Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Bibliotheque Interruptus: Agatha Christie gets weird and two twisty tales from John Dickson Carr (Confessions 2)

So part of the reason that I can’t seem to get the damn piles of crap sorted and shifted around, as I’m discussing in my Confessions of a Comic Book Hoarder column, is that I go to the library fairly often, since I don’t have a computer at home. So going there, I will either take out books and stuff, or find cheap or free books that the libraries are trying to get rid of.  I’ve been grabbing any and all mystery books lately, since one library is ridding themselves of their mystery stuff, it seems. I’ll grab Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, Lawrence Block, Donald Westlake, anthologies of stories, and so on and so forth.

Dumbass that I am, I read the books that I pick up for free or nearly so, more than the comics and stuff that I pay good money for. What a moron I am!

But clever bastard that I am, I’ve figured out that I can turn that into a column. HA! I’m so smart!

At some point this summer, I got the following books from a local library. Presumably for free, because I didn’t write it down as a thing I spent money on (yes, I write down stuff like that! I’ll talk about my OCD listing of stuff in future columns!). Agatha Christie’s Passenger to Frankfurt and John Dickson Carr’s The Three Coffins and The Burning Court are discussed below!

Boy oh boy are there spoilers here!  Also should be linky bits so that you can check out Amazon and maybe even send some money my way for pointing the way for you!

Agatha Christie gets weird

The castle in the mountain!
This is the cover of the version I got.

Agatha Christie’s Passenger to Frankfurt is referred to on the title page as an extravaganza. I’m not sure where or when I got this, I assume it was a freebie book that I got mid-August. I’ve been enjoying Agatha Christie books in more recent times, as our pal Hatcher has gotten me into mysteries and pulpy stuff more in the last several years. I picked this one up after reading a number of the Poirot and Marple books, but this one is something completely different.

It’s a later book (from 1970), and it’s as if she read Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle and decided she’d try to outdo it, almost.

The book starts as a spy novel, where Sir Stafford Nye is on a plane that gets landed before its destination due to fog, and because of this delay, a fellow passenger needs Nye’s assistance to get to London and safety. Nye is a diplomat who does well but isn’t looked upon with high regard because of his lack of seriousness. He’s wearing a noticeable cloak (Christie puts the cloak in cloak and dagger here) that attracts the younger woman to him. She proposes a switch, where she takes his cloak and passport and assumes his identity in order to get to London, disguising herself with the cloak and her vaguely similar physical features to go through Customs. She also proposes drugging him, which I don’t quite understand why that was necessary — it seems he could have just pretended that he was drugged and robbed, instead of actually being drugged. Adds to the intrigue, I guess.

Anyway, he eventually gets home to London, and because of the loss of his passport, he’s questioned by certain factions. He’s been intrigued by the woman whom he helped, and places a personal ad in the paper in order to try to find out what was going on with the whole business. He gets a response, encounters someone on a bridge, and is given a ticket to a music performance.

Meanwhile, he also visits his older Great-Aunt, Matilda, who seems to be based on Christie herself. She knows everyone, has the connections and is able to bring together the people who solve the problem in the end. Really, she’s the main character, as Nye drops out of the book for over a quarter of it at one point.

After the music performance, where he is seated next to the woman he assisted, she offers him a ride and takes him to a location where he meets with various embodiments of money and power and is asked to join their cabal. Due to his fascination with the woman he assisted, known variously as Mary Ann, Daphne Theodofanous, or the Countess Renata Zerkowski, he accepts their offer and goes with her to a musical festival in Bavaria.

They meet up in a Schloss in the mountains with a hideously obese “Old Woman of the Mountain”, Charlotte, who is the center of a web of intrigue. She controls money and power and is the one behind a new young man whipping youth into a frenzy, a Franz Joseph, AKA the Young Siegfried, the Wagnerian youth embodying the fascist Aryan neo-Nazi cabal that is attempting to tear down society by controlling the young. He’s described, like Hitler, as an orator who makes people FEEL very strongly about things, but once the person attempts to reconstruct the speech afterwards, they can’t find the words that were said that made them feel so strongly. It all comes out as nonsense.

So once Nye comes to the conclusion that he is in the cabal as the court jester, the one judging things on their own merits and laughing at things as a jester in Shakespeare, he disappears from the narrative for awhile. We go on to seeing conferences in Paris and London, describing how the world has gone into chaos, where youth are running wild and things are going to pot. We learn that the various factions in play include armaments, drugs, finance, science, and a mysterious Juanita.

Part of the conferences include a story where a Dr. Reichardt, who had a clinic in the mountains in the ’40s where he treated people with delusions about who they were, tells a story of how when WWII was winding down, Hitler himself came to the clinic and apparently switched places with one of the people who believed he was Hitler. That delusional man is the one who died in the bunker, while the real Hitler was spirited away to South America and supposedly fathered a child, Franz Joseph. However, we’re quickly informed that this isn’t true, so it’s brought up for virtually no reason.

In the end, Matilda is visited, she tells a bigwig of a scientist she knew, Robert Shoreham, who developed a “Project B”, revealed to be “Benvo”, a way for a person’s brain to be permanently changed so that they are only worried about the happiness of others. Shoreham was paralyzed by a stroke not long after deciding that he couldn’t continue working on Benvo because of its permanent change in people.

However, at the end, we get a group of the people that Nye met up with early on who go to visit Shoreham. There are traitors revealed and Shoreham manages to become unparalyzed to an extent, and vows to continue with work on Benvo because the dude that tried to convince him to do so died while trying to convince him. Yeah.

And then at the end Nye proposes marriage to “Mary Ann” via telegram, she accepts, Nye’s annoying niece appears, and it’s happily ever after, I guess.

It’s a strange book. The beginning is so promising with its cloak and dagger work, and even when it gets into the cabal stuff, it’s still intriguing, but then it just goes SO weird in creating the conspiracy that’s working against the world powers, then even stranger with Benvo. Then to wrap it up with a happy ending? It’s bizarre. As I said, it’s like she read Cat’s Cradle and said, well, that’s no good, if science is involved it will work to ensure that everybody wins and there’s a happy ending for all, and the young people won’t get up in arms.

If you find a copy, it’s worth a read, but it’s very strange!

Two Twisty Tales of John Dickson Carr

Someone rises from the grave!
This is the one I got. A door to nowhere!

Another book I’ve picked up recently is the John Dickson Carr Treasury, which includes The Three Coffins and The Burning Court.  All I know about Carr is from the bio in the back of the book.  He was born in 1906 in Uniontown, PA, died in 1977 in Greenville, SC, and in the meantime lived in England from about the early ’20s to 1965, where he married an Englishwoman and wrote a number of detective novels, earning a place in the British Detection Club, the only American besides Patricia Highsmith to join that group.  His essay on the best detective stories, “The Grandest Game in the World,” posited that the essential elements of a classic mystery book include fair play, sound plot construction, and ingenuity.  (I’d link to it, but can’t seem to find it online.  I’m sure it’s out there somewhere!)

And those elements are in play in these books.  The Three Coffins is from 1935, and features Carr’s semi-regular character, Dr. Gideon Fell.  Dr. Fell brings to mind for me the GK Chesterton character in Sandman, Gilbert/Fiddler’s Green, at least the way I’m picturing him.  (Apparently I was not imagining it, as I came across a bit online claiming that Carr did base Fell on Chesterton.  I so smart!)  He’s a bit more of a puffy know-it-all, however.  He just happens to know all the pertinent information regarding the case at hand, and is able to piece it all together.  It all makes sense in the end, but the twists and turns of this story are wonderfully imaginative.

Professor Charles Grimaud writes books about the supernatural, and holds court at a local tavern with a regular crowd.  They’re interrupted one night by a strange visitor, who talks of his brother rising from the grave to do harm to Grimaud.  This is Pierre Fley, an illusionist in a vaudeville revue.  While Grimaud tries to laugh off the vague threats of Fley, he’s bothered by this appearance.

On a Saturday night, he’s visited by a mysterious masked personage, and is discovered shot and dying in his study.  The masked person has vanished, seemingly into thin air, as there are no tracks in the newly fallen snow out of or into the house.

Even more disturbing, while Grimaud is taken to a local nursing home for treatment, Fley is killed in the middle of a nearby street, at close range, but the reliable witnesses to this death swear no one was around, nor are any tracks found!  The impossible seems to have happened!

Eventually the mysterious events are explained by Dr. Fell, and everything fits, but in the meantime, we’re treated to a tale of a strange escape from a grave; an Irish acrobat that bills himself as Pagliacci the Great; a feminist who says during a debate that what women need is less talking and more fucking (not stated outright in the book, of course); a mysterious overcoat without an owner; and a discourse on locked room mysteries that winks at us right through the fourth wall.

It’s a nicely told tale that keeps your attention and makes you want to find out what’s going on throughout, and the solution is satisfying without being so reliant on coincidences that you want to scream.

The second book in the Treasury is The Burning Court, a very twisty and twisted mystery about the death of the head of a family near Philadelphia.  Miles Despard is the uncle of three people, Mark, Edith, and Ogden, who live at Despard Park, an older house with a family crypt on the grounds.  Miles had stomach problems for ages before his eventual death, which isn’t looked on suspiciously at first, until Mark is told by Mrs. Henderson, the housekeeper, that the night Miles died she saw a strange woman in old fashioned clothes in the room with Miles — and her head didn’t appear to be on her neck properly!  The strange woman seemed to exit the room through a nonexistent door, and Mark finds the remnants of arsenic in a closet, along with the body of the cat!

Since the death of Miles occurred the same night as a masked ball that his family members went to, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Mark’s wife Lucy was the mysterious woman in Miles’s room.  Mark is also convinced that Miles was poisoned, so he gets an old friend, disgraced doctor Partington, to come to town and see if that was poison in Miles’s system.

And yet I haven’t even mentioned the main character yet, Ted Stevens, a book editor married to Marie, and they come to town regularly on the weekends and have become friendly with the Despard family.  Ted has come to town with a new book by author Gaudan Cross, who writes about famous old murder trials.  He finds in the manuscript the story of a woman from 70 years prior, and the picture of Marie D’Aubray — is that of his own wife, Marie!!!  Dun-duh-dunnnnnnn!!!!

So anyway, there are twists and turns throughout the story, such as where Ted, Mark, Partington, and Mr. Henderson, groundskeeper and husband to the housekeeper, all dig up the crypt, only to find an empty coffin!

We also encounter the woman who was nursing Miles near the end, Myra Corbett, who disclosed to Edith Despard that someone stole medicine from her room shortly before the death of Miles, and it appears that the person who stole it was Marie Stevens!  And OMG, the Stevenses came to town the same night as the masked ball, which was odd for them as it was mid-week!  Signs point to…Marie!  Yes, Marie, the woman with a phobia about kitchen funnels.  Kitchen funnels?  Yep.

There’s also hints of the involvement of witchcraft, as Miles had a string tied with 9 knots in it under his pillow when he died, and insisted on being buried in a wooden coffin.  What’s going on?

By the end, identities of people are revealed, tricks are figured out, there’s the gathering of suspects with a theatrical flourish to the explanation of the crime that doesn’t go as planned, and just when everything appears to be tied up nicely, Carr throws in one more thing at the end that gives the book a mordant little twist.

Both books in this Treasury are very good, and I recommend that you seek out any other Carr books, like I will be doing.

Next time: probably more library books!  Maybe even, crazy as it sounds, some comics!



  1. Jeff Nettleton

    Sounds like Christie was trying to outdo Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, Len Deighton and Alfred Hitchcock, with a bit or Norbert Jacques’ Dr Mabuse (via Friz Lang) thrown in, for good measure. I’d have to look; but, I believe one or two of his characters have turned up in the Tales of the Shadowmen anthologies, from Black Coat Books. It seems like every top detective, mystery man, pulp adventurer, spy, and criminal mastermind turns up there, as well as a few surprising characters (Barbarella has a one night stand with Capt. Kirk, and dumps him!).

      1. Jeff Nettleton

        The series is filled with pulp, detective and spy characters, from literature, film and tv. The gimmick is that there is at least one French character; but some throw in all kinds of stuff. Xavier Maumejean wrote a story where PG Wodehouse’s brilliant Jeeves matches wits with Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and his “little grey cells.” At stake is Poirot’s moustache.

  2. Hal

    Excellent post, Travis, although I know of John Dickson Carr and his work and am familiar with Christie (I would recommend you read THE ABC Murders if you haven’t already, I am not a Christie fan although I respect her work but that is really good book; creepy, sharp, and clever. For that matter you can’t really go wrong with Lord Edgeware Dies or the famous Murder On The Orient Express. You might like Endless Night, Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?, and Curtain, the final Poirot novel, written in the 1940s but not published until the 1970s, as well, Mr Pelican!), I have not read any of those books, so it was highly entertaining to read your precis of them. I think this was your best post yet, particularly the observations. Gah, now I want to read the Carrs! Spookily, I watched a BBC program featuring Carr’s “Greatest Game…” yesterday. More synchronicity!
    Passenger To Frankfurt came from Christie’s waning years so it’s not surprising that it is something of a frustrating mess (those young people! Tsk, tsk!), quite a few of her later novels are either incredibly boring or confused and bungled attempts at invoking her earlier work.
    I don’t know if you have read anything by Dorothy L. Sayers but you might like to check out her novel The Nine Tailors, although you may find her protagonist Sir Peter Wimsey slightly irritating the tale is a good and ingenious one. Also, rather different than that I would also recommend the early Fletch novels of Gregory Macdonald (perhaps Confess, Fletch and Fletch’s Fortune first as he is a bit of a prick in the original Fletch tho’ that could be down to Macdonald’s characterization of one or two female characters that particularly grates, it’s still a very good novel tho’ but then I also enjoy the toned-down and schticked up feature version with Chevy Chase!), I think you might like them. Looking forward to your next column, TP.

    1. Thanks for the compliments, Hal! I’m glad you liked this post, because I felt like I rushed parts of it.

      I’m pretty sure the ABC Murders was part of the Christie omnibus I got over the summer (even before these books) and read, but I don’t want to look it up online in case I’m thinking of another one and spoil it for myself!

      I have encountered Sayers and Peter Wimsey in a collection of great mystery stories that I’ve picked up, but can’t remember the specific story.

      And I’ll have to look for the Fletch stuff. Thanks for the recommendation!

      I do have another mystery series that I’ll probably write about soon, as I picked up several more of the books in the series recently. (Hint, I mentioned the author in this piece!)

  3. Simon

    So, last week, you started with your origin story?

    – “Bibliotheque Interruptus”

    Bibliothecus interruptus?
    Bibliothèque interrompue?
    Bibliotheca interrupta?

    (And bibliothèque not rhyming with barbeque reminded me that joke about Dubya, Clinton, and Cheney…)

    – “since I don’t have a computer at home”

    You don’t have to follow Dave on that, Atomic! (You don’t mind if I call you that, right?)

    – “She also proposes drugging him, which I don’t quite understand why that was necessary”

    Usually, they just offer to bump you on the back of the head, so that investigators can see the bruise. Happens to me alla time. Ouch.

    – “He’s been intrigued by the woman whom he helped, and places a personal ad in the paper”

    That sounds almost as contrived as a P. G. Wodehouse novel, except Wodehouse is intentionally funny. Did you read Wodehouse?

    – “once the person attempts to reconstruct the speech afterwards, they can’t find the words that were said that made them feel so strongly. It all comes out as nonsense.”

    Not unlike Aunt Agatha’s novel itself?

    – “it’s worth a read, but it’s very strange!”

    Next week, THE SOFT MACHINE?

    – “we’re treated to a tale of a strange escape from a grave”

    Maybe the cover meant, “strange escape from a grave”?

    – “The strange woman seemed to exit the room through a nonexistent door”

    Maybe the cover meant, “a nonexistent door”?

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