Sunday, July 14, 2013

Waiting For Orders - Eric Ambler

Eric Ambler is famous for his spy classics like A Coffin for Dimitrios, Journey Into Fear, Cause For Alarm & Background To Danger. But not many might know that he also attempted a series of pure detective stories featuring Dr. Jan Czissar, a refugee from Czechoslovakia (late Prague Police), who indulges himself with London crime which the Scotland Yard might have closed prematurely. As against the thrills and excitements prevalent in his novels, these stories are highly mellowed down and are more of an intellectual exercise rather than the sensational. I got introduced to one of Dr. Jan’s adventures in the anthology To The Queen’s Taste – first supplement to 101 Years’ Entertainment. This led me to find the other stories of Jan Czissar, which are conveniently, collected in the Mysterious Press publication Waiting For Orders.

Waiting For Orders collects all of Ambler’s short stories: his earliest short story “The Army of the Shadows”, The Intrusions of Dr. Czissar – a collection of six detective stories and the final story “The Blood Bargain” written as late as 1970 after abandoning the short story form for 30 years. In the introduction, the author sheds light on how he ended up trying his hand at the pure detective story form when the magazine Sketch commissioned him to write a series of six very short detective stories. And how did go about coming up with his plots? He bought the 2 volume Taylor’s Principles and Practices of Medical Jurisprudence, the then general work on the science of forensic medicine. A couple of days’ browsing gave him the technical material for six murder mysteries whose solutions could be explained without elaborate dissection of alibis. It’s such a pity though that he restricted himself to these six stories – at the end it does leave you high and dry – pining for more.

The Case of the Pinchbeck Locket

Dr. Jan Czissar introduces himself to the Assistant-Commissioner Mercer of Scotland Yard in this inaugural story and explains that he can help the Yard solve a murder case which they have concluded as an accident. The body of a 60 year old woman had been washed up in Shingles bay with a bruise to her head after her disappearance for three days. The coroner’s verdict happens to be that the woman who used to go on regular walks by the Cliffside must have had an attack of giddiness and fallen to her death on the beach below. However according to Czissar, there are two anomalies which point to murder: the heating furnace malfunctioned in their house the day after she disappeared and the Pinchbeck locket which has been identified as that belonging to the deceased was found at the wrong place on the shore just below the cliff.

The Case of the Emerald Sky

One of the best stories with a daring clue and rightfully included in the anthology To The Queen’s Taste. Thomas Medley’s son is arrested for his Father’s death due to arsenic poisoning. The son is a Doctor and it was he who provided the medicine to his father on the night he died. But the Czech refugee, who has attended the inquest feels that the Yard has got the wrong man because of these observations: the arsenic was found inside the liver & kidneys but not in the stomach, the victim’s last meal included spinach and the victim’s young wife who is a painter has painted the fields blue and the sky emerald green in one her paintings!

The Case of the Cycling Chauffeur

Gregory, Mr. Wretford’s Chauffeur has taken his employer’s car to a garage for repairs. Since it’s gone take more than a day, the chauffer returns back on a bicycle which he has carried in the back of the car. But he never reaches home and is instead found dead with a .22 bullet in his head on the road. A 19 year old, who was firing at birds, is held responsible for Gregory’s death. The late Prague police detective says that there is a simple flaw with the evidence given by the police – if the boy was firing at a bird in the only tree in that vicinity, the bullet should have been fired some 18 feet above the cyclist’s head. He goes on to exacerbate the Assistant-Commissioner by providing his findings about how Gregory was a betting man and how he was purposefully murdered.

The Case of the Overheated Service Flat

An excellent story which could almost qualify for a locked room or an impossible crime. Thomas Jones has got away with murder twice before – both his earlier wives succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning. Mercer himself is present for the inquest when Thomas’s third wife is found dead in her bed – dead due to carbon monoxide poisoning from an open gas-fire tap in her room. The gas-fire is an old model and not the new type which is far safer, obviously a gas-fire was not needed in that centrally heated room and there’s an electric radiator in another room. All this points to the fact that it was a cleverly planned murder but the only problem is that the police can’t place the husband anywhere in the vicinity of the scene of murder for the desired duration. The clever knowledge of chemistry aids Dr. Czissaur to provide an alternate solution to this crime where the presence of the husband at the scene of crime was not required.

The Case of the Drunken Socrates

Captain Pawsey, a habitual drinker is found dead due to respiratory failure after a night of drinking binge with his friend Stenson. There were two unusual facts about his death the previous night – the maid notices him stumbling along which had never happened before due to his inebriated state and the utterance of the word ‘Socrates’ by the deceased. The next curious thing to come up is the marriage within three months between Mrs. Pawsey and Stenson, who also happens to be the Insurance agent who sold a life insurance policy to the captain. Czissaur has his hands full to prove that the Captain’s death was a very well planned murder.

The Case of the Gentleman Poet

Everything points to a case of suicide except for two facts: the dead man appeared to be in a cadaverous spasm and the single bullet lodged in his brain appeared to have been shot from a gun fixed with a silencer but there was no sign of the silencer inside the house and many people heard the shot that was fired. A simple but an elegant solution follows.

The Army of the Shadows

This was Ambler’s earliest published story and appeared in The Queen’s Book of the Red Cross in 1939. In the author’s own words, it’s a war story which makes a point that the actually enemy was not the German people but the Nazi tyranny which some people submitted to.

The Blood Bargain
The story has all the hallmark traits of his craft which he used so skillfully in his novels.

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