Tue 6 Jan 2009
JOHN DICKSON CARR – 13 to the Gallows.
Crippen & Landru, hardcover & softcover, September 2008.
Another splendid volume of discoveries from Crippen & Landru, this time the scripts of four stage plays written by the US-born detective writer John Dickson Carr (1906-1977), two of them written in collaboration with Val Gielgud. It’s the Carr name that’s the attraction here, though for me in equal parts the name of my hero, the British researcher and editor Tony Medawar, on the book’s dust jacket made me put my money down.
I know next to nothing about Val Gielgud, and I found myself frequently throughout the book wondering what parts of the two full-length pieces Gielgud wrote, and which were Carr’s alone. As with his collaboration with Adrian Conan Doyle, Carr’s presence is so strong it seems the other fellow only occasionally got his hand in, but I may be wrong about that.
You’d think Gielgud’s background with the BBC must account for the detailed trials and tribulations of a radio program producer during the Second World War, but Car worked there too, and he seemed to do pretty well all by himself in the much later novel The Nine Wrong Answers.
But anyone will feel a difference between the tone of the longer plays and the two longish one-acts which make up the rest of the volume: the shorter plays are more serious, they’ve got real feeling behind them, and they’re genuinely spooky and atmospheric.
The two Carr-Gielgud plays cover much of the same ground, almost as if the second were a reworking of the first. Both take place far from the main BBC studios in London, one in the basement of a confiscated country house estate miles from anywhere, the other in the basement of a converted high school in Barchester, the imaginary cathedral town that Anthony Trollope created and which, at the time Carr and Gielgud were working together, was the setting for a few dozen romance novels by their contemporary Angela Thirkell. I wonder if Carr and Gielgud were sending up Thirkell in some of their situations!
“Inspector Silence Takes the Air” involves a true crime radio script of a romantic triangle (older man, young woman, young lout) being rehearsed by a crew of actors who eerily replicate their on-air parts with their own backstage drama, much to their discomfort. During the rehearsal, in front of everyone’s eyes, an actor is shot dead, but none of the guns found later during an intensive search match the bullet that killed.
As Medawar notes, Carr had used a similar problem in his short novel The Third Bullet a few years before, and bringing in Inspector Silence (a character invented by Val Gielgud in a previous play he’d written without Carr) isn’t all that much fun. OK, I take that back, it’s funny when the retired policeman gets nervous as a schoolgirl and dries up his lines when confronted with a microphone.
I liked the second play much more. Instead of a lover’s misunderstanding, “13 to the Gallows” takes an unsolved crime of the past as its central feature, as years later the survivors of that crime examine must reestablish their own alibis.
The protagonist was, years before, acquitted of the crime of pushing his wife from a belltower, and yet popular opinion in Barchester has remained solidly against him, leaving him a social pariah — until one young BBC employee takes a personal interest in him, pleading with her boss to give Wallace Hatfield a new hearing — live, on the radio — during a variety hour that also features a troupe of trained sea lions. The play is suspenseful and fairly clued, though its ending is puzzlingly abrupt, as though Carr and Gielgud just left the room and abandoned their script.
Two shorter plays, written by Carr alone, are very beautifully done, without the tiresome comedy elements that one hates so much in his work. “Intruding Shadow” reminded me of some of the later stage plays of Agatha Christie, with its cat and mouse playing and its concentration on a tiny cast, and most of all, the sense of menace and doom so palpable in “The Unexpected Guest” or “Verdict.”
As I had previously never linked Carr and Christie together before, I was curious to see how Carr manages to achieve his effects here. Some of it is in the very shiftiness of the crime itself, because we are never sure what has happened or what is being made to seem happen by some outside, unseen perpetrator (U.N. Owen anyone?)
The hero is a detective novelist who attempts to use some of his own patented writing tricks to scare off a threat to his own reallife happiness. Unexpected results ensue, including a Grand Guignol sequence in which a corpse seems to speak after death — like the surprising ending of Russ Meyer’s Beneath the Valley of the Dolls.
“She Slept Lightly” (I know — none of these titles is much good, is it?) is a grand old style melodrama set during the Napoleonic end-game of Waterloo, featuring a great part for an elderly actress…
I would love to see this one staged. As Medawar discusses, the part of Lady Stanhope was taken by an actual acting legend, Irene Vanbrugh, who sounds like she wiped the floor with everyone else.
Those who are familiar with Carr’s eight-part radio serial, Speak of the Devil, also brilliantly edited for C&L by Tony Medawar, will know the story basically, but here I think Carr has improved on it significantly. (Largely by getting rid of the comedy fops and the comedy country bumpkins and in fact, all the comedy.) What’s left is lean and grand and gorgeous.
In the limited edition, you get a bonus: a radio play about Inspector Silence solving a crime in the New York subway system. It’s brief, it’s pretty forgettable, it’s okay. I know you want it!
For those of you wondering why they call this book “13 to the Gallows” and what it means, I can’t reveal that just yet because, as you’ll see, it is like the end of Fog of Doubt, revealed literally in the final words of the piece.