Look Upon the Prisoner: "Who Killed Matthew Corbin?" (1939/40) by John Dickson Carr

A few years ago, Crippen & Landru published a collection of John Dickson Carr's manuscripts of his obscure, long-lost radio series, The Island of Coffins and Other Mysteries from the Casebook of Cabin B-13 (2021), which gathered twenty-some radio-plays featuring his forgotten detective, Dr. John Fabian – a ship doctor aboard the luxury liner the Maurevania. A fascinating collection with such gems as "The Street of the Seven Daggers" and plays like "The Blind-Folded Knife Thrower" drew back the curtain a bit on some of his post-1940s novels. Carr repurposed a trick or two from his even then long-forgotten radio-plays and it explained why The Dead Man's Knock (1958) and In Spite of Thunder (1960) read like his last hurrahs as a locked room mystery novelist.

I think Carr's work in radio is as unfairly overlooked and underappreciated as his pioneering historical mysteries. I always wanted to take a look at his first foray into radio-plays, which always sounded like a potentially first-rate courtroom drama and whodunit.

In 1939, Carr invited BBC broadcaster, director and mystery writer, Val Gielgud, to attend a meeting of the Detection Club as his guest. At the time, the drama department at the BBC had been handed an idea from an actor for a radio-serial and contest entitled "Consider Your Verdict." Carr was commissioned to turn the idea into a three-part script, which underwent numerous changes, different titles and the idea to make the serial a contest was "dropped as too cumbersome" – until the final version emerged retitled "Who Killed Matthew Corbin?" The radio-play originally aired in three parts on December 27, 1939 and January 7 and 14, 1940. Regrettably, no recording survived of the original broadcast survived, but Carr reworked elements from "Who Killed Matthew Corbin?" into radio-plays he wrote for Suspense ("The Hangman Won't Wait," 1943) and Appointment with Fear ("The Clock Strikes Eight," 1944). However, I was always given to understand "Who Killed Matthew Corbin?" is the superior version and, while no recordings survive, the script was finally published for the first time in Fell and Foul Play (1991).

So being familiar with the other two versions, it was not difficult to separate the genuine clues from the red herrings and anticipate the correct solution, but even then Carr somehow pulled out a small surprise in the end. "Who Killed Matthew Corbin?" is pretty much Carr pulling an Agatha Christie.

The premise of "Who Killed Matthew Corbin?" is a three-part BBC interview with the famous detective, Dr. Gideon Fell, who's "going to tell us the truth about the murder of Matthew Corbin." Dr. Fell tells the interviewer is going to tell what he believes to be the truth as he has "the Christian humility to imagine that I may be wrong," before uttering the kind of paradox you'd expect coming from the mouth of G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown. Dr. Fell drops a bombshell by stating that everybody in the Corbin case had it wrong ("The judge was wrong. The jury was wrong. The prosecution was wrong. The defense was wrong"). The story than jumps several years back in time to tell how John Corbin returned to his ancestral home, in Hampstead, after making his own fortune in South Africa. And he brought along a fiancée.

John Corbin had been away for two years and met Mary Stevenson on the ship coming home ("well, we got engaged"). So he decided to drop by his two older brothers, Arnold and Matthew, and their cousin, Helen Gates. John had always been "the fool of a brilliant family" as both his brothers are professors and credits their cousin with being cleverer than himself. So, naturally, he's eager to return to his family as a successful man engaged to be married and tells Mary about them on the car ride to the house. Such as Matthew abandoning his career as a barrister when he successfully defended a woman who had been accused of murder, but "afterwards she smiled sweetly" and "admitted she was guilty after all." They arrive at the house in the middle of a thunderstorm, but John had lost his key to the front door and went to the back to rouse his brother in the study. When he gets to the French windows, John witnesses his brother being ordered to raise his hands by someone standing out of sight in the door to the hall. But despite following orders, this unknown person shot Matthew through the heart. So who shot Matthew Corbin?

The first part ends with Dr. Fell telling the interviewer that four person gave testimony in the murder of Matthew Corbin, John Corbin, Arnold Corbin, Helen Gates and Mary Stevenson, but "one of these persons was telling a pack of lies" and drew attention to "the most significant bit of evidence" – namely that the victim was wearing a waistcoat. An enigmatic hint in the light of Dr. Fell's previous comment about everybody being wrong and the second part of the story. Mary Stevenson is arrested and put on trial for the murder of Matthew Corbin, because she was identified as the woman Corbin had successfully defended and the prosecutor argues the victim posed "a stumbling-block in the prisoner's projected marriage to Mr. John Corbin" as he could identify her as his former client. The defense "ridiculed and trampled on their evidence," which ends with the jury returning their shocking verdict. A great piece of courtroom drama! But who really killed Matthew Corbin? That answer is given in the third, final part of the play and its everything you expect from one of the best mystery writers who at the time was at the top of his game.

Even though I have read the other two versions of the stories and could anticipate practically the entire ending, I still marveled at how masterly Carr diffused suspicion among less than a handful of characters. Some might consider the banquet of red herrings is a little too rich and hearty, but the vital, tell-tale clues pointing straight to the truth are all there in plain sight. From never letting the reader forget about the importance of the victim's waistcoat to the defense's view on the prosecution's evidence ("...though he did not realize what it meant"). It's all there and the ending struck impressed me as a dark re-imagining of Agatha Christie with a twist (SPOILER/ROT13: n sniberq gebcr bs Puevfgvr vf ybiref jub perngr nyvovf sbe rnpu bgure, ohg Pnee hfrq vg gb cebivqr gur zheqrere jvgu n fpncrtbng naq na nyvov fb vapbagrfgnoyr (v.r. cergraqvat gb gur jvgarff gb gur zheqre), vg'f abg gerngrq be rira erpbtavmrq nf na nyvov). Only a correct interpretation of the facts will shot it for the pack of lies it really is. There was an extra little surprise regarding the murderer's identity I did not see coming, but it fitted the story perfectly.

I can see why "Who Killed Matthew Corbin?" was so well received at the time. Very few wrote a better detective story than Carr and wrote "Who Killed Matthew Corbin?" when he was at the top of his game, which must been a real treat to listeners already familiar with his novels and Dr. Gideon Fell. It must have been like what it would be today, if they made a proper, faithful TV/movie adaptation of The Three Coffins (1935) or Till Death Do Us Part (1944) today. So it's unfortunate that no recordings of the original broadcast survive, but glad to have finally been able to read the script. Highly recommended! 

Note for the curious: I plan to get to one of Carr's supposedly bad mysteries, like Scandal at High Chimneys (1959) and Papa Là-bas (1968), to put some restraints on the repetitive fanboying over his work.

1 comment:

  1. Read this story one or two years ago. I found the identity of the murderer out, though it wasn't through any special logic and more so whfg nffhzvat gung gur vagreivjrr unq gb or vaibyirq fbzrubj va gur pevzr. Still enjoyed it however, and it's a strong story.