variations of Carr of the impossible murder: a crime is committed on a beach, without the footprints of the murderer, but only those of the victim. Carr wrote other works using this subspecies of setting: I remember for example one of his major works, and still little known that is The Witch of the Low Tide, a novel of a little later (1961) to the period of story.
Here the problem is particularly complex, but the solution that is proposed is extraordinary: I would say that it is one of Carr's best stories, just for the flawless solution, but also for the structure of the story, very interesting.
First of all the story.
Dan Fraser, is in love with Brenda Ray. She gave him an appointment at her villa on the sea, where she lives with her poor cousin, Joyce Ray. It is however a bad time to see each other. It's a warm evening, one in which he will see her again. Hot and sultry. The clouds are heavy and sometimes lightning breaks through the darkness, illuminating the night and the sea. Dan has to face a downhill with nothing to do with his car, before arriving at the house. However, strangely he finds it in the dark.
It is a house full of decorations, as it is in the nature of Brenda, which she calls "the house of the king". But, unlike what Dan would expect, it is immersed in darkness: the darkness of night and the darkness caused by the lights that windows should radiate all around, which it does not see. Left the car, he realizes that the curtains are pulled completely. The atmosphere, full of electricity (lightning) and obscure presentiment, convinces Dan that something is wrong. The villa seems uninhabited. It seems, because when he hurries in the direction of the front door, he realizes that it is closed, but not locked, and when he opens it, he is seen flooded by the light, which spreads from the inside.
Not even the time to reflect and a door opens: a female figure stands out. Brenda is not, but her cousin Joyce. Their looks cross each other. It is as if they were in dialogue, as if confessing their own most secret desires to each other, it is as if they were speaking a language that had never been articulated until then. The fact is that they understand, in a single instant that they have always loved each other. Or rather, Dan understands that he has always loved her, and that for Brenda it was just an infatuation. Dan would expect to find Brenda. At this point she would like to meet her, but not to spend a hot night with her, but for a sort of moral correctness, to confess that she has understood that he does not love her and that he loves her poor cousin instead. But Brenda is not there. Because she died. They found her in the morning. Now the house is lit up, because everyone has just gone away: the corpse, the coroner, the police, Inspector Tregellis, the great police detective friend, Gideon Fell.
The situation has changed: Joyce is no longer poor but rich. And above all now Dan is free to love her; and they do not even have to be accountable to  Brenda, he and Joyce. However, Dan thinks Brenda is dead, drowned, after a swim.
“No” said Joyce. “She was strangled”.
“Strangled ?”
Strangled, it means murdered, no longer just dead. If a few minutes before the situation for Dan and Brenda seemed miraculously resolved, now it returns intricate, much more than one might think. Assassinated means killed by a murderer. And the police on whom will focus their attention? About who that morning could have had the opportunity (and then would have examined the alibi) but also the reasons for doing so (the motive). And it had to be a valid motive to kill.
In the villa as well as Joyce, and of course Brenda, there are two other subjects, friends of the two cousins: Toby Curtis and Edmund Ireton. But who that morning would have had the opportunity and a more than good reason to kill, it would have been Joyce: the envy of heritage, and jealousy towards her sister, for Dan .. Two motives more than good to murder. That's why Joyce tries to make Dan realize that the declaration of love should have done it to her earlier, but not at that moment. Because it would give the police immediately the certainty that the poor cousin, that is she, had to do with the physical elimination of the rich cousin.
“Whatever you had to tell me, or thought you had to tell me..”
“About anything! You do see that you must forget it and not mention it again? Not ever!
However, there is a problem that the police are examining: it concerns the modus agendi of the murderer. It is known that Brenda, when she went swimming, wore a scarf knotted around her neck and a beach robe over her bathing suit; then she left the beach robe and the scarf on The King Arthur's Chair, a chair-shaped rock that was close to the sea: she sat down, smoked and then went for a swim. However, you can not understand how the killer could have strangled Brenda: if the killer had strangled her behind her, she would have fallen forward. But that's not it: Brenda was found in the sand. And besides, no one can have faced her, on the side of the sea, emerging from the water, because on the sand of the shore, they would have had to find some footprints, which instead are not there. And that Brenda has been strangled, it feels the scarf around her neck in addition to the beach robe: while the first has been abandoned, the second has penetrated so deep into the skin, that those of the police have not managed to remove it.
In addition to this, there is the problem of identifying the possible culprit: no one could have killed her. Ireton, had just arrived; Curtis was doing the shooting with a cal rifle. 22 on the back of the house; and Joyce herself, by her own admission, was at home. All three came out and saw it: and in the space of six meters on the sand, there were no footprints.
If the truth is this, the problem is insoluble. The police grope in the dark, in fact it is better to say, would grope if ... there was no Gideon Fell, casually on holiday in those parts, in Cornwall, and arrived accompanied by the police.
Gideon Fell reasons and supposes what could have happened. First of all, he eliminates the problem of footprints: if they are not there, it means that they have never been there. So the murderer man or woman (in case it was Joyce, or one of the two maids, but they would have had no reason to kill anyone who gave them a job) has never traveled the stretch of sand. So? How could she have been strangled? From a flying killer?
No. He has never moved materially from the house.
This is Carr's surprising solution: the murderer has left no footsteps, because he did not kill the victim by strangling her, but using something that simulated the strangulation, and was also extremely rapid.
Starting from this assumption, Fell reconstructs, questioning those present, their moves.
And he identifies the murderer. Nailing him/her to his/her responsibilities.
But before that it can happen, another character, almost another detective, is giving the measure of the drama. While Fell is the detective who sees the material nature of sin, Ireton here is the detective who emphasizes his spiritual nature. Ireton is the conscience, the Carr's voice.
“The Psalmist tell us” he said dryly “that all is vanity. Has none of you ever noticed – God forgive me for saying so – that Brenda’s most outstanding trait was her vanity?”
His glance flashed towards Joyce, who abruptly turned away and pressed her hands over her face.
“Appalling vanity. Scratch that vanity deeply enough and our dearest Brenda would have committed murder”.
“Aren’t you getting this backwards?” asked Dan. “Brenda didn’t commit any murder. It was Brenda”.
“Ah” Mr. Iton pounced. “And there might be a lesson in that, don’t you think?”
“Look here, you’re not saying she strangles herself with her own scarf?”
“No, but hear what I do say. Our Brenda, no doubt, had many passions and many fancies. But there was only man she loved or ever wanted to marry. It was not Mr. Dan Fraser”
“Then who was it?” asked Toby
Toby’s amazement was too genuine to be assumed. The color drained out of his face. Once more he had to clear his throat.
“So help me”, he said. “ I never knew it! I never imagined”
Later on in an innocent dialogue, speaking of a person, he identifies the weapon of murder, without mention of it. But he does so without conscience, as if he were speaking not by his own will, but rather as an expression of the divine will. It is like the Sibyl who speaks not by her own will but by the god who possesses it, describing exactly what happened.
It could have been a comedy of misunderstandings, if it did not end in drama: she loves him, he loves her but does not know that he is loved, rather thinks that she loves another, who is in love with her in words, but actually loves another woman. And then there is a killer who strangles not approaching, but using an imaginary tool. In short, a big confusion. But if we see well, confusion is not, it seems if anything.
The story, in my opinion, the  story that if we did not know belong to the second half of the 50s, it would be tempting to consider it a work written in the early '30s, maybe under the influence of Bencolin. It is an ethical manifesto, full of symbolic meanings, almost a condemnation of excessive pomp, of the triumph of appearance, of narcissism: in other words a condemnation of Vanity.
This sort of metaphorical manifesto, I would say, is structured on at least "four mystifying levels": mystification is present in various expressions, ranging from the personality of the murderer and of the murdered, to those of the other actors in the drama, to the same manifestations in place, including the homicidal plan.
The first could be the mystification of feelings: Brenda loves Toby, just as Toby loves Brenda. But both are touchy and vain: neither of them wants to lower their heads to confess that they are in love with the other, and therefore they simulate indifference, when they do not come to sting each other. And in doing so they both ignore being loved, one from the other. It is a love that does not give itself, but that feeds on itself and therefore destined to contort. For example. Toby does not know he is loved, but in turn loves her, desperately struggling for the love she shows for Dan. In turn, Dan, thinking he had impressed a beautiful woman, is convinced that he is in love with her, while just really he’s in love with Joyce, whose love he transfers to Brenda.
And while it happens, Joyce loves him.
The second mystifying level is relevant to the psychology of the murderer: he explains to the bystanders, replacing the detective on duty, how the killer could not have approached the victim: nor from the sea, "..because the highest point at high tide, where the water might have blotted out footprints, is more than twenty feet in front of the chair. More than twenty feet "; nor behind it, because "from the flagstones of the terrace  to the back of the chair is at least twenty feet, too"; nor taking a leap, because "An Olympic champion in good form might have done it, if he he’d had any place for a running start and any place to land. But he hadn’t . There was no mark  in the sand” . And in so doing shows how the murder can not be explained: without weapons, and without the possibility of proving the murder, the case has to be filed only. But at this point the “deus ex-machina” appears, which up to that moment has not been present, Gideon Fell, who solves the enigma.
The third level concerns the instrument used as a weapon to kill.
In itself it is not a weapon: it becomes so only if it is used in a certain way. And it was precisely the way to use the instrument to cause the impossible situation.
Moreover, this weapon produces a characteristic sound that can easily be confused with another. And the mystification concerns precisely the use of these two instruments in such a way that the use of one mystifies the use of the other.
The fourth and last level  concerns the mystification of suspicions that can only be Joyce Ray, then Edmund Ireton, and Toby Curtis.
Joyce is the first to be suspected for the wealth acquired following the death of her cousin. Then there is Edmund Ireton (who in his opinion wants to protect Joyce): he advised Dan not to mention anybody of the mutual sentiment that they have discovered to hear each other, on pain of possible accusation of homicide addressed to Joyce. Nevertheless the friend Toby Curtis (strange the fact that his name is similar to Tony Curtis who in the 50s was very famous as an actor!) reproaches him for using a way of doing, directed to get directly accused of Joyce instead of protecting her: why instead of warning Dan in separate headquarters, to no say around that he was in love with her and she of him, did he shout it in such a way that everyone in the house were, willy-nilly, aware? In reality there is not a suspect, but two. Rather, three, because Fell will begin to talk about the rifle. Indeed because it is the cal rifle. 22 the weapon used to mystify the sound of the instrument used instead to kill Brenda. Who did own the rifle and had it practiced for the morning? Toby. So he too is suspected. Even if someone else could have used it in his absence.
But the story can have another reading: next to the four levels on which the story is structured, in this story, I see many manifestations of the double: some can be random, some are not, and in any case the doubles connected to the personality of the homicide, the victim, the weapon, and some situations of the story, refer to an object present in profusion in the house. And the identification of the double nature of many objects, situations, subjects, used symbolically, is to be put in my opinion in reference to the "moral" of the story. I'll explain.
First of all double is the atmosphere that welcomes Dan: the darkness that surrounds the house on the beach, the lightning that pierces the darkness and flickers the scene of the crime, while inside it is illuminated, it can be a metaphor: the darkness of the investigation is torn by some assumption that here and there begins to thin out the darkness, until you get to the light of the solution. But it is also darkness,  (the evil) opposed to light (the right). Outside the house the evil has led to a murder, but it will be in the house that Fell will unveil the motive and how Brenda was killed. And from whom.
Double is the nature of the feelings of the people who live in that house: executioner and victim, are opposed and confused, so that in the end the murderer will prove the victim of Brenda, and of himself. But the personalities of those who move are also double, also: is Ireton guilty or innocent? Friend or enemy? Is Toby innocent or guilty? Is Dan really a stranger to the story or is he involved? Is Joyce really innocent or is she a cunning murderess ?
Double is the possibility of how the murder was perpetrated: was the killer in front of or behind the victim?
 Double is the nature of the sweetheart and of the lover, of those who love and those who are loved. But double is also the meaning of the use of a weapon, which is not only what appears but also: a rifle, cal . 22, with which Toby made the dartboard. The rifle has a double nature: it shoots but also mystifies the noise it produces, so that you think that even when you hear a certain noise it is associated with the shot while it is not.
There are two maids in the house.
There are two cousins: one poor, the other rich.
The presence of two cousins, one poor, one rich, among other things gives me the opportunity to highlight a curiosity: in 1940, by Norah Lofts (pseudonym, Peter Curtis) was published the first of four novels, Dead March in Three Keys. It is a beautiful novel, which could still be proposed today, a thriller, in which the reader sees a murder planned for interest. The actors of this drama are three: two cousins, Antonia and Eloisa, the first poor but very outgoing with men, the second rich but extremely closed; and Riccardo, the lover of Antonia, poor too, who by calculation marries Eloisa, constantly betraying her with Antonia, until ...
I am interested only in pointing out how Carr could have read the novel, which obtained a robust success in the early 40s, and could have drawn the idea of ​​two completely different cousins ​​of cense, which contend the love of a man, who also here he is truly in love with the poor and only apparently of the rich. But here the situation is the opposite: the extrovert is that rich, and timid is instead the poor, but nevertheless would have the reasons to kill, but instead, because of their own humility, it would not seem to you at all.
Two are still the perpetrators and the victims of this story: always them, Brenda and the murderer. While Brenda is the victim of the murderer, but she is also the executioner, because is she who pushed him to kill her.
And what is still double? Vanity: the vanity of Brenda and the vanity of Toby. But also the Vanity that did not allow them to be happy. After all, one could think from the outset that the only subjects vain in this little drama are Brenda and Toby. Instead, even Ireton could be vain. He is represented dressed in a refined manner, as a snob. With the face of a good-natured satyr, when not mocking. He says he was a putative uncle of both cousins: but what was he? Was he just a discreet friend or did he love one of the two?
And surely Dan is. But Dan's vanity is not Brenda's vanity: Dan thinks he's fascinating, not because he believes in it, but because Brenda herself made him believe it, enmeshing him. Brenda's vanity is different: she really believes she is charming and superior to others. It is the Femme Fatal, and like all fatal females she has a bitter destiny. In the Middle Ages her vanity, which is also pride, would be condemned without appeal, and she would probably be punished harshly. Because Vanity (together with Pride) was connected with Evil. Vanitas Vanitatum. One of the seven deadly sins.
Vanity is the motive of murder, a strange motive, in truth. There is no hate, avarice or greed, but vanity. Which is produced by excessive narcissism, by excessive falling in love with oneself, by the protection of one's innermost nature, which must not be revealed at all, because from this there would be a weakening of one's personality. For once, we see how murder is not the product of hatred, but of love, even if it is not aimed at others but at oneself. Love is double here too: love of oneself, but also love of the other. If there had been no love for another, there would have been no fear of being mocked and laid bare. Narcissism, and Vanity. The opposite of humility, which would seem to be the connotation of Joyce instead.
The killer is therefore a weak, who, mocked for his own weakness, of the love he/she feels, kills. If he/she had been strong, he/she would not have been afraid of his own weakness. But he/she is not. He/she must simulate outside not being weak, but he/she is this, and it is precisely this duplicity in the soul that is the cause of his crime, of mortal sin.
The appearance that is committed to vanity, beauty, what is seen, is already highlighted at the beginning of the story when it is said that the house on the sea was called "the house of the king", because of all the decorations that Brenda had wanted to embellish it, externally and internally.
But appearance and vanity are represented by an object, which is located inside the house, of which, as we said before, there is profusion, and which has a strong symbolic value: the mirror.
Brenda was vain, and because she was in love with herself, she needed the mirror. Of the mirrors. That they were numerous at home.
And the mirror is the object that produces the double: the mirror reflects a vision, creating its double. The two doubles, only apparently seem to be the same, while they are antithetical, each other. The double is the opposite, the hidden soul, the hidden part of us. In ancient times it was thought that the mirrors, duplicating reality, could have imprisoned the soul in the image reflected by the mirror. That's why some covered the mirrors at someone's death to allow him to reach the afterlife.
But the mirror generates an image of itself, allows one to see one's beauty. It can be positive or negative. When it is negative, it is linked to narcissism and the attachment of earthly goods. As such, this vision of life, and therefore of oneself, refers to Evil, and to the two deadly sins to which it is linked: Vanity and Pride. So much so that in the Florence of 1497, with the “Rogo delle Vanità” (the bonfire of the vanities), during the Fat Tuesday, the followers of Girolamo Savonarola burned the mirrors.
Here then are already two key symbols of the story: the mirror and the double that is generated by it and in it.
But there is another symbol: it is the weapon used to kill.
“Real instrument? What noise?”
“The crack of blacksnake whip”, replied Dr. Fell
It is not the rifle, which only served to divert attention, deceiving those present that the noise felt was a shot, while instead it was the sound of a whip. But it is a snake skin whip. A herdsman's whip. That skillfully used was wrapped around Brenda's neck, while she was still sitting on the throne of King Arthur with her neck wrapped in a scarf. After all, the scarf was essential to the staging: if it had not been there, the sign of the whip would have been seen on the neck. Leaning against the curve of the rock behind the seat, the whip, drawn toward the murderer, had suffocated her in seconds. Then, having to do it from the neck, the murderer had to give a shot upwards, which had lifted Brenda and dropped it into the sand, creating the impossible situation.
The third symbol, however, is not the whip itself, but the material of which it is made: the snake skin.
Was it not the serpent, the evil, Satan in disguise, to suggest to the woman that she was naked? Eve is often portrayed with the apple, but also with the mirror: pride and vanity, they are often associated. As in this case, because the victim and the perpetrator are an expression of weakness: superb and vain.
In the last scene, all three symbols are present.
Fell nails the killer, who is portrayed while he looks in the mirror, and as he steps back he stands with his shoulders near another mirror. And the mirrors are everywhere:
“Inspector Tregellis was reflected everywhere in the mirrors with the long coils of the whip over his arm.”
the mirror is like referring to the unkown face of the murderer, what Fell highlights, his soul devoted to evil, his double:
“Look at him, all of you” said Dr. Fell. “Even when he’s accused of murder, he can’t take his eyes off a mirror”
At the conclusion of Fell's arming, comes the Inspector Tregellis who wields the whip.
“And he seemed to be carrying not a whip but a coil of rope…gallows rope.”
The whip which is formed by snakeskin.
Basically the killer is nailed to his responsibilities, and it is as if the serpent, the evil of original sin, which had instilled in man the pride and the vanity, now claims its price: death and damnation, for whom he consciously chose it, by hanging.
But the true condemnation of the murderer would not be without a twist. The reconstruction of Fell is perfect, but so told in a courtroom would have no reason to be accepted, because there are clues, there is the weapon of murder, there is the presumption that it may have been used by the same assassin (who is a wealthy landowner in South Africa, where he uses the type of whisk found), but it seems that there was no witness present. Instead ...
Instead the divine Providence, fate, divine Justice, call it what you want, that can not allow a murderer, who killed with the aggravating we would say "of the futile reasons", that is, for malice, go unpunished, materializes again a time in a story by Carr.
It is represented by one of the two maids, Sonia, infatuated by the murderer. It is as if something superhuman, which escapes from the human reasoning, to the planning of a perfect crime, inserts itself, a feather that makes a gear jammed to be not jammed, unconsciously and unconsciously put into motion by that same vice, the vanity, which it was at the base of the murder. The desire to be beautiful at all costs, produces infatuation in those women who are subject to this kind of external charm. One of these is Sonia.
“Sonia it seems has quite a fondness for you. When she heard that last isolated “shot” this morning, she looked out the window again. You weren’t there. This was so strange that she ran out the front terrace to discover where you were. She saw you”
It is as if Carr issued a rough judgment, once again: evil never pays.

Pietro De Palma