Messy Disposals: Sir Henry Merrivale vs. Erast Fandorin (by R.T. Raichev)

R. T. Raichev is one of EQMM’s regular contributors of short-story length classical mysteries—though they always have a modern edge! His story “To Slay a Stranger” appeared in our September/October 2021 issue and we have more of his stories coming up in 2022. A scholar of the mystery as well, he also contributes regularly to this site. This time, he compares the handling of a common plot element in two stories published many years apart in EQMM. —Janet Hutchings

Consider the fate of the corpus delicti in detective fiction.

In Agatha Christie’s play The Spider’s Web*, Clarissa Hailsham-Brown, after stumbling on Oliver Costello lying dead in her drawing room, asks her three loyal friends to take the body to the nearby Marsden Wood. Clarissa then prepares a bridge-playing alibi for all four of them. In Patricia Highsmith’s novel Ripley Under Water, the obnoxious Pritchard, intent on incriminating Tom Ripley, dumps the sack containing Murchison’s mortal remains on Ripley’s doorstep, then calls the police. Ripley quickly retaliates by dropping the sack in the pool outside Pritchard’s house. In Dorothy L. Sayers’s short story “The Man With the Copper Fingers” actress Maria Morano is killed by her jealous lover who then covers her body in copper and turns it into a statue gracing a sofa. Similar treatment lies in store for the young man suspected of having had an affair with Maria but at the eleventh hour the killer is prevented from duplicating the outrage.

These, of course, are examples of deviation from orthodoxy—the norm being for the body to be discovered where it fell, patiently awaiting forensic attention.

But what about those murder mysteries in which a person is made to disappear without a trace? This is the subject of John Dickson Carr’s short story “The House at Goblin’s Wood” and Boris Akunin’s “Table Talk, 1882.”

Carr’s story was first published in EQMM in 1947, and later in the collection The Third Bullet (UK, Hamish Hamilton, 1954). Like most of his other short stories, it is a compressed version of his particular speciality, the full-length “sealed-chamber” mystery—and as Julian Symons puts it in his study of the genre Bloody Murder—it “benefits for the compression.”**

Twenty years prior to the events described in the story, a young girl, Vicky Adams, the daughter of wealthy parents and supposedly “fey,” vanishes from her room in an isolated cottage on the edge of Goblin Wood, despite the doors being locked and bolted from the inside. When she re-appears a week later, she insists that she was spirited away, literally, that she has the power to de-materialize and that she had been living with faeries.

Back in the present Vicky’s cousin Eve persuades seasoned criminologist Sir Henry Merrivale to join a picnic party consisting of Eve, her fiancé Bill, and Vicky, and the three drive to Goblin Wood. Vicky gives every impression of being a shameless exhibitionist or at best delusional—but she contrives to disappear again—this time, it seems, for good.

Only she doesn’t. Sir Henry deduces that Vicky is dead, she’s been killed by Bill—at Eve’s instigation. The motive is money—as her closest living relative Eve will inherit Vicky’s fortune.

Bill—a surgeon—killed Vicky while she was showing him round the cottage, he then dismembered her body in the bathroom, packaging each part in squares of oilskin, which he then sewed up. The grisly parcels he fitted inside the “three good-sized wickerwork hampers with lids”—having taken out the picnic crockery first. The hampers were carried to Bill’s car and Sir Henry was one of the carriers—which gives us the story’s memorable last line: “I’ll always wonder if I was carrying the head.”

Most readers—and critics—rightly consider the story to be Carr’s best. (I also like the intricate simplicity of “The Incautious Burglar.”) It is certainly the one that stays in the imagination the longest. The plot is cleverly constructed according to the strictures of “fair play,” with ambiguities and misdirections set up from the very start. On page one, for example, Bill and Eve—both of whom are presented as nice and likable—are boldly referred to as “conspirators.” The reader takes that to mean that they conspire to persuade Sir Henry to expose Vicky as a “faker”—indeed, that is the explanation Eve gives. Their true intention, however, is to make Sir Henry their patsy, to use him as a reliable witness to Vicky’s “vanishing.” As Sir Henry puts it:

“I was on the alert for some trick Vicky Adams might play. So it never occurred to me that this elegant pair of beauties . . . were deliberately conspirin’ to murder her.”

On page two we see Sir Henry emerging from his club, stepping on a banana skin, slipping and falling, looking rather foolish—a delightful instance of a metaphor presented literally. It foreshadows the picnic invitation which Sir Henry receives moments later—it is in the course of the picnic that Sir Henry is to be made a fool of.

A lot of attention is given not only to Vicky Adams’s self-proclaimed power to “de-materialize” and her past disappearance which lasted a week—but also to her “inordinate sex-appeal” and the flagrant way in which she flirts with Bill. The result is that we are persuaded to focus on Vicky—to watch her carefully and try to work out what exactly she is up to—and our attention is diverted from the two killers and their murderous scheme.

The story’s title—“The House in Goblin Wood”—evokes a sinister, fairy-tale-like atmosphere, with more than a hint of the supernatural. Carr’s quality of “queer suggestiveness” (phrase coined by Dorothy L. Sayers in relation to Carr’s novel The Eight of Swords) is very much in evidence here. Goblin Wood is described as a “ten-acre gloom,” which around the time of the murder becomes “blurred with twilight.” Carr liked to play with the uncanny, though there is a rational explanation for every strangeness in the story, including Vicky’s previous disappearance. Early in the proceedings Sir Henry discovers the “trick window” through which, as a little girl, she managed to get out of the house. The house, we learn, used to be the hideout of a notorious gangster, the “swellest of the swell mob.” It was he who had the trick window put in. Sir Henry also rightly divines that Vicky’s disembodied voice that haunts and taunts him in the wake of her disappearance is in fact the voice of Eve: The two girls are cousins and their voices are similar.

It goes without saying that the story should be read as an intellectual conundrum and not as a credible blueprint for real murder. Carr’s trickery is rivetingly ingenious rather than plausible and some serious suspension of disbelief is needed when it comes to the denouement.

The reader is meant to accept that forty-five minutes are enough—we are given the exact time frame—for Bill, no matter how skillful a surgeon and with a bag full of sharp instruments at his disposal, to stab Vicky, undress her, dismember her body, wrap the parts in oilskin, sew up each piece with coarse thread to prevent blood from dripping and then store the parcels away in the picnic hampers—while Sir Henry and Eve lounge in deck chairs on the lawn outside. (We are told that Vicky is small of stature—which clearly will facilitate her disposal—still!)

What if Sir Henry had needed to pop into the bathroom? Would Eve have managed to deter the seasoned criminologist without causing him to become suspicious? What if Sir Henry had happened to notice something amiss about the hamper he was carrying and decided to glance inside? As this is a carefully premeditated murder and not a spur-of-the-moment one, some readers may be tempted to argue that killers who depend so much on chance are in the wrong profession.

When Sir Henry examines the bathroom the only detail that strikes him as odd is the bath tap “dripping in a house that hadn’t been occupied for months.” The bath tap is one of three physical clues—the other two being an unused piece of waterproof oilskin he stumbles across in the corridor and the discarded crockery that used to be in the picnic hampers—which allow him to reconstruct the killer’s actions. In addition to the psychological clue of Bill and Eve at various points looking scared—Sir Henry does wonder about it—but would that have been enough for him to solve the mystery?

Credibility is further strained by the fact that Bill should have been able to butcher Vicky and clear up the mess—and a lot of mess there was bound to be—without leaving a single incriminating drop of blood or a profusion of wetness in his wake. What about his clothes? No change of clothing is ever mentioned. Surely, it would have been impossible for him to avoid Vicky’s blood staining his clothes, yet we are only informed that Bill’s hair, his sports coat and flannels were “more than a little dirty”—which is attributed to the fact that he went picking, at Vicky’s request, wild strawberries in the forest. The wild strawberries are Bill’s alibi. Perhaps he stripped off his clothes while disposing of Vicky’s body, but if so, Sir Henry doesn’t think the possibility worth mentioning.

We find a very similar situation in Boris Akunin’s “Table Talk, 1882,” a short story originally written in Russian, its English translation first published in EQMM in 2003. It was later included in the anthology The Mammoth Book of Best International Crime (UK, Robinson, 2009).

Akunin is famous for his historical crime novels chronicling the detective exploits of Erast Petrovich Fandorin. In “Table Talk,” Fandorin is the guest of honor gracing a great lady’s salon. Indeed, he is described as “maddeningly attractive.” On a more mundane note we learn that he has served in the office of Moscow’s Governor-General as an “officer for special missions.”

The story reads as a Golden Age pastiche, its format bringing to mind Agatha Christie’s The Thirteen Problems: a group of well-heeled people relating tales of unsolved mysteries as after-dinner entertainment—each propounding a theory—with Fandorin in the omniscient Miss Marple seat.

The conundrum under discussion concerns the mysterious disappearance of “poor Polinka Karakina,” daughter of the “fabulously wealthy” Prince Lev Livovich, from their isolated wooded estate outside Moscow. Polinka is one of a set of twins—she and her sister Anyuta look identical—but for a birthmark on Anyuta’s face. The two young women—both princesses in their own right—are “far from being horrors” but their main attraction is their “dowry of millions.” Even though there are enough willing suitors, the old prince is irrationally strict, keeping his daughters virtual prisoners in their country house.

The prince makes the fatal mistake of commissioning a young French architect, a M. Renar, to build a belvedere in his park. Predictably, the daughters—now at the dangerous age of 28—fall in love with Renar. It is  the blemish-free Polinka he sets his cap at—she is also the one “far less settled into old-maidish ways.” An “idyll” follows, but that is terminated soon enough when jealous Anyuta discovers her sister and Renar in flagrante delicto and informs their father. The prince orders the Frenchman out while Polinka is sent to her room with her sister acting as jailer.

It is on the following morning, after Renar is hauled off to the railway station in a farm cart, that “marvels began to occur.” Anyuta—she of the unseemly birth mark—is found alone in the bedroom, in a catatonic-like state, as if in the deepest sleep. There is no trace of Polinka. Anyuta eventually recovers and claims to know nothing about her sister’s disappearance.

The initial theory is that Polinka has run away, that she has followed her lover—having given her meddlesome sister “something nasty” to drink which caused her to suffer a “nervous disorder.”  However, it is established beyond doubt that she couldn’t have left the estate. There was no trunk among the Frenchman’s luggage, in which she could have stowed herself away—all he carried were “some small suitcases, some bundles, a couple of hat boxes.” The park is surrounded by a high stone wall, there was a guard at the gate and the police find no evidence to suggest the guard had been bribed.

The old prince has an apoplectic stroke and dies. Anyuta, now sole heir to the Karakin fortune, abandons the estate and goes “to the very ends of the earth”—in fact, to Brazil. She settles down in Rio de Janeiro, having arranged for regular sums of money to be sent to her by the estate manager . . .

It doesn’t take Fandorin too long to work out what happened. (Nor should the perspicacious reader be baffled for long.) He calls it “one of the most monstrous crimes of passion about which I have ever had occasion to hear . . . it is a murder of the very worst, Cain-like sort.” He puts it rather picturesquely thus:

“There is no beast in this world more dangerous than a woman deprived of her beloved!”

It is in fact pretty Polinka who killed tarnished Anyuta, not the other way round. Polinka dragged her sister’s body into the bathroom, stripped off her own clothing as well as her sister’s, then cut Anyuta “into bits”—with a bread knife—and washed the blood away down the drain. The “dismembered flesh” left the estate in the various small cases and hat boxes belonging to M. Renar, who of course was Polinka’s collaborator. During the night there was an “evil ferrying” of the victim’s remains—she passed them over to him through the window—in “some kind of vessel.” Using black makeup Polinka then drew a birth mark on her face and passed herself off as her twin sister. Fandorin also suspects that Polinka poisoned her father, that she committed sororicide as well as patricide. Fandorin is positive that Polinka and the Renar are now living in Brazil . . .

According to the tenth commandment of Father Ronald Knox’s 1939 Detective-Story Decalogue, “Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.” Well, readers are prepared for the twins, that is not the problem here. The problem—as I see it—is that the evil-twin trope is employed a little too bluntly, without much variation.***

The story is entertaining, but it’s guessable. The very first mention of twins sets alarm bells ringing—we expect some kind of twin-related hocus-pocus—and we get it. We think, no, can’t be, there must be a ruse of some sort—but we are proven wrong. Add to this the detail of the naked princess with the bread knife in the bathroom—as one would say in Cluedo—and eyebrows may be further raised. (At least Bill in the Carr was a qualified surgeon and had his instruments with him.)

The story is translated into the kind of flowery, often rarefied kind of  English which smacks of a literal translation from the Russian.  (Unless that was the translator’s intention?) Consequently we are treated to phrases like “nabob of Hindi” instead of Indian nabob—“besotted by love” (besotted would have been enough)—“gentle-lady” instead of gentlewoman, and so on.  We are also told that “a good story is never hurt by adding a little pepper, as the English say,” when the expression the English use is “to add a little salt.”

*Make sure you read the Agatha Christie play, not Charles Osborne’s over-faithful, over-reverent novelization which suffers from that curiously stilted kind of writing that suggests a detailed synopsis.

**The story is 11 pages long. At the conclusion of Carr’s novel The Hollow Man the elucidation of the mystery alone takes 20 pages. It is often referred to as “Gideon Fell’s celebrated locked-room lecture” — but some readers do find such technical pontificating tedious.

***Think of Michael Innes who defied the no-twins rule by introducing triplets into Night of Errors, his 1947 novel. That may be over-doing it a bit.

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