Banacek: Season Two (Part 2)

Wrapping up our look back at the brief but colourful career of Thomas Banacek, solver of impossible thefts. The previous instalments are here, here and here.

Unfortunately the final four episodes include only one gem, plus two so-so outings and one that gets a failing grade. I have been told by a commenter here that George Peppard quit doing the series because of a divorce he was going through, but if the show was running out of steam anyway, maybe it was just as well it ended when it did. 

“Horse of a Slightly Different Color” by Harold Livingston (who also wrote a lot of Mission: Impossible episodes) and Jimmy Sangster

What seems to happen: Oxford Don, a thoroughbred insured for $5 million, begins his morning run while being filmed. When the run is over, the jockey is now sitting on a different and far less valuable horse.  

Like “The Vanishing Chalice” from earlier in the season, this one has an audacious opening and a vanishing (or substitution) method that I don’t believe could work.

“Rocket to Oblivion” by Robert Van Scoyk

What seems to happen: In a teaser that would have delighted the heart of Charlie Chan, an experimental rocket engine weighing 600 pounds is on display in a glass case at a trade show when the lights cut out for a few seconds. When they come back on, guess what’s no longer in the case?

If you don’t figure this one out once you’ve sifted the clues, consider your amateur detective’s badge revoked!

“Fly Me – If You Can Find Me” by Harold Livingston

What seems to happen: A jetliner, carrying a crew but no passengers, develops engine trouble and has to put down at a rural airport. The crew all go to a local hotel for the night, leaving one of the pilots on guard. When they come back in the morning, the plane is gone, even though it could not have been repaired, towed away or taken apart during the night. Oh, and the pilot’s been killed. 

A very clever solution, and it’s a shame this one wasn’t the last Banaeck instead of…

“Now You See Me, Now You Don’t” by Stanley Roberts

What seems to happen: There’s a warrant out for the arrest of magician Bradley Merrick, who goes onstage one last time to perform his vanishing-from-a-locked-trunk illusion. Only it seems to be more than an illusion, as he’s not only not in the trunk, he’s nowhere in the theatre, even though all the exits were guarded.

The only one of the 17 Banaceks that has a solution that does not play fair with the viewer, which left a very bad taste in my mouth when I first watched it. Seriously, if you’re going to buy the DVDs and watch the series, get this one out of the way and save one of the good ones for last. There are plenty of those – and this is not a show where the order in which you watch the episodes matters.


Banacek, Season Two (Part 1)

Continuing our look at TV’s impossible-crime specialist of the early 1970s. Entries on Season One are here and here.

“No Stone Unturned” by Stephen Lord, Robert Van Scoyk, Lee Santley and George Sheldon Smith.

What seems to happen: a three-ton statue disappears from the art gallery where it was about to be unveiled, even though nobody could have come near it with the kind of equipment needed to move (or destroy) it. 

Like last season’s “The Two Million Clams of Cap’n Jack”, this episode has a surprisingly large number of people sharing writer credit, and like “Cap’n Jack,” it’s a really good one. The solution is both ingenious and fairly clued. I also have to give my younger brother full marks on this one; he was able to spot how it was done when I couldn’t. At age ten. Sometimes I hate my younger brother. 

“If Max Is So Smart, Why Doesn’t He Tell Us Where He Is?” by Robert van Scoyk.

What seems to happen: a supercomputer disappears from a locked, guarded building overnight. 

You can tell this episode was written during the era of movies like “I Could Never Have Sex With Any Man Who Has So Little Regard For My Husband” and “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds”. The solution is not a bad one, but somehow I found it a letdown.

“The Three Million Dollar Piracy” by Stanley Ralph Ross, Robert Van Scoyk (this guy got around, didn’t he?) and Jack Turley.

What seems to happen: A coach (the kind drawn by horses), studded with valuable jewels, is packed in a protective crate and loaded into the hold of a ship. When the crate is inspected before the ship can sail off, the coach is gone, and the only clue is a hole burned into the side with a blowtorch – one far too small for the coach to have gone through.

Another very good one, with some great misdirection. You can usually find a similarity between a Banacek solution and at least one story written earlier, but the mechanics of this one actually remind me of a later mystery written by an author who knows his way around an impossible crime. I won’t be any more specific than that!

“The Vanishing Chalice” by Morton Fine.

What seems to happen: As in last season’s “A Million the Hard Way”, something valuable is on public display and in full view of lots of people. When they all take their eyes off it for a brief moment, it disappears.

Not a good one. I don’t believe for a moment that the method could work, although the identity of the culprit was well-concealed.

To be concluded with the last four Banaceks in due course!

John Dickson Carr: the Bencolin short stories

Before John Dickson Carr’s first novel, It Walks by Night, came out in 1930, he wrote a number of short stories that were published in The Haverfordian, the literary magazine of Haverford College (where Carr was a student). Four of these stories were impossible-crime mysteries featuring Henri Bencolin, the same detective who would go on to star in IWBN and four other Carr novels. They were reprinted in The Door to Doom and Other Detections, edited by Douglas G. Greene, which came out in 1980, three years after Carr’s death. Some of the information here is taken from Greene’s introduction to the book.

These four stories were written by a man in his early twenties, but there is nothing about them that smacks of juvenilia; they’re polished, assured, and above all entertaining. They’re written in the third person, from the point of view of an omniscient narrator; there’s no sign of Jeff Marle, the “Watson” of the first four Bencolin novels, or of the third-person “juvenile lead” who’s the viewpoint character in most of Carr’s books (including the last Bencolin, The Four False Weapons).

It’s interesting to see Bencolin evolve as a character in these four stories; in the first, he’s brilliant but not infallible, unafraid to confess that he’s stumped at one point before he figures out the solution; by the last, he’s the theatrical, pseudo-demonic manhunter of IWBN, who sneers at everybody and is nearly always master of the situation. 

So what happens in the four stories? With no spoilers:

“The Shadow of the Goat”: “I saw Cyril Merton go into a room that had only one door, which was bolted and which I was watching. The room had only one window, barred, with locked shutters. There was no fireplace, nor was there any secret means of egress; the walls were stone. Exactly that. It was a stone box. But I tell you Merton went into the place – and vanished.” And then the murders begin.

“The Fourth Suspect”: “There was nobody else in the room except that grotesque dead man – nobody else. I examined it with care. No one hiding. There was one full-length window, fastened on the inside with sliding bolts and a catch. Obviously it would have been impossible to step outside and lock that window from the inside. And as for LaGarde locking it after he had been shot, that was just as impossible; death was instantaneous. We had both been watching the door of the room, and we had seen nobody leave. Certainly the person who killed LaGarde could not have left, yet that person was not in the room.”

“The Ends of Justice”: murder in a room where the door was under observation; there was an open window, but the murderer could not have escaped that way without leaving traces in the fresh snow outside.

“The Murder in Number Four”: another locked-room murder, this one in the compartment of a train. Carr saw fit to leaven this one with humour, but he’s hit and miss when it comes to comedy, and here it’s a miss.

Where I have to criticize the stories is in the detection: Carr would evolve into a master of cluing, but he wasn’t quite there yet when he wrote these. For the most part, we’re given the impossibility; Bencolin asks some questions and then tells us how it was done; and that’s it. There are some clues, but where I was able to see the solution coming, it was because I’d read other locked-room stories where the same basic idea was used, not because I was reading a full-fledged fair-play mystery.

It’s interesting that a few characters in these stories have names that Carr later re-used in novels; they’re definitely different people, though. Sir John Landervorne, a character in the Bencolin novel The Lost Gallows, appears in three of the four stories.

Bencolin had one further case published in The Haverfordian: a short novel titled “Grand Guignol”, which was later expanded into the full-length It Walks by Night. It would be interesting to compare the two versions of the story, but the shorter one is not in The Door to Doom, and I don’t know of any place where it has been reprinted. (Update: as you’ll see in the comments, it’s available online.)

The Case of…

In the course of his career, Erle Stanley Gardner wrote 82 novels and four short stories about Perry Mason. All had titles on the pattern The Case of the [Adjective] [Noun]. He wasn’t the first to use this pattern, but it became so associated with Mason that I’m surprised other writers ever dared use it. Some did, though, and here’s a look at the best “cases” in my library. Interestingly, they all came out within a decade of each other; I guess after a while “The Case of…” became Gardner’s almost exclusively. To keep some balance, I’m only going to include one Mason in the list…

The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941) by John Dickson Carr – If you read Carr, you probably already know that this is one of Dr. Gideon Fell’s greatest cases, with two different locked-room murders and a memorable setting in the Scottish Highlands during World War Two. If you don’t read Carr, this would be a great place to start.

The Case of the Crooked Candle (1944) by Erle Stanley Gardner – I haven’t found most of the Perry Mason mysteries I’ve read to be all that impressive considered as detective stories – the plots have plenty of twists and turns, and of course there are usually some entertaining goings-on in the courtroom, but only rarely do I finish one thinking I had a fair chance at the solution. Well, here’s one of the exceptions – when it was published, Anthony Boucher called this story of murder on a yacht “an intricate puzzle of tide movements which would delight Freeman Wills Crofts”. And any Crofts fan ought to check it out. 

The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944) by Edmund Crispin – Crispin’s first novel, starring Oxford professor Gervase Fen, who would go on to become his series detective. This is one of his better ones, with a clever impossible crime, a vivid array of suspects and a vivid backdrop of Oxford University in wartime (World War Two seemed to bring out the best in a lot of mystery writers). The main weakness, surprising since it’s one of those books where the murder victim was widely hated, is that the murderer’s motive seemed pasted-on.

That said, I have one other thing to get off my chest about Gilded Fly. Chapter One introduces us to, among other characters, a famous playwright named Robert Warner and “his Jewish mistress, Rachel West”. Since nothing is made of Rachel’s Jewishness throughout the rest of the book – it isn’t even mentioned – I do wonder why he brought it up in the first place. Maybe I’m just a little hyper-aware after coming across the real anti-Semitism in other mysteries from this period. 

The Case of the Seven of Calvary (1937) by Anthony Boucher – Boucher’s first novel and my favourite among them, even if it isn’t his best on technical grounds. Fast-paced, suspenseful, the jokes are funny – my only real complaint is that the detective, Dr. John Ashwin, didn’t appear again in a published novel. (There’s an unpublished novel in the Boucher papers that stars him, as well as a single short story… I hope they are released to the world one day. Also, at the end of Seven there’s a reference to another Ashwin case, apparently involving an impossible murder on a funicular railway – I don’t know if Boucher had an actual idea for this one or just intended it as a Conan Doyle-type throwaway reference; I suspect the latter.)

The Case of the Turning Tide (1941) by Erle Stanley Gardner – I said I would only include one Perry Mason book in this entry, but Gardner wrote a few books with this title pattern that didn’t have Mason in them. This one and the later Case of the Smoking Chimney star one Gramps Wiggins, a colourful old coot who I suspect would have got along famously with Sir Henry Merrivale the way Harry Truman did with Winston Churchill. I wish Gramps had appeared in a few more novels, and I wish Gardner had plotted more of his books the way he did this one – not as many surprise twists as in a Mason (or a Selby or a Lam & Cool), but a solid and convincing mystery. 

Columbo: Season Two (Part 2)

Concluding our look at Columbo’s second season. Part one is here.

“Requiem for a Falling Star” by Jackson Gillis

Former movie queen Nora Chandler (Anne Baxter) once produced a movie and did a lot of creative accounting while doing it. Gossip columnist Jerry Parks (Mel Ferrer) knows too much about it; Nora sets a deathtrap…

In many ways this is a typical Columbo, with a perfect crime and several plot twists before the killer is arrested, but somehow there’s less to chew on than in most episodes. I think it’s because there’s nothing really new here – the murder isn’t particularly ingenious, and the twists were all pretty familiar ones, even on TV, by 1973. It adds up to an acceptable, forgettable outing.

“A Stitch in Crime” by Shirl Hendryx

Dr. Barry Mayfield (Leonard Nimoy), heart surgeon, knows he could really go places with his research if only his superior, the eminent Dr. Edmund Heidemann (Will Geer), weren’t holding him back with his conservative approach. When Heidemann himself needs a cardiac operation, Mayfield sabotages the procedure so that the patient will die in a few days, apparently of natural causes. Nurse Sharon Martin (Anne Francis) catches on to what Mayfield is doing, so now he has another murder to plot…

It’s interesting that several of the best Columbos were written by authors who never did another episode. “A Stitch in Crime” is one of them. While the medical background is vital to the plot, it never gets confusing, and is the source of several ingenious clues. And the way Columbo springs the final trap on Mayfield gives us one of the show’s cleverest endings.

And a word about the performances of Falk and Nimoy. For once, Columbo is up against an opponent so very arrogant that at one point he actually shows a moment of raw anger. It’s a startling departure and would not work nearly as well if Nimoy hadn’t set it up by being wonderfully insufferable for the past hour.

“The Most Dangerous Match” by Jackson Gillis, based on a story by Gillis, Richard Levinson and William Link

Grandmasters Emmet Clayton (Laurence Harvey) and Tomlin Dudek (Jack Kruschen) are in Los Angeles to play for the chess championship of the world. The night before the opener, they bump into each other at a restaurant and play an impromptu game. Dudek wins so handily that Clayton decides to kill him in a staged accident rather than face humiliating public defeat…

This episode was clearly inspired by the 1972 chess championship contested by Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky, but the fictional players in this episode are entirely original characters. Clayton is unusually nervous and insecure for a Columbo killer, and Dudek is a sympathetic and grandfatherly grandmaster who gets more screen time than most of the show’s murder victims. Clayton’s scheme and Columbo’s unraveling are both clever, but the ending is problematic. And since I can’t discuss it intelligently without committing a massive spoiler, I’m going to put the next paragraph in rot-13. 

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“Double Shock” by Steven Bochco, based on a story by Jackson Gillis, Richard Levinson and William Link

Identical twins Dexter and Norman Paris (Martin Landau) both need money and lots of it, but though we see one of them kill their wealthy uncle, we don’t know which one it was. Columbo faces his first (from our perspective) whodunit, albeit one with only two suspects.

A clever variation on what had already become the “classic” Columbo formula, and Martin Landau is good in any role, but the chain of reasoning that leads our hero to the solution isn’t one the viewer has a real chance to come up with independently.

So the second half of Columbo’s second season give us one gem, one bog-standard TV mystery, and two episodes that are flawed but still well worth watching.

To be continued with Season Three eventually…

Joseph Commings: Banner Deadlines (2004)

(All biographical information in this piece is gleaned from editor Robert Adey’s introduction to Banner Deadlines, and Edward D. Hoch’s afterword). 

Joseph Commings (1913-92) never made it big as a writer, but nonetheless had a career that spanned the years from World War Two to the early 1980s. A lot of his output was the kind of soft-core sex paperbacks that are a lost art today, but he also wrote some 33 short stories about Senator Brooks U. Banner, an amateur sleuth who specialized in impossible crimes. Fourteen of those stories are collected in this posthumous volume.

The Banner stories fall into four periods:

1947-50: eight stories appeared in surviving old-school pulp magazines: Ten Detective Aces, 10-Story Detective and Hollywood Detective (home of Dan Turner, the private skulk whose cannon yammered “chow-chow!”). When these mags went out of business, there was no more market for Banner stories until…

1957-63: fourteen stories appeared, most of them in a magazine called Mystery Digest. Before and during this period, Commings kept trying to sell to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, the top publication in the field, but never succeeded; his explanation was “the editor took a dislike to me.” (But that may not be the whole story, as we shall see.)

1963-68: after Mystery Digest folded, Commings kept trying to sell Banner stories; four made it into print, three in The Saint Mystery Magazine and one in Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine. 

(In the early 1970s, Commings had two strokes, which pretty much put an end to his writing career. Not entirely, though…)

1979-84: In 1979, Commings and Edward D. Hoch collaborated on a new Banner story and sold it to MSMM. Encouraged, Commings dusted off six unpublished Banners and found them a home in the same market over the next five years.

Adey’s introduction also says that as the short-story market dried up, Commings wrote no fewer than four novels about Banner, only one of which appears to have involved impossible crimes, and none of which found a publisher. No copies of any of the manuscripts appear to exist.

I think there are several reasons why Commings never made it to the top rank of mystery writers.

1. Style

There’s no way around it; Commings’ writing style is adequate at best. At worst, it’s just plain clumsy, to the point where it made the stories in this book tough for me to slog through. Commings learned his trade during the early 1940s, when pulp magazines were already starting to die off but were still significant players in the magazine game. It’s no secret that many of the most successful pulp writers ground out their tales fast and with little to no regard for graceful prose, and not only was Commings of that school, he continued to write that way throughout his career, long after commercial short fiction had moved on.  Here’s the first paragraph of “Murder Under Glass”, the first story in Banner Deadlines: 

In his soup-and-fish [i.e. his tuxedo] Senator Brooks U. Banner stood waiting under the six-arm crystal chandelier and juggling a cocktail glass in his thick fingers as gingerly as if it were a soap bubble. He was tall and girthy. His stiff, horse-sized collar was rasping the folds of his thick red neck. His ancient claw-hammer coat had cloth-covered buttons and trick pockets in the tails. There was an acre of boiled shirt front; his black shoes were mirrors. He weighed 270 pounds stripped – and wished he were.

Let’s compare that with how John Dickson Carr introduces a detective. From the first page of his novella The Third Bullet:

Colonel Marquis was a long, stringy man whose thick and wrinkled eyelids gave him a sardonic look not altogether deserved. Though he was not bald, his white hair had begun to recede from the skull, as though in sympathy with the close cropping of the grey mustache. His bony face was as unmistakably of the Army as it was now unmistakably out of it; and the reason became clear whenever he got up – he limped. But he had a bright little eye, which was amused. 

In introducing Banner, Commings just states one physical detail after another, which is how a lot of the pulp writers did it. Carr’s description is a lot smoother and not only tells us what Colonel Marquis looks like, but hints at what kind of character he will turn out to be. 

There were writers who got their start in the pulps but later developed a much more sophisticated style; Erle Stanley Gardner is the most famous example. (See Secrets of the World’s Best-Selling Writer for an instructive look at the way he wrote the original draft of the first Perry Mason novel, and how he later revised it to make it far less pulpy.) I suspect that Commings’ failure to evolve this way, more than any personal animus, was why he never cracked the Ellery Queen’s market. Choose a random issue of EQMM from the Forties or Fifites; pick a random story from that issue; whichever one it is, I promise you it’ll be better written than the Banner stories.

2. Characterization

Brooks U. Banner resembles nothing so much as an American version of Sir Henry Merrivale: a big fat man, a walker of the corridors of power, a man impatient with social convention, to whom the police gladly defer when there’s an impossible crime to be solved. For me, though, Banner never comes alive the way H.M. does even in a poor book like The Cavalier’s Cup; Carr’s detective is a person, while to me Banner comes across as more a collection of traits. (It doesn’t help that the way he talks is annoying. Carr knew how often to use “lord love a duck” and “burn me” and so on, and when enough was enough.)

Nor are the supporting characters in the various stories any closer to three-dimensional. Of course, there are plenty of mystery writers, from Christie and Carr on down, who make extensive use of stock characters, but most of Commings’ are plain old cardboard.

3. Plotting

“Okay,” you may be saying, “but I don’t read impossible-crime stories to savour the author’s style. It’s nice when the prose is graceful like Carr’s, but it’s not a deal-breaker for me if it’s less adept. And as you admit yourself, Carr pretty much had a standard traveling company of characters who reappear from book to book. It’s the impossible crimes and their solutions that count. How are Commings’?”

I’m sorry to say… most of the ones in Banner Deadlines are not very good. More precisely, Commings comes up with some intriguing situations, not just typical “locked rooms,” but for the most part the solutions made me say “saw that coming” or “there’s a flaw there” or “that would have a one-in-a-million chance of working in real life.” To be sure, I sometimes have one of those reactions with, say, a Dr. Sam or Great Merlini story, but Commings provoked them in me over and over again while I was reading this book. Even the collaboration with Hoch is well below the latter author’s standard; if you don’t guess how the impossibility in that one was pulled off, you may turn in your amateur detective’s badge.

Well, so much for my analysis of Commings’ writing. I had originally planned to do a story-by-story analysis of Banner Deadlines, but on reflection I’m not going to bother. What I just said of the stories in general is true of most of them individually, so why repeat myself?

That said, I did flat-out enjoy one story, “The Spectre on the Lake”. In this one, two men row out into the middle of a lake where they’re shot in the head at close range, even though neither had a gun, there wasn’t one in the boat, and no one else came near them. I  think it was inspired by a passing reference in a mystery by another author that was published before this tale came out, but I won’t be any more specific than that.

There’s also “Fingerprint Ghost,” in which a murder is committed using a dagger (polished just before the crime) that retains a clear set of prints, which don’t match those of anyone who could physically have done it. What’s good about the solution: it could work, and it’s completely different from the one in Carter Dickson’s Nine – And Death Makes Ten. What’s not so good is that I’d already seen it in a short story by another writer, whom I won’t name here. I imagine Commings and the other writer came up with the gimmick entirely independently, and if you haven’t read the other story, this one may baffle you.

And a word about “The X Street Murders,” which was reprinted in impossible-crime anthologies in 1994 and 2006 and is certainly the best-known Banner story. As you may already know, it involves a locked- (or rather, observed-) room shooting in an office, followed immediately by a courier delivering a sealed envelope to the murder site. The envelope turns out to contain a gun, which the crime lab reports to be the murder weapon. For me, this one had an intriguing set-up followed by a disappointing solution (and one really silly clue), but some other people hold it in higher regard. If you do, you may like the other stories in Banner Deadlines better than I did.

Diagnosis: Impossible by Edward D. Hoch (1996) (Part 2)

Concluding our look at the first collection of Dr. Sam Hawthorne stories with the second half of the book. I covered the first half here.

“The Problem of the Christmas Steeple” 

What seems to happen: just before Christmas of 1925, a band of itinerant Romanies set up camp outside Northmont, and local pastor Wigger wants to help them. He’s alone with the leader of the band in the steeple of his church when he’s knifed to death, but the other man swears he didn’t do it…

The basic situation is reminiscent of Carter Dickson’s The Judas Window, although with a completely different solution. Not a new one, but a neat use of an old one with some good clues.

“The Problem of Cell 16” 

What seems to happen: a notorious criminal known as the Eel, famous for his escapes, is arrested in Northmont and locked up in Sheriff Lens’ state-of-the-art new jail. Of course he gets out, with the doors and windows still locked after he’s gone.

Unfortunately this story is not a patch on Jacques Futrelle’s classic “Problem of Cell 13”. The Eel’s escape method sounds as if it could work, but it didn’t dazzle me.

“The Problem of the Country Inn” 

What seems to happen: a masked robber shoots the proprietor of the titlular inn, runs down a corridor and vanishes – even though the only door providing an exit remains barred from the inside.

A great setup, but I couldn’t believe Dr. Sam and his pal Sheriff Lens would overlook a certain piece of evidence as long as they did.

“The Problem of the Voting Booth” 

What seems to happen: Sheriff Lens is up for re-election. On Election Day, his opponent Henry Oatis walks into a voting booth to cast his ballot under the eyes of several witnesses, including Dr. Sam. After a few minutes he staggers back out, dying from a stab wound with no weapon to be found and nobody having come near him.

Locked-room expert Robert Adey says this is one of the best Dr. Sam stories, but I found the solution a letdown. 

“The Problem of the County Fair” 

What seems to happen: A time capsule containing various 1926 artifacts is buried at the Northmont fair. When widely-disliked Max McNear goes missing and a bloodstained book (that was supposed to be one of the artifacts) is found on the fairgrounds, Dr. Sam insists the capsule be dug up. Sure enough, McNear’s body is in it, even though it hadn’t been at the time of burial, and the capsule never budged in the meantime.

A very good, original impossible crime with some clever cluing. One of the best in this collection.

“The Problem of the Old Oak Tree”

What seems to happen: while shooting a movie, a stuntman skydives from a plane and gets his chute tangled in the branches of an oak tree. When Dr. Sam rushes up to help, he finds the man’s been strangled, with a wire that’s still wrapped around his neck.

Another good one and a fine ending to the first collection. There were four more; while this one has 12 stories in it, the rest have 15 each, following Dr. Sam’s career as far as the middle of World War Two. No doubt there would have been further impossibilities in later years, but Hoch’s death prevented him from telling us about them.