‘I always had a secret ambition to be a detective myself’
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt: Building, which is not a house (Big Ben)
Max Carrados, the blind detective, created by Ernest Bramah, is a character who has been on my radar for a while and a well-timed Christmas present last year gave me the chance to sample some of the stories he featured in. Post Sherlock Holmes, there were many imitations of him such as Sexton Blake and Max Carrados can be seen as another. Interestingly Holmes often suggests to Watson that although he may spot clues he does not infer or deduce the correct meaning from them. Carrados does something similar by asserting that people with sight do not give enough attention to looking at the things around them and thereby miss important information. Like Miss Marple whose gender and age provide her with camouflage during her investigations, Carrados’ lack of sight also makes people confide in him and underestimate his abilities. However, when reading these stories some suspension of belief will be needed with some of Carrados’ skills, as some might seem a bit implausible such as being able to read newspaper print by running his finger across it.
The Coin of Dionysius
This opening tale centres on whether an old coin is a forgery or not and Carlyle, an inquiry agent (he was struck off from being a lawyer due to malpractice) goes to see Max Carrados, an old acquaintance, who is an amateur expert in such matters. In a Holmes-like way Carrados alludes directly to the case Carlyle is involved in, mentioning names and details the reader has not been told about. The solution to this case is a little disappointing as it came out of nowhere, especially since no investigation actually takes place, Carrados embodying the term armchair detective to the full. From a mystery point of view I felt this was a poor first showing. However, in this introductory story we found out a number of things about Carrados such as how he became blind through a riding accident and inherited his fortune from a cousin in America who obtained the money through falsifying accounts. We also get to see Carrados’ perspective on being blind:
‘Not an advantage perhaps… but it has compensations that one might not think of. A new world to explore, new experiences, new powers awakening; stranger perceptions; life in the fourth dimension.’
The Knight’s Cross Signal Problem
I think the problem in this case is more interesting as Carlyle asks Max to help him solve a case concerning a train crash, where the train driver said he was given the green light signal to go and the signalman says he did not. Who is telling the truth? And are personal factors impinging on events? Carrados keeps his cards close to his chest on this one and even Carlyle says:
‘All the same, Max, I don’t think that you have treated me quite fairly’
The culprit responsible is an intriguing choice, which provokes further thought on the part of the reader on British Imperialism, racism and even to an extent terrorism, with figures such as Boadicea and Samson being mentioned, resonating with the problems we have today. If this had been a full sized novel this theme perhaps would have been more interwoven into the rest of the text.
The Tragedy at Brookbend Cottage
Lieutenant Hollyer goes to see Carrados about his sister, Millicent Creake, worried that now after several years of marriage to an older man and decreased fortunes, her husband is going to try to murder her. Carrados along with Carlyle strive towards preventing this. The most interesting part of this story for me was the relationship between the Millicent and her husband, an aspect, unfortunately only briefly looked at.
The Clever Mrs Straithwaite
In this story Carlyle is looking into whether Mrs Straithwaite is trying to defraud her insurance company over her pearl necklace, a necklace which then disappears. The solution to this case is a good one, providing a twist on an old theme and reminded me a little of Doyle’s ‘A Case of Identity’ (1891), though it does rely on the people concerned being very open and honest with Carrados. Mrs Straithwaite herself is not a hugely likeable character, being the quintessential spoilt thoughtless young woman, though in a way she does get her comeuppance, with the title being ironised. The solution also I feel leaves a slightly sinister note to the end of the story due to the dysfunctionality it hints at.
The Last Exploit of Harry the Actor
This story concerns the Lucas Street Depository, where a number of clients have found that their safety deposit boxes have been robbed. Many characters such as Carlyle perceive this as an impossible crime, but Carrados quickly surmises the truth of the matter and sees the solution. It is not a particularly clever or ingenious solution though and there is a lack of investigation on Carrados part as much of the information given is prior knowledge to him. The ending of the story was also unsatisfactory as it felt rather forced.
The Tilling Shaw Mystery
Frank Whitmarsh according to the papers attempted to shoot his nephew and in failing to do so committed suicide. His daughter though, Miss Madeline Whitmarsh, doesn’t believe this is true and asks Carrados to investigate. Again I think this is a plot which would have benefitted by being a full novel as there are many strands of evidence and lines of inquiry, but most of these have to be swept aside to provide the quick solution at the end.
The Comedy at Fountain Cottage
I think this story takes the prize for the most unusual opening setup which has Carlyle’s niece, Elsie’s neighbour throwing kidneys into her garden. Is this man mad or is it all a smokescreen for a saner, criminally minded plan? Carrados investigates and produces an interesting solution, which again would have been executed better if developed in a novel.
The Game Played in the Dark
This story feels more like a thriller than a detective story, although it does have moments which are reminiscent of Doyle’s ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ (1891). A royal marriage is being impeded by the fact that Countess X has procured the services of man named Guido to steal some incriminating documents. Events occur though which prevent the Countess from meeting with her thief and the action heads to London. Carrados is called into help, yet it seems he has another a case on hand, that of a theft at the British Museum. But has Carrados met his match? Will he be able to outwit the culprits? Or will it be lights out for him?
Thoughts on short stories in general
Overall, despite the strong send up they receive in the introduction attached to my copy, I found these stories disappointing, either because the problem set was uninteresting or conversely it was an interesting mystery but was rushed in its execution. Moreover, in comparison to Holmes, Carrados comes across as a bit flat and unemotional. I think the fact the stories are narrated by a third person narrator also make it harder for the reader to be drawn in, in comparison to cases Watson records for Holmes, which have a more personalised touch. In addition Carrados and Carlyle may mirror the Holmes and Watson relationship but again I think it is a poor imitation which comes across as a bit limp. Another key bugbear I had was the fact that Carrados in many of the stories does very little investigating and usually relies on knowledge he already possessed prior to the case. A consequence of this I felt was a lack of action or drama at points in some of the stories. Reading these short stories, part of me wondered whether I have higher standards for short stories in contrast to novels. Does a short story need to impress me more quickly due to its brevity, whilst some failings in a longer novel can be overlooked? I haven’t quite decided on this issue yet, but I would be interested to hear your thoughts on short stories vs. novels. Are there any short stories which stick in your memory? Roald Dahl’s ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’ and Fredric Brown’s ‘Nightmare in Yellow’ certainly do for me.