BEATING PUZZLE DOCTOR AND KATE TO THE PUNCH: The 2021 Mystery of the Year

It’s February 28, and I know exactly what you’re doing: you’re waiting with bated breath for 306 more days to go by, the amount of time it will for the Puzzle Doctor and Kate at Cross Examining Crime to finish sifting through the respective books they’ve read all year (about 2000 for PD, and 6953 for Kate) in order to bestow upon one volume the title, Book of the Year.

As for me . . . well, you’re lucky to annually get twelve reviews from this somnolent reader. But have no fear, my friends! It just so happens that I can tell you the book of the year now! Today! Your wait is over; you may resume your regular duties.

Of course, my book of the year came out in typically American fashion: it was published at the end of 2020, but due to technical snafus at the publisher’s, it was not shipped out until the end of January. Still, nothing else can possibly appear in ‘21 that will fit the bill as perfectly as my selection. Plus, I figure that if I waited until the end of the year, the Doctor, who is a stickler for rules like you cannot believe, would protest the publishing date and demand that the preemptive republishing of Brian Flynn’s The Case of Elymas the Sorcerer (1945) be considered. Pish tosh, I say! Pish . . . tosh!!

In the world of GAD fandom, what gives a title the makings of a “book of the year?” It’s an odd question, that, because, for the most part, we’re dealing with very old books indeed. Most mystery bloggers have been reading the genre for a very long time. We have our favorites – often the authors we discovered first – and these writers have led us to other writers and, in turn, to others . . .

TBritish writer of crime and detective fiction, Dame Agatha Christie (1891 – 1976). (Photo by Walter Bird/Getty Images)

For me, it started with Christie . . . which led to Ellery Queen, which led to John Dickson Carr. And then I found Ngaio Marsh, Patrick Quentin, Patricia Moyes and many others. I dabbled in Allingham and Sayers but set them aside. Of course, I had my favorites: Christie was my queen, while Carr and Queen vied for a place as her consort. And then, as if to prove the vastness of the GAD treasure trove, I discovered Christianna Brand, and everything shifted. Today Christie stands at the pillar, with Carr and Brand on either side, while Queen and Quentin flank my top trio. 

I read all of Christie (many times over, as it turns out), all of Queen, all of Brand, all of Marsh. I admittedly behaved in a childish manner when I approached Carr (well . . . I was a child), rejecting Sir Henry Merrivale as inferior to Gideon Fell and refusing to read him. (Call me a hero or a fool – the fact is that now I am seven books into a first-read run of twenty-five or so Carter Dickson novels, and I feel like the luckiest boy in the world!) As for Patrick Quentin, when I was growing up all I knew about were the first six Peter Duluth mysteries; over the last couple of years, I have discovered how prolific Quentin was and how many joys I can look forward to.

More likely than not, when you see a “Book of the Year” posting on a mystery lover’s blog, it is not going to be by someone as well-read and frequently republished as Agatha Christie. All of us who read GAD detective stories get excited when a new author is uncovered, and by “new” I mean someone who in their day was considered a fine inventor of genre fiction. Some of these authors were quite prolific and even masters, or near-masters, of their craft; thus, their relegation to obscurity has been hard to fathom once we all started reading them for the first time. Others may have written only a handful of novels, but their work was so special that they demand our attention. When Kate held her 2020 contest for “Reprint of the Year,” readers voted in Joel Townsley Rogers’ The Red Right Hand, which is a mystery novel like almost no other. 

My 2021 book of the year is not a book like that. First of all, there is every likelihood that the next Red Right Hand could appear on our Amazon page sometime in the coming ten months. I can almost assuredly tell you that it will not be The Case of Elymas the Sorcerer, but that is the only thing about which I’m sure. No, my pick happens to have come from the pen of one of my favorite authors. And that’s the real excitement for a lifelong mystery fan:  when something is uncovered that was written by a favorite author, one who has been a treasured part of our lives for a very long time. I can’t tell you how thrilled I was when John Curran included two unpublished stories in his book Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks! was the sumptuous icing to the Delicious Death of a cake that was Curran’s book! (One of those stories, “The Incident of the Dog’s Ball,” clearly inspired Christie’s novel Dumb Witness . . . and was arguably better than the longer work.) 

Here’s where Crippen and Landru comes in. Since 1994, C&L has been publishing exquisite collections for every taste in mystery fiction. They specialize in everything except the novel: short stories, primarily, but also novellas, play and radio scripts, and even some non-fiction. Doug Greene, perhaps the foremost living authority on John Dickson Carr, was the publisher until 2018, when Jeffrey Marks took over the reins. With an incredible advisory board behind him, stuffed with mystery experts like Tony Medawar, Bill Pronzini, Marvin Lachman and Josh Pachter. Jeff continues the great work started by Mr. Greene (I’m tempted to add, “in the library with the word processor . . . “)

Frederick Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, aka Ellery Queen

For years, Crippen and Landru has providing me with moments like the one I’m going to share today by publishing things I would have never dreamed of being able to read (and some of them I didn’t even know existed!) It started in 1999 with The Tragedy of Errors, which offered a first detailed glimpse to Ellery Queen fans of “the novel that never was.” Frederick Dannay was the plotter of the Queen team. He would create detailed summaries of a new idea and send them off to his cousin, Manfred B. Lee, who would then craft the idea into a full novel. This time, however, Manny passed away before he could get to work on Tragedy. What we’re left with, however, is Fred’s synopsis, which is a pure delight . . . like reading a previously buried treasure. 

In 2005, C&L doubled down on Ellery Queen by publishing The Adventure of the Murdered Moths and Other Radio Mysteries. If you know anything about the genre’s relationship to the radio airwaves of the 30’s through 50’s, you’ll know that the mystery genre reigned supreme. As much as the hard-boiled private eye dominated the airwaves, many programs and writers offered straight up puzzle mysteries. One of the best of these was The Adventures of Ellery Queen, which ran from 1939 to 1948. These half-hours were solid gold for the armchair detective in all of us. Ellery, his dad, Inspector Queen, Sergeant Velie, and Nikki Porter, girl Friday (whose origins as a character are . . . multi-faceted) would tackle a case each week, and then Ellery would issue his challenge to the listener. There were even guest sleuths recruited each weak who took a stab at coming up with the solution before it was revealed. 

Unfortunately, most of these episodes have disappeared, a terrible loss to radio mystery fans. C&L offered us a joyful alternative by publishing fourteen scripts, giving us a chance to relive, in our minds at least, the pleasures of a half hour with America’s premiere sleuth. I believe more of these scripts are available somewhere; at least, I would like to think so, and I hope to see more of them in publication someday.

Another source I could count on for the creation of a great mystery program was the team of Anthony Boucher and Denis Green, who to my mind wrote the best scripts for the long-running series, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. At the end of the 1946 season, Boucher and Green were asked to write a summer replacement series which would mimic the mystery structure of the Sherlock Holmes program but feature different characters and actors. They came up with antiques collector Gregory Hood, who lived in San Francisco, solved crimes with his “Watson” (lawyer Sanderson “Sandy” Taylor) and even drank the sponsor’s product, Petri Wine! 

The Adventures of Gregory Hood was just as good a series as Sherlock Holmes and ended up lasting a lot longer than the summer, although it was an on and off thing and had several cast changes throughout. Of course, a lot of these recordings are also lost, but in 2005 Crippen and Landru published fourteen of these scripts as well, putting this nascent blogger into heavenly orbit. 

Crippen and Landru didn’t stop there in terms of bestowing great treasures upon me.  The Spotted Cat and Other Mysteries (2002) collected all the short cases featuring Christianna Brand’s most famous sleuth, Inspector Cockrill, including a story and a full-length play (which gives the collection its title) that had never before been published. More recently came two collections of short fiction by Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler, the best members of the conglomerate of writers that created Q. Patrick/Patrick Quentin. The Puzzles of Peter Duluth appeared in 2016, and The Cases of Lieutenant Timothy Trant in 2019. And a new Quentin collection is in the works! All of these have been introduced by the Passing Tramp himself, Curtis Evans, and I have a feeling that Curtis’ upcoming book about Quentin will herald in a renaissance of interest in this great author.

I’ve saved the best for last! For how could publisher Greene ignore the author who inspired him to write one of the best biographies of its kind (The Man Who Explained Miracles, available again through C&L) And here is where all my interests in mystery fiction converged, for, in addition to his astounding output of novels and stories, John Dickson Carr worked tirelessly for years in the field of radio detection. He wrote himself silly on both sides of the Atlantic, composing scripts for Britain’s Appointment with Fear and most of the premiere season of America’s long-running thriller series, Suspense. Some of his radio plays have popped up in collections (The Door to DoomThe Dead Sleep Lightly), and early on C&L added to our desperate need to read more Carr with two books:

1994 saw the publication of Speak of the Devil, a play Carr wrote in 1941 that aired on the BBC in eight parts. This is an historical mystery set in Regency England and packed with the stuff Carr loved, including the requisite woman of dubious morality. Is she a witch? Is she even alive?? This volume contains a lengthy introductory essay by Tony Medawar about Carr’s relationship to historical crime fiction that makes even me want to read those books! Then, in 2008, C&L gave us a real gift (also introduced by Medawar) with 13 to the Gallows, a collection of four stage plays, two by Carr alone and two in collaboration with Val Guilgud, who pioneered radio drama for the Beebs! This is essentially like finding four previously unknown Carr mysteries, packed with impossible events and possible ghosts! Any U.S. Carr fan who didn’t grab this up is just nuts! 

If you are wondering if 2001 words is a bit excessive for an introduction . . . it’s the freaking BOOK OF THE YEAR, folks! And it’s a doozy!

*.   *.   *.   *.   *.

If the loss of hundreds of Ellery Queen episodes has been a tragedy to radio mystery fans, the vanishing of Cabin B-13 has taken on almost mythic status. Broadcast over a mere two seasons, between July 5, 1948 and January 2, 1949, B-13 marked John Dickson Carr’s return to the airwaves after years of grinding out scripts for multiple series. 

In many ways, the series paralleled its fellow CBS program, Suspense, the early success of which Carr had been a part of with some brilliant first season stories. That long-running series was hosted by an ominous figure called The Man in Black, who introduced each episode. Carr wanted a similar structure, and he reached back to one of his most famous Suspense episodes for inspiration.

“Cabin B-13” (the episode, not the series) is a terrific mystery that premiered on Suspense on March 16, 1943, was remounted with a different cast later that year, became the premiere episode of Carr’s British series Appointment with Fear on September 11, 1943, and later inspired the 1953 film Dangerous Crossing, a 1992 TV-movie, and was dramatized in the 50’s on the TV version of Suspense and another series called Climax. The story takes place aboard an ocean liner, the Maurevania, where a new bride’s honeymoon turns into a nightmare upon the disappearance of her husband and the refusal of the ship’s crew to believe the groom even exists. The bride’s dilemma is resolved with the help of the ship’s surgeon, Dr. Paul Heinrich, and the solution of the invisible groom is pure Carr. (with some help, perhaps, from his idol G.K. Chesterton.)

Jeanne Crain and Michael Rennie in Dangerous Crossing (1953

In his pitch to CBS for the new series, Carr proposed a ship’s setting as the basis for each story, with the resident doctor serving as host. With the liner now called the SS Maurevania and the doctor renamed John Fabian, Cabin B-13 proposed to chronicle the mysterious cases Fabian came across at each port of call on the ship’s journey “from Southampton to Cherbourg then down the French coast into the Mediterranean and the Near East.”

Fabian was no Dr. Fell, preferring the role of confidante for the troubled protagonists of each tale and guide for the listener to playing the actual detective. But the stories were all Carr all the time: 

Murderers that can enter or leave a locked room without leaving a trace and others that can kill from a distance without leaving a mark on their victim. Places where time stands still and others where time does anything but stand still. Unusual weapons. Baffling clues. Pure Carr.

That’s Tony Medawar speaking in his introduction to the new Crippen and Landru release, The Island of Coffins and Other Mysteries from the Casebook of Cabin B-13. Only three episodes out of the entire series can be heard today, although some of the second season’s scripts were essentially minor rewrites of plays Carr had written for Suspense. So, for example, the final B-13 episode, “The Sleep of Death,” can be enjoyed if you look up the Suspense episode, “The Devil’s Saint” from January 19, 1943. (Starring Peter Lorre, it is well worth a listen!)

What a gift C&L has given us in compiling together all twenty-three scripts from the two seasons of Cabin B-13. There are wonderful murder mysteries bearing Carr’s definitive stamp, a combination of Grand Guignol terror and jaw-dropping impossibilities. In “The Blind-Folded Knife Thrower,” a young woman seems to be threatened by the ghost of her hated mother, who is able to enter her bedroom and terrify her despite the bars on the windows and her fiancé guarding the single door. In “The Bride Vanishes,” a young woman is targeted for murder on her honeymoon due to her resemblance to a previous victim who disappeared from the balcony outside her wedding suite. 

Other episodes are more in the Suspense vein, combinations of horror and mystery-sans-whodunnit that still contain trademark elements of Carr’s work “Death Has Four Faces” could easily appear in Tales From the Crypt with its grimly ironic ending. The same goes for “Till Death Do Us Part,” (no relation to the novel of the same title) where a conniving husband sets in motion a plot to poison his unfaithful wife and the appropriate parties receive a dramatic comeuppance.

Full disclosure: I haven’t read most of the stories yet because this is a book to savor. This requires great discipline on my part: Tony Medawar calls the title play,

. . . the most extraordinary story in Cabin B-13, from its setting, the fictional island of Hadar, whose unusual climate suggests it benefits from something like the Gulf Stream, to the island’s inhabitants who recollect the islanders in one of Shakespeaere’s late plays as well as the protagonist of The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux.”

Whew! Still, I think most of you will sympathize: uncovering twenty-three previously unread/heard mysteries by one of your favorite authors is too precious a find to rush through. Plus, at the end of each script, Medawar provides in-depth notes about the episode, its antecedents and relationship to other works by Carr. A few of the tricks contained herein appear in novels and stories by the author that I haven’t yet read, and I’m weighing where I first want to come across each trick. 

Reading this has also inspired me to look up Carr-penned episodes of Suspense, which I have been enjoying on my daily walks. That series premiered on June 17, 1942 with an adaptation of Carr’s The Burning Court, and I heartily recommend you seek it out, along with “The Devil in the Summerhouse,” (11/3/42), “Will You Make a Bet with Death?” ((11/10/42) and “The Man Without a Body” ((6/22/43), all of them great stories and readily available to hear online. 

By the way, I don’t usually splurged, but favorite authors are favorite authors, and I managed to snag one of only 150 hard-cover copies that C&L released of this. My purchase included an extra play: a piece of WWII propaganda called “Secret Radio.” It’s not a murder mystery but an attack on Naziism; lots of authors and filmmakers did this, but only Carr could have dreamed up the location of the radio!!

And so . . . take that, next E.C.R. Lorac release! Fuggedaboudit, Brian Flynn titles 21 – 30! Too bad, Ramble House and Dean Street Press and LRI! Crippen and Landru has scored the biggest hit of 2021: The Island of Coffins deserves its place – yes, ten months early!! – as the 2021 Mystery of the Year!

19 thoughts on “BEATING PUZZLE DOCTOR AND KATE TO THE PUNCH: The 2021 Mystery of the Year

  1. I haven’t read The Island of Coffins yet, but you, or rather Kate, can add my early vote to the tally as well. It’s an obvious winner and a volume of lost radio plays would fit in nicely with the oddball winners so far (a reference book, an obscure 1920s mystery and whatever the hell The Red Right Hand is suppose to be).

    Reading this has also inspired me to look up Carr-penned episodes of Suspense, which I have been enjoying on my daily walks.

    “The Dead Sleep Lightly” is the best episode Carr penned for Suspense, a ghost story with a detective story conclusion, which has the most spine-tingling line in all of Carr’s work. I also recommend the episode “The Too-Perfect Alibi.” One of the best, but criminally unknown, inverted mysteries with a great alibi-trick and ending.

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    1. I regret that Suspense went in a different direction so quickly. I know Carr stopped writing for them. I know they quickly devolved into a “star(s) of the week” format and wrote to suit the talents and personality of whatever celebrity guess-starred. They also must’ve found it easier to eschew puzzles for atheism simpler ironic twist. It worked because they went on for years and crossed over to television.

      Once in a while, they adapted crime fiction, and a novel doesn’t cram so easily into twenty-six minutes of airtime; their version of Christie’s The ABC Murders drops Poirot and all the suspects except the killer, then focuses the whole thing on Alexander Bonaparte Cust, written to suit the talents and personality of celebrity guest star Charles Laughton. (They even added a thankless role for his wife, Elsa Lanchester.)

      Thanks for the suggestions, TC. I will look up those episodes forthwith!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Silly me! I realized after I replied to you that I HAD listened to “The Dead Sleep Lightly.” It’s similar to an episode of The Twilight Zone except it gives us a GAD ending. And I have the collection of radio plays with this one as its title script. All of them are fun!

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      2. You mean the episode with the toy telephone? Because that’s actually not a bad comparison and shows how fortunate we have been that Carr loved detective fiction more than ghost stories. He would have been as beloved and respected as a ghost story writers as he’s has been as a mystery novelist. What a guy!

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Unfortunately, it’s hard to classify as a “reprint” since, as a body of work, it has never been made available to the public before.

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      1. Exactly – it’s not a reprint, so not eligible. And by the end of the year, nor will The Case of Elymas the Sorcerer, as that’s Flynn 31, so you can stop running scared from that one…

        Seriously though, I’m really looking forward to this – I’ve just broken the bank a tad to get hold of a copy, as the C & L physical books cost a fortune to import (over 40 quid, more than half of which is the shipping) but if there was ever a book I wanted in paper form, well, there’s The Running Nun, obviously, but ignoring Flynn, then it’s this one.

        Just wish C & L could set up something like Dean Street Press, who will print in the country of purchase to save on shipping…

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Many Japanese mysteries of an author were published in a Japanese magazine at various periods of time. Ho-Ling selected some of them and translated them into English and these were published as a book titled The Red Locked Room. This book was nominated and accepted as eligible for the previous ROY award.
        If the eligibility norms can be so stretched as to include The Red Locked Room , I don’t see why they can’t be stretched to include The Island of Coffins. After all, all the plays were made available to the public through radio broadcasts. The printed scripts to the entire series were discovered by Tony Medawar and he collected them and published them in book form. In fact, the play A Razor in Fleet Street is available in the book Murder Impossible by Adrian and Adey (1990). The Power of Darkness is available in The Dead Sleep Lightly (1983) renamed The Villa of the Damned.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, there’s more than one! “The Knife Thrower” story I mention above has a killer straight out of He Who Whispers (a favorite, which I’ve read) and uses a trick he will re-deploy in Night at the Mocking Widow (which I have notread!) I decided to go ahead and read the play because 1) from all I’ve heard, it’s probably better than the novel, and 2) it will be a few years before I get to NatMW. Carr re-used the same tricks over and over, in different mediums especially. Fortunately, I don’t have the familiarity with his canon that I have, say, with Christie, nor can I ever remember the “how” of these things, so I can relax a bit more.

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  2. Ah, I want to read this so much, but last time I ordered from the US the post office screwed up my order, and still charged me for customs, so I am not optimistic how the post office would do during a pandemic. An e-book version would be fantastic.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Generally, Crippen and Landru releases ebook version six to eight weeks after release of paperback and these are sold through Amazon. Hence you need to be patient.

      Liked by 1 person

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