Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Devil Take the Hindmost

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.
— The Ghost, Hamlet (Act I, scene v)

When I recently read Roland Lacourbe’s book on John Dickson Carr, Scribe du miracle, I was particularly interested by a section of the book devoted to various John Dickson Carr homages, parodies, etc. One of these was described in particularly glowing terms: Whistle up the Devil by Derek Smith. I had heard of this book and was intrigued, and Lacourbe’s brief comment was the one that finally sold me on the book. Since brevity is the soul of wit, I will be brief: Whistle up the Devil has got to be one of the most fiendishly ingenious impossible crime novels ever written, period.

It starts off with the best trappings of a fine John Dickson Carr novel. Our protagonist is one Algy Lawrence, a young, good-natured, and somewhat naïve young man. “He could never hope to handle routine work with the quiet excellence which is the hallmark of the professional; but he could tackle the bizarre and the fantastic with expert skill.” One morning, he gets a call from his good friend, Chief Inspector Steve Castle. Steve has got a tantalising problem for him— no, nobody has been killed yet… but it just might happen

It all involves the Querrin family, who back in the days of their greatness had a solemn ritual, where one month before the eldest son’s marriage, he was taken aside by his father and was confided the Querrin family secret. Unfortunately, the last time this took place, something went terribly wrong, and both father and son died. As a result, the secret has been lost for many years, and it is still said that the ghost of the father, Thomas Querrin, haunts the room in question.

Well, Roger Querrin isn’t having any of that; he’s been engaged to marry the love of his life and he decides to “whistle up the devil” and keep the traditional Querrin appointment. Everyone tries to dissuade him, but Roger insists that the show must go on. So a normal party forms to stand guard. Algy Lawrence joins Roger’s brother Peter outside a passage that leads to the room. The local Sergeant Hardinge is stationed outside the room, keeping watch on the French windows. And of course, the door is locked from the inside, as are the windows. And just for good measure, there’s a large unplanted flower bed outside the French windows. Some rain that evening makes it the perfect spot for footprints.

That doesn’t faze our faceless assassin in the least. The killer manages to walk through brick walls, turn invisible at will, and sidestep gravity, stabbing Roger in the back with a dagger that was in the room. When the door is forced open, Peter Querrin and Algy Lawrence witness Roger’s final moments as he dies in front of them, with the dagger plunged in his back. There are plenty of odd things about this crime scene—for instance, the dagger is absolutely clean of any marks. That’s not unusual in itself, but if the killer had worn gloves, some smudges would have surely been left! Is this the work of a vengeful ghost?

The solution to this first crime is good, but it is the second impossible crime that really takes the cake for brilliance. A man named Simon Turner is arrested in connection with the murder, as he was seen prowling about the estate and attacked Algy Lawrence earlier in the evening. He is hauled off to the local jail, and Algy decides to come and interrogate him. Algy doesn’t get much out of him, and after the interrogation, he sits down in the Charge Room with Sergeant Hardinge and has a lengthy chat. Algy’s position becomes awkward when Turner is discovered in his cell, strangled … but the medical evidence points to his having been killed while Algy and Hardinge were talking! The jail, however, is constructed in such a way that there is only one possible way of getting to the cells— through the Charge Room…

It is this second murder that left me extremely enthusiastic about the book. What a dazzlingly brilliant impossible trick! Smith manages to make the problem seem even harder by keeping the jail under constant observation from the busybody post-mistress. He proposes a solution that is clever and would be satisfying, only to blow it sky-high immediately. He then takes his sweet time revealing the true solution, while the reader waits in breathless anticipation. It is well worth the wait. There is even a locked-room lecture based not on Carr’s infamous one from The Three Coffins, but on Clayton Rawson’s lecture in Death From a Top Hat, where The Great Merlini commented that Dr. Fell omitted one category of solutions!

The impossibilities are fiendishly ingenious and fairly-clued… but at the same time, the killer’s identity is fairly obvious from the start. Smith shows some genuine skill here, because even if you know who X is, tumbling to the nature of the locked-room trick is a different kettle of fish altogether. There is an extremely minor potential quibble about the solution, but to be honest, I never even noticed this until it was pointed out. However, Smith was prepared to explain this, and he did so in a 1980 letter to Doug Greene (who kindly sent me a copy to look over). Tony Medawar informed that in his copy of the book, which he received from Derek, the author made a few alterations to include this change. He kindly let me read these alterations, and they work very well. Overall, despite the minor blemish, I’d say the plot is a normal masterpiece of detection. It certainly is ingenious to say the least.

That being said… there are flaws. And it pains me to point them out because I loved the book from start to finish. Stylistically, the book could use improvements. The opening feels somewhat stilted, although Smith improves the atmosphere with time, throwing in some excellent effects later on in the book. The characters are not particularly three-dimensional, but alas, the worst character is our amateur sleuth. Algy Lawrence is not among the Great Detectives, to say the very least. Smith himself realized this— in a letter to Doug Greene, he wrote:

About Algy Lawrence himself, you are, alas, absolutely correct. He is a somewhat shadowy and unconvincing figure. I was in danger of ending up with exactly the sort of detective I don’t like – what Nicholas Blake defined as: “as undistinguished as a piece of blotting paper, absorbing the reaction of his subjects; a shallow mirror… a pure camera-eye.” What I had intended was a developing portrait of a young idealist, highly intelligent, yet rather naïve and slightly sentimental – a romantic who would eventually be caught in the trap of his own sensibilities.

The book unfortunately does not really succeed in this regard; the character of Uncle Russell is far more successful. Russell is a very fun character, constantly coming up with solutions to the impossible crimes that are completely off. What makes these scenes particularly fun is that these brilliant false solutions are outlandish, unpractical, improbable, and in some cases completely ignore the laws of common sense and physics. But these are often inspired by solutions in the bad kind of impossible crime novel—the kind that fails to give you a satisfying solution to the impossibility. Uncle Russell is an unashamed reader of detective stories, and I suspected that some of his dialogue reflected Smith’s own views on detective stories:

You’ve never heard of Hamilton Cleek … or the Hanshews either. Tell me … that their writing was bad, their sentimentality embarrassing, and their drama wildly funny. Tell me all that and I’ll agree with you. But, by God, they used ideas! A man walked into a room and vanished without a trace. Or died alone, from an explosion out of nowhere. Ingenuity, my boy! Not half-baked Freudian theory.
Meet the Vanishing Cracksman and you might find also a nine-fingered skeleton, a monster footprint, an icicle shot from a crossbow, or a camera that takes the picture of a murderer from the retina of a dead man’s eye.
The Hanshews, Thomas and Mary … knew the true detective story was only as good as its plot. (page 52)

As Smith himself wrote, “My own taste in detectives is much the same as Uncle Russ’s – wayward, arrogant, eccentric, and infallible- to which I would add ‘slightly comic’”. About the book in general, he says that it “was intended as a light-hearted ‘homage’ to both John Dickson Carr and Clayton Rawson, though in the event I was too diffident to send it to either of them.” It’s a genuine shame— one wonders what the Master of the Impossible Mystery would have had to say about the book.

The more I read the book, the more I asked myself the question: “Who was Derek Smith?” There was so little I could find out about him, yet he had more than his fair share of ingenuity and his heart was certainly in the right place. Why the neglect? It just didn’t seem fair. And so I set out to find out as much as I could about Derek Smith.

Born on July 4th of 1926, Derek was an avid fan and collector of British boys’ books. (One, The Schoolboy ‘Tec by Charles Hamilton, even makes it into his novel, as Algy Lawrence reads it to briefly take his mind off the problem at hand.) He was born in the borough of Lambeth, South London, and it seems he lived in the same house he grew up in all his life. After his parents separated, Derek lived with his mother until her death. In a letter to Doug Greene from 1980, he mentions her poor health— “I’m having a bad time at the moment, as my poor old mother is ill in hospital and I’m spending most of my free time at her bedside to encourage her.” I’m not sure when she died, but after her death, Derek (who never married) remained in the same house.

It seems that Derek was drafted into the army at the end of WWII (he would have turned 18 in 1944) and developed some kind of a lung problem. He lived on disability for the rest of his life.

The very first line of Whistle up the Devil is: ‘“Telephones,” Algy told himself drowsily, “are the devil.”’ As Doug Greene recalls, Derek had no telephone. When calling him, Greene had to use the number of the neighbours, who would then summon Derek to the telephone. Whether this was done out of a personal prejudice against the instrument is unclear.

No matter who I’ve gotten in touch with, everyone agrees that Derek was a generous man with a heart of gold. He would often give away books, including copies of the ultra-rare first edition of Whistle up the Devil. Several people have informed me that they got their copies straight from Derek himself. So here’s the central question: why is the book so hard to find? Well, the first edition was published by John Gifford, which was simply an arm of Foyles. Their contracts with authors would give them book club rights for next-to-no costs. After a few copies under the Gifford imprint (which was more or less done as a formality) it was on to the “Thriller Book Club” edition. As far as I know, the book hasn’t been reprinted, although Doug Greene unsuccessfully tried convincing IPL to do so.

Derek’s book collection was simply enormous. Ralph Spurrier described it so excellently that I could do no better than quote his words:

I knew Derek slightly and would often see him at London book fairs. He was always wearing the same clothes and looked somewhat down at heel. After he died it turned out that he had left his book collection to a London dealer ... When the dealer went to collect them he found a house that was not only literally falling down but also rammed packed with tens of thousands of books. There was hardly any space that was not taken up by books… The door to one room was opened outwards and the dealer was faced with a sea of books piled up to eye level that ran from the door to the back wall. At the back of the room was a glass case with more books in it which couldn't have been opened for decades. Every conceivable Golden Age book was found in the collection including dustwrappered Agatha Christies from the 30's. A lot of the books had to be dumped because the roof leaked and water and damp had ruined them but the better part of collection was dispersed to the four corners of the world to grateful readers who had searched for some of these scarce titles for many years.

Bill Pronzini adds that after Derek’s death, part of the second floor of his house actually collapsed due to the weight of the books and dry rot. As a result, several rare first editions were lost.

Bill Pronzini met Derek at the 1990 London Bouchercon, where they spent some time discussing books and locked-room mysteries. They also managed to get lost on the stairs, and Pronzini feared that Derek would collapse. He recalls that Derek looked quite frail at the time, but he lived for a good many years still (Derek died in late December 2002) and they exchanged letters during that time. Derek sent him an inscribed copy of the first edition of Whistle up the Devil for Pronzini’s book collection.

Derek was extremely knowledgeable about the mystery genre. It shows in Whistle up the Devil, where Algy Lawrence, following a rant of Uncle Russell’s, starts lecturing him about the book he is reading, The Man of the Forty Faces: “Did you know it was reissued in 1913 as Cleek, The Man of the Forty Faces, with three of the original stories left out, and a new one included? In the USA, oddly enough, the amended text was published five years before the original finally appeared as Cleek, the Master Detective.” To this, Uncle Russell respectfully declares: “My boy … I see I’ve misjudged you. Have another drink.”

Interestingly, Derek did not drink himself. Doug Greene recalls an occasion where he went with him to a pub, having acquired some John Dickson Carr texts. Greene indulged in a pint of bitter, while Derek was content with an orange juice, as he skimmed the pages with glee. In this respect, he differed considerably from John Dickson Carr, some of whose books read like a tribute to alcohol (such as The Case of the Constant Suicides, which has marvellous drinking scenes). Although Algy Lawrence in Whistle up the Devil is not a teetotaller, he is described as “the mildest of drinkers.”

Besides Whistle up the Devil, Derek Smith also wrote a novel called Come to Paddington Fair and a Sexton Blake novella called Model for Murder. He did not find a publisher for either, and entrusted the manuscript of Come to Paddington Fair to Mr. Mori Hidetoshi. It was published in a very limited release in Japan (but published in English). From what I can tell, Come to Paddington Fair is not a locked-room mystery, although it appears that it is a book in which all the suspects are cleared, so it seems impossible for anyone to have committed the crime.

The image I’ve gotten of Derek Smith is a fascinating one: though somewhat reclusive he had a generous heart and a kind spirit, always willing to give. It is a shame that he was, in a sense, hoodwinked by the publishing industry. They got a good price for Book Club editions of Whistle up the Devil, but this came at a price— the book was simply never given the opportunity to achieve the success I believe it deserved, and afterwards, Derek couldn’t find a publisher. I wonder if things would have turned out differently if he’d gotten an endorsement from someone like John Dickson Carr. An unashamed fan of mysteries and an aspiring writer of them, Derek Smith’s heart was in the right place. He truly deserves to be better known today.

******************************

I am very grateful to all those who helped me find out more about Derek. I’m particularly thankful to Doug Greene, who kindly sent me some of Derek’s correspondence and shared many memories of him. I’ve plagiarised most of what he told me, and I could never repay him for the kindness he’s shown in the last few days, as I endlessly pestered him with questions in an eagerness to find out all I could about Derek. I’d also like to thank all the others who helped: Bill Pronzini (who confirmed some recollections and added a few interesting notes to these), Ralph Spurrier (who did a marvellous job describing Derek’s book collection), Jamie Sturgeon (who managed to give me Derek’s birthdate and some details about his life) , Susumu Kobayashi (for information about the publication of Come to Paddington Fair), and Tony Medawar (for sharing with me Derek’s alterations to fix the minor flaw in this book).

10 comments:

  1. I feel like whipping myself now for not having put in more effort to track down a copy of this book, when I was on my locked room reading binge earlier this year, but rest assured, this will be one of my top priorities of 2012!

    Have you notice how the most ingenious and fun of mystery writers are usually also the biggest of fan boys themselves?

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  2. My favorite part of Whistle Up the Devil was the locked room lecture. It was while reading that portion I realized how strange the Hamilton Cleek books were. I had collected all of them years ago and read a few stoires, but had a difficult time getting into them and never managed to pick the book with the really bizarre plots. Very old-fashioned prose and stilted dialog hindered my pleasure and I got frustrated and bored. But I promised myself that I would tackle one and get all the way through it for Bev's Vintage Mystery Challenge next year. Who knows - I may end up reading and reviewing every last one of them. I have almost every one.

    This was fascinating reading about Derek Smith. Like reading an article in an old issue of "The Armchair Detective." If that fanzine were still around you would be right at home as a regular contributor.

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  3. @John
    I can't tell you how much it means to me to hear you say that! Unfortunately, I was not aware of The Armchair Detective when it was around... its loss is deeply regrettable.

    @TomCat
    I do think it's a recurring pattern. And while the book has its stylistic flaws, there's nothing wrong with its ingenuity. The trip is well-worthwhile to say the very least. Hopefully you'll be able to get around to it soon enough.

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  4. wonderful article! Yes I love this book's puzzel,solution as well as Derek Smith's genuine passion to impossible crimes.I'm very very lucky to get hold of a copy of Come to Paddington Fair last January,at a massive price.It was the 2nd time it popped up on internet and it worth every penny.It's a shame those are the only work by Derek and I believe he deserves much more recognition.

    James

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  5. Congrats Patrick - a really impressive post and a really fine feat of journalistic detection too! I've not read anything by Derek Smith I'm afraid but I certainly want to know!

    Cheers,
    Sergio

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  6. @James
    Thank you for taking the time to comment! I agree solely on the strength of this book that Derek deserves to be better-known today. Who knows? With the relaunch of The Mysterious Press, perhaps Otto Penzler might take a look into the possibility of having the book e-published.

    @Sergio
    And I never left my hometown to do it! Truly a marvelous feat of armchair detection. ;) But in all honesty, I'm indebted to the generosity and helpfulness of all those who contributed to this article. I would have never been able to write this without them. I'm not surprised you haven't read it-- it's hard to find. If not for a realtively cheap copy popping up on AbeBooks, I might have simply gotten ahold of a French translation, available on PriceMinister and somewhat cheaper, too. Here's hoping that it'll get reprinted!

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  7. ! have to find this book! Thanks for the excellent post about it!

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  8. @Peggy
    Glad you liked the post, and good luck finding a copy! :)

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  9. I know a fact about 2 different version of this book

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  10. Very interesting! Where was I when you posted this?

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