Dickson Carr was the undisputed master of the locked room murder
and impossible crimes, but not as well-known, or appreciated, was his
pioneering work as a historical mystery novelist and writing some of
the most suspenseful radio-plays to ever hit the airwaves – even
contributing to the war effort with propaganda plays. These were "so
effective" that "they led the BBC, unsuccessfully, to urge
the American authorities to allow Carr to remain in the United
Kingdom for the duration of the war." Carr contributed to some
of the popular and classic radio shows, like Suspense and
Murder by Experts, but one radio program, Cabin B-13,
appeared to have been lost to time.
all except two, or three, recordings have been lost, but, in the
early 1990s, twenty-three scripts were discovered in the Library of
Congress. Three decades later, Crippen
& Landru gathered those manuscripts under the title The
Island of Coffins and Other Mysteries from the Casebook of Cabin B-13
(2021). Tony Medawar wrote an insightful foreword, "Suspense at
Sea," with "Notes for the Curious" at the end of each play.
foreword and notes are scattered with little gold nuggets of equally
fascinating and frustrating pieces of background information. Such as
Carr's plan to have Cabin B-13 series-character, Dr. John
Fabian, identified as the Man in Black from Suspense or
references to his uncompleted and abandoned novels.
B-13 was broadcast as two series, or seasons, between July 5,
1948, and January 2, 1949, which originated as a 1943 episode of
Suspense – also titled "Cabin
B-13." Suspense episode takes place aboard a luxury
cruise-liner, Maurevania, which connects all the stories in
the series as the protagonist is its "ship's surgeon, world
traveler, and teller of strange and incredible tales of mystery and
murder," Dr. John Fabian. His role in the story differs from
story to story. Sometimes he simply acts as a storyteller and other
he plays a minor role in the story itself, but, every now and then,
he acts as the detective. When he plays detective, it's usually
because the story is a rewrite that requires Dr. Fabian to take over
the role of one of Carr's well-known detectives.
now that we got the introduction to the collection out of the way,
you have to excuse me for a moment as I fanboy all over these
Man Who Couldn't Be Photographed" tells the story of "the
greatest romantic film-star in the first decade of talking pictures,"
Bruce Ransome, who feels like he has outgrown the people he used to
care about. This results in a confrontation with his "social
secretary" and love interest, Miss Nita Ross. She puts a curse
on him before committing suicide. A curse promising that the
conceited actor never faces a camera again, which apparently comes
true when Ransome is turned away from every photographer in Paris
like a leper. A very neat play and a clever inversion on an old urban
legend that originated in a now obscure, 1920s detective story.
Has Four Faces" is different from the play of the same title Carr
wrote for BBC's Appointment with Fear. This is a psychological
crime tale, of sorts, in which Superintendent Bellman meets a young
Canadian on the train, named Steve West, who asks to be handcuffed
and escorted to the hotel like a criminal – where a perfect crime
is foiled. Not my favorite play in the collection, but it was decent
enough. And thought the lingering presence of the Second World War
was put to good use.
Blind-Folded Knife Thrower" is one of the highlights of the
collection with a minor role for Dr. John Fabian in a tragedy that
has become "a grim and evil memory" of what befall
Madeline Lane on a previous voyage to Portugal. Madeline is haunted
by the ghost, or memories, of her spiteful mother who committed
suicide ten years ago by drinking acid. She has begun to haunt her
daughter with disembodied whispers and a promise to visit Madeline on
her first night in Lisbon. So the people who care about her place her
in a room with solid walls, floor and ceiling and two windows "so
closely barred that you couldn't even get your hand through."
There are two people sitting outside the door until morning, but a
figure of a woman with acid-burns round her mouth appears in the room
as miraculously as she disappears again! Colonel Da Silva, Chefe
da Policia Secreta, discovers a very tricky explanation for the
nighttime visitation and the result is a better, fairer and much more
convincing take on a particular locked room-trick that would turn up
in one of Carr's later novels.
Useless Coffin" is another highlight of the collection, but this
time, Carr reworked an earlier short story with Dr. Fabian acting as
a stand-in for one of his famous series-detectives. Dr. Fabian is
accompanying the recently engaged couple on a picnic to a cottage
where many years ago a 12-year-old girl, Vicky Fraser, disappeared
from with all the door and windows locked from the inside, which left
her parents nearly frantic, but two nights later she reappeared "through the locks and bolts" – "tucked up in bed
as usual." Vicky claims to possess an "occult power"
giving her the ability to vanish when she likes, where she likes,
which the now adult Vicky promises to repeat during the picnic. She
disappears "like a soap-bubble under the eyes of witnesses,"
but, this time around, the fairy tale of the vanishing girl has a
dark and gruesome ending. The solution to the impossible
disappearance is one of the most original and startling Carr has ever
dreamed up. Just as good as the original short story with the only
real difference being the detective and motive.
Nine Black Reasons" is, curiously enough, a whydunit and brings "well-known writer of detective-stories," Frank Bentley,
to Marseilles, France, where he discovers the body of a murdered man
in the Royal Turkish Baths of a hotel. A short while later he meets
an old acquaintance, Helen Parker, who witnessed the inexplicable
murder of her uncle at the same hotel. Inexplicable because there's
no earthly reason why the respectable Mr. Herbert Johnson killed the
respectable Mr. Fredric Parker. Two complete strangers! The motive,
while good, sorely needed polishing and fine-tuning, which makes it
all the more frustrating that Carr abandoned a 1961 novel of the same
title despite having completed eight chapters. And, of course, "the
typescript of the eight chapters has long been lost."
Count of Monte Carlo" has Dr. Fabian coming to the rescue of a
young man, Bart Stevens, who's engaged to Janet Derwent, but
foolishly has gotten himself involved in "a love-affair to end
all love-affairs." Bart has been fooling around with another
woman, "Dolores," who's engaged to the Count of Monte Carlo, Jean
Ravelle. A messy, tangled square that ends with a murder and two
people confessing to have done the dirty deed. A good, but relatively
minor, story with an original murder method that Carr reused to much
better effect in a later novel.
Suspicion" shares its title with the contentious Dr. Gideon Fell
Suspicion (1949), but the story has nothing else in common
except, perhaps, that Carr would rewrite it in the 1950s as a Dr.
Fell short story. Dr. Fabian tells the story of a stage actress,
Valerie Blake, who retired from the stage before her time to retreat
with her new husband on the Italian coast. Regrettably, Ralph Garrett
proved to be a poor husband and two of her old friends came to the
rescue, but they were too late to prevent her murder and struggle to
find an explanation, because "the murderer must have walked on
air" to have left her body on the beach – since there were no
footprints except Valerie's. This story is actually better than the
later version with a better developed backstory to the murder and
always liked the clue of the rifle shots, which helped strengthening
a somewhat sketchy murder method.
Power of Darkness" is indelibly "one of his most audacious
impossibilities" with two people traveling "back three
hundred years in time" and witnessed "a whole suburb
disappear" to reveal a scene from centuries ago. Dr. Fabian
keeps telling everyone he's "not a detective," but he
certainly had a guiding hand in revealing the sordid truth beneath
this time shattering miracle. Some of you probably know how fond I'm
of these rare kind of time-tampering impossibilities and enjoyed this
one as much as the other version Carr wrote. The episode was
originally intended to be titled "Last Night in Ghost-Land." A
much better title and a pity it was never used for another story.
Footprint in the Sky" is a fairly conventional impossible crime
story, but told in a very unconventional way. The luxury liner
Maurevania is tossed around during a storm at sea and Dr.
Fabian, the ship's surgeon from Cabin B-13, is asked to come down to
C-24 where a passenger, Marcia Tate, has lost her mind – believing
it's Christmas over a year ago and asking "why she hasn't been
hanged for murder." What follows is a backstory recounting a
broken engagement and a new one, which resulted in murder with two
sets of footprints in the snow pointing an accusatory finger at
Marcia. The police "solved that 'studio-mystery' over a year
ago" and Dr. Fabian has to retreat their steps to help Marcia
regain her memory. A good framing device for a detective story, but
have always found the solution to this particular no-footprints
scenario to be cheap, hack and unworthy of the maestro.
Man with the Iron Chest" is the nickname given "the best
jewel-thief in the trade" whose "only burglar's tools are
his ten fingers" and "an iron chest weighing sixty
pounds." Why does he drag around a big iron chest? That's
something the police from seven cities across the European continent
would like to know and he nearly got caught in Amsterdam, which
forced him to leave behind his ornamental iron chest. So he remained
elusive until a young married couple, Don and Joyce, caught a glimpse
of his face during a burglary, which lead the Greek police straight
to his doorstep. But he then pulled of a minor miracle by making "an
iron chest and a hundred diamonds vanish" from a locked and
guarded room "as though they had never existed." A great
piece of impossible crime fiction showcasing the author's love for
stage magic and illusions.
Street of the Seven Daggers" is a rewrite of one of my favorite
short stories by Carr, but he improved the plot with a backstory
and setting that really speaks to the imagination of readers who tend
to like Carr. Like yours truly. Dr. Fabian is asked by a passenger,
Miss Betty Parrish, to prevent her father from going to a certain
street in Cairo or he'll be murdered. Who is going to kill him?
Absolutely nobody! Mr. Edmund Parrish is "a
superstition-breaker" and his attention has now been drawn to a
little, dead-end alley called the Street of the Seven Daggers, which
used to be the street of the hired killers in ancient times. Three
hundred years ago, a bigwig of the Ottoman Empire "got annoyed
about hired assassins" and had them executed in front of their
houses – burnt out the street. But then people began to die and the
rumors began. The "street's full of invisible people" and
anyone who walks through the alley, "after midnight and alone,"
you're supposed to die with a dagger in your back. Dr. Fabian stands
at the mouth of dagger-alley when Parrish is knifed while walking
down the dark passageway alone. Only someone who's invisible could
have stabbed the man, but Dr. Fabian reasons a more earthly
explanation from the clue of the two wallets. Great stuff and even
better than the original!
Dancer from Stamboul" takes place in Port Said, at the gateway to
the Suez Canal, where Dr. Fabian bumps into a New York policeman,
Detective Lieutenant Jim Canfield of the Homicide Squad, who came
with extradition-papers to take back a dangerous man-eater. Lydia
White is suspected of having poisoned three men and the police has
received information that she's somewhere in Port Said. So he asks
Dr. Fabian to assist him comb out the port town, which leads to the
titular dancer and her two lovers. A French fencer and an Italian
nobleman. This ends in a duel at a fencing saloon and another
poisoning. I liked the fencing scene, but otherwise an unremarkable
as a detective story.
in the Desert" is not a detective or crime story, not even a horror
yarn, but a historical adventure with a detective/espionage hook and
presented as "a story out of my parents' time," namely
1895, which is set in the Sudanese desert. The crux of the plot is
the completion and testing of an improved machine gun. A good story,
if you like this kind of historical romancing.
Island of Coffins" is, as Medawar rightly noted, "the most
extraordinary story" in the series and demonstrated Carr didn't
need to lean on the fancies and phantasms of the impossible crime to
be the greatest mystery writer who ever lived. Story begins when the
Maurevania, passing the Abyssinian Coast, sees a distress
signal coming from Hadar Island. A very small, uninviting island with
a big house where someone had sustained a serious bullet-wound. Dr.
Fabian is shocked when he finds an elderly lady, Mrs. Almack, who was
shot in the arm. She has retreated to the island with her grandson
and two children (now all adults) to keep him company. But, when they
arrived on the island, she "turned back the calendar to the year
1900." Those were "the only years that were worth living"
and the current date on the island is November 12, 1920. Mrs. Almack
kept her three wards on the island for two decades and they've no
idea about the outside world. But why? And are the coffins on the
island really filled with people who tried to leave? Dr. Fabian has
to doctor out where the insanity lies and proof "tyrants aren't
always so powerful as they think." Nearly as good and
unforgettable as Carr's best radio-play, "The Dead Sleep
Most Respectable Murder" is another one of those complicated
eternal triangle stories littering the series. This time, Dr. Fabian
goes to the Paris Opera where the future of two friends depended
entirely on him finding an explanation how a "murderer could
leave behind him a room locked up on the inside," which is
easier said than done as Dr. Fabian recognizes it was "done in a
completely new way" – openly admires the murderer's
intelligence. The locked room-trick is the selling point of the story
as it's genuinely original, but Carr would use it to much better
effect in one of his late-period novels. No wonder that novel struck
me as his last hurrah as the master of all crimes impossible. He came
up with the trick a decade earlier!
Curse of the Bronze Lamp" is a condensed version of the Merrivale
novel of the same title in which an ancient bronze lamp discovered in
a cursed Egyptian tomb is held responsible for blowing its owner to
though she never existed."
Regrettably, the shorter version exposed just how weak and unfair the
impossibility really is, which needed the novel-length treatment to
prop it up more convincingly. Now it felt more like the plot of a
season 4 episode of Jonathan
Anyway, whether it's the novel-length version or a short radio-play,
I agree with Nick. This should have been "a
full-blown Egyptian curse story, set in the Valley of the Kings, with
murders in the pyramids, cobras at camp-sites and trouble in the
of the Devil-Fish" was an unexpected surprise as it belongs to that
rare category of so-called "submerged mysteries," which tend to
be impossible crimes and recommend you read my reviews of Charles
(1962) and Micki Browning's Adrift
(2017) to get more background on this type of story – including
more links. Carr might have been the first to experiment with this
type of setting as the earliest example I've come across previously
short story "Bones for Davy Jones" (1953), but, strangely enough,
it's not truly an impossible crime. Unless you believe the deep, dark
blue ocean is the natural habitat of Lovecraftian monsters. So the
story takes place off the southeast coast of Cuba where a small
expedition has gotten permission to dive to the wreck of a
cabin-cruiser, which sank in a bay during the Spanish-American War of
1898 with a fortune in silver dollars. Legend has it the
cabin-cruiser was "dragged
by the giant, slimy tentacles of a monstrous octopus. What nearly
killed their diver? A monster or something a little more human? A
solid and entertaining addition to those rare underwater mysteries.
Dead Man's Knock" is a weird crime story in which brash American
secret service agent and a British crime writer have to figure out
how to kill a closely guarded man in order to protect him. Not really
a locked room mystery, but a fun how-can-it-be-done.
Man with Two Heads" is a low-key great story in which Dr. Fabian
meets Leonard Wade on the top deck of a bus. Wade is a well-known and
celebrated thriller author who might have become the victim of a
diabolical plot as he has become a wandering ghost. Or so it feels.
And not without reason. Dr. Fabian reads his obituary in the
newspaper and Wade tells him he saw his own body in his study.
Somewhat reminiscent, in spirit, to Helen
McCloy's famous doppelgänger novel Through
a Glass, Darkly (1950), but with a slightly more convincing
setup and solution. What a shame Carr never expended this idea into a
Death Do Us Part" is another one with an awfully familiar-sounding
title, but the plot has no resemblance, whatsoever, to Till
Death Do Us Part (1944). This is Carr venturing into the
territory of domestic suspense with the backstory to an attempted
murder-suicide in a remote house, which comes with a twist in the
Gilbert would have loved it!
on a whole, The Island of Coffins and Other Mysteries from the
Casebook of Cabin B-13 is a stronger than your average collection
of short detective stories with the quality ranging from very good to
pretty decent, but not a single average or bad story – which says
something how good Carr really was. Only drawback is the lack of
truly new material as Carr used this series to try out new ideas or
retool old tricks or stories. But who cares? Carr is always a treat
to read and this volume finally gave us back Carr's obscure,
long-lost series-detective. Highly recommended!