ADDENDUM WITH FAERIES

A couple of days ago, I wrote about the latest Paul Halter translation, The Man Who Loved Clouds. I bought the book as soon as it came out because, for some perverse reason, I like to be among the first to review Halter. But work prevailed, I read slowly, and several fine bloggers beat me to the punch. Feel free to pause and read what the Puzzle Doctor (of the Classic Mystery blog), Nick Fuller (at The Grandest Game) and Aidan (of Mysteries Ahoy) said.

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In summation, there was pretty high praise all around. In his review, the Puzzle Doctor referenced Halter’s inspiration, the Master of the Game, Mr. John Dickson Carr: “All the talk of fairies brings to mind ‘The House In Goblin Wood’, the single finest short story ever written – sorry, but that’s a fact – and that similarity went on for a good while for me

Nick mentioned this story, too, and Ben at The Green Capsule has listed it as one of Carr’s masterpieces. It got me to thinking. I’m actually not much up on Carr’s  short tales. I’m more familiar with his radio plays due to my love of classic shows like Suspense and Murder by Experts. Still, I had recently picked up a cheap used copy of The Third Bullet, which contains “Goblin,” so I decided last night to sit down and read it and figure what all the fuss is about.

And now . . . well, I find myself challenged on several fronts.

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First, I don’t know how to praise this story without getting drippy. PD calls it “the single finest short story ever written.” Does he confine his praise here to the mystery genre? He does not. And you know what? I don’t blame him. I actually think that the fact that Carr wrote within one of the most restrictive genres of them all makes his accomplishment even more masterful. In seventeen pages, he creates one of the best mysteries I have ever read. Although I agree with my peers that comparing short stories and novels is a silly exercise – the fact of the matter is that, for any author, writing a short story is harder than writing a novel. The latter’s length allows for flaws in execution; a successful short story must be near perfect. “The House in Goblin Wood” rises head and shoulders above most of the full-length mysteries I have read and is certainly one of the best short stories in any genre that I have encountered.

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Which brings me to the second point. I understand how the fairy references in Halter’s novel might bring Carr’s tale to mind. But when PD writes, “ . . . and that similarity went on for a good while for me,” I feel like the grumpiest Gus in the universe. Right now, I want to go back to my review of Halter and downgrade it. It has never been enough for me that Halter sought to emulate the best. Heck, I wish I could write like Christie – which is to say I wish I could plot like Christie.

I’ve never been a fan of Halter’s writing style, but his plots are often very clever, although many are too overloaded with ideas. (The Demon of Dartmoor, The Tiger’s Head, The Madman’s Room, and many of his short stories rank among my favorites.) With Clouds, ironically, I found myself enjoying Halter’s prose a lot more, but the plot was less compelling. The impossibilities this time around turned out to have rather bland explanations, and the solution relied on one of my least favorite gambits in detective fiction.

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The third, and biggest challenge here is that I so want to talk on and on about “The House in Goblin Wood,” . . . and yet I don’t dare! I don’t want to spoil a minute of it for anyone who hasn’t read it. Ben is correct: it isa masterpiece. There is not a wasted moment in it, and the way Carr weaves plot, character, tone, and misdirection into seamlessly brilliant effect takes my breath away. The final page of the story created the same open-mouthed shock for me that I felt reading the solution of She Died a Lady and the final page of He Who Whispers. I’m dying to tell you why, even in the most general terms, but I find (to my surprise) that I’m too nice a fellow to do so.

I’ll go so far as to offer one spoiler-free comparison between the two authors. Let’s examine the sleuths. I know that Halter originally wanted his novels to be continuations in the adventures of Gideon Fell. When he was denied the rights, he invented Alan Twist. Here’s how Twist is described in Clouds:

“Tall and thin, with a splendid ginger moustache, his pleasantly smiling face gave no hint of the famous criminologist behind the pince nezglasses. There was a gleam in his brilliant blue eyes, which did not augur well for (Inspector Hurst).”

That’s all we get. It’s pretty much all we get through the series. Now, I don’t need a litany of quirks to separate one detective from another, and Twist is almost quirk-free; the only thing I can think of is his prodigious appetite, as the man spends every scene stuffing food down his throat. But this guy has almost no presence beyond the fact that Halter tells us he is a presence – “a famous criminologist,” with “brilliant blue eyes.”

Furthermore, the prologue establishes a man who is bored without a crime to solve. This is not original: Sherlock Holmes and many who followed complain of the same thing constantly. Nearly every detective is an egoist and an outsider. He exists outside the circle of characters directly connected to the mystery, and this community serves as antagonist to our hero. But still, does Halter have nothing original to offer? Here he doubles down even more directly on the reference to other detectives:

“’It’s all very sad, Archibald,’ (Twist) said. ‘Not a single crime worthy of interest in the last several months. If it continues, my little grey cells are going to rot . . . “

Is Twist paying homage to a peer in his profession, or is he co-opting Poirot’s most famous character trait? Throughout the novel – nay, the series of Twist novels – a clear and interesting personage never quite emerges. Let’s compare this to Sir Henry Merrivale, who solves the case in Goblin Wood. Carr wrote twenty-two novels about Sir Henry, compared to Halter’s twenty-one featuring Dr. Twist. Let’s give the advantage to Halter: we won’t even talk about the novels here. Let’s just examine Merrivale’s entrance in this story:

“Out of the portals of the Senior Conservatives’ Club, in awful majesty, marched a large, stout, barrel-shaped gentleman in a white linen suit.

“His corporation preceded him like the figurehead of a man-of-war. His shell-rimmed spectacles were pulled down on a broad nose, all being shaded by a Panama hat. At the top of the stone steps, he surveyed the street with a lordly sneer . . .

“As a matter of fact, H.M. was in a good humor, having just triumphed over the Home Secretary in an argument. But not even his own mother could have guessed it. Majestically, with the same lordly sneer, he began in grandeur to descend the steps of the Senior Conservatives’. He did this, in fact, until his foot encountered an unnoticed object lying some three feet from the bottom.

“It was a banana skin.”

 

I have nothing more to say. If you want to talk about “THiGW” below, let’s do it! Mark your remarks with SPOILERS in case you have read it. Let’s not ruin this for anyone! God, I love this story. Only a master of the craft can accomplish this sort of thing, and Carr is THE master!

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21 thoughts on “ADDENDUM WITH FAERIES

  1. the fact of the matter is that, for any author, writing a short story is harder than writing a novel

    I’ve never understood why this “fact” is so often repeated. I’ve written both stories and novels, on occasion to public approval, and I’d certainly say it’s easier to write a short story than a novel. (Obviously I’m generalizing. There are always going to be exceptions.) To mix metaphors in all directions, you can write a short story in a single breath, albeit sometimes rather a long one (probably my best received stories clocked in at 9000+ words in a single blurt; then I ate), whereas for a novel you usually have to keep dozens of balls in the air for a period of at least weeks, likely longer.

    There are also short-short stories, running to under 1000 words. By your suggestion, these should be even harder, but in fact, assuming inspiration has hit (which in my case, natch, it rarely does), it’s easy enough to belt out one of these before breakfast.

    My guess is that Carr knocked out “The House In Goblin Wood” fast — in a day or under — and that this is why it worked. Perhaps it’s the case that if you’re Raymond Carver shorts are Really Difficult (I gather his editor rewrote all the best ones anyway), but for the rest of us they really are so much easier than novels.

    That said, writing “The House In Goblin Wood” is not a mean feat. That’s an instance where lightning struck, you bet. We should all be so lucky.

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    1. I think the logic is that you have to put plot, character development, setting, etc,. into 20 pages instead of 200. Of course this isn’t always the case in short stories, and the problem is lesser in a continuing, mostly static series (like say, a mystery short). But I can see how writers who are more used to novels (which is most of them!) might find shorts harder unless they’re in that super short format where the before-mentioned aspects are less important.

      If Edward D. Hoch was still alive I’m sure he’d say that novels were harder! And I think he did at one point. I’d bet that most authors who do mainly short stories would agree, but like you say it can vary.

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    2. I was just skimming through Douglas Greene’s The Man Who Explained Miracles and saw it stated that The House in Goblin Wood took Carr three months to write. Apparently he struggled with the ending and ripped up one completed draft. Your post immediately came to mind.

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      1. How interesting — many thanks for the info! I’ve just been rereading the story this morning and it certainly reads as if it was written in a single blurt.

        That’s a compliment to it, by the way. I don’t mean it seems rushed or sloppy. Carr has managed to remove all the traces of the text’s laborious creation to make it flow perfectly — a very skillful piece of work.

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      2. I say that short stories are harder to write than novels because that was what I was taught in a writing class by an instructor I respected who had written both. Having written neither myself, I’m just echoing the opinion of my betters. But as John illustrates, it’s clearly not a universally held belief!

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  2. Welcome to The Cult of Goblin Wood, Brad!

    I’ll throw in a SPOILERS warning for the rest of this, not because I’m going to blatantly say anything, but you really shouldn’t read anything about The House in Goblin Wood beforehand. Just experience it.

    This may be Carr’s best misdirection. It really is that – a text book case of misdirecting the reader. I’m reminded of one of my favorite titles for a JDC story – The Wrong Problem. While that story is good but not great, the title perfectly represents what Carr does in The House in Goblin Wood. He focuses you on attempting to answer the wrong question. To an extent we see this in most good GAD, from Carr to Christie. If you spell out the puzzle you’re trying to solve in the form of a simple statement, you’ll realize that one element of that statement relies on an assumption. Here Carr does that beautifully. I recall Puzzle Doctor summing up the brilliance of this story in an absolutely perfect sentence in some comment thread, but I’m unable to find it at the moment.

    It’s interesting to look at when this story was published – 1947. At that point, Merrivale had been through his best and was destined to complete a steep downward spiral (although some still rate The Skeleton in the Clock and a Graveyard to Let, while All in a Maze garners real respect). Carr of course had just published He Who Whispers and still had excellent titles like The Nine Wrong Answers and the whole of his historical output before him (I’ll avoid waving my flag for Below Suspicion…). In some sense, this could be considered his last truly great moment. Of course, that’s slandering plenty of good books to come, but this is quite possibly the peak.

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    1. Yeah, I noticed that this came out after H.M. had passed his prime! Yet this is prime Merrivale without a doubt. SORT OF SPOILER: The way Carr uses tone at the beginning to make you misinterpret an early sentence that basically shouts out the truth is so freaking brilliant! And then he does the same trick again, over and over, until you’ve fallen irredeemably into the trap he has laid. You know how much I like to be fooled, Ben! This was a roller coaster ride.

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    2. ” I recall Puzzle Doctor summing up the brilliance of this story in an absolutely perfect sentence in some comment thread, but I’m unable to find it at the moment.”
      Are you referring to the comment of the Puzzle Doctor that the story is worth more than five stars out of five in JJ’s post on The Third Bullet And Other Stories ?

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  3. Robert Adey in his book Locked Room Murders writes after the solution to this story (item no.361):
    “Considered by myself and many other critics to be the best short story of impossible crime.”

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  4. SPOILERS BELOW! WARNING SPOILERS BELOW!
    I think the main reason as too why THiGW is such an renowned story is because of it’s incredible reversal of expectations. Carr knows how to add twist’s in a story that completely turn around all prior opinions that you had and causes you to realize that everything else before that reversal now makes sense.
    When you first read the story, you naturally assume that Eve and Bil will be the heroes and that Vicky will be the villain who get’s her comupence and Carr beautifully uses that preconcieved notion to guide you down a certain path of thought that allows him to quietly lead you into this trap made out of our misguided assumptions.Carr makes you focus on one aspect of the puzzle when you should be focusing on another and so skillfully misdirects you that you won’t even look at the most obvious solution or at the most obvious culprits.He creates dialouge and scenes that can easily be read in two different ways but makes you only see one of the possible ways and instills you with the belief that that option is the only possible one.This story couldn’t be a novel because Carr relies on the short length of a short story to subvert us and to keep a mist around our eyes. We usually read ss’s in one sitting and as a result we don’t stop and really think through the puzzle which Carr utilizes to lull us into a sense of contentment that allows him to brutally misdirect us in a perfect manner.
    I find that this story is perhaps Carr’s greatest work and is in my opinion the textbook example on how to misdirect a reader in any genre of writing

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    1. MORE SPOILERS: Yes to all you say and more, Bekir. Eve and Bill represent all those innocent young people we’ve seen in Carr over and over, right down to their names. (Except of course that, in the classic sexist version, Eve tempted Adam into sin.) The first few pages make us think the following:

      1) the “crime,” such as it is, will be about Vicky’s ability to disappear.
      2) Eve and Bill are GOOD “conspirators,” in that they want to expose Vicky as a fake. They have turned to the expert in such fakery to help them.
      3) The comic tone at the beginning reinforces all of the above.
      4) The solution of the trick window! Who knew Carr would have time for a “fake” solution that then turns out to be the REAL solution . . . but to the wrong crime!
      5) The utter gruesome horror of the ending is so shocking that it even shocked Merrivale! It certainly knocked my socks off. How many short stories can do ALL that in less than twenty pages?!?

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      1. No other short story comes close. But, if you do want a rollercoaster ride in less than twenty pages, try The Garden of Forking Paths by Jorge Luis Borges. It isn’t so much a mystery story, but it packs enough experience for a 180 page novel.

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      2. MORE SPOILERS BELOW
        Carr had spent years and years creating this stereotype of young men and woman who fall in love and face comical situations in his novels and used them to such an extant that readers usually become desensitized to even suspecting them of the crime. Carr is basically using his reputation to misdirect you in this story and that’s why it’s so brilliant. Few authors can do this,( Christie is the only other who comes to mind) and the fact that Carr can do it better than the Queen of Crime really shows his mastery of the mystery genre.
        It’s times like this that I wish more of Carr’s work was adapted for the movies or television. Just imagine a beautifully filmed version of this story that sticks to the original plot. One can only dream in this cruel, cruel GAD hating world 😢

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  5. Man I need to re-read and better appreciate it. Excellent little story, in tone and plot. The final two lines are excellent, this should really be a story to show to non-mystery fans, would break most of their stereotypes fast!

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  6. House in Goblin Wood has come up a few times recently. I can’t understand why it’s not anthologized more often, if it’s this good! I couldn’t see a cheap enough copy of The Third Bullet online, but the story can also be found in
    “Twelve American Detective Stories”, edited by Edward Hoch. I found a copy for one single pence! Of course the delivery was a bunch more, but it’s probably worth it. I can’t wait to see what makes it so special.

    I’m also re-reading The Hollow Man, and the prose is definitely a little drier than Carr’s best, yet still by the time we find the body, Dr Fell already leaps off the page – it’s a little later, but I particularly like his outrage at Mills’ milk, prunes, and calculus. Even in Problem of the Wire Cage, which he is barely in, every page he’s on shows off his character so boldly. And none of this has to be done via the narrator just telling us it’s true, like in the start of The Phantom Passage, where the narrator tells us about aspects of Owen Burns’ character which just don’t appear. I enjoyed that book, but it definitely wasn’t because of the characters.

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  7. I generally do not like mystery short stories as the clueing tends to be clumsy, the misdirection, if any, poor and the solution easy to spot but I agree that this is an absolute classic! Flawless plot, brilliant characters, epic misdirection and a truly chilling solution!

    The only other short story that I can think of which is comparable to this in terms of plotting and misdirection is Christie’s “Witness for the Prosecution”.

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    1. It has been a long time since my first read of “Witness,” and I don’t remember exactly how shocked it made me. It certainly has one of those last sentences that make you drop your book on the floor. In most ways, however, this Christie fan thinks “Goblin” has “Witness” beat.

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