William F. Deeck

JAMES CORBETT – Vampire of the Skies. Herbert Jenkins, UK, hardcover, 1932. No US edition.

   Reviewing a James Corbett novel is a challenging task, the reviewer says modestly. The temptation is to quote the entire novel, getting the ordeal over with by causing no pain at least to the reviewer, since no one is likely to believe what is to be said about the novel.

JAMES CORBETT Vampire of the Skies

   As Corbett himself put it in another and even worse — or better, depending on your point of view — novel: “The whole thing is so fantastic as to appear incredulous.” But in recognition of our esteemed editor’s sensibilities, the temptation to reprint the book will be resisted.

   This is the fourth James Corbett novel that this reviewer has read. The first, The Merrivale Mystery, was recommended to Bill Pronzini as an “alternative classic,” and Mr. Pronzini agreed that it fit that category.

   The second was The Monster of Dagenham Hall, which is essentially The Merrivale Mystery revisited, and thus a howler in its own right, although it would be bad enough standing on its own.

   (Corbett, at least in the books mentioned, will be appreciated by those who enjoy the egregious mystery. His Red Dagger, on the other hand, does not deserve to be described as awful; it is merely poor. But not to read the novel, and no one but a masochist should, would mean missing a gem from the literature, so it is provided herewith:

    (“Have you a cigarette?” she asked.

    (“Cavanagh threw his case on the desk.

    (“You seem upset?” he suggested, lighting a match and holding it to her lips.”)

   There are certain types of readers to whom Corbett will not appeal. He should be avoided by those who like fine writing; by those who appreciate good description; by those who enjoy characterization and who think it helpful to be able to tell the characters apart; by those who do not appreciate non sequiturs or the almost-right word; by those who think real clues are essential in a mystery; by those who want detection and fair play; and by those who expect a writer to remember what he has written just a page before.

   Finally, Corbett should be shunned by those who do not care for low, albeit unintentional, humor and who therefore do not find the following quotations risible:

    First it made him furiously angry, then apoplectic, then diabolically insane with rage, and for the last quarter of an hour it affected his stomach.

          * * *

    Then he thought of England and Horatio Nelson, of Drake, Cabot, and Mussolini, of the multifarious regulations of the British Police Force, of the Westminster Confession of Faith, and sundry little oddments, then perspired up the ladder.

    “Corbett for thrills” is what his publishers say about him. “Corbett for laughs” is my description, unless the preposterous happens to thrill you.

   If anyone is still reading at this point, except for the long-suffering editor who must read this review before he rejects it, a doomed effort to describe what the book is more or less about:

   A police constable observes an airplane flying at an estimated 2,000 feet in a “circumlocutory motion,” whatever that might be. The plane circles him seventeen times, and then a body is hurled from the plane onto a hayrick. On investigation, the constable discovers the corpse of “a remarkably young woman,” who later we are told looks 25 and is actually 23. This isn’t important, as much as Corbett tells us isn’t important, or interesting, or even correct, when it’s not downright contradictory.

   The body has a gaping knife wound somewhere, though it’s a little unclear where, and around the wound are the “marks of animal-like teeth. The murderer has actually drank his victim’s blood.” The latter is a conclusion that is never substantiated, but the vampire of the title has to be justified.

   The corpse at one time is wearing a brown mackintosh and at other times is not and has “disordered hair,” as if that’s a surprise after a free fall of 2,000 feet followed by a rather abrupt halt.

    Well, the Yard sent down Malcolm Dacre. That act, in itself, showed intelligence. Manifestly Scotland Yard proved itself a going concern. But it has been going a long time….

   This gives you some idea of Corbett’s prose and exposition style. It doesn’t get much better than this worse. How could it?

    It was the Birmingham case that made him [Dacre] famous, where Reuben Morrison, a well-known jeweller, was found with his throat cut. Dacre disposed of the suicide theory….

   There are no flies on Dacre, you’ll note.

    Malcolm Dacre was what he looked. He never tried to look otherwise. He was an intellectual, and, with it all, he was genuinely modest. There was real discernment in his dark, glowing eyes, and the trick he had of bringing his lips together boded ill for any chance suspect….

   He had seventeen crime solutions to his credit — “scalps,” he called them – -and, in every instance, they were murder cases where no clue presented itself.

   Since there is one clue in this case, Dacre is obviously ahead of the game. He finds the clue — “the complete half of a gold bangle,” leaving us to wonder what an incomplete half might be — in the hayrick and conceals that fact from everyone, including his chief.

    Perhaps, in some mysterious way, that other half would come into his possession. If it did, he would recognise it. How? That was his secret.

   And he keeps his secret, for the bangle is never mentioned again.

   Among other problems that Corbett has is a strange time sense, or Dacre is very fast with foot and mouth. At 10 p.m. Dacre decides to dine at a hotel. He orders and eats his meal, smokes a cigarette, is called to the local police station that is three minutes away, interviews the man who might be the father of the victim, discusses the case with the Chief Constable, and walks back to the hotel, arriving there “about ten-thirty.”

   Later on, Dacre himself observes a plane circling seemingly the mandatory seventeen times — we are never vouchsafed an explanation for this behavior by the plane’s pilot or even told why anyone was counting — and another body is thrown out, from about 4,000 feet on this occasion.

   This time the body hits the ground. As might be imagined, “the body was crushed beyond all recognition.” Well, except for the face and the area of the knife wound with the teeth marks around it. Corbett isn’t going to let small things like physics and blatant contradictions spoil a good story.

   As an example of the author’s very short memory — indeed, from one page to the next — the suspect, whose own plane, an Avro, is not available, escapes our less-than-keen detective: “When our backs were turned, he darted like a shot across the lawn, climbed into that Bristol Fighter, and, with the aid of the efficient self-starting apparatus, got away like a flash of lightning.”

   Captain Trevor Holmes, who is working with Dacre, takes off in that same Bristol Fighter to pursue the villain. “He has gone after your suspect, Dacre, and I believe he will catch him. Remember, he has got a Bristol bus, with one of the new model Jupiter engines, and at the rate he is going, no Avro could possibly keep ahead of him.”

   Some other items are the detective’s searching “furtively” while being watched by three people, the odd impression that a red herring is a lure, the wonderful notion that “Oh yeh!” and “Sure thing!” can be said with an “American twang,” the puzzling simile, “It was like looking for an ostrich in a forest of monkeys!” to describe something difficult to locate, the detective’s superlative deduction of “Your daughter was a straight, God-fearing girl. That is the impression she has given me — even in death!”

   Finally, this description of Mountdale, the villain’s residence, which frankly baffles this reviewer: “It somewhat resembled the French villas found at Paris Plage, except that the design was entirely English, while in that respect it was unique.” (Explanations on a postcard, please.)

   There is only one suspect in the novel, so spotting the bad guy is not exceptionally difficult despite the lack of clues. Corbett’s general rule is to make the most likely person guilty; when he doesn’t make the guilty person someone who has not appeared in the case until the end of the book.

   Still, there is a kicker of the most improbable sort at the end based on something the detective had noticed seven years before but hadn’t shared with anyone. As Dacre himself puts it: “This case is approaching an anticlimax.”

   Yes, indeed. And it also reaches an anticlimax.

— From The Poisoned Pen, Vol. 7, No. 1
(Whole #33), Fall-Winter 1987.

Editorial Comments: James Corbett was the author of approximately 40 detective novels published between 1929 and 1951, all from the same publisher. (After reading this review, blackmail is suspected, by me, at least.) Of these, only two have US editions.

   In spite of Malcolm Dacre’s reputation as a detective, this is the only case of his to have been reported upon by James Corbett. Of the various detectives in his list of fiction, none of them ever made a return appearance.

   The author’s books are quite scarce. At the present time, there appears to be only one copy of Vampire offered for sale by anyone on the Internet, this one in Good condition with no jacket. The asking price, in case you’re interested, is $88 and change, including postage.