Tuesday, February 12, 2019

John Dickson Carr: The Proverbial Murder, 1943


It was in an era when the suspect was around the corner, and the winds of war were about to blow impetuously.
In 1939, in which the nefarious pact Molotov-Ribbentrop led to the occupation of Poland and its dismemberment, John Dickson Carr probably signed his historical story, pervaded with spy atmospheres and with a crime that becomes impossible only a moment before the solution. but that remains a masterpiece of ingenuity and fulminating clues, even if cryptic.
The Proverbial Murder first came out in 1943 in E.Q.M.M. and then in 1947, in the collection "Fell, Detective and Other Stories".
In 1991 he was published, by International Polygonics, in a collection signed by Doug Greene, "Fell and Foul Play". I report part of the notes signed by Doug because they seem to me quite indicative to first disprove the original date of publication, which must not have been 1943 if it is true that the publisher said that the story was published in that year too In the USA: During the First World War, Dr. Fell acted as a spycatcher. According to The Mad Hatter Mystery, he seems to have specialized in uncovering secret means of communication; he caught a University of Chicago professor who had recorded information on the lens of his spectacles, and a naturalist whose drawings of butterflies contained the plans for British minefields. It was thus natural that he became involved in the espionage surrounding “The Proverbial Murder.” This story is a source of frustration for Carrian bibliographers. Its earliest known publication was in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, July 1943. The editor’s preface says that it is “here published for the first time in the United States,” and it seems likely that it was previously published in Britain. Repeated searches, however, have failed to find it, and all that can be said is that the story probably takes place shortly before the declaration of war in 1939 or during the so-called Phony War between October 1939 and Spring 1940 when Hitler was digesting his conquests in Poland and at least publicly paying little attention to Britain and France. 
The story begins with an ambush: the Inspector Ballard of the Special Division of the Metropolitan Police, together with one of his men, Sergeant Buck, is checking with his binoculars the house of prof. Meyer, a German atomic scientist, that an informative note states not only to be a spy but also about to meet his contact. This tip is believed to be reliable because it comes from the wife of Meyer.
As the two of them check, there is distinctly a gunshot, which is recognized to have been produced by a war rifle. The two focus the binoculars and here they distinctly see a hole in the window glass taken to which he was intent on writing the victim, the window curtain shaking and a hole in his right temple.
They come in time to bring help to the now widowed wife.
The action moves and changes scenario: now we are witnessing a conversation between Colonel Penderel, an old friend of Dr. Fell, and his daughter Nancy. The colonel speculates that he could be arrested for the murder of Dr. Meyer, because they had a dispute some time before and Dr. Meyer was killed with a cal 8 (7,7) military rifle, which he has in the garage.
The circumstances seem to be against him, if it is true that the only key that opens the garage is not only Yale but also of exclusive his possession; and that the gun was requested by Ballard to be taken away. The situation falls when, just Ballard, announces that the bullet that killed Meyer was fired from his rifle. To make the situation even more tense, also contributes Kuhn, a friend of Nancy, English-born German, who seems to have words of praise for those who perform glorious actions by encasing the spy.
At this point we have at least two suspects: Penderel and Kuhn.
Here, now who does arrive? Fell, all cloaked in white - we are in summer - which finds a way to wipe the sweat with a red scarf. He says two things that leave you speechless: he talks about dry moss and stuffed cats.
What will dry musk and a stuffed cat have to do in this story? And what will a personal shooting have to do with it? And above all, how, was a curtain in the room able to move, at the murder of Professor Meyer, as a result of a bullet fired from the outside? And how did someone kill by using a rifle held in a shed, whose other person had the key, not being forced the lock?
Responding to these questions Fell will nail a murderer, devilish not only for having hatched a plan of a significant complexity, but also for being able to divert suspects from himself as a spy and for being able to focus them on two other innocent people: the victim, and the alleged killer.
I immediately say that this is one of the most extraordinary stories I have read in recent years, of an unparalleled subtlety.
The killer acts on two distinct levels: first, as soon as police investigations are concentrated in his direction, even if he has not framed his identity, he offers the secret services a perfect subject that can be considered a spy; and then he kills him, putting the blame on another person, by virtue of an absolutely Mephistophelic stratagem.
To the understanding of the facts contributes once again the Gross.
Hans Gross, the father of Forensic Science, wrote in 1893 Handbuch für Untersuchungsrichter als System der Kriminalistik (Manual of Criminal Sciences for Magistrates Investigators). The text that is the starting point of forensic criminology, and therefore also of the scientific methods of the investigative bodies (judges but later also the police), is obviously cited in a lot of novels of GAD: first of all S.S. Van Dine quotes it in The Canary Murder Case, in The Greene Murder Case and also in The Kennel Murder Case; he is also mentioned by Augusto De Angelis, at least in Il do tragico, and by Helen Reilly in Dead Man Control. Years later he quotes H.R.F. Keating in his The Perfect Murder but also recently it has been mentioned by Stefanie Pintoff in her In the Shadow of Gotham.
And precisely in the essay of the Gross is mentioned the expedient that concerns the dry moss. When Fell quotes it, Penderel intervenes to confirm it:
Colonel Penderel’s eyes opened wide, and then narrowed.
“Moss!” he said. “By the Lord Harry, dry moss! I must have been halfwitted. Wrap the bullet in dry moss. It doesn’t touch the inside of the gun, and no marks are left. The combustion ignites and destroys the moss: so that there’s nothing left except a fouled barrel.
The presence of the Gross Treaty, in my opinion, also legitimizes the presence of Fell, instead of Merrivale. I note that this is one of those Carr stories in which the spy part enters from the window (as Strictly Diplomatic) and therefore logically, the presence of Merrivale should have been legitimate. And even Fell's clothing is not appropriate: dressed in white I've never seen him, Fell is always dressed in dark, with his hood, which is not here. The white color is functional to the fact that it is summer, but also to the clothing with which we usually find Merrivale. It seems to me as if at first Merrivale had been thought, and then only after Carr had thought to use Fell. And the reason could be the Gross: because Merrivale as head of military counterintelligence, he could also not know the Gross, but Fell no, because he is a man of law. And here, everything plays around that treaty and what Carr says is reported at some point (knowing how Carr is documented, the trick can certainly be true), ie the use of dry moss to prevent to the signs reported on a used projectile, others are added.
But beyond the Gross that apparently is the central element, what really is in this story is camouflage. We see it expressed by more characters:
first of all Ludwig Meyer, an honest scientist dedicated to knowledge and refugee that someone thinks well of turning into a spy; this person who turns Meyer into a spy (but maybe he really is) is even his wife, English, but who may have been traveling from English to hide his German soul, whose revealing elements could be blue eyes, blond hair and the rosy complexion; also Kuhn who has always been English, may have disguised himself as an Englishman to betray his country, even if he does not carry an English but German surname and proudly claims his origins; Fell is camouflaged by Merrivale (the white clothing is more appropriate to the second than the first); the stuffed cat is another camouflaged element: in fact it could have been used as a safe of secret documents, says Fell; the instrument of the crime is another expression of camouflage: a projectile already used on a different type of casing is used; as well as the weapon is an expression of camouflage: the camouflaged bullet is used on a different type of rifle; finally, when it seems that everything is finished, Fell expresses not only an exquisitely personal judgment but also a rare political evaluation of the facts of his time, which in our opinion embodies Carr's thought and that is in essence the ultimate goal to which the whole story tends.
At this keystone of the story comes also in virtue of the three proverbs that are mentioned in the course of the story by Fell. The ending is directly indicated by the killer, but also the other two mentioned above are interesting:
the first is A rolling stone gathers no moss: it is an old proverb which means that "who always travels and changes jobs continuously has no responsibility but does not even have a place to stay". This proverb is pronounced by Fell, when we are talking about Meyer who is thought to be a spy, but could also be understood towards Kuhn; the second proverb instead is directly connected to Kuhn, in the form of a question: birds of a feather flock together?
In essence, Fell thinks that Kuhn may have felt some kind of love towards Meyer. The first proverb could mean that he who has traveled a lot, has felt the need to stop and stay with someone. The second proverb is even more direct: Fell wants to know if he is on the side of the woman. Kuhn tries to exculpate himself but makes a resounding gaffe: he says that whoever does those things, performs glorious actions:
“That birds of a feather flock together?”
Kuhn was very serious. “No. I regret what has happened. I deeply regret it. But—do not judge too harshly. Such tasks are often glorious. I misjudged him.”
It is evident that he does not refer to Ludwig Meyer because before he had said, when he heard the first shot, the one made by the garden against the window by Harriet, who had not come because it was not his blood nor his race. It is evident that he despises the scientist who is not of Aryan race, and instead appreciates the woman who is, despite being English:
… yesterday afternoon I took a walk in the direction of that house. It iss not more than a quarter of a mile from here. And I heard a rifle shot. I looked over the edge of the hill, and saw this Meyer standing in front of the house. He seemed very angry. But he was not dead then. No, no, no!... His blood,” said Kuhn, holding himself very stiffly, “wass not my blood. His race wass not my race. I would have nothing to do with him”
The statement made before Fell, Ballard, Penderel, and Nancy, however wanting to examine it, can mean something else. How did he know that she was doing glorious action? Evidently, although he had not worked with the woman, Kuhn understood that he was a spy. It did not intervene then, and it does not intervene even when she is arrested, because it is not her question, it is not a German question, it is a British question.
Fell understands, however, that Kuhn is a sincere, honest person, even if proud of his race and belonging to other people and therefore tells him that he has nothing because he is an honest German .. But even if it were not, is better to have clear relationships with loyal enemies, who prove to be outside for what they are, that is of a different race, than with those who are English but rowing and plot against (like Harriet Meyer). Fell turns to Kuhn gently (Carr uses the expression Softly) because he imagines that between Kuhn and Meyer there was something, from him, a kind of Platonic love.
“You would not,” said Dr. Fell softly, “you would not like her to get away?”
“I cannot say,” said Kuhn, whose face had lost its color. “I do not know. She is a compatriot of yours, not mine. It is none of my affair.”
Dr. Fell stowed away his handkerchief.
“Sir,” he said gravely, “I know nothing against you. I believe you to be an honest man.”
Kuhn ducked his head, and his heels came together.
“Even if you were not, you fly your own colors and present yourself for what you are. But there,”—he pointed his stick in the direction Harriet Meyer had taken,—“there goes a portent and a warning. 
However, for me, Harriet Meyer, is the supreme camouflage. All the camouflages of history refer to this which is the keystone of everything. Carr wanted to say other things, and he said them through Fell. But since he could not and would not name names, he used a fictional character as a screen: his speech is clear. In fact he indicates the woman who tries to escape, to Kuhn
“Even if you were not, you fly your own colors and present yourself for what you are. But there,”—he pointed his stick in the direction Harriet Meyer had taken,—“there goes a portent and a warning. The alien we can deal with. But the hypnotized zealot among ourselves, the bat and the owl and the mole who would ruin us with the best intentions, is another thing. It has happened before. It may happen again. It is what we have to fear; and, by the grace of God, all we have to fear!”
Fell's speech is to be intended as a warning so that the plots of collaborators and people who despite not being and while behaving with the best intentions, favoring the enemies of the state, fail. In my opinion the three animals (the bat, the owl, the mole) are representing people of the time: in particular the bat, the creature of the night, which hides, may have wanted to indicate the Duke of Windsor, formerly Edward VIII, who he had Nazi-like friendships and was hosted in 1937 during his honeymoon in Germany by Adolf Hitler. It is no coincidence that the monogram of the Dukes of Windsor in a stylized form resembles a bat.

And as the bat may have wanted to represent the Duke of Windsor, The Owl, it may have been chosen to indicate a politician with bushy eyebrows, eg. Sir Neville Chamberlain; the mole, finally, which could indicate a spy, may have wanted to indicate several people: from Lord Halifax, to other characters: for ex. Oswald Mosley; Harold Sidney Harmsworth also known as Lord Rothermere; Unity Mitford, one of the daughters of the 2nd Baron of Redesdale. And maybe Carr, he wanted to refer to the latter. Unity was beautiful, blonde, blue eyes. She looks like Harriet Meyer. And like Meyer, she was an Englishwoman voted for the Nazi cause (to be Hitler's friend). So a traitor, a spy, a mole.
How is it likely that the expression "It has happened before" in my opinion refers to the events of the years 1936 - 1938 (the Duke of Windsor former King Edward VIII, that common opinion says he resigned to marry Wallis Simpson, according to many instead was forced to abdicate for his bulky neo-Nazi friendships).
The third of the three proverbs, pronounced by Gideon Fell in the last two lines of the story, is: "Have not I heard somewhere who lives in glass houses? which then means "I have not heard somewhere that those who live in glass houses should not throw rocks", that is "you never heard that those who live in glass houses should never throw rocks", which then means "should not say to another who has a straw in the eye, who has a beam.
This proverb refers directly to the murderer: it indicates it not only in an allusive way, through the proverb, but direct: in fact in the course of the story, the murderer, who is clear who he is, deliberately broke the glass of a window.
As it is clear from all that has been said that the murderer is the wife of the scientist, Harriet Meyer, English but also Nazi spy. One can also understand in the light of this a cryptic passage in history: when Colonel Penderel is accused by Ballard of having publicly threatened to kill Meyer, he replies that it occurred because he at a party at Penderel's house had asserted that the British did not have, taste, education. ways, scientific knowledge.
"I did not like his manners. He browbeat the tradespeople and threw his weight about wherever he went. He was supposed to have out of Germany penniless, but he had everything he wanted. At a party party here on Tuesday - when my wife was trying to reconcile him - he said calmly that the English had no taste, no education, no manners, and no knowledge of science”
Why would Meyer want to say this?
In my opinion, the possibilities are two: either Leonard Meyer is the spy and this would explain why Penderel notes that despite having escaped from Germany in great difficulty, it seems that he does not miss anything, in other words that he is a false political refugee: and then his murder could also be explained by a falling in love with his wife with Kuhn (the revival of the old triangle: the young wife kills her husband to have a younger one), but does not explain why a spy acting in the shadows would do anything to get out discovered; or Leonard Meyer is a true refugee, used as a screen to cover his wife, the real spy, and then his words against Penderel could hide an outburst against the Colonel who has German friends (Nazis). This second possibility, which is the most plausible, would put the whole story of Carr into perspective, which could be a metaphor of the England of his time, in which alongside honest patriots, he conspired people who would have preferred England to be was bombed and asked the German armistice, rather than find the Americans in Europe and in which there was a large part of the ruling class that was friendly, invited Nazis (as Penderel inviting Kuhn) and was invited by the Nazis, by heir to the throne of England to a large part of the aristocracy (related to the German aristocracy). This part of the nation is the real cancer (Harriet Meyer), because it acts in the shadow for purposes contrary to the state, more than those, despite being an enemy (Kuhn), but loyally acts in the light of the sun (and therefore can be fought face open).
A magnificent story.
Pietro De Palma