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.
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).