Dr. Morelle Investigates (2009) by Ernest Dudley

Vivian Ernest Coltman-Allen, known better under his adopted stage-and penname of "Ernest Dudley," was an English actor, dramatist and mystery writer who created the popular BBC weekly radio series The Armchair Detective – reviewing "the best of the current releases of detective novels, dramatising a chapter from each." The program reviewed John Russell Fearn's One Remained Seated (1946) and that attracted the attention of Fearn's agent-biographer-champion Philip Harbottle some fifty years later. Harbottle became Dudley's friend and agent, which is why Dudley's otherwise obscure detective fiction is still in print today. Harbottle has worked decades to ensure the writers under his care, like John Russell Fearn, Gerald Verner and Ernest Dudley, remain in print.

Dr. Morelle Investigates (2009) collects two long-ish short story adaptations of a radio and stage play, "Locked Room Murder" (1954) and "Act of Violence" (1959), solved by the eminent psychiatrist, Dr. Morelle ("he is also an expert on crime"). Dudley created Dr. Morelle for the BBC radio anthology series Monday Night at Eight and was a hit with the audience leading to a movie, TV series, stage play and a series of short stories and novels. So this two-story collection of a radio-and stage adaptation sounded like a potentially fun and interesting follow up to John Dickson Carr and Val Gielgud's 13 to the Gallows (2008).

“Locked Room Murder” is an adaptation of a stage play, Doctor Morelle, Dudley co-wrote with the then Secretary of the British Board of Film Censors, Arthur Watkyn.

The story begins one late Saturday evening when Brian Cartwright is visited by four friends, Philip, Nigel, June and Evelyn, who were involved in a drunken, fatal hit-and-run accident – learning from a radio broadcast the victim had died. So they turn to their friend in something of a jam, but Cartwright happen to be in desperate need of money and turns his hand to a spot of good, old-fashioned blackmail. Cartwright promises to keep his mouth shut in exchange for two-thousand pounds ("between the four of you that shouldn't be embarrassing"). A demand that doesn't go unchallenged as one of them sends Cartwright a death threat, but Cartwright turns the table on them by inviting them to dinner with three additional guests. The first is a journalist, Bill Guthrie, who was already interested to write about the history of the house for his "Criminal Corners of London" column ("some female was battered to death a hundred years ago where your pantry is now"). The last two are Dr. Morelle and his secretary, Miss Frayle.

Cartwright shows them the death threat ("We have till nine o'clock. So have you. R.I.P.") and calls their bluff in front of three witnesses. Either they agree to a simple transaction or he's going to police. Cartwright is going to wait until then in his study with the doors locked from the inside and the windows to the balcony securely bolted, but, when the clock strikes nine, they hear a gunshot from the locked study. Who killed Cartwright and how, when he was all alone with every entrance locked and bolted from the inside? Dr. Morelle takes charge of the case and solves the murder in exactly an hour, but is it any good? That's a bit of a mixed bag.

"Locked Room Murder" is not a very challenging, or fairly played, detective story with, what some would consider to be, a second-rate locked room-trick. There is, however, a pleasing cat-and-mouse atmosphere permeating throughout the story. You have a brazen blackmailer trying to get back at his victims when one of them threatens him anonymously, but the story also appeared to toy with its audience. The locked room-trick might not be the stuff of legends, neither was it overtly apparent from the start with the crime scene littered with "clues" all suggesting different possibilities. From the planned, short blackout as the electricity company changes over to a new grid system and Cartwright smoking a cigar in a pitch-black room to the old-fashioned telephone with separate mouthpiece and receiver bolted to his desk all suggested different possibilities. Even the money troubles and the victim's brazen behavior implied the dreaded suicide-disguised-as-murder was not off the table. Dr. Morelle struggled with spotting the locked room-trick as well and has to accept the murderer's challenge to find it before the hour is out or become the next victim of the devilish murder method.

So, while not one of the most ingenious detective stories ever conceived, "Locked Room Murder" nonetheless turned out to be a fun read with a minor, but pleasing, element of the unexpected.

The second short story, "Act of Violence," is an adaptation of a Dr. Morelle episode from Monday Night at Eight. Dr. Morelle and Miss Frayle are invited over to dinner by Professor Owen a day before he's going to marry his secretary, Mary Lloyd, who secretly loves his laboratory assistant, Glyn Evans. Along the way, Dr. Morelle and Miss Frayle pass a gas station run by a Robert Griffiths. Dr. Morelle recognizes him as the young man who was on trial and sentenced to hang for murder, but had been reprieved to begin life anew. There's a manuscript of a dramatic sketch, sent in anonymously to the local dramatic society, which reenacts the murder that almost hanged Griffiths ("...only a short sketch but it certainly packs a punch"). Griffiths is going to play his own part!

This sounds a little disjointed and Dudley takes his time to set everything up, while leaving the reader in the dark about the direction the story is eventually going to take, but the potential for a good detective story was there – depending on how the ending is going to pull everything together. And that's the problem. Dr. Morelle ties everything together, but the solution is not all that impressive and made the long preamble feel like stalling and padding out the story. Dudley should have focused either on the domestic story of the eternal triangle or gone with the theatrical storyline and the anonymous manuscript, because this didn't work.

So, thematically, Dr. Morelle Investigates makes for interesting comparison material to the stage plays by Carr and Gielgud, but should have read these two adaptations before, not after, 13 to the Gallows as Carr is a hard act to follow. At least "Locked Room Murder" was fun and entertaining.

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