You may not have heard of this work by the great John Dickson Carr, but that’s OK as it isn’t a novel or short story – it was in fact his debut as a radio dramatist. Recordings of the serial appear lost but the original scripts were made available in the Douglas Greene anthology Fell and Foul Play. And as it had an interesting after-life in a later play that does survive, I thought it would be a worthwhile subject for today’s celebration of all things Carr.
The following is offered for Todd’s Tuesday’s Overlooked Film/Media meme over at Sweet Freedom blog and the Tuesday Night Bloggers meme, hosted today by Curtis at The Passing Tramp (the poster is by the lovely Bev).
Here is the original BBC listing from the Radio Times:
A detective problem by John Dickson Carr to be produced in three fortnightly instalments. Tonight listeners will be witnesses of a murder; in the second instalment they will attend the trial of the suspected murderer, and m the third they will learn from Dr. Gideon Fell what really happened and why.
Carr clearly wanted to make the most of the radio medium right from the the start, so we begin in Fell’s home while he is being interviewed for a BBC broadcast. Fell tells the interviewer, evoking a classic Chestertonian paradox, that everyone was wrong in the Corbin Case, the prosecution as well as the defence. In 1932 Matthew Corbin had been found shot in his home on the night that his younger brother John had come home to introduce the family to Mary, his fiancée. It later emerged that Matthew had defended Mary in a murder trial in which she was acquitted, though it is said she subsequently confessed her guilt, leading him to leave the profession. She is tried for the murder of Matthew and sentenced to death, the jury having found against the killer partly because the shot that killed Corbin was cruelly shot while he was holding his arms up. But Fell now says things were not what they seemed:
Dr Fell: The judge was wrong. The jury was wrong. The prosecution was wrong. The defence was wrong
Interviewer: But Doctor, everybody couldn’t be wrong.
Dr Fell: Sir, you do not know your own countrymen.
In the opening instalment we get the original crime layed out for us while in part two we concentrate on the trial. For the finale Inspector Hadley is brought in and we return to Fell’s home where he will reveal, live on air, what really happened for a thrilling climax. The serial is tremendously entertaining and there are lots of bits of cleverness and assorted red herrings to keep you guessing. There are flaws in the script though as Mary’s trial hangs on various characters lying consistently without actually conspiring together, which makes for a clever but, perhaps only on reflection, highly implausible story. The twist ending is an absolutely beauty however, virtually unique in the genre, and the crucial bit of evidence, hidden in plain sight from the beginning, is very well handled too. Sadly no recording in known to survive, but luckily for us Carr re-used the plot for a different play several years later, The Clock Strikes Eight, and this one does survive. This was produced in 1944 for Appointment With Fear, the classic BBC series that Carr created based on his experiences on Suspense for CBS.
Dr Fell: You wake up as though from a nightmare, with the feeling you’ve been asleep a very long time. The room is cold and nearly dark, with the faint glimmer of a fire almost out. Slowly, very slowly, you being to realise it is a room you have never seen before. That fact above all strikes at you though a mist of fear. There’s a queer atmosphere, like old stone and disinfectant and no sound at all in that dim room, except …
Helen Barton wakes up confused and cold, surrounded by strangers, one friendly, one hostile. She is told it is December, four months later than she thinks. Helen is now in the condemned cell of a prison and is about to be executed for shooting her fiancée even though she claimed to be suffering from amnesia. She now claims that this cloud from he mind has now lifted but non one but fell believes this and she has but a few hours left to live. Apart from the set-up, the circumstances of the crime plot are identical to those of the Corbin script – the victim was shot with their hands raised and the woman was right there at the time.
Dr Fell is at the prison talking to its governor and is told that the amnesia claim was thought to be a sham – and that Helen might not have been executed had it not been that the victim was shot with their hands raised. The solution to the case, including its central clue, is shared with Who Killed Matthew Corbin? but being only a half hour in length, the later play is devoid of most of the red herrings, which proves to be an advantage. It also can’t manage to stunning surprise ending of the earlier serial, but otherwise this is a much more atmospheric and compact play and works beautifully, especially its stunning opening as Helen finally comes out of her coma only to realise that she is about to die – easily one of Carr’s best radio mysteries.
The Clock Strikes Eight can be listened to online (see above) or downloaded from Radio Detective Story Hour or purchased on CD as part of the BBC’s Appointment With Fear release that brings together the few remaining instalments of the series.
Who Killed Matthew Corbin?
Broadcast: BBC Home Service, 27 December 1939, 7 January 1940, 14 January 1940
Director / Producer: John Cheatle
Script: John Dickson Carr
Cast: Gordon McLeod (Dr Gideon Fell); Thea Holme (Mary Stevenson); Geoffrey Wincott (John Corbin); Valentine Dyall (Arnold Corbin); Barbara Couper (Helen Gates), Bryan Powley (judge), D A Clarke-Smith (prosecutor), Ivor Barnard (defence)
The Clock Strikes Eight / Appointment with Fear
Broadcast: BBC Home Service, 18 May 1944
Director / Producer: Martin C Webster
Script: John Dickson Carr
Theme music: Bernard Herrmann
Cast: Valentine Dyall (Your Storyteller, the Man in Black), Richard George (Dr Fell); Grizelda Hervey (Helen Barton); Gladys Spencer (First wardress); Ann Codrington (Second wardress) Richard Williams (Colonel Andrews); Basil Jones (Herbert Gale); Frank Cochrane (Harris)
I submit this review for Bev’s Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt in the ‘shadowy figure’ category from the Fell and Foul Play cover: