O is for … OBELISTS AT SEA (1932) by C. Daly King

The Alphabet of Crime community meme over at the Mysteries in Paradise blog this week reaches the letter O, and my nomination, also eligible under the guidelines of Bev’s 2011 Mystery Readers Challenge, is …

O is for … OBELISTS AT SEA by C. Daly King

C(harles) Daly King penned seven mystery books  in the 1930s before turning his back on fiction to concentrate on psychoanalysis. His books, some of which are very hard to obtain today, are marked by an impish sense of humour, some highly original ideas and some slightly obscure ones as well, not least of which is: what is an ‘obelist’? By starting at the beginning perhaps we can find out. This was the first of King’s novels and the first of his ‘Obelist’ trilogy, all of which combine murder, travel and psychiatry. It is set on a luxury transatlantic liner, the SS Meganaut, traveling with over 1,000 passengers from New York to Cherbourg. One evening lightning shorts out the generator and the first class smoking lounge is plunged into darkness. While the lights are out a shot is fired and when they return, self-made multi-millionaire Victor Smith is dead, a his female companion’s pearl necklace has been stolen and another man, shady lawyer De Brasto, is literally holding a smoking gun. But nothing is what it seems. Indeed it turns out that Smith has not one but two bullets inside him, one immediately on top of the other,  even though only one shot was heard – and neither has been fired from De Brasto’s gun. To add to the confusion, while the daughter is later pronounced dead she later vanishes from the doctor’s surgery.

This novel is particularly hard to find, as is its follow-up Obelists En Route (1933) set on a train, so the edition I am reviewing here is one published in Italy in 2006, based on a translation last used in 1941! I mention this because the version I have (entitled ‘In Alto Mare’) is missing several items from the original edition, which had an introduction by King in the form of a disclaimer (see below) and maps and floorplans as was the style at the time for detective stories, neither of which are included. King also placed a ‘Clue Finder’ at the end of some of his books but apparently it was not part of this debut effort however as far as I can gather. In his introduction, an extract from which can be found reprinted online, King explained the book’s main claim to fame – its use as the detectives of a quartet of psychologists.

In the following story four psychologists, representing different schools within that science, apply their particular theories toward the solution of the mystery. Lest any misconception should arise, I wish to state that the characters of Drs. Hayvier, Plechs and Pons, and Professor Mittle are in no way intended as portrayals of any actual and living psychologists. I would beg the reader to consider these characters as, in reality, the embodiments of their own theories, but scarcely as the flesh-and-blood people of real life. In certain quarters, I suspect, such a tale as the one I have concocted, may be charged with serving a propagandist purpose–namely, that of destructively criticizing the course of modern psychology. Such a purpose I would deny at once . . . propaganda seems both ridiculous and hopeless to the author.

Indeed we are exposed to some genuine science here including an early form of the polygraph (a first for a detective story perhaps?) as well as a traditional example of the Kent-Rosanoff free association test. Which is not to say however that King is above poking a little fun at the psychiatric and medical professions – far from it. But they are merely made subject to the same mischevious sense of fun that motors everything in the book, from its outlandish plot convolutions to even the meaning of its title. ‘Obelist’ is defined in this novel as ‘a person of little or no value’, but in Obelists Fly High (1935), by common consent King’s best novel and thankfully the easiest to find, this was changed to mean ‘one who harbours suspicion’ – the meaning is changed because it is not in fact meant to be taken seriously.

Charles Daly King

While the Obelist books are proper puzzles with ingenious plots, King’s fascination with cyphers and codes (he was a disciple of G. I. Gurdjieff) and his droll sense of humour mean that nothing is to be taken at face value, least of all titles and names. Indeed characters in the book are given a variety of mocking appellations – for instance, two callow men who behave in fairly silly fashion are called Young and Gnosens while a pair of low-ranking officers on the ship are called Bone and Hedders! The ship’s captain is called Drake, a woman later discovered to be using an assumed name is called Miss Sudeau and one of the central quartet of psychologists at the heart of the story is aptly named ‘Professor Mittle’ as he always takes the middle ground! The book is subdivided into six chapters and at its core are the four explanations offered  in turn by each of the mental health professionals, who interpret the crimes and find the solution adhering to their own methodological school, which include Behaviorist, Psychoanalysis and Integrative Psychology. Like Anthony Berkeley’s classic, and also gently mocking, mystery, The Poisoned Chocolate Case (1929), and to a lesser extent Leo Bruce’s even more obviously parodic Case for Three Detectives (1935), this is a book in which we follow various experts investigate a crime and all reach different conclusions as to whodunit – and all prove to be wrong. This approach was also used in the more obscure The Crime with Ten Solutions (1937) by Patrick Layton, described in fascinating details over at the refulgent Pretty Sinister Books blog.

When King’s book was first published in the UK it garnered some excellent reviews: EC Bentley praised it being “most unusual” and The Spectator called it, “The most original tale we have seen for a long time; totally out of the common”. Other bits of blurb to be found on the sleeve inform us that it was: “A detective story with a difference” (Time and Tide) and “The most intelligent thriller published for a long time” (Referee). And yet King always had problems finding a US publisher and his critically lauded short story collection, The Curious Mr Tarrant took 40 years to appear in America (it is now available in a fine ‘complete’ edition from Crippen & Landru).

The book, like many published at the time, has a super-abundance of red herrings and the explanation for the two bullets found in one hole is incredibly weak – on the other hand there are plenty of surprises (for starters, the bullets aren’t what actually killed him) as further murders (and even one resurrection) follow. The identity of the murderer is also very fairly clued – to the extent, I must admit, that I guessed well before the end; in fact, perhaps in typical fashion for such an original ironist as King, it is actually the true identity of the book’s detective that remains the best hidden secret of all. It’s not the standout classic that is Obelists Fly High, but this is a highly original performance none the less and well worth looking for (you may have to try really hard though).

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in C. Daly King, Crime Fiction Alphabet, Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge 2011. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to O is for … OBELISTS AT SEA (1932) by C. Daly King

  1. Bev says:

    The only Daly book I was familiar with (and own) is the short story collection, The Curious Mr Tarrant. Very enjoyable! I’ll have to keep my eye out for these even harder to find mysteries!

    Got you updated!

    • Hello Bev, and thanks very much for the update. OBELISTS FLY HIGH is usually findable from its Dover edition reprint, like the first US edition of TARRANT, and is really worth reading – I hope to post reviews of some of King’s other books later this year but there are also a couple more that I still hope to track down, though I’m not sure in what language yet! Thanks for reading and all the very best of luck with your surgery.

  2. J F Norris says:

    I started to read this last year but I was so put off by the continual references to one of the passengeers as a Jewess that I put it back on my shelf. I’m sure I’ll get back to it some day – especially after this enticing review – but sometimes the xenophobia and the borderline racism of these British GA writers really irritates me.

    I don’t have a great track record with finishing King’s books. I also owned a copy of Arrogant Alibi years ago and started it but it was so similar to The Scarb Murder Case (which I had recently read at that time) with all it’s esoteric Egyptology talk that I lost interest in another King book. Never finished it. Then, in 2006 I sold it for hefty sum! Now it’s gone and as it’s one of the most ridiculously hard to find books in the entire genre I doubt I will ever get to finish it. I’ve never found even a reading copy of that title since.

    I did, however, read Obelists Fly High from start to finish and think it is one of the masterpieces of the genre. Utterly brilliant.


    • Hello John, thanks very much for reading and for the comments. I must admit, my copy of ARROGANT ALIBI is also an Italian one but at least a more modern translation. The casual and unthinking racism that is to be found in so many of these books (and not just by the Brits of course, and King was a New Yorker) – especially Sayers and occasionally even Christie – is much too much to stomach quite often. There is a limit to what I can overlook just for a decent plot! Interestingly, I think such language must have been have been censored from my translation, though probably not for the right reasons coming as it did under the Mussolini regime, although it was actually published before the racial laws were passed in Italy so I cannot comment properly on just why this might be.

  3. J F Norris says:

    OH! and thanks for giving me a plug and terming the blog “refulgent.” A word I confess I had to look up. That SAT style vocabulary doesn’t stay long in the memory bank these days.

  4. puzzledoctor says:

    Thanks for this – I wasn’t aware that King wrote anything other than his short stories, so I’ll keep an eye out for these.

    • Hello and thanks for the feedback, as always! I deliberately wrote about his first book because it is less well known, but I wouldn’t want to put you off reading King at his considerably best – OBELISTS FLY HIGH is really, really well worth tracking down.

  5. Ela says:

    This sounds a little like Marion Mainwaring’s ‘Murder in Pastiche: or Nine Detectives All At Sea’ – in that she parodies nine fictional detectives solving a murder on board a ship – Lord Simon Quinsey, for example – but her book is much later. King’s book sounds well worth tracking down.

    • Hello Ela – thanks very much for the comments. While there is a strong tongue-in-cheek element to the book it is not as overtly parodic as Leo Bruce’s CASE FOR THREE DETECTIVES for instance (featuring ‘Lord Simon Plimsoll’ etc). It’s great fun though I do wish the book were a bit easier to find at a reasonable price!

  6. Arun says:

    His first book – Obelists at Sea does have a clue finder – infact it is the most elaborate of them all running up to almost 3 pages!

  7. curtis evans says:

    It’s frustrating how rare Daly King’s other books are. They really should be reprinted in toto.

    • Absolutely – I’m not a kidle person yet but surely some enterprising publisher could be prevailed upon in the lower-risk era of e-publishing? Having said that, I don’t know what the rights situation is. One of the things about the Italian edition I read was a disclaimer that made it clear that they didn;t have access to the original text and were having to reprint a translation from decades ago and further that they had not in fact been able to contact the estate, presumably meaning that the fees for the reprint were in escrow.

  8. Pingback: Fedora’s 400,000 visits | Tipping My Fedora

  9. Pingback: C. Daly King (1895 – 1963) – A Crime is Afoot

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