Tuesday, June 30, 2015

John Dickson Carr : The Wrong Problem, 1936

The Wrong Problem, at the production of short stories by John Dickson Carr, is one of his peaks: it was written in 1936. From it Carr drew the subject for a radio play,"The Devil in the Summer House", which aired in wartime, to the BBC, 14 October 1940, in an episode of an hour; after, the radio drama was reduced to half an hour, and presented at the radio series "Suspense", but deprivated a character of Gideon Fell.
The place of the story is a summer house, at which takes place an impossible crime.
Both versions were later published as part of a collection of short stories by Carr, introduced by Ellery Queen: Dr.Fell, detective, and other stories (Mercury, New York, 1947). In addition to these two of his works, they were also: The proverbial murder, The locked room, The hangman will not wait, A guest in the house, Will you walk into my parlor ?, Strictly diplomatic.
Gideon Fell and the Chief Inspector of C.I.D. Hadley are walking, when they get near a lake which overlooks a villa, and in which, on a tiny island, there is a pergola of bamboo. Nearby is a little man dressed in black, his eyes slightly almond-shaped and a long white hair and a white cloth hat.
The little man, as soon as he sees them, asks if they see a swan on the water, a dead swan with its throat cut; but the two don’t see it. It’s the beginning of a story whom that man tells to two occasional guests, chanced in the properties whose owners are not present for a long time: the tragedy of a family formed by father Harvey Lessing, eye doctor and dentist, and his four children, of which three born from the first wife (died in 1899) and another acquired, already seventeen, with his second marriage in 1901, a family in which death was already facing twice before, with the death of two wives of the head of the family, yet.
 The elder half-brother was called Brownrigg and was dentist, as the father had the physique of an athlete, always smiling and fond of nuts; the second brother's name was Harvey Junior: he was dynamic, sociable, sympathetic; the third son's name was Joseph, and he worked as a technician in optics in a large jewelry; finally, the fourth was a girl named Martha. Joseph and Martha were the same age and feelings in common, even though she was in love with such a Sommers of which Joseph was confidant, who was finishing his military service.
The fact is that after all that family was happy. But on August 15 of a certain summer, something happened that changed the atmosphere and harmony of the children: while the old Lessing, using a canoe, after lunch he went to make the nap under the pergola on the small island, someone killed him, violating the space of water without anyone seeing him, despite the surface of the water had remained flat, without anything or anyone plowed the waters: in the ear pointed a stuck object that pierced the inner membrane of the ear , piercing the brain and determining death.
The only two to suspicion were Joseph and brother Junior, while Brownrigg he claimed had been alone in the dining room and Martha had gone with a friend. Also the gardener swore that no one had pluwed the waters of the lake direct  to islet. Junior knew steering a boat, and Joseph knew how to swim, but it seems that none of them could have been. The fact is that strangely was blamed one between the two, who exculpated and not to be accused by others, blackmailed them with the only weapon with which he could keep them under control: their mother had died mad, so ... Besides that came to know this, the family would fall into disrepute and the career of the dentist would be cut short.
The days passed tired, in a sort of non-aggression, in an apparent calm until occurred the second impossible murder: Martha, was in his room, apathetic, straight out of an illness, when, at the same time the arrival of the lawyer's family suddenly she went up in the tower that overlooked the house, such as being chased by someone or something invisible and locked herself in there: it was a square room, with no furniture, used to see in the distance, given its highest position of other windows in the house whose only openings were the barred window and the door. The maid runs after her, but remained outside. As soon as she entered the room, they heard a cry and creepy, entered the room, they found the girl dead, with an eye pierced by something that was not found that had reached the brain: a death similar but not the same as another. No murderer in the room, no chance for he to pass through the door, because it was guarded outside by the maid.
One of the three brothers was formally accused about the double murder and to save himself and to force the brothers to swear falsely, that the killer’s mother was crazy and not theirs: so he avoided the hanging.
After  this telling, the little man, one of the brothers Lessing vows not know who has been to make the double murder. So?
Analyzing the clues, Fell will discover the truth and will  give a name to the murderer. He is ....
The title of the story does not refer to a wrong deduction, but to a question that it is justified only in the sick mind of the killer: why is it possible that a mother crazy procreates healthy children and a healthy mother procreates a crazy son? That is why did he committ the double murder? Fell will explain the genius of the solutions adopted so that the crimes happen apparently by the hands of an unknown person and in seemingly impossible conditions. But also why was swan killed cutting its throat? In fact after the death of Martha, both Junior and  Joseph while they are walking on the shore of the lake, in the back of the islet, they note among some rushes ashore a swan with its throat cut by something sharp, as if someone or something  wanted to kill even the swan.
The story, which is one of the most famous by Carr, in the case of the second murder is derived from another previous story, Terror’s Dark Tower, that is of 1935.
It is memorable by the atmosphere that pervades it, and it is affected, as other works of the same period, by a certain underlying melancholy, which approaches to other works such for example to She Died a Lady. We note also the hint at a certain inevitability of evil (which is not noticed in other carrian works), to the underlying causes of evil and for which even those who commit it can steal his fate: as if to say that also the ' murderer is the puppet in a game that is much bigger than him.
However many hints, I think, convince Fell about the madness of killer, who: is not really aware of what he did; he can not even explain because he committed the two murders (the first for economic reasons perhaps: the will), the second for reasons of betrayed love (jealousy and rage). I think, however, that the first murder can also be configured as a revenge, because his son had seen anything confusing in the conduct of his stepfather at the death of his mother, perished in the tower room: he would not say that  in fact she was dead "..in a special situation"
The fact that the little man swears, first, he’s not the murderer and then he reiterates this statement, when Gideon Fell already has accused him about it and also explained how he killed without others could see him commit the murders, and then soon after he admits to be the murderer, also demonstrates a duplicitous soul and mind, a split personality in two entities completely opposite, one innocent and one culprit, one conscious and the other unconscious, by the way of Mr. Hyde.
What he says in the last page of short stort is symptomatic of this state of alienated mind: "You do not understand. I never wanted to know who killed Dr. Lessing or poor Martha”. The speaker is the unconscious part of the murderer, who does not know (but supposes) if other his half killed or not. Then, a few lines later, the same character, his conscious part, will say: "..But that is not the point. That is not the problem. Their mother was mad, but they were harmless. I killed Dr. Lessing. I killed Martha. Yes I am quite sane. Why did I do it, all those years ago? Why? Is there no rational pattern in the scheme of things and no answer to the bedeviled of the earth? ". In other words one character but split into two characters, a personality split in two, one conscious and one unconscious.
Basically what you get is the dubt also the reader has if the murderer, when he committed the murders, was conscious or unconscious. Surely, however, the fact that he sees constantly even after, on the surface of the lake, the dead swan with its throat cut, which does not exist in reality, reveals a schizophrenic state, hallucinations, dissociation from reality; but also it reveals that in that man, with deep and blacks eyes, there is still consciousness that goes in that disturbed soul, the remorse that evil that is (was) inside him, it has let him to kill harmless people : the swan, symbol of purity and safety, for him is a haunting memory, in a strongly symbolic work as this, because refers Martha, in the disturbed mind by the killer, always dressed in white.

In my opinion, there’s also another indication that Carr puts in the story, a psychological clue: the little man is dressed in black buthe wears a white hat. In my opinion this is another indication of the psychological duplicity of the wearer: good and evil, consciousness and unconsciousness.
In some ways it is the work that most approaches Carr to his most famous heir, contemporary with us, Paul Halter, in whose novels the theme of madness often overlooks.
The story is still memorable for the atmosphere that pervades it, for the unsurpassed mastery, to be able to create a pathos with a few strokes. Before Carr describes the idyllic places, or almost: the villa in a small  valley between the hills, the artificial lake overlooked, the summer house on a small artificial island in the middle of the lake, the rustling of leaves, the well trated green carpets. Then it introduces a note that is more sad, like a harmonic modulation in minor  that portends something sad that you are gathering, "the last light showed that all the windows of the house..”: the dusk, during which the sun dies, and it gets the dark. In that moment “dusk had almost become darkness when two men came down over the crest of hill. One was large and lean. The other, who wore a shovel hat, was large and immensely stout, and he loomed even more vast against the sky line by reason of the great dark cloak billowing out behind him”.  First they see a small man. Then he speaks about a dead swan that does not exist. Then he tells a story, and while he is talking, the sunset gives way to darkness: three men are sitting in an iron bench, and two feel the other to tell a story of murders and madness. And as the dark story winds until its end, the light of sunset is replaced by darkness,  and the epilogue takes place almost in the darkness, illuminated by the light of a match: as attested by the end of the story, in which it was reported that "the match curled to a red ember, winked and went out”.
The final is unforgettable, because it ends not with a bang but with an implosion, which gives a strong melancholy emphasis to history: “Then….got up from the chair. The last they saw of him was his white hat bobbing and flickering across the lawn under the blowing tree” . Yet, it had been announced with another emphasis: “This murder was incredible. I don’t mean merely that it was incredible with regard to its physical circumstances, but also that there was Martha dead-on a holiday”.

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Thursday, May 7, 2015

A very beautiful unknown Italian locked room of '30s: Franco Vailati - Il Mistero dell' Idrovolante (The Mystery of the Seaplane), 1935

His name was Leo Wollemborg Junior, and was the son of Leo Wollemborg, a rich German-born italian economist who had been Minister of Finance of the Government Zanardelli in 1901 and senator for life in 1914, and Alina Regina Fano, sister of the mathematician Gino Fano. He was born in Loreggia, in the province of Padua (but according to some sources, including international arbitration between the US and Italy, it seems that it could be born in Rome) in 1912, and in Padua he followed the studies, enrolling at the university and later becoming a journalist . In 1932 he wrote the novel Elena. A few years later he published his unique detective novel, the most beautiful italian locked room of '30s, that Mondadori published in I Libri Gialli in 1935, entitled Il mistero dell’idrovolante (The Mystery of the Seaplane): for the occasion Wollemborg Leo J. used the pseudonym of Franco Vailati. Repaired in America in 1939, after the promulgation of racial laws in Italy, as jew, then he became a US citizen before and an American soldier after (he fought in World War II), he returned to Italy in the 50s, as a correspondent in Washington Post, dealing with Common Foreign and collaborating with Italian newspapers.  He died in 2000 in New York. The "Columbia University" has instituted in his name a scholarship. He wrote essays, including Stars, Stripes And Italian Tricolor: The United States And Italy, 1946-1989.
The Mystery of the Seaplane, is a complex Locked Room that pays tribute to the deductive novel in vogue in the '30s.
The Dornier WAL-134 is the largest of the latest generation of  moored seaplanes at the mouth of the Tiber, Ostia, and " for breadth, comfort and technical perfection, could really rival the best models in service on lines foreign" (page 7 ): it is used on sea-Ostia Palermo, to bring 15 people on board (twelve passengers, two pilots and a mechanic who may require interventions of necessity and emergency).
On the 12th of July, WAL-134   is about to leave from Hydroport, when a man comes out of breath: he is the Rag. Larini. (1). He must arrive at very short time to target to treat a very important deal for the bank whose he employs, the Metropolitan Bank, but there is no place on the aircraft, as is often repeated by employees. Therefore he corrupts the mechanic on duty on DO -WAL 134, with a large sum, and he is agree to give him a seat in the cabin, on the side of the two pilots, while he will make the journey in the luggage room. The hydroplane is about to take flight but misses the last passenger who arrives out of breath:he is the banker Agliati, a guy with a mustache and a beautiful belly. He takes place in the aircraft and this leaves. Unremarkable: the passengers are beginning to take note, at least some of them. On board there is also a journalist Giorgio Vallesi, who is on the airplane to write on behalf of his newspaper, an article by color right on the crossing of this airplane, the pride of Italy. Subject of his looks interested is the beautiful Marcella Arteni, which seems to correspond; and then there is a strange lady who attracts his looks, such Vanna Sandrelli, for the fact that while elegantly dressed in red, she is carrying a bag strangely colored green, which conflicts greatly with the dress of Ventura: she’s strangely nervous. The other passengers are a couple, Mr and Mrs Martelli; Three Merchants country: Marchetti, Sabelli and Bertieri; three people of rank political: a big piece of the Foreign Ministry and his two secretaries.
One of the merchants, Sabelli, gets up and goes to the bathroom: it is a small room of one square meter of width and one meter seventy tall, a hole in substance, with a toilet, and has a small window on the ceiling to ventilate . After him, gets up Vallesi taking a walk up to the cockpit, separated by a glass door, and returned to his fellow travelers, he announces that on board there is an almost clandestine, the Rag. Larini, who travels with the two pilots, having bribed the mechanic, who is now in the trunk, for cede his place behind the two pilots, and adds jokingly that is quite fat, and his weight could affect the tonnage of  plane. All do not notice: only the banker Agliati, which is also fat he looks worried: he gets up and goes to the bathroom. After a while 'is seen out of the luggage compartment a man in overalls, the mechanic, who goes into the cockpit and soon returns carrying a bundle. Meanwhile, the other merchant Marchetti goes to the bathroom: he wait, then go back; then again, turning to his companions until he blurts out that the banker will be closed in the bathroom and did not come out despite having spent half an hour. Concerned Vallesi knocks but nobody answers, he tries to open the door but it is closed, and so should they tell the commander, who decides at the scheduled stopover in Naples, trying to bring help to the banker: but what is the surprise of all when, smashed the door, which happens to be locked from the inside by a bolt, found the room completely empty: where is the banker Agliati? Evaporated in the sky through the window, or pushed down into the clouds through the flush? And whatever it was his goal, his disappearance was due to what? A suicide, misfortune or murder?
At hydroport of Beverello, near Naples, to take care of the investigation is the Commissioner Boldrin, who doesn’t “hollow a spider from hole”: at the space and at what it seems, there are no hidden openings, and the only way out seems to be the window; however, the impossibility of the situation is the fact that the banker was rather fat and would never have passed through a window as small as that. So? Boldrin doesn’t know how to get.
His rescue comes the Vice-Questor Renzi, the Central Police Headquarters in Rome, the grandson of a big shot of the Ministry of the Interior: Renzi, read the news in a newspaper in Rome, asking to be sent to Naples as an observer, as are all Roman the passengers, and the seaplane is left from Rome; also it has read that among the passengers there is an old friend, the journalist Vallesi, companion sprees many years before.
The investigations are extremely complex: Boldrin eliminated as causes both the misfortune, the suicide, for the manifest impossibility that a fat as Agliati was able to pull himself out of a window much smaller than his circumference, or it could slip away, so more that the plane has not been overturned in flight and therefore would not be able to slip through the small opening in the roof. However, the only remaining possibility is inherently impossible to turn, because if he had been killed, at least one other person there should have been in that tiny bathroom, which is absolutely impossible to have happened given the lack of space for to retreat.
With Renzi, however, the investigation while not shedding light on the disappearance impossible, allow, through the interrogation of texts, to establish that: Mrs. Vanna Sandrelli, the lady in red, has provided false information; two of the three merchants, Sabelli and Marchetti, grain traders, knew each other, while the third, Bertieri is actually Pagelli, an old acquaintance of the police, and he’s not a trader but an envoy of the Bank of Italy and Argentina, which must conclude a particular deal in Tunis. Moreover Commissioner Boldrin makes a discovery: frisking passenger baggage, he realizes that in one of the suitcases of Sabelli, there’s on internal liner a sequence of numbers: it would seem a code, but then it is assumed (and is confirmed by subsequent investigations) that are multiple telephon numbers placed next to each other. While not seeming to have connection with the rest of the events, trying to give a paternity to those numbers and that's one of the sequences strangely it leads to one of the Deputy Directors of the Bank of Italy and Argentina.
While you're trying to deal with them, another criminal act disturbs public opinion: Marchetti that would have met with his friend Sabelli at Naples station to continue to Palermo (which would make other passengers of the seaplane, blocked for investigation in Naples) can not find it and then instructed previously, having the Sabelli bags, put them in the place of his friend, waiting the friend on  the train to turn up. But by Sabelli no trace, until someone does not open them in the presence of Marchetti and in one of them they find in the midst of sawdust, the arms and Marchetti’s head. Marchetti is put in custody for murder, but did not know anything, so he says; and in the meantime, a few hours later it is discovered another couple of cases, the same as those of Sabelli in police custody, on the train Naples-Brindisi, in which are found the trunk, and the legs of Sabelli.
Has Sabelli’s death connection with Agliati’s death, always he's dead?
Another strange thing happens: in Italy Corso, in Rome, an office was ransacked, but the strange thing is that nothing is missing. Renzi for a case is asked to deal with it, and in a room closed from the inside, finds the crates full of sawdust, while in another, Renzi locates next to a phone, a number that fits with the string of numbers found in suitcase of Sabelli, while have gone missing all the towels in the bathroom. Renzi assumes that is the place where Sabelli was killed and dismembered. Subsequent investigation will  allow him to reconstruct the sequence of events that runs all around the Bank of Italy and Argentina, and relations with the banker Agliati, not before someone had tried to kill the wife and the daughter fourteeen of Agliati, near Villa Borghese.

Giorgio Vallesi offers his own solution to the mystery of the disappearance of Agliati: he was not really fat but only he would pretend to be it: but how? Once entered at the toilet, having got rid of the fake belly sending it flying away, through the window, he would be hoisted and walking on the outer fuselage seaplane (hypothesis mad) would be hacked in the luggage room, through the outer door which can be opened even by external; in there, he would have bought the silence of the mechanic, who would come out and returned with a package, which according to the Vallesi could have been a mechanic's overalls; in that mechanic’s overalls, while the others were intent on knocking the door, he would come out from the plane. However, the solution of Vallesi has some obvious flaws: the Beverello pier was super guarded by police and no one among those present had come from the seaplane; is also confirmed by the testimony of the pilots, the mechanic had brought nothing with him in the store that a package, and it contained not a mechanic’s overalls but a loaf of bread, and fruit, as evidenced by the peach pits found in the luggage storage.
Starting from assumption by Vallesi, saving what he feels interesting and rejecting the rest, Renzi will be able to solve the mystery of the closed toilet, to find the true identity of Agliati, with a past of profiteer and swindler, to rebuild that of another his former  become an important figure of finance, who feared the revelations of his former friend, and to arrest him, with other fellow gang members, in a field where they were hiding a coffin containing the corpse of the banker Agliati.
Lively  Italian mystery, The Mystery of the Seaplane, is a tribute to the whodunit of 30s. Complex and also difficult in certain passages, for example that relating to reasoning about the two pairs of bags containing the human remains of Sabelli, according to which is discharged the most likely of the killers, Marchetti, who for more admitted that the suitcase containing the head was in his possession, the novel in my opinion, however, has two major flaws: no atmosphere and the murderer is not one of the passengers, that’s the actors in the drama.
It would have been a good novel, if it possessed an atmosphere, and instead seems to be rather a news story, unvarnished, a mere exercise in general, a divertissement, and as such it should be seen, with some rhythm and even suspence, and somehow carefree and light. Probably because it is a tribute to the fashion of whodunnit, without the author felt  transport or passion about it, or perhaps the need, where the predominant part is performed by deductive reasoning that is so cold but also virtuoso in his ruminations and hypothesis. The author was a journalist, and the novel seems at times something more than a chronicle: what it lacks is the inspiration of the novelist who can, through their own innate vein or through the tricks of style, to create an atmosphere in which the player is bound. That is not here. On this level, the novel loses the competition with the more dysfunctional among the De Angelis novels (if it exists) or with Alessandro Varaldo that, with all the "if" and "but", was a writer by trade and not a journalist lent to the narrative.

However, we said, another flaw, in my opinion is the fact that the murderer is not one of the passengers: I do not think I can say  Wollemborg could have read Obelists Fly High by Daly King or vice versa ( and this would have been possible if the American author had known the Italian language), because both novels  are of 1935, and the first edition of the masterpiece of Daly King appeared in Italian, in 1938. And same thing can not be said by Wollemborg / Vailati about the novel Death in the Clouds by Agatha Christie, because this work appeared in the same year; if anything, we could reflect about the fact that three works of a crime in the sky, appeared in the same year, 1935.
But, as in the novels by King and Christie, the guilty should be sought among one of the passengers, in the novel by Vailati is not so: and then how was killed and transported away Agliati? Here, this is the pivot of the argument, which is in my view a real gem. And having imagined what the killer had used to simulate a belly that could be functional, idea that comes at a children's articles And he imagined what he had used the murderess to simulate a belly that could be functional idea that comes at a toy store and children's articles. Once again I must, however, think that the most beautiful locked rooms, at least the most spectacular, are the rooms that do not come by coincidence or by an unexpected or action only from the killer, but a sham operated with the aid more or less cooperative if not complicity of one or more persons, creating a true optical illusion.
From this point of view, the novel by Wollemborg / Vailati I can say it would be the envy of Christianna Brand, author of Tour de Force, novel a few years later, that resorts he same kind of staging. And more specifically, concerning the technique of impossible crime, it would envy to John Dickson Carr, author of The Crooked Hinge.
In fact with Dickson Carr, Wollemborg/Vailati shares a trick that is present with the same values in the two novels: in The Crooked Hinge, Carr uses something that would stretch the height of a person at will, in the novel by Vailati is instead something that can increase or less the abdominal circumference of a person at will. Two different things, but the same is the purpose: to cheat the present person and the reader. I do not know if Carr had read the novel by Vailati, but if it happened he would have to read it in Italian and I do not think he knew my language, so as to be able to read an entire book. What is certain is that Carr’s novel was published in 1938 while that by Vailati is from 1935.

(1) Where you find Rag. Larini, Rag(ioniere)  is in Italy the equivalent of "accountant" or "bookkeeper"  in England or US

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