Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Persons or Things Unknown - John Dickson Carr

Story: Persons or Things Unknown
Author: John Dickson Carr
Book: The Department of Queer Complaints, Fell and Foul Play.
Theme For The Month: Locked Room or Impossible Crime Stories
It has been a habit with me for quite some time to always begin the New Year by reading a novel written by my favorite author John Dickson Carr. This year, I decided to go with a short story collection which is like shooting three birds with one stone: I’m still beginning the New Year with Carr, I’m covering a Queen’s Quorum title and I get to read a few high quality locked room/impossible crime stories.
The original edition of ‘The Department OF Queer Complaints’ is supposed to have consisted of 11 stories; my 1940 paperback edition has 10 stories – 7 featuring Colonel March and 3 standalones. The Colonel March stories have already been reviewed by my fellow blogger Tomcat here  and hence I decided to pick one of the non-series stories.
This is a historical mystery in which an unnamed host, who is hosting a few families for Christmas in his newly acquired house recounts this chilly tale of impossible crime which took place in that house centuries ago. The story is recounted from the diary of a Squire who was a witness to the actual murder and corroborated by a few facts catalogued from the inquest held at that time.
Oakley & Mary are engaged and are to be married shortly but Gerard wants to marry Mary and the first step towards it has to be the murder of Oakley. One fine night, Gerard enters the house when the couple are sure to be found in the ‘little’ room, the servants know for sure that Gerard was without his sword on this occasion, Gerard requests a few servants to join him and keep vigil outside the door with plenty of candles lit when he goes inside the room to converse with the couple. After a few minutes, the candle lights are extinguished inside the room and the servants posted outside hear some strange cries which finally end with a big thud as though someone has fallen on the ground. When the servants barge in, they find that Mary has fainted and Oakley is dead with deep and multiple stabbings but there is no sign of a murder weapon in the vicinity. The door was locked from the inside, the room doesn’t have any windows through which the weapon could’ve been discarded and every nook and cranny in that room is searched but the police fail to find any sign of the knife that must caused the deep and brutal wounds. A man hacked to death, with thirteen stab-wounds in his body, from a hand that wasn’t there and a weapon that didn’t exist! The verdict at the inquest: “Death due to Persons or Things Unknown.”
The solution is pretty simple and pretty clever - the host provides the secret of the ‘invisible knife’ as he calls it – probably the atmosphere and the historical setting aid in the non discovery of the weapon which probably wouldn’t have been possible in the modern settings but that doesn’t take away anything from the puzzle plot aspect – the reader has all the clues fairly laid out in front of him to figure out the solution.
Last week, I went through Robert Adey’s bibliography of locked room mysteries and shortlisted all the stories that I could lay my hands on from the collections that I’ve. Hopefully, I should have enough stories to last for the complete month!

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