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DEREK SMITH. Whistle Up the Devil (1953).

24 Apr

In the setup of this double-barreled locked-room mystery, Smith offers a scenario that wins no points for originality. Everything about the tale’s two murders, and about the investigation of both crimes, might well have come from a book written in 1923 or 1933. Oft-used tropes pile up fast: A brilliant amateur detective named Algy Lawrence is summoned to Querrin House, near the village of Bristley, to prevent some elusive agent—a ghost, or maybe the devil—from killing Roger Querrin, the master of that domain. A supposed curse, traceable to a querulous ancestor, hangs over a particular room at the house, and Querrin plans to tempt fate by ensconcing himself there one night. Inside the room, a dagger hangs over a fireplace mantel. (Paging Dr. Chekov!)

True to form, the room and its immediate surroundings appear to be purpose-built for hosting an impossible crime problem: Its only points of entry are a single door with a newly keyed lock and a set of French windows that can be firmly bolted from inside. Surrounding the room and a passage that leads to it are beds of fresh soil that would show the footprints of any intruder. On the appointed evening, Lawrence and Peter Querrin, Roger’s brother, stand watch at the entrance to the passage. Sergeant Hardinge, from the local constabulary, watches from outside and has a full view of the French windows. Around midnight, a cry rings out, and Lawrence rushes toward the room and uses his gun to shoot open the door. Inside, he and his fellow watchmen find that Roger Querrin has died from a knife wound.

WhistleUpDevil.jpg Just as Lawrence begins to make sense of that killing, a second murder occurs in circumstances that seem to defy explanation. Simon Turner, an old family retainer who nurses a grudge against the Querrins, was caught prowling around the house and has been cooling his heels at the police station in Bristley. Somehow an agent of death manages to strangle him, even though all routes to his cell were under guard during the period when the killing could have taken place.

The solutions that Lawrence offers for these howdunit puzzles aren’t exactly elegant, but they are the best thing about the book. Both of them are plausible (or as plausible as such solutions can be), fairly clued, and wondrously intricate. The whodunit element is impressive, too, and it unfolds as a remarkably elaborate feat of misdirection. (The sequence in which Lawrence adduces answers to both the “who” and the “how” conundrums takes up roughly one-fifth of the novel.) Smith, who explicitly avows his debt to John Dickson Carr, delivers a plot that stands a cut or two above the average Carr tale in this vein. His handling of certain basics of storytelling, however, falls well below the Carr standard. He peoples his stock situations with stock characters who communicate mainly by exchanging stock phrases. The women of the piece, moreover, fall short of being even one-dimensional. They exist mainly to serve Smith’s own prurient interests, and his treatment of them dates the novel badly.

Near the end of Whistle Up the Devil, one ray of original insight glimmers in the dark-paneled library where Lawrence delivers his summation of the case. Smith, via Lawrence, posits the crime-solving equivalent of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle: Merely by acting as an observer, an investigator may affect—with dire consequences—the outcome of what he is observing. When Lawrence agreed to stand watch outside the room in which Roger Querrin would ultimately die, he assumed that he could maintain his status as an aloof outsider. In fact, as Lawrence ruefully notes, he became complicit in the violent deed that he aimed to forestall. A sense of the tragic therefore sets this tale apart from most prewar novels of its type. Despite its generally frothy tone, the book at that brief moment echoes other works (certain Ellery Queen titles from the same era come to mind) that reflect a mood of postwar atomic dread.

 
8 Comments

Posted by on April 24, 2019 in British, Novel, Puzzle

 

8 responses to “DEREK SMITH. Whistle Up the Devil (1953).

  1. JJ

    April 25, 2019 at 9:42 AM

    For all its flaws — yes, his characters are hard to remember or care about — goddamn, I do so love this book. I remember being so excited to finally track down a copy (this was before the Locked Room International reprint) and, after solidly a year or more of looking, it really lived up to my hopes. Both murders are superb, the methods are ingenious (even if one has elements of providence to it), and Smith’s love of the impossible crime shines through gloriously. And the follow-up, Come to Paddington Fair, might even be better (I still can’t decide).

    Of all the authors who I wish had written more in the impossible crime subgenre — Hake Talbot, Anthony Boucher, Leo Bruce, Philip MacDonald, etc — Smith is probably just about the one I’d love to have seen in print again the most. What a talent he was, to have this much fun in the grandest toybox around.

     
    • Mike

      April 25, 2019 at 10:14 AM

      I love your enthusiasm, JJ. While I didn’t like this book quite as much as you did, I definitely enjoyed it. What most impressed me about “Whistle” is that it’s so strong in the “whodunit” department. I wasn’t expecting Smith to pull such a winsome rabbit out of that hat. My main disappointment, as I say, is that Smith fell well short of the Carr standard of literary craftsmanship.

      Sorry to gloat, but a couple of years ago I managed to snag a handsome Thriller Book Club edition of the book that features the original cover art that you see here and that appears to be from 1953 or 1954. No reprint needed! (That said, your comment about the follow-up title suggests that I need to invest in the LRI omnibus.)

       
      • JJ

        April 25, 2019 at 11:04 AM

        My main disappointment, as I say, is that Smith fell well short of the Carr standard of literary craftsmanship.

        Seem harsh to hold against the guy something that every other writer in the genre is guilty of, though, right? 😆

        I’ll see your original copy with cover art and mention that I have, ahem, two of the Thriller Book Club editions with (slightly battered) dustjackets. AND the Derek Smith Omnibus with Smith’s own notes on improvements to the solution which are not included in the single-title reprint.

        Yup, I’m a nerd 🤓

         
      • Mike

        April 25, 2019 at 1:29 PM

        And here I thought I’d nabbed a rare find. (Indeed, I found this very British-looking edition in a US bookshop, so I consider it a minor triumph of my book-scrounging life.) “Improvements to the solution”? Hmm. By my estimation, the solution needs little improvement. Clearly, Smith took that part of his work quite seriously, and admirably so.

         
      • JJ

        April 25, 2019 at 10:18 PM

        Well, the “improvements” concern the the first murder and follow a sort of “But what if X hadn’t happened?” vein. Because that X does make quite a lot of difference…

         
  2. thegreencapsule

    April 25, 2019 at 8:14 PM

    I have the Omnibus edition of this (not as lucky as you and JJ) and I’m saving it for a rainy day when I’ve exhausted my John Dickson Carr and need that fix. Of course, your review makes me tempted to drag it out much earlier…

     
    • JJ

      April 26, 2019 at 4:30 AM

      not as lucky as you and JJ

      …says the man who collects beautiful GAD novels for a pastime… XD

       
    • Mike

      April 26, 2019 at 9:11 AM

      Ben, I recommend reading “Whistle” sooner rather than later. Take a break from Carr and find out whether Smith manages to best Carr at his own game (and whether, like me, you gain a new appreciation of Carr’s overall mastery of that game).

       

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