More about The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes

In my previous entry on Adrian Conan Doyle and John Dickson Carr’s collection of Sherlock Holmes pastiches, I mentioned that Carr only contributed to the first six out of twelve, and wrote: “The unsigned preface…  says that this was because Carr suffered ‘a brief illness’; I’d always assumed this was code for creative differences or incompatible personalities, but apparently Carr really was undergoing health problems at this time, so maybe there was no dissimulation here.”

I have been reading a book titled From Holmes to Sherlock by Mattias Boström. It’s a history of the Sherlock Holmes franchise published by Mysterious Press in 2017. The author had access to Adrian Conan Doyle’s correspondence and provides more detailed information on the events surrounding the creation of Exploits. Here are the essentials in timeline form:

Early 1940s: Carr, working as a writer for the BBC, meets Adrian, predicts a postwar boom in sales of Holmes stories, and advises him to get all his ducks in order regarding foreign publication rights.

1946: Adrian hires Carr to write an authorized biography of Arthur Conan Doyle. 

1947: During the writing of the biography, the two discuss the possibility of writing new Holmes stories, but nothing comes of it. The book is published and Adrian is very happy with it. 

Over the next few years, the two remain friendly.

1951: Facing financial difficulties, Adrian decides that writing new Holmes stories would be a good way to fix the situation. He talks to Carr about it again and the two decide to write the stories together. 

1951-52: The writing process begins. After collaborating fully on the first two, Carr and Adrian agree to write stories individually; each writes two more. Adrian becomes increasingly disenchanted with Carr, who is not writing his stories at anything near the rate Adrian wants. (Carr is also working on his own books, and a radio series for the BBC, and in addition he is in poor health after two unsuccessful eye operations.)

1953: Carr goes on a two-month bender. By the end, his weight has dropped to under 110 pounds. Adrian decides to write the last six stories himself. 

1954: The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes is published.

So I think it’s confirmed that Carr’s withdrawal from the project was due to both ill health and personal differences with Adrian. 

Adrian had a hostile relation with organized Holmes fandom in the U.S. When Exploits was published, the Baker Street Journal published a review saying a better title would have been “Sherlock Holmes Exploited” and quoted two lines from the original canon: “Art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms” and “A child has done this horrid thing.” I think the review was motivated more by personal animus than the quality of the book; even the six Adrian-alone stories aren’t as bad as all that!

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Anthony Boucher: Nine Times Nine (1940)

The place: Los Angeles. The time: 1940. Matt Duncan, badly in need of a job, accepts one from Wolfe Harrigan, a writer who specializes in debunking fraudulent religions (and whose life Matt has just saved). Harrigan’s latest target is the Temple of Light, led by a mysterious figure known as Ahasver. When Matt attends a service at the temple, Ahasver places a very public curse on Wolfe, who laughs it off…

John Dickson Carr, to whom Nine Times Nine is dedicated, clearly had a heavy influence on the book. It’s a locked-room mystery, and the “locked-room lecture” from The Three Coffins is mentioned extensively in one chapter as two characters try to figure out how the impossible crime was committed. As well, Duncan is a stalwart young fellow, good with his fists, smart but not smart enough to solve the mystery… in short, a typical Carr juvenile lead.

On the other hand, the actual crime-solvers, Lieutenant Terence Marshall of the LAPD and Sister Ursula of the Order of St. Martha of Bethany, aren’t exactly the larger-than-lfie detectives Carr specialized in at this time – they come across more as people you might actually meet, even if they’re on the eccentric side. And the “crazy L.A.” milieu and the heavily Catholic atmosphere are not things you’ll find in a Carr book.

So how does it stack up as a mystery? Well, the locked-room puzzle is, how shall I say it, not really of Carrian quality. Without giving anything away, the method used is the sort of thing that I had trouble believing would work even while I was reading the explanation for the first time. There’s also a dying message, which I’m afraid is even further down from Ellery Queen’s standards than the impossibility is from Carr’s. And the various other clues didn’t exactly make me slap my forehead when they were explained.

There’s a lot to like in Nine Times Nine – the story moves right along, there are a lot of good characters I haven’t mentioned, and Lieutenant Marshall’s personal history and home life are fun to read about… but as a mystery, it’s just okay.

Anthony Boucher was a well-known mystery critic (Bouchercon is named after him) who published seven mystery novels in the 30s and 40s before moving on to other things. None of the seven is a masterpiece, but every single one is a lot of fun to read.

John Dickson Carr and Adrian Conan Doyle: The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes (1954)

In the early 1950s, John Dickson Carr and Adrian Conan Doyle decided to collaborate on a series of twelve original stories about Sherlock Holmes. There must have been some bumps in the road, because while Carr and Doyle wrote the first six together, the last six were by Doyle alone. The unsigned preface to The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes says that this was because Carr suffered “a brief illness”; I’d always assumed this was code for creative differences or incompatible personalities, but apparently Carr really was undergoing health problems at this time, so maybe there was no dissimulation here.

The preface says that the first two stories in the collection were full collaborations; the third and fourth were almost entirely by Carr alone; and the fifth and sixth were almost entirely by Doyle alone. As these last two both involve gimmicks Carr had used before, I’m not sure this is accurate, unless Carr just supplied the basic idea and Doyle took it from there. 

The stories are based on the passing references in the original Holmes stories to untold tales, but they don’t always completely match up. For example, in The Hound of the Baskervilles, Watson mentions “the atrocious conduct of Colonel Upwood in connection with the famous card scandal of the Nonpareil Club”; in this collection, there’s a story about the scandal, but there’s no Colonel Upwood. This might not bother everyone, but it bothers me.

That said: how do the six stories Carr worked on measure up?

“The Adventure of the Seven Clocks”: Of the six, this one is the most similar to a genuine Conan Doyle story, for both good and bad: the situation Holmes is called on to investigate is an unusual one, but the ending isn’t much more surprising than the one in “A Case of Identity”.

“The Adventure of the Gold Hunter”: The plot of this one was recycled from a Carr radio play. No bad thing; there’s no way Carr could have known his old scripts would be published in book form someday.  In one respect, the story may be a little too Doyle-ish, in that Holmes comes across a physical clue that he does not tell Watson about until after the murderer is unmasked. Still, he does give us a pointer in that direction beforehand, and the other clues are fair.

“The Adventure of the Wax Gamblers”: When this book was published, the last of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies was less than a decade old. I get the feeling that Carr and/or Doyle wanted to remind (or show) the readers that the Watson of the stories wasn’t the doddering old buffer Nigel Bruce had implanted in the public mind, so they gave him an action scene in this story. I think they may have been overdoing it a bit. However, the puzzle is a clever one.

“The Adventure of the Highgate Miracle”: I’ve read several attempts to write up the case of Mr. James Phillimore, who, stepping back into his own house to get his umbrella, was never more seen in this world; this one is the best. It even gives a reason why Watson claimed it was an unsolved case when Holmes actually did solve it straight off. One clue will likely be inaccessible to contemporary readers, but I think a sufficiently careful reader could figure things out even so. 

“The Adventure of the Black Baronet”: Another recycled Carr gimmick, this one from an earlier short story. Not bad, but the gimmick itself has never dazzled me in any of the forms I’ve seen it in. I guess I can never shake the feeling that everything would have had to go just so for it to work – and still give the murderer a hope of getting away with it.

“The Adventure of the Sealed Room”: the best of the six. The impossible crime, again (I think) from a Carr radio script, is a good one, better than the one in Highgate Miracle (although one easily-foreseeable event, which didn’t actually happen, could have spoiled the murderer’s plan right away). This one might be better known if it had been written as a Dr. Fell or H.M. story, which it could easily have been.

A general observation about the last six stories: most of them strike me as rewrites of earlier stories. I won’t say which new stories remind me of which old ones, but I don’t think originality was one of Adrian Conan Doyle’s strong suits. On the other hand, they recreate the atmosphere of the original stories better than the first six.

Carr completists should definitely read the first half of this book. People who like Holmes pastiches? Well… better is available elsewhere.

Ellery Queen: Ten Days’ Wonder (1948)

Not long before World War Two, Ellery Queen — in France on a case — met and befriended a young sculptor named Howard Van Horn. Now the war is over, and Howard looks up Ellery to beg for his help. He’s been having periodic amnesia attacks that always end, days or weeks after they begin, with him hundreds of miles from his hometown of Wrightsville. And he has no idea what he may have been doing… or to whom…

Looking at the statistics for this blog, I’m interested to note that the posts on Ellery Queen have been getting fewer views than those on John Dickson Carr, or even the one-off posts on other authors. Queen isn’t as popular as he used to be, but has he fallen on harder times than his contemporaries with the people who read sites like this?

Well, even if this entry doesn’t get a lot of attention, I have something to get off my chest about Ten Days’ Wonder, one of Queen’s best-known books.

As you know if you have read my earlier Queen posts, I consider Francis M. Nevins’ Ellery Queen: The Art of Detection (and its earlier incarnation, Royal Bloodline: Ellery Queen, Author and Detective) to be an invaluable source of information on both the books and their collaborative authors, That said, I don’t agree with everything Nevins says.  Here are two things he maintains about TDW:

1. It’s “superb”.

2. It’s impossible to talk about it seriously without spoiling the ending.

Well… as we shall see, I think there is ample reason to disagree with Nevins on Point One above. The trouble is, I agree completely with Point Two. And this blog is a spoiler-free zone. So how do I demonstrate that TDW is not one of Queen’s finest – in fact, that it’s a fundamentally flawed mystery – without giving away the ending?

The only way I can think of is by analogy. So I’m not going to discuss the plot beyond what I already noted above, which as usual for this blog is the kind of thing you can glean from a publisher’s blurb or a glance at the first few pages. Instead, I’m going to propose a syllogism:

  • All Canadians are North Americans.
  • All Mexicans are North Americans.
  • Why shouldn’t I say… all Canadians are Mexicans?

You see the flaw in my pseudo-reasoning, don’t you? Well, in expounding the solution to the case, Ellery commits an analogous error in logic.  And so much hinges on what he concludes from his flawed piece of reasoning that the discerning reader will see that he ultimately fails to make his case.

I am not the first to notice this, by the way. In Joseph Goodrich’s Blood Relations: The Selected Letters of Ellery Queen, Manfred Lee writes to Frederic Dannay: “There is, for example, a hole in the solution of Ten Days’ Wonder which I didn’t find until I was writing the solution itself. It’s a hole most people won’t see. To have fixed it would undoubtedly have meant the addition of a great deal of material, the change of a lot that already existed. Finally, I said the hell with it and I covered it up. This is the wrong attitude; I loathe it in myself. But with the way we work… I just didn’t have the energy or the desire to raise the question…” I don’t know for a fact that I’m talking about the same “hole” Lee spotted, but I’d bet on it. (Interestingly, Goodrich considers Wonder to be Queen’s best novel.)

Ten Days’ Wonder is still a fun read with some good twists and turns along the way. But as a fair-play mystery? It fails to be fair.

(Incidentally, if you look at the Amazon.com page for TDW, most of the customer reviews are of Calamity Town, a totally different book. What the hell, Amazon?)

Rating Carr: The Historical Novels

A little while ago, I rated John Dickson Carr’s non-historical novels from A to C. Here are the ratings for the historicals. I’m a little more lenient for a not-great puzzle here than I was for the non-historicals, if only because these books were written when Carr’s greatest mystery plots were already behind him, and because I think he was trying to accomplish some new goals with these books.

Also, I haven’t included The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey, which I consider a true-crime book.

A-plus: 

The Devil in Velvet – a fun read with a clever solution. One of those books you can’t say much about without spoiling things – I would like to write a spoiler-filled piece on it, and one day I plan to.

A: 

The Bride of Newgate: another fun read with a couple of great bad guys, although there just aren’t that many ways to pull off the impossibility featured in this one.

Captain Cut-Throat: will have you wondering through most of the book how the hell our hero is going to get out of this with his life, which is a great way for an author to keep you reading. Identity of the guilty party is not one of Carr’s greatest surprises.

Fear is the Same (by “Carter Dickson”): keeps us reading using the same technique as in Captain Cut-Throat. Carr went through a period in the fifties when he was ramping up the peril for his heroes: see also the non-historical novel The Nine Wrong Answers.

Fire, Burn!: captures what I imagine would be the plight of a resourceful man suddenly thrown back more than a hundred years in time. Features another wonderfully odious villain. And the last line had me grinning.

A-minus: 

Most Secret: not a detective story, so don’t expect one going in. For what it is, though – a swashbuckling adventure story – it’s a lot of fun. I have not read Devil Kinsmere, the original version of this book, published in the early Thirties. 

B-plus:

The Witch of the Low Tide: if you read Carr for impossible crimes, this book probably has the best one of any of the historicals, although there are a lot better such puzzles among the rest of his output. It’s no Hollow Man or Judas Window, but it’s not bad at all.

B:

The Hungry Goblin: Carr’s last book, and a lot of people say it’s easily his worst, but the mystery and solution are actually…. okay. Not a great swan song, but better than the rest of the books on this list would have been.

Papa La-Bas: not a particularly good puzzle (The Skeleton in the Clock had a much better solution to the same kind of impossibility), but Senator Judah P. Benjamin (a real-life politician) is an interesting detective.

B-minus: 

Deadly Hall: “Deadly dull,” as other wits before me have said, but with one neat piece of misdirection. One neat piece of misdirection isn’t worth reading the whole book, though. And the beginning of the last chapter sets a new low for contrived dialogue… the sort of dialogue you see in bad science fiction, where one character explains to the other how the star drive works so we readers will also know.

The Ghosts’ High Noon: Carr once said, “For me, the one unforgivable sin in a writer is being dull.” It’s sad that decades later, he ended up committing this sin a number of times. This book is another one where the construction of the mystery is all right, but doesn’t justify a boring read.

C: 

The Demoniacs: wins my prize for the worst Carr. Another dull read and with a mystery and solution that don’t make a lot of sense. And it’s set back in the days of swashbuckling!

Scandal at High Chimneys: Science-fiction fan Dorothy J. Heydt coined the phrase “the Eight Deadly Words”, meaning “I don’t care what happens to these people!” That’s how I felt about everyone in this book. Not quite as bad as The Demoniacs, for what that’s worth.

R.B. Dominic: Murder, Sunny Side Up (1968)

Ova-Cote is a chemical compound that, when sprayed on eggs, preserves them for months without the need for refrigeration. But does it also turn them poisonous? Since the U.S. government has been shipping coated eggs to developing countries, the question is now before Congressman Carl Gunderson (D., Illinois) and the House Subcommittee on Non-Military Assistance to Unaligned Nations, which he chairs. A hearing ends abruptly when Gunderson collapses and dies, due as it turns out to a poisoned throat lozenge. The second-ranking member of the subcommittee, Benton Safford (D., Ohio), takes over as chair – and eventually solves Gunderson’s murder…

Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Hennissart are best known for their John Putnam Thatcher mysteries, written under the pen name Emma Lathen. Critics seem to consider their shorter Ben Safford series as the poor relation, and it’s true that some of the entries in the series really aren’t all that good. There are three or four that are well worth reading, though, and this, Ben’s first case, is one of them. The cast of suspects is well drawn, and there are a couple of well-concealed clues that will lead you to the culprit if you’re smart enough. The Lathen/Dominic team never go for great masses of clues like some Golden Age authors, but they usually play fair.

Unlike most series detectives, Thatcher and Ben don’t seem to have any particular interest in solving crimes. Instead, they have jobs that put them in a lot of situations that involve one or two murders, and by the end of any book they notice enough clues that they realize who must be guilty. Sometimes they set a trap for the killer, sometimes they just put the facts before the cop in charge of the case and let him take over.

Ben has a supporting cast like Thatcher’s, i.e. a secretary and several colleagues – I particularly like Congressman Eugene Valingham Oakes (R., South Dakota), a wily old politician to rival any wily old politician you might find in an Allen Drury or Fletcher Knebel novel. Elsie Hollenbach (R., California) is fun too. The sly humour of the Thatcher novels is here as well — the main difference is that the setting is Washington, D.C. instead of Wall Street. And Ben’s sister Janet and brother-in-law Fred, working as his political operatives back in his home town of Newburg, add a pleasant homey touch absent in the Thatcher books.

The late sixties were a time of turmoil in the U.S., but you’d never know it to read this book – barring a couple of passing references, it could as easily have been set a decade earlier. Some of the other books by these authors are all caught up in events of their time (such as When in Greece), so it’s not as if they made a habit of ignoring the news. Maybe they just wanted to write a nice cozy sort of mystery this time.

If you like this one, try Epitaph for a Lobbyist, Murder Out of Commission or There is No Justice. I can guarantee at least that they all have better titles than this one.

Ellery Queen: Face to Face (1967)

(If you don’t know what I mean when I talk about Period Three, etc., click here). 

Gloria Guildenstern, the famous 1930s singer who performed as “Glory Guild,” has been shot to death in her New York apartment. It’s clear that her gold-digging husband, phony “Count” Carlos Armando, put up one of his mistresses to doing the deed so he could collect a large inheritance. But Armando has a whole string of these girl friends, and that’s just counting the ones the police know about. Ellery Queen and Harry Burke, a British PI who’d worked for Glory before her death, investigate…

Face to Face is part travelogue of Manhattan in the mid-1960s, part expression of dissatisfaction by two aging men with a changing world (“Look at the Beatles.” “You look at them.” “No, thanks.”), but mostly it’s the last really good mystery novel Ellery Queen wrote. The earlier mysteries of Period Four (The Player on the Other Side and The Fourth Side of the Triangle) had been partly ghostwritten by other writers, so this was the first written entirely by Dannay and Lee since The Finishing Stroke eight years before. John Dickson Carr said it was the best one since Calamity Town in 1942, and he may well have been right.

Face has a plot worthy of a good Period Three Queen novel, with a piece of misdirection Agatha Christie could have been proud of and a cast of memorable characters. I’m not ashamed to admit that I confidently picked the wrong character as the murderer, and rereading the book knowing the solution made me admire how thoroughly Queen had fooled me.

There are some nits to pick – there’s a trial sequence that’s entertaining enough but mainly serves to pad the story to book length, and I wonder why Ellery spends so much time with Burke when the two of them come to loathe each other as the story progresses. And the dying message Glory leaves is not very good, which is a bit surprising considering these cryptic clues were Queen’s trademark.  All that said, Face to Face is a very solid late effort, and it’s too bad the rest of Period Four Queen isn’t as good.