Archive for John Dickson Carr

Black Forest Gateau

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 26, 2010 by dcairns

Or do I mean “chateau”?

Duvivier time! LA CHAMBRE ARDENTE — THE BURNING COURT — from a novel by John Dickson Carr, master of the locked room mystery — has very little reputation, and it doesn’t quite gel in a plot-character-theme way, but it has some set-piece scenes that are as fine as anything in JD’s oeuvre (French for egg) — a misty nocturnal exhumation; an open casket funeral with guests waltzing round the deceased; an arboreal chase scene. Working with usual collaborator Charles Spaak, JD unpicks much of Carr’s plotting, and the impossible crime at the story’s centre (a figure in period dress is seen administering a fatal glass of eggnog before vanishing through a wall) is actually pretty easy to guess a solution to — but the film’s ending is still a dark surprise. A few characters do seem to be cut adrift by the narrative reworking, with a bland pipe-smoking hero particularly useless to the story.

The film this most resembles is Franju’s PLEINS FEUX SUR L’ASSASSIN, with its ancient country house setting, historical murder backstory, hints of the supernatural. Duvivier even has regular Franju collab Edith Scob on hand, lending her masklike beauty to the eerie going-on, along with the glamorous Nadja Tiller and the always-welcome spannerlike face of Helena Manson, a nasty nurse in Clouzot’s LE CORBEAU.

Curious parties are recommended to Carr’s The Hollow Man AKA The Three Coffins, which features two impossible crimes, one of which has a dazzlingly brilliant solution, and also a chapter in which overweight ‘tec Dr. Gideon Fell lays out all the possible solutions to the locked-room genre, simultaneously thrusting the answers to the mysteries at hand under our noses, and whisking them away before we figure things out.

Here are some of Carr’s crimes —

In The Hollow Man, witnesses in a snowy street hear a cry of “The next bullet is for you!” followed by a gunshot. Turning, they find a man slain in the middle of the road, a pistol lying some distance from the body. Nobody else is around, and no footprints except the victim’s are found in the snow, yet examination shows he was shot at extremely close range…

In The Sleeping Sphinx, I think it is, a crypt is found where tremendously heavy coffins have been moved about at random, and no footprints mar the smooth sand on the floor. This mystery has little to do with any crime, but it’s fun.

There’s one in which a curse predicts that a man will be stabbed with an awl. He turns up dead, a small round puncture wound in his body, no visible weapon, and he’s in a locked room with only a metal grille offer any access to the outside world, and the grille is too high for the victim to have reached…

In The Judas Window, a luckless hero is found unconscious with a dead man who’s been impaled through the chest by a crossbow bolt, seemingly from a high angle. Locked room. No accessible windows, hidden doors or usable chimney. Although the title is a clue.

Can you find the solutions? Everything is as I’ve told you, pretty much, with no secret entrances or supernatural gimmicks.

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Locked Room Mystery

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , on August 11, 2008 by dcairns

Actor Steven McNicoll, in addition to his invaluable services to the nation as actor and funnyman, has a stockpile of thespian anecdotes second to none. Here’s one you might enjoy.

Wilfred Lawson, left, in THE WRONG BOX, suffering from the advanced stages of Wilfred Lawson Syndrome.

I’ve written before of Wilfred Lawson, character actor and celebrated inebriate. One of the few actors who could function quite well with a skinful, and who always seems quite drunk anyway when you see him in films. But there are limits, and you had to get him onstage or in front of the cameras before complete paralysis set in. 

It seems he was to do a live radio show. A minder was given the task of keeping him from the demon drink. The minder escorted Lawson to a dressing room and locked him in. The room had been thoroughly searched, and did not contain a trace of liquor. Lawson was sober when he went in, and had no booze on his person. There were no windows, and the only door was securely locked from the outside. The minder had the only key.

Returning after an hour to collect Lawson for the broadcast, the minder finds him utterly rat-arsed, pissed beyond language. How was this possible?

Readers of John Dickson Carr might have the advantage in guessing this one, since Carr performed so many variants on the classic Locked Room Mystery during his long career (yet there are only a few movie adaptations, THE MAN WITH THE CLOAK being perhaps the best). In The Hollow Man, Carr’s obese detective, Dr. Gideon Fell, actually lists all the different solutions possible to an L.R.M. And it STILL doesn’t help the reader reach an answer to the problem at hand.

For the record, the basic gimmicks are:

1) The crime was committed BEFORE the room was hermetically sealed, despite appearances (see The Mystery of the Yellow Room).

2) The crime was committed AFTER the room was unsealed, despite appearances (the husband rushes in and quietly throttles his fainted wife while his friends are going for the doctor).

3) The room is not 100% sealed — there exists some kind of ingenious secret access (see The Murders in the Rue Morgue, where an inaccessible window turns out to be perfectly accessible — if you happen to be an orang-utan).

4) The crime was self-inflicted, with a cunning mechanism designed to disguise the fact (such as an elastic band that yanks the fatal pistol up the chimney when it is released from the victim’s hand, thus concealing the ugly truth of suicide).

I suppose I ought to tell you the answer to this one, but I’m quite curious to hear your suggestions first.

Peculiar Crimes and Unexplained Deaths

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 24, 2008 by dcairns

dead cool

I’ve got an alternating thing going on with my reading at the moment — first I read one of Derek Raymond’s frazzled pulp nasties featuring his nameless police sergeant investigating horrific cases for department A14, Unexplained Deaths, the crappiest, least respected division of London’s Metropolitan Police (“the Met”) —

— then I read one of Christopher Fowler’s warmly elegiac, highly imaginative and thoroughly researched crime shockers featuring octogenarian detectives Arthur Bryant and John May, investigating bizarre crimes for the Peculiar Crimes Unit, a crappy and little-respected offshoot of London’s Metropolitan Police.

It seems to provide the variety I need.

While Raymond’s relentlessly downbeat policiers can put you into a bit of a suicidal depression, staved off only by the shameless purple-noir vivacity of his prose, (“He gave me one look, one of the straight kind, turned and got into the back of the Rover. It took off in a puff of rubber fury.”) and hilariously dated yet brilliant dialogue, Fowler’s more gentle work combines lashings of noir grimness and evil with the warmer Agatha Christie tradition in which crime-solving is a civilized, intellectual pursuit. It’s a lovely blend. White Corridors features a classic John Dickson Carr type locked room mystery, as well as a more psychological plot in which the readers perceptions are cunningly twisted around.

It was Carr who created The Department of Queer Complaints to solve Impossible Crimes, and in some respects Fowler’s Peculiar Crimes Unit is a descendant of this august body. Both writers eschew the supernatural while simultaneously evoking it: crimes and settings redolent of the unearthly are shown to have rational explanations, but in Fowler there’s little sense of the paranormal being “explained away” — an eeriness still lingers. His books are also crammed to rupturing with obscure lore and local history, much of which I’m filing away in the drawer of my brain labelled “Useless Information That Makes Life Worthwhile.”

Apparently there’s a movie/TV option on the Fowler books, while I’m trying to interest anybody I can find in films from the Raymonds (Chabrol has already done one — Raymond was always more welcome in mainland Europe, even writing a Parisian policier specifically for the French market) so this post isn’t entirely off-topic.

I feel I should intensify this London crime mood with some suitable film viewing — the wonderful DEATHLINE (known as RAW MEAT in the US — how dreadfully vulgar!) would seem to form a sort of stylistic link between the two series of books. In that sensational ’70s horror cult classic, Donald Pleasance’s irascible Inspector Calhoun manages to royally piss off everyone he meets, much like Raymond’s Sgt. or Fowler’s cantankerous fossil Bryant, while tracking down a cannibal navvie on the Underground.

It’s a film I’ve enjoyed numerous times, particularly for the irrepressible chemistry between Pleasence and his subordinate, Norman Rossington (the Beatles’ manager in A HARD DAY’S NIGHT). But I hope soon to have the DVD in my sweaty mitts so I’ll be unable to resist giving it a spin. (If only they’d made a whole series with Pleasence as Calhoun, tackling a modern Spring-Heeled Jack, hippie satanists and the Highgate Vampire. Calhoun is the true embodiment of the British copper’s particular brand of sarcasm. Are all policemen sarky? Our Johnny Hoppers seem particularly good at it.)

Norman Rossington story: when screenwriter Charles Wood spotted Rossington, playing an enlisted man, up front with the officers in the preparation for the final CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, he asked why Rossington wasn’t with the rest of the troops. “Because *I* am a highly-paid featured player,” retorted Rossington. Quite right.

Well, there are only five of Raymond’s series and six of Fowler’s, so this ecstasy can’t last, but while it does I’ll be steeped in London pea-soupers and cockney rhyming slang.

Here is some Cinephile’s Rhyming Slang, which will allow you to discuss movies without The Law getting wise to you:

Apples and stairs = featured players. (As in, “Who are the apples in that new Soderbergh?”)

Hoochy-coochy = Bertolucci.

Dirty Den = mise-en-scene.

La Dolce Vita = Cinecitta. (Also works the other way around.)

Bronx cheer = Lars Von Trier.

Dame Kiri = auteur theory.

Demon barber = Manny Farber.

Aneurin Bevan = SE7EN. (As in, “It had a moody, Aneurin-style title sequence.”)

Medically Ethical = Apeechatpong Weerasethakul.

“It puts you in mind of the days of Jack the Ripper!”

I love the London street scenes in KISS THE BLOOD OFF MY HANDS, even though they don’t look remotely like London streets. This being Universal Studios, I suspect they might be using bits of the mittel-European village set from FRANKENSTEIN.