There are people who read traditional, puzzle-and-plot oriented mysteries from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction who simply revel in matching wits with the author. Give me the clues available to your detective, these readers say, and I should be able to follow those clues to their logical conclusion. They take great pride in their chosen roles as armchair detectives, although - more often than not - they find themselves having been fooled by a clever author.
To such people I offer The Blind Barber, by John Dickson Carr, who was widely acknowledged as the master of classic locked room and impossible crime mysteries. The Blind Barber is, as mystery critic Anthony Boucher observed, quite simply a farce about murder. It is also as pure an "armchair detective" novel as you can get. And I suspect that few readers will be able to interpret the clues, avoid the brilliant misdirection, and come to the correct solution...
But I'm getting ahead of myself. The Blind Barber is the subject of the review on today's Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the entire review by clicking here.
The Blind Barber, originally published in 1934, sometimes reads more like a Three Stooges slapstick comedy than a solid, bloody murder mystery. The action takes place on board the S. S. Queen Victoria, on a transatlantic journey from New York to London. The complex plot is hard to summarize here without totally confusing you – or confusing me, for that matter. Among its elements, there is some stolen movie film that could prove very embarrassing and dangerous to people in very high places, a stolen emerald elephant, and a very bloody shipboard murder with a victim who disappears - and nobody is missing from the ship. There are also four central characters who manage inadvertently to assault the ship's captain several times in the course of all the mayhem.
The armchair detective is, of course, Dr. Gideon Fell, who solves the case and the impossible disappearance without ever leaving his London flat. When the Queen Victoria docks, and before anyone else is allowed off the ship, one of the central characters is permitted to go to Dr. Fell and tell him the story of what happened. Dr. Fell, who appears only at the beginning, once in a kind of intermission and at the end, comes up with the solution - pointing out, as he goes along, the clues that those characters - and the readers - will have missed along the way which will explain quite fully what has been going on.
I must say that The Blind Barber is still funny, but a lot of its humor doesn't necessarily hold up all that well 80 years after the book was written. There's an assumption that anything having to do with drinking to excess - and there is a lot of that in the book - is hilariously funny. But there are some inspired scenes of mayhem, usually involving another assault on the Queen Victoria's captain, and the very clever impossible crime situation make this a book that is still very much worth reading. At the moment, it is available only as an ebook in a variety of formats, but there seem to be a lot of old paperback copies available from your favorite mystery book dealer or through Amazon's dealers. By all means, let me know if you manage to solve the mystery before Dr. Fell points out the correct answers.
As part of my continuing commitment to the Vintage Mystery Bingo Reading Challenge under way at the My Reader's Block blog, I am submitting this to cover the Bingo square calling for one book that involves a mode of transportation. For details about the challenge, and what I'm doing for it, please click here.