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Locked Room Reviews:
Derek Howe Smith:
Whistle Up The Devil
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It seems that every major blog on locked room mysteries and impossible crimes has already reviewed Derek Smith’s locked room classic ‘Whistle up The Devil’ (1953) at considerable length, so why add another review to this weighty pile of opinion? Let me explain…. But first, let’s clear away some of the necessary background information.
I will not tarry long on the life of Derek Howe Smith, if you are interested in all the details I highly recommend Patrick’s review at Scene of Crime Here, it is sufficient to note that Derek was born July 4th, 1926 in the borough of Lambeth, South London. He was an avid fan and collector of British boys’ books (The Schoolboy ‘Tec, by Charles Hamilton, even gets a nod in this novel) and had an extremely expansive collection of mystery fiction. He was a confirmed fan of the great Golden Age locked room authors, including John Dickson Carr, Clayton Rawson, Rupert Penny, and the Hanshews, and makes so many nods to these authors, that only a true locked room fan will follow all of his references. In fact, ‘Whistle Up The Devil’ is generally viewed as an honest homage to these classic authors. There is even a fairly good locked room lecture that rivals those of Dr. Fell and The Great Merlini.
Derek was apparently a bit of a recluse, though a generous and friendly man, who lived in the same house all of his life and, unlike his favourite author, did not drink. He lived with his mother until her death, after a long period of illness, and never married. Derek was drafted into the army at the end of WWII, and briefly served in Italy and Bulgaria as a radio operator before being invalided out due to some form of lung problem. He lived on disability for the rest of his life. By the time of his death, his mystery collection had grown so large that the floor in his home had begun to give way under the staggering weight. He was extremely knowledgeable about the mystery genre, as demonstrated in the locked room lecture, in his correspondence with anthologist Doug Greene, and in other comments on Derek, that have been written by Ralph Spurrier, Robert Adey, and Bill Pronzini, who met him at a London Boucheron in 1990. For many years ‘Whistle Up The Devil’ was out of print and an extremely rare find, but it has recently been republished, along with Smith’s other two novels, ‘Come To Paddington Fair’ and ‘Model for Murder’ (both originally published only in Japanese) in ‘The Derek Smith Omnibus’, published by Locked Room International in 2014.
To briefly summarize, the plot revolves around a “family secret” that the once powerful Querrin family had passed down from father to son, one month before the eldest son’s marriage, in a special room known as ‘The Room of Passage’. The last time this had occurred, close to a century earlier, things went rather badly. The son, Martin, had been brutally stabbed by his father, who later died of seizures. As a result, the secret is now long lost, but the dagger that killed Martin is still hanging on the wall, and the ghost of the father, Thomas Querrin, is still reputed to haunt this gloomy chamber. Or at least that is the legend, but Roger Querrin, now the elder son, is about to marry Audrey Craig, and is determined to spend a night in the haunted room, to blow a whistle at the devil, and finally lay this old curse to rest, despite the objections of his fiancé and his brother, Peter.
Into this situation, Inspector Castle, as a friend of Roger Querrin, had stumbled and grown concerned. He arranged with the local constable, Sergeant Hardinge, to set up a guard outside the room, and had intended to watch the passage that led to the room himself, in the company of Peter Querrin. Unfortunately, Castle is called back to his duties at Scotland Yard at the last minute, but recommends his young friend, the amateur sleuth of impossible crimes, Algy Lawrence, to take his place on guard duty. Lawrence is not initially inclined to comply, but after a visit from Peter Querrin, and a little gentle arm twisting by Castle, he finally agrees and soon arrives at the family country estate.
As the hour approaches, Lawrence carefully inspects the room in question, the infamous dagger, the connecting passage, and the surroundings areas of the house and garden, and even gets into a brief tussle with a man hidden in the bushes, which earns him a hearty bump on the head. Finally, around 11, Hardinge takes up his post outside the French windows, as Roger Querrin enters the old room and fires up the oil lamp, the only light in this ancient wing of the house. Lawrence briefly accompanies him, insuring that all is correctly locked and sealed, then leaves, checking that Roger locks the door behind him, before setting up his own watch with Peter, guarding the passage which is the only other entrance to the haunted room. Of course, just as midnight strikes, a bone chilling shriek breaks the silence. Algy blows the lock apart with his pistol, then enters the room of passage with Peter, only to find Roger breathing his last, with the legendary dagger now planted in the middle of his back. Hardinge reports that he witnessed no suspicious activity from his vantage outside the windows, and Algy is equally certain that no one could have entered via the passage. A wide patch of soft flower beds, outside the French doors, backs up the Sergeant’s story, testifying that no one could have approached from that direction, since the rain had stopped a full half hour before the scream. In addition, the only key to the room is still on Roger’s chain, and the dagger has been ominously wiped clean of fingerprints, setting up a seemingly unbreakable and completely impossible locked room scenario. The only possible conclusion is that the ghostly killer had walked through solid brick walls and defied gravity.
It is only later, early the next morning, that Hardinge surprises the prowler who had clocked Algy, one Simon Turner, an ex family retainer with a grudge, and hauls him off to jail in the small village police station, that doubles as Hardinge’s living quarters. As good as the first impossible crime is, the second murder proves even better. Algy and Hardinge have settled in at the police station, in the charge room, to compare notes after a brief unproductive interview with Simon Turner. They are visited by Audrey’s uncle, Russell Craig, another member of the household, who likes the ladies, and as many drinks as he can cadge, and had clearly intended to settle in with the newlyweds, before an unfortunate quarrel with Roger Querrin. Craig stays only half an hour, and is never left in the charge room alone, which contains the only access to the cells. In fact, no one enters the cell area, until just after Algy takes his leave, when he is suddenly called back by Hardinge to discover Turner strangled to death in an open cell that shows clear evidence of a lock pick. Thanks to a nosy post-mistress and an over eager young constable, it soon becomes further evident that only Lawrence, Hardinge and Craig could have possibly been in the police station at the time of Turner’s death, but the local Inspector is eventually forced to eliminate each one of these suspects, after a brief attempt to pin the crime on Algy, as none had sufficient opportunity to enter the cell area and commit the deed. While it seems obvious that the same person committed both murders, once again it seems that the ghostly murderer must have walked through walls. It is now left up to Algy to solve both these impossible crimes, and he finally works through all the complicated clues and sets a dangerous trap for the killer, which nearly turns into another murder.
There can be absolutely no doubt that this is one of the great locked room masterpieces, on this point I agree with all those other reviews. Smith’s extremely complex plot, which cannot be easily summarized, is quite simply brilliant, appears to block all potential solutions, and has amazingly fair clues. It also provides a unique solution, that will keep most readers guessing until the final pages. Some may guess the identity of the murderer, largely due to the limited cast of suspects, and some may work out other parts of the solution, but few will solve all the details prior to Algy’s final explanation. There can also be little doubt that Smith is a master of the art of illusion, expertly casting false trails and red herrings on all sides, all designed to divert our attention from the primary questions. If Smith had been more of an extrovert, he might have made a fine stage magician, given his obvious dedication to even the smallest detail of each illusion. This plot clearly plays in that rarefied league of the great masters, like Carr and Rawson, and is a true homage to the Golden Age that meets every technical requirement set out by these greats. There is only one small plotting quibble, first noted by Doug Greene, but a letter from Smith, included in this volume, does a satisfactory job of answering this minor point.
Another point of interest in this novel is the famous locked room lecture in Chapter 5, which provides a unique perspective on the locked room genre, that perfectly compliments the earlier lectures by those same masters of the genre. While Smith adds little to the original discussion initiated by Carr and Rawson, he does use the lecture to provide us with a few important clues, and a rare glimpse at the creative plotting process. The locked room lecture is set in the context of a dialogue between Inspector Castle and Algy Lawrence, which examines the three classes of locked room mysteries, and finally reaches a critical deduction, which, while it does not identify the murderer or answer specific questions, at least sets the limits of the coming solution.
Algy begins by noting:
“We’ve eliminated Classes One and Three. Therefore the killer’s method must be somewhere in Category Two.”
The Inspector nodded agreement, though he still looked worried.
“You mean that the room only seemed to be sealed because the murderer tampered with the door or the windows.”
“Yes. But,” warned Algy, “be careful. There’s a big headache in store. This room wasn’t just locked. It was also guarded.”
Castle swore. He said :
“Don’t confuse me, curse you. Our conclusion is that the killer was in the room with Querrin. When he knifed Roger, he somehow contrived an escape.”
“Mmmm. But how?”
Now to those points where I differ from all those other reviewers. This book is a true classic, but it must also be recognized that this novel has quite a few obvious problems, which most reviewers have tended to ignore in their eagerness to praise this quite amazing plot. It seems that this sentimental tribute to the masters, combined with the technically superb plot, tends to blind readers to what is essentially a weak writing style, that lacks depth of characterization and descriptive detail, creates awkward artificial dialogue to hide the final solution, and entirely fails to live up to its promise of creating a creepy supernatural atmosphere.
The first area of concern is clearly character development. The best character in the novel is Uncle Russ, a Falstaffian aging comic rogue, mystery addict, Don Juan, alcoholic, and lover of the good life. It is odd that the abstemious Smith, should find such depth in this particular character, but he is the only one that actually seems to resonate. His use of uncle Russ to provide a series of ludicrous red herrings, is one of the true joys of this novel. Smith also does a reasonable job of fleshing out the village bobby, Sergeant Hardinge, but Roger Querrin comes off completely flat, with little motive for ‘Whistling Up The Devil’ – except pure stubbornness. He is certainly no Professor Grimaud valiantly defying the forces of darkness. The Peter Querrin character is possibly even worse, a mere nerve wracked shell, trembling his way through life in a dark shadow of fear and doubt. Audrey is also psychological flat. We are given no reason to accept her devoted love for Roger, or her grief, and then there is that disturbing romantic link between her and Algy that completely undermines her character, and makes both her and Lawrence look a little depraved. The general view of women, is a bit misogynistic by today’s standards, though not unusual given the era.
Unfortunately, Algy’s romantic nature is not his only flaw. He simply fails to pull off the role of a Dr. Fell style expert in impossible crimes, and is generally an unconvincing protagonist. Even Uncle Russ would have made a better impossible crime detective! In a letter to Doug Greene, Smith discusses his detective: “About Algy Lawrence himself, you are, alas, absolutely correct. He is a somewhat shadowy and unconvincing figure. I was in danger of ending up with exactly the sort of detective I don’t like – what Nicholas Blake defined as: “as undistinguished as a piece of blotting paper, absorbing the reaction of his subjects; a shallow mirror… a pure camera-eye.” What I had intended was a developing portrait of a young idealist, highly intelligent, yet rather naïve and slightly sentimental – a romantic who would eventually be caught in the trap of his own sensibilities.” If this was his plan, he certainly missed the mark. Algy is likeable enough, but is granted so little personality, that he often appears more wraith-like than the family ghost.
While Smith does a reasonable job of setting the structural architecture of the mystery, it remains exceedingly stark and not one word is wasted on unnecessary descriptive prose, leaving the reader feeling like it plays out on an empty stage. Perhaps the most disappointing part of reading this novel, is the denied expectation of a supernatural atmosphere, based on that creepy family curse, which quite simply never gets off the ground. When Algy first surveys the haunted room, there is a brief attempt to set the tone – but it is almost immediately forgotten as Smith once again gets carried off by the technical details of his complex plot, which are clearly placed first and foremost.
Despite these flaws, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel until the denouement, when Smith launches into a ridiculously stilted spate of dialogue, intended to keep the reader on edge and keep secret the identity of the murderer. He first seems to accuse one, then another, as page follows page, without using a single pronoun or providing a single scrap of information that might eliminate any suspect. The idea was clearly to extend the tension, but in the end I got tired of the chase, and the effect was the direct opposite of the intent – I skipped a couple of very boring pages! In addition, though again a typical issue in this era, the final action scenes are horribly sensationalized, concluding with a dubious struggle which allows Lawrence to disable the culprit without actually dirtying his pristine hands with direct violence. Smith stretches this entire conclusion so far beyond the breaking point, that the result is not a happy one.
So, in the final analysis, how should we rate this book? As a critical part of the history of the locked room genre, and one of the best impossible crime plots of all time, it clearly deserves a full five stars, so that is how I will reluctantly rate it! However, I must also provide a clear warning for less specialized mystery fans; if you insist on great prose, an engaging atmosphere, or characters with credible depth, you might want to give this book a pass!
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