10 May 2018

"Fatal Descent," "The Emperor's Snuff Box," and "The Nine Wrong Answers"

Today we finish the "non-series" works of detection.

Fatal Descent (1939) (aka Drop to his Death)
This novel fits the "locked room" genre.  A man enters his private elevator on the fourth floor of his office building.  When the elevator door is opened in the lobby, he is found shot dead.  There is nobody else in the elevator (and no gun).

Written in collaboration with John Rhode (pen name for Cecil Street, a novelist and mystery writer), perhaps to take advantage of the latter's well-known penchant for incorporating science into puzzles of detection.  None of the principal characters are employed in Carr's other novels, but the language and style seem to be that of Carr.  The text presents four or five possible solutions to the impossible crime, before debunking all of them and revealing the true answer.  Herewith some of the non-plot items that I found interesting:
Carr's sense of humor is more evident in the Gideon Fell series, but crops up in this exchange between the chief inspector and the police surgeon:
(discussing another case) "I knew the butler was guilty all along.  So did everybody else.  But would you have that?  Oh, no! You showed, with your fishing line and your putty, that the Countess of Daimler was really guilty; and the things you said about that lady's past--"

Glass was annoyed.  "I said nothing about her past.  I merely pointed out that the influences of her childhood showed a tendency toward nymphomania--"

"That's fine," said Hornbeam bitterly.  "And what do you think the Count thought about that?  You didn't even tell me what the blasted word meant.  I thought it was some kind of stealing, and I told her husband it might be dangerous to turn her loose in a large department store."
"The murderer fastens a revolver to the concrete roof of the shaft--"  "How?" asked Hornbeam practically.  "Don't be so blasted footling," said Glass.  "I'm an artist; not an artisan.  I leave you to work out the vulgar details." Footling = "foolish, trivial, irritating" rel to footy = poor, worthless.

[a suspect had hidden a whiskey bottle]  "Haviland, in fact, kept the City of Refuge behind a picture hooked against the wall."  Possibly a brand?? (capitalized

"It wasn't bad, was it?  As a flight of imagination, I am proud of it; and I accept the meed of applause that my genius deserves."  Meed = payment for services rendered (directly from the Middle English).

"I will not descant on the tragic irony of the matter." Descant = lengthy discourse (or
counterpoint melody), via French and Latin.  Emphasis on the first syllable, btw.

"I don't see anything bourgeois about it.  What's got into you?  There was a time when nothing in skirts was safe from you.  Why this anchorite attitude all of a sudden?"  Anchorite = one who lives in isolation (from Greek, via Latin).

"Anybody who is triple-dyed ass enough to conduct practical experiments with Dave Hornbeam can think himself lucky if he gets off with a couple broken legs and irreparable damage to the coccyx."  I found other uses of this term, including "Triple-dyed and quadruple-dyed idiot, to have allowed yourself to be caught..." "Do you, O triple-dyed scoundrel, dare to speak disrespectfully to me?" but haven't found how it applies to an insult.  My best guess is that it means "total," as a fabric gets stronger color when it is double-dyed or triple-dyed etc.  Anyone know?

"The first person he saw, urbanely talking to Sergeant Biggs..." "From the city", obviously, apparently with connotations of courteous and polite.

"You're now in control.  The whole show is yours, with the power and the fullness thereof.  You can do as you like here..."  Repurposing a Biblical phrase.

"Let's cut the cackle and get down to horses." I found this I think definitive explanation in a 1929 issue of The Spectator:
I think I can enlighten your correspondent " H. M. W.," who asks for the origin of the slogan, " Cut the cackle and get to the 'osses." The words were originally "Cut the dialect and come to the 'oases," and were a favourite saying of Andrew Ducrow, one of the most famous circus-riders of the early nineteenth century.
"He thought he was safe as houses."  World Wide Words has a post about this phrase.

The Emperor's Snuff Box (1942)
Begins with an uncharacteristic bit of melodrama.  It has been suggested that this was done to counter the criticism that his other novels are pure logic puzzles.  The amateur detective is Dr. Dermot Kinross.  Not a locked-room mystery and not an "impossible crime."  Instead, the victim has his head  bashed in with a fireplace poker in his unlocked study (while examining a snuff box said to have belonged to the emperor Napoleon).   The murderer was - and this is the maddening and endearing aspect of JDC's novels - totally unexpected.  As always, I defer discussing the plot to avoid spoilers and focus instead on language curiosities and things-you-wouldn't-know:
"Taking cigarettes and a lighter from his pocket, he lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply. The flame of the lighter wabbled in his hand before he snapped it out."  Not a typo - just a less-common spelling of "wobble."

"For one horrible second she thought he was going to laugh in her face.  But even Ned Atwood was not ironist enough for this."  If a person using satire is a satirist, then a person using irony is logically an ironist - but I have to say I've never seen this word before.

"But, by the Lord Harry! - for a gal of your age and presumed experience, you've got more dewy-eyed illusions about the sweet simplicity of the world than anybody I ever did see!"  "Old Harry" has been euphemism for the Devil since the 18th century.  "the phrase was popular with 19th century writers, Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Fenimore Cooper, Stevenson, etc."  Wikisource has an extensive review of English expletives.

"Janice at twenty-three was small and round, trim and trig, bouncing and assertive..."  The phrase refers to something "neat and tidy, in good order, immaculate."  Convoluted origins dating back prior to 1600, explained at the World Wide Words link.

"Fifteen years on the island: that is most probable.  Ten years perhaps, or even five, if she has a clever lawyer... Of course, you understand, even five years on the island is not a bag of shells."  In context the "on the island" refers to someone being in prison; this novel is set in France, so Alcatraz not the reference - perhaps Elba or Devil's island being referenced figuratively.  "Bag of shells" I presume is a humorous corruption of "bagatelle."

"The prefect of police wore a bowler hat which accentuated his bulbousness, and carried a malacca stick."  A walking stick made of rattan palms.

"Dear doctor, I am not a detective.  No, no, no!  But as for zizipompom, that is different.  Any form of zizipompom I can detect at a distance of three kilometres and in the dark."  I wasn't able to track down any precise definition, though I did find the word used in a book about French people.

"And how, in the name of a small green cabbage, should I know?"  Carr has a propensity to pepper his narratives with idioms and local phrases.  The intent here is clear; not sure if the phrase has a backstory.

"Then why, in the name of a name, doesn't she speak out?"  Another euphemism, apparently the equivalent of "wtf."

"Some of the exhibits stood in lonely splendor, others were ticketed with neat cards in the same tiny copperplate writing."  A style of calligraphy (illustrated at the link).

"That damned maid of yours is behind all this, or I'm a Dutchman."  I found this: "The phrase '...or I'm a Dutchman' (meaning x is true, and if it is not true then I am something I am not), comes from a George Elliot novel, 'The Mill on the Floss'... This phrase was in fairly common use, and then was partly replaced by '.... or I'm a Chinaman'.

"The effect of his swinging the carriage round was like one of those  newsreel effects by which the film is speeded up, and a whole street suddenly becomes galvanized."  In this instance I think the author is using the term to mean "covered with zinc, as a protection against rust."  It can also mean to startle or to stimulate, as a muscle of a dead frog with electricity.

"What would you do, if you'd been handed the mitten in that suave and gracious way?  I was properly jilted, wasn't I?"  A curious phrase which essentially means "given marching orders." Discussed at considerable length at World Wide Words.  Used frequently by P.G. Wodehouse.  "probable that it derives from a French tradition by which a young lady who wished to decline a marriage proposal sent her suitor a pair of mittens."  This novel is set in France, so this fits in well.

"The person who planned it deserves no mercy, and is going to get none.  I shall see you tonight.  And then, heaven willing, we are going to settle somebody's hash."  The dictionary definition is "to get rid of; to subdue." Origin of the phrase is discussed here.

"As to what she may have told you, that's another pair of sleeves.  I can't say."  Obviously equivalent to "a different kettle of fish," but the origin is interesting: "... a colorful expression that we use in Italian to describe something that is about a completely different thing with no connection to a previous one. The expression comes from the Medieval and Renaissance use of interchangeable sleeves in men's and women's dress in particular."  Very interesting.  I'll blog that separately.  You learn something every day.

"These last couple of days," she continued, "everything hasn't been exactly gas and gaiters."  Wiktionary defines it simply as "a pleasant situation," quoting Charles Dickens (Nicholas Nickleby): "'Aha!' cried the old gentleman, folding his hands, and squeezing them with great force against each other. 'I see her now; I see her now! My love, my life, my bride, my peerless beauty. She is come at last--at last--and all is gas and gaiters!'  But why this pairing??

The Nine Wrong Answers (1952)
Carr described this work as a novel of "character" and "fast action" without "police investigation."  There is no detective; the protagonist has to solve the problem of why an old man is trying to murder him.  I was so pleased with myself for having deduced the plot twist near the beginning of the story - only to find myself (as usual) totally wrong. 
"Bill snatched up the brief case."  Not a typo - the item is described in this way on multiple occasions.

"Cheero," Bill said without enthusiasm."  I always thought the word was "Cheerio," but that's probably a bastardization from movies and TV.  The Oxford dictionaries indicate that it can also be spelled cheeroh and cheer ho.

"Many streets away he found a dog-wagon.  Ordering bacon and eggs, pie, and coffee, he held the brief case on his knees..."  I found the term used to refer to a short-order or fast-food restaurant.  Not sure why.

"Satan's teeth!"  I found nothing relevant.

"Everything was flung in, including Larry's shaving tackle..."  Obvious in context; apparently from Middle English takel (gear, apparatus).

"Damn this arm rest between us!  It's like the wall between Pyramus and Thisbe."  Ill-fated lovers in Ovid's Metamorphoses.  Details at Wikipedia.  My education fell short on this one, so I'll write it up for a blog post.

Several references to Heath Row airport - always written as two words.  The airport was built at the site of the hamlet sometimes spelled as two words; I don't see any other reference to the airport thus written.

RAF written as Raf.  Suspect this must be a typesetter's error.

"His doctors' and nurses' fees, the estimated correctly at about a hundred quid." (for a week in hospital.  How times change.)

"He might greet you with the cry of the old clo'man, or Sir Laurence Olivier playing Richard the Third."  I found nothing - anywhere - until this YouTube video, where the word is written the same way, with an apostrophe.  In the video it may refer to a banjo player.  ???  And a Google-listed book has this sentence: "Othello became a Christy Minstrel, Shylock an old clo'man from Hounsditch..."  I'm guessing (and it's only that) that the apostrophe shortens "clothing man," maybe referring to a rag-and-bone man.  Maybe the nature of Hounsditch offers a clue.  Some reader may know...

"Tonight, [I] dropped into a newsreel theater for a time..."  I'm old enough to remember newsreels preceding movies.  Not old enough to remember theaters devoted entirely to newsreels and other short features.
This was my second or third - and at my age final - read of these books, so I've combined them with the other four non-series detective novels (The Bowstring Murders, Below Suspicion, Patrick Butler for the Defense, and Poison in Jest) and have listed all seven on eBay (as a lot of three and a lot of four books), starting at nominal opening bids.  Domestic shipping only at Media Mail rate.

Next I'll move on to the Henry Merrivale and Gideon Fell mysteries.


  1. "...why in the name of a name..." From the French nom d'un nom, a double euphemism for nom de Dieu, etc.

  2. just speculating... maybe there originally was a wagon, pulled by a dog, from which fast meals were served?


  3. Aieeee. PRINCIPAL character, not "principle." Tsk tsk.

    1. I think I must have subcontracted the typing of that sentence. Fixed. :-)

  4. "Zizipompom," also "zizi-pompom" or sometimes "zizi pom pom" seems to mean "hanky panky," although whether it's real French or faux French is difficult to determine without a native knowledge of français. "Zizi" is childish French slang ("du lang. enfantin") for "penis," like the English "peepee" or "willy."

    Webster's Unabridged Dictionary 1913 has "double-dyed" as "dyed twice; thoroughly or intensely colored; hence; firmly fixed in opinions or habits; as, a double-Dyed villain." "Triple-dyed" appears to be somewhat less common.

  5. galvanized = shocked or sparked into action, from the process that uses an electrical current to cause ion exchange, in zinc plating.

  6. Urbane does indeed mean "polite", a bit in the same way "civil" can be used to describe good manners or city council works.
    As for the galvanized street, I guess the sped-up film shows a steet milling with seemingly excited and restless passers-by, hence galvanized as the frog legs Galvani used to study electricity.


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