Those of you who are good enough to follow my adventures through the treasure trove that makes up A Carter Dickson Celebration will know that we last left off in 1938 with The Judas Window. The next novel, Death in Five Boxes – a first timer for me – will follow in due course. Both of these novels were published in 1938, a gloriously prolific year for the author. Two Gideon Fell novels were also written: To Wake the Dead and The Crooked Hinge. In addition to all that, Carr/Dickson created a brand-new sleuth, Colonel March, who headed Department D-3 of Scotland Yard, the Department of Queer Complaints. The short stories featuring March appeared in magazines from 1937 to 1941, when they were gathered together in a collection.
This is not an easy collection to find, by the way, and as I was determined to complete my Carter Dickson collection, I made my complaint known in two quarters, with satisfying results. First, I posted my frustrations on the Golden Age Detection page on Facebook, and the wonderful Dan Napolitano came right back with a reply that he had an extra copy that that he could send me! I also happened to attract the attentions of my Secret Santa (whose identity I cannot divulge except to say that her eye for a good gift is as canny as her eye for fashion in mystery!), and, sure enough, I received a second copy of the book for Christmas, making me feel as rich as Croesus!
The time seems apt to explore these stories. But before we begin at the beginning, let’s examine Colonel March himself. My only familiarity with the character comes from watching the old series, which we are fortunate enough to find on Amazon Prime. The great good fortune for viewers here is the performance of Boris Karloff as March, for his suave portrayal lends sparkle to a series that . . . well, it isn’t bad, but it could have been better. According to Doug Greene, Dickson based March’s physical description on fellow mystery writer Cecil John Charles Street, who under the pen names John Rhode and Miles Burton, wrote a whole slew of mysteries and who, thanks to our friend Curtis Evans, has undergone a major renaissance as one of the masters of the humdrum mystery.
In the first story in the collection, “The New Invisible Man,” March is described thusly: “a large amiable man (weight seventeen stone) with a speckled face, an interested blue eye, and a very short pipe projecting from under a cropped moustache which might be sandy or grey.” For some reason, Karloff plucked one of those eyes out and wore a rakish patch, an early example of TV adapting crime literature to serve its own purposes. No matter – with one or two eyes and “a vast fund of good-for-nothing information,” March had a way around an unusual puzzle, even one that bore signs of a supernatural agency.
And that’s exactly what we find here when Horace Rodman, the senior partner of a large accounting firm shows up in March’s office with a bizarre tale of having witnessed the murder of a man through the window of a new block of flats across the street from his house. Rodman describes himself as “a student of human nature,” which is to say he is a busybody about his neighbor’s affairs. While the situation he describes to March reminded me of L.B. Jeffries in Rear Window, his judgment of the characters he observed in the flat were reminiscent of Captain Hasting’s snap judgments of people based on their looks. This put me on my guard immediately.
According to Rodman, as he was getting ready for bed, he looked across the way and say a stranger in white gloves moving through the otherwise empty flat of a young couple, the Hartleys. Rodman sees the stranger (who looks like Crippen, the murderer) take off his gloves and put them down with a pistol on a table before stepping forward to open a window, look out, and give a low whistle. When he turns back inside, the stranger is shot by a pair of gloved hands brandishing the very pistol the man had put down. The bullet hits the man, smashes through the flat’s window and Rodman’s own bedroom window before lodging in his wall.
Rodman rushes downstairs and meets a passing policeman who also heard the shot. They race upstairs and rouse Mrs. Hartley, who takes them into the room where there is no sign of a corpse, gun or gloves – and no broken window!!! To make matters even more intriguing, Rodman spies a picture on the table of the very stranger he saw earlier, only to discover that it is of Hartley’s grandfather – who died before the war!
The secret of the invisible man was used to much greater effect by Carr in a wartime radio play, and I don’t think regular fans of impossibilities will find it too difficult. In the end, this story turns out to be more of a conceit than a mystery drama, but it’s charmingly told, and I can say that a rather dastardly villain does get their comeuppance in the end in a most satisfying way. Still, the second story must accomplish more before I categorize Colonel March as more than Carr’s own version of Mr. Parker Pyne.
“The Footprint in the Sky” is indeed a good story, with a neat little problem and enough human interest to make it interesting to those of us who like that stuff. A charming young beauty named Dorothy Brant is the only logical suspect in the vicious attack of her neighbor Renee Topham, “that old shrew and thief as well . . . with her stolen watch and malicious good manners.” Someone broke into the lady’s cottage after midnight, clubbed her repeatedly with a paperweight, and stole some items belonging to Dorothy’s mother that Mrs. Topham had refused to return. The only clue at first is a pair of footprints leading from the Brant home to the victim’s and a pair of footprints leading back. And these footprints match the very small-sized slippers belonging to Dorothy.
Colonel March eventually makes his way down to the scene, and his discovery of the titular footprint leads to an explanation that, it will come as no surprise, exonerates the innocent girl and reveals the true assailant. I don’t expect it will take much thinking on a reader’s part to figure out what happened or whodunnit, but the path to elucidation is charmingly and quickly told, with still enough space for just the right whiff of romance. And while I have yet to be convinced that this collection will yield anything like the best that Carr/Dickson has to offer, I’m looking forward to savoring these stories. You can expect future “interludes” like this one to pop up during the Celebration!