The Men Who Explained Miracles by John Dickson Carr

miracles1.jpgFollowing on from my review of Leo Bruce’s collection of short stories, Murder In Miniature, I thought I’d finish up my reading for January with another such collection, this one from John Dickson Carr, published in 1963 but containing stories from up to two decades earlier. It features two problems for Colonel March of The Department For Queer Complaints to deal with, two for Gideon Fell, two “Secret Service Stories” and a novella detailing the final case for Sir Henry Merrivale.

Disappearing men and women, a ghost hunter scared to death, a man murdered while robbing his own house, a woman strangled surrounded by undisturbed sand, a trip to Napoleonic France and a threat heard when nobody is around to say it. Seven tales from the master of the locked room mystery – but are these classics?

Well, let’s take them one at a time. They mostly first appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, by the way.

[ADDENDUM: No, they didn’t! The front of the book has the original US publication dates of the stories. The correct publication dates have been added. Many thanks to Santosh Iyer for pointing these out – sourced from the excellent biography of Carr, The Man Who Explained Miracles by Douglas G Greene.]

William Wilson’s Racket (1941, The Strand Magazine)

Colonel March is asked to sort out the behaviour of the fiancé of Lady Patricia Mortlake who is seen entering an office building but vanishes leaving only his clothes behind.

It’s a fun little tale – although I have to say, I don’t really see the point of March, as he isn’t desperately interesting – but it’s more interested in why the clothes were there rather than the actual vanishing. There’s a nice bit at the end of the tale and gets the collection off to a decent start.

The Empty Flat (1939, The Strand Magazine)

Two duelling academics who have never met find themselves (sound familiar?) living in the same block of flats, and find a ghost hunter apparently scared to death in an empty flat.

It doesn’t just recycle the academics but the murder method as well from a different book. The end result isn’t desperately interesting, I’m afraid.

The Incautious Burglar (1940 as “A Guest In The House” in The Strand Magazine)

A tale of a man killed while robbing his own house that is later expanded to the novel (Death And) The Gilded Man. So I skipped this one, as I’ve not read the novel in a while and want to soon. So I didn’t want to spoil it… I’ll come back and fill this bit in at  a later date.

Invisible Hands (1957 as “King Arthur’s Chair” in Lilliput)

A woman is strangled by the rock formation known as King Arthur’s Chair. But the sand surrounding the woman is untouched by human (or non-human) feet.

Not bad, although the method of murder, while making sense, comes a bit out of nowhere. Every version since the first version is slightly altered – no idea what the change was.

Strictly Diplomatic (1939, The Strand Magazine)

While on holiday in France, Andrew Dermot falls in love with Betty Wetherill who one day enters a passageway and never appears at the other end…

A simple trick, very similar to another one by Carr, which became a novel – an overrated one IMHO – a few years later… It’s OK, but nothing special.

The Black Cabinet (1951, Twenty Great Tales Of Murder)

A woman plans to assassinate Napoleon Bonaparte – but somebody else has other plans.

Um… no impossibilities, other than trying to make sense of what the point of this tale is – especially the ending. What the hell is the point of it?

All In A Maze (1957, as “Ministry Of Miracles” in Lilliput)

I’ve reviewed this previously in a bit more depth – it’s a great farewell to the Old Man after the disappointing final few novel-length outings.

I think those dates are correct, but there are eight copyright dates in the front of the book and only seven stories, so something’s off here. Not important though.

To be honest, the collection’s worth digging up only for the Merrivale tale. The rest range from decent enough to disappointing. There are better collections – The Third Bullet for example – out there. But the Merrivale one is a substantial tale which, while not up there with his best outings, is still worth your time. There are some reasonably priced second hand copies of this one out there, so why not track one down and let me know what you think?

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17 comments

  1. I acquired a copy of this just before Christmas, and a copy of The Third Bullet just after. Haven’t got to either yet, but I inevitably will at some point over the coming months and especially appreciate the heads-up over The Gilded Man. So, er, I have no comment to make at this time; please repsect my privacy during this difficult period.

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  2. The years of first publication are actually as follows:
    William Wilson’s Racket (1941)
    The Empty Flat (1939)
    The Incautious Burglar (1940)
    Invisible Hands (1957)
    Strictly Diplomatic (1939)
    The Black Cabinet (1951)
    All In A Maze (1955)

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  3. “They mostly first appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, by the way.”
    This seems to be incorrect.
    Wiliam Wilson’s Racket, The Empty Flat, A Guest In The House and Strictly Diplomatic were first published in The Strand.
    Invisible Hands was first published in Lilliput magazine
    The Black Cabinet was first published in an anthology brought out by MWA (Mystery Writers of America)

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    • Santosh, thanks for the info. Just realised that the front of the book refers to the first US publication, not first overall publication. I’ll update the post with this info – it’s from The Man Who Explained Miracles, yes?

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    • Santosh I am, as ever, just astounded at the information you’re able to provide – I think we GAD bloggers need to emply you as a clerk or something, to keep us straight on the little esoterica. Who’s with me?

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  4. I remember enjoying this collection mainly for the OK Fell stories and the novella, which is a proper and fitting sendoff for Merrivale, as you say, and the the two March stories that were omitted from the original Queer Complaints collection.

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  5. I believe that it is suggested that the mysterious gentleman is actually SPOILER, the SPOILER of SPOILER who some believe escaped justice.
    Chris Wallace

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    • It’s more than suggested – unless the character in question was lying for no reason. Chris is talking about The Black Cabinet for those who haven’t read it, by the way. I just didn’t get the point of said character turning up.

      There’s another mystery novel that I read yonks ago where the same character shows up – and that one at least had a point for them being there, although it was just as silly.

      BTW, I’ve edited your comment, Chris, as that bit is definitely a spoiler, admittedly one for a pretty rubbish story.

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      • After your editing, the sentence becomes meaningless nonsense. Wouldn’t it have been better to keep the original word for the second SPOILER ? 🙂

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      • Makes perfect sense to me. And it’ll make sense to people once they’ve read the story. I just blanked Chris’s words, which were the equivalent of “MARK CHAPMAN, the KILLER of JOHN LENNON” although with a couple of different names…

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