This historical mystery, set around the battle of Waterloo and involving a locked room murder, a phantom woman who only our hero believes exists, a mysterious ‘man in black’ and a duel in a hot air balloon, was for decades a ‘lost’ radio serial by the great John Dickson Carr. The story began on the eve of Napoleon’s defeat, when Captain Auden claims he fell in love with a young mysterious woman who subsequently vanished. One year later he is still looking for her, even though she was reported dead …
I submit this review for Bev’s Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge; and Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott at her fab Pattinase blog.
Tring: “I’ve still got my pistol. I’ll put a ball through the gas bag and we’ll go to glory like gentlemen. Be ready when I count three. One … (more faintly) … two ... (the voice weakens. We hear the loud hissing of gas.)“
In 1815 Captain Hugh Austen of the Grenadier Guards was wounded at the Battle of Waterloo, leaving him with a scar on his forehead. A year afterwards he still claims that in Brussels, three days before he was injured, he met a mysterious woman who stole his heart and then promptly vanished. He was warned off by a gruff, mysterious ‘man in black’ but he clings to the cameo of herself she left behind. But surely he is being set up – who walks around with a cameo of themselves? Still trying to find her, he is challenged by that all-round bounder Tommy Tring to go up a hot air balloon as part of a sinister wager from which only one of them will return. Is Tring connected to the mystery of the missing woman? Why is he so antagonistic? It eventually emerges that all is related to the death of the miserly Mrs Carver and the person hanged for her murder – yes, that’s right, the very woman who Austen has fallen for had been already executed well before their apparent meeting in Brussels, she has already been executed …
Mary: “Mrs Carver had her throat cut on the night of the eight of March. A thousand gold sovereigns were stolen out of her bandbox under her bed. Mrs Carver and I were alone in the house, except for two maids who were locked up in the attic. So they said that I did it, you see, because nobody else could have done it.”
I thoroughly enjoyed this historical romp, with its cliffhangers at the end of every episode (my favourite come at the end of episode three, with Tring and Austen in a balloon that is expelling its toxic gas into their faces, their only option to shoot into it and probably blow themselves up).
It was originally broadcast in 1941 on BBC radio as an 8-part serial from 10 February to 31 March on Monday evenings between 6.40 and 7 o’clock and introduced Valentine Dyall as ‘The Man in Black’, albeit a very different character from the narrator of Carr’s iconic anthology, Appointment with Fear, which he would only start to play some years later. Long thought lost (Carr rarely kept copies of his radio scripts), it was rescued from obscurity by intrepid researcher Tony Medawar and published by Doug Greene’s Crippen & Landru imprint in 1994. It reads extremely well, with the narrator navigating us through the story and Carr’s lively dialogue and stage directions painting vivid pictures with words. As was his wont, he also provides us with plenty of examples of arcane detail and ancient lore (we learn that to ‘try your hand at a wafer’ meant practising at a shooting range)
The runner: “Well, my bucko, not to put too fine a point on it, they’re for you. (Snarling) Stand fast or I’ll let daylight in you!”
The story ultimately explains all its many mysteries and is a delight, as are the various characters, most especially the lawyer Godfrey who, when offered a drink, always claims to ‘seldom touch strong waters’ but invariably succumbs to temptation and gets fairly squiffy. In fairness, one has to concede that Speak of the Devil does have at its centre a gigantic, hard-to-swallow coincidence, with Tring and Austen’s balloon just happening to land near the house where the phantom woman and the ‘man in black’ are to be found. Even in 1816 the odds against that were astronomical! Despite being patently absurd this doesn’t actually hurt the story that much because Austen could have found it in another more pedestrian way eventually – this is just much livelier!
I have provided an index to Carr’s radio plays here. This edition, with a long intro by Medawar on the history of Carr’s historical fiction, and an amusing Carrian set of ‘Notes for the Curious’ at the end, is well worth finding and hanging on to.
Availability: Sadly this broadcast appears to be lost …
Speak of the Devil (BBC Home Service from 10 February to 31 March 1941)
Director: Val Gielgud
Producer: Val Gielgud
Scriptwriter: John Dickson Carr
Cast: Carleton Hobbs (narrator), James McKechnie (Hugh Austen), Betty Hardy (Lady Cynthia Mercer), Fredenck Lloyd (The Prince Regent), Austin Trevor (Tommy Tring)
I submit this review for Bev’s 2015 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘historical mystery’ category: