Friday, 23 September 2011

Forgotten Book - Fatal Descent



It is rare for two crime writers who have established significant personal reputations to collaborate on a novel. But there are some notable examples, and one of them is my choice for today's Forgotten Book, Fatal Descent. The authors were an Englishman and an American who became good friends through their membership of the Detection Club. The Englishman was John Rhode, and American John Dickson Carr, here writing under his alternative pen-name of Carter Dickson.

The story is set in the offices of a publishing magnate, who is duly found dead in his own personal elevator – which nobody else was allowed to travel in. But no weapon can be found, although the skylight of the elevator has been damaged, and there is no doubt either that he has been shot to death or that it is a case of murder and suicide.

As you might expect from these two authors, it is a classic "impossible crime" situation, and I thought that the solution was highly ingenious, although it depended upon so much mechanical cleverness that there was no chance that I would ever have guessed how it was done. Once you knew how, you knew who, and I was not convinced that the authors played entirely fair with regard to the question of motive, giving no real details of what drove the killer before the final explanation.

A very similar setting was used by Kenneth Fearing in that wonderful novel, later wonderfully filmed, The Big Clock. But in Fatal Descent, the authors make no attempt to exploit the setting for its atmospheric potential. The impossible crime mystery is everything. And, much as I like sealed room mysteries, this sealed elevator mystery has to rank as a missed opportunity. It’s not really surprising that Rhode and Carr never wrote a joint novel again.

9 comments:

Jerry House said...

This was probably the poorest book from JDC, IMO.

Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - Despite the weaknesses you outline, it does sound like a fascinating idea for a collaboration. Thanks for sharing :-).

vegetableduck said...

I think Street just contributed the murder method, which ranks pretty high in impossible crime lore. Otherwise I think Doug Greene is right: it likely was written almost entirely by Carr, although they talked it over a number of times at Street's house.

John said...

I read this book several years ago and thought it had one convoluted technical solution. Head spinning. Not fair at all, I say. Very much like the insane solution to an impossible crime in that wacko American mystery writer Harry Stephen Keeler's book Y. CHEUNG, BUSINESS DETECTIVE. That solution required the reader to understand American plumbing from the 1940s, chemical reagents, and their color properties. Of course Keeler was lampooning the traditional detective novel in all of his books and never attempted to play fair.

Martin Edwards said...

Many thanks for your comments, which as always I appreciate.
John, I have read a bit of Keeler, but not that one, and I'm amused that it's a bit like this book.

vegetableduck said...

I liked the use of the list of objects found in the elevator and thought the mechanics were quite interesting. Of course math and science often aren't that popular with detective novel readers today.

vegetableduck said...

By the way, I believe the book was popular and they planned more collaborations, but World War Two intervened. Another Carr book from around this time, The Man Who Could Shudder, shows some Rhode influence as well.

vegetableduck said...

Ah! Here's Doug Greene:

Drop to His Death "is an excellently plotted detective story. The first mystery is who is stealing an oddly assorted group of items....This is reminiscent of The Arabian Nights Murder and other of Carr's novels with their bizarre Chestertonian clues. The second mystery is how Sir Ernest could have been impossibly murdered in the sealed lift, and the solution demonstrates that all the strange thefts have a direct bearing on the murder."

I thought when I read it, if one is going to murder someone in an elevator, surely this is the way one should do it. Stylish.

Fresh Garden said...

Hi Martin, I have read a bit of Keeler too, I agree with you.