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The Curious Mr Tarrant

Page history last edited by Jon 14 years, 10 months ago

King, C Daly - The Curious Mr. Tarrant (1935)


by Mike Grost


The Curious Mr. Tarrant is a collection of stories, most of which deal with impossible crimes. They star detective Trevis Tarrant, who appeared mainly in King's short stories; Michael Lord was the series detective in many King novels. Tarrant would later appear in The Episode of the Demoiselle D'Ys (1946), the above mentioned unpublished novel. I have no idea if the manuscript survives; the manuscript of Hake Talbot's third book seems permanently lost, for example.


King's work is full of horror. He likes to depict bizarre religious rituals as part of his horror atmosphere. These rituals often seem to involve cycles of time: the Aztec cycles in "The Codex' Curse", the repetitions of the Requiem in "The Nail and the Requiem", the nightly events on the highway in "The Headless Horrors". Light and darkness, and their alteration are also important elements in King's storytelling, adding both drama, and contributions to the puzzle plots. There is also a theme of "policemen in jeopardy", that seems to involve their uniforms. King seemed to have a special sympathy for these "hard young men", as he put it, and their lives seem to be in danger in his tales. One of the best locked room tales in The Curious Mr. Tarrant, "The Episode of the Nail and the Requiem" (1935), oddly anticipates The Silence of the Lambs, of all things. The mad killer's escape from the box-like penthouse in King, seems oddly similar to Hannibal's escape from his box-like cage toward the end of the movie (I've never read the book). King's tale, in turn, bears a family resemblance to MacKinlay Kantor's "The Light at Three O'Clock" (1930). Other possible influences on King's fiction are discussed in the articles on Stuart Palmer and Sax Rohmer.


King's impossible crime technique seems to focus on hidden places and hidden spaces. Although presided over by images of women, never living women, men seem to emerge from these spaces, or be swallowed up by them. The images of women are naked, and emphasize their sexuality. Perhaps these hidden spaces are womb symbols. They also seem to have a magic or ritual quality to them.


King's horror motif contrasts oddly with the country club, fun young couples background of his Watson, Jerry Phelan. Phelan, his girlfriend, and his sister, who winds up dating detective Tarrant, seem right out of the world later to be occupied by such Bright Young Couples as seen in the works of Q. Patrick, or The Norths, by the Lockridges. "The Episode of the Tangible Illusion" (1935) does much to characterize Phelan and his family, and has some pleasant romance. It is set in a small town in New Jersey; King himself lived in Summit, New Jersey, and frequently set his works either in that state, or in nearby New York City. Another set of perennial characters in King are the mild mannered, ineffectual authority figures of various institutions where the horror is taking place, who have clearly lost control of their turf. These include the museum director in "Codex", the apartment manager in "Nail", and the police chief in "Headless Horrors".


Not all of King is horror based. "The Episode of the Vanishing Harp" is a country house, Golden Age style mystery, complete with a wealthy couple, the family secretary, the family banker, and the family physician. It is a pleasant enough piece of storytelling, but its locked room problem's solution, while fair and believable, is easily guessed.


King is far from being my favorite author. Just as in Clayton Rawson, there is something distasteful about King. King's strongest suit is his ability to create suspense. His better tales sweep one along as a reader, and show some real excitement, as well as some creepiness in the horror department. But they often turn upon clichés, including the disagreeable ethnic stereotypes of their era. And their mystery plots tend to be obvious, and easily figured out. There is often only one real suspect, and sure enough, at the end he did it - not much of a use of the whodunit potential of the mystery tale. "The Episode of the Nail and the Requiem", however, succeeds as a puzzle plot tale - it is a significant contribution to the locked room story. By contrast, King's version of the Mary Celeste, "Torment IV", is ridiculous, one of the all time dumb mystery tales. Caveat lector! (Which could mean either "Let the reader beware"; or "Beware of Hannibal Lector" - not bad advice either way. This is my first Latin pun.)

The Later Trevis Tarrant tales


After 1944, King began a second series of Tarrant tales, three of which eventually appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.


Crippen & Landru has republished the Tarrant stories, together with four additional tales not in the first collection, as [The Complete Curious Mr. Tarrant] (2003). Three of these later tales add considerably to the mystery value of the series as a whole.


"The Episode of the Little Girl Who Wasn't There" (1944) is a locked room story. It is full of ingenious ideas. It keeps proposing different solutions to its central riddle, in the tradition of Anthony Berkley's The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929), and other Golden Age multi-solutioned tales. The story is hard to read, and lacks gracefulness. It is perhaps more intriguing than fun. But still, it shows lots of thinking. Aspects hearken back to "The Episode of the Nail and the Requiem", and can be considered as a development of the ideas in that tale.


"The Episode of the Sinister Invention" (1946) is a minor pastiche of Sherlock Holmes. Aside from the zany inventions mentioned in the tale, the main interest here is some of Tarrant's use of deductive reasoning. Both this tale and the previous one show Tarrant functioning as an armchair detective. The hall where the murder takes place is another of King's rooms. King here deduces some architectural features of the hall from the story told him about the killing there by his policeman friend. Once again, King shows an interest in the engineering and construction of a room. And here, these features are made the center of logical deduction, an interesting extension of King's ideas.


"The Episode of the Perilous Talisman" (1951) is a combination fantasy and mystery story. Such hybrid works are fairly common in the sf world. This tale is nicely done, with some clever ideas, and King's patented ability to create suspense. Although the plot deals with a small box, the ideas in the story seem oddly architectural. The box is of the oblong dimensions favored by King for his locked rooms, and is a similar complex engineering construction. The box also has features that recall "The Episode of the Tangible Illusion" (1935). King's interest in light and dark is also present here. This seems to be King's final work of fiction published during his lifetime.


The Egyptian box here is "a foot long by about eight inches wide". This means the box is roughly in the Golden Ratio. There is much discussion today if ancient Egyptian architects consciously used the Golden Ratio in their work.


"The Episode of the Absent Fish" was not published till long after King's death (EQMM April 1979). It is an imaginative story, in the tradition of "The Nail and the Requiem". Like that earlier story, it is a locked room problem, which takes place in an architecturally complex penthouse apartment. King's "The Episode of the Tangible Illusion" is also architectural in subject. King was fascinated with architecture, and many of his most creative works deal with it. Even when it plays little role in the mystery plot, such as the New Jersey highway landscapes in "The Headless Horrors" and Obelists Fly High, it is a fascinating part of the tale. King likes the engineering aspects of architecture, such as the infrastructure of the buildings, machinery in them, such as elevators or gas stations, and their industrial construction. King's creative use of architecture is part of Golden Age mystery tradition, while his interest in their engineering aspects is relatively personal and unique.


This is a frustrating book: it combines an enormous potential with an ultimate failure to face up to it. There are eight stories here about the Philo-Vance like dilettante Trevis Tarrant, who lives a life of luxury in Manhattan with a manservant who is a Japanese spy. His narrator is his friend and would-be brother-in-law Jerry Phelan.


Like Carr, King takes chances; sometimes these come off, as in the excellent stories "The Episode of the Vanishing Harp" and "The Episode of the Nail and the Requiem". The first suffers only from a touch of Freudianism and a slight tendency to melodrama: the second is absolutely perfect and couldn't have been bettered. If Daly had been able to keep up this quality throughout he would deserve a place in the front rank of GAD writers.


But he couldn't, or chose not to, and so we have second-rate stories too - "The Episode of the Codex' Curse" and "The Episode of the Man With Three Eyes" merely scrape by. "The Episode of the Tangible Illusion" is entirely predictable and "The Episode of Torment IV" relies on one of those dreary Horrors Unknown to Science, but not, alas, to pulp fiction. "The Episode of the Headless Horrors" is grisly racist fare which casts the police as bumbling morons.


Did King realise he was setting up expectations he couldn't fulfil? It would explain the last story, "The Episode of the Final Bargain", which concludes a long-winded ramble about psychic phenomena with a chance for Tarrant to bow out more or less gracefully. It would explain the references in the text of this story and "The Man With Three Eyes" to other Tarrant stories which appear never to have seen the light of day. It would help to explain how the series combines first-rate tales of deduction with the kind of feeble-minded occultism we associate with Carnacki the Ghost Finder.


If King genuinely believed this claptrap then he needed psychiatric help himself -- not the first psychologist to do so by any means. If he didn't then he has short-changed his readers with patronising nonsense. Don't buy the book: but read the two first-rate stories if you can.




Twelve stories that go beyond bizarre into the realms of pure fantasy—and succeed.  Many of the stories are “straight” crime problems, but have mythical or legendary backgrounds: Aztec curses, a new Mary Celeste, voodoo, and Irish legends.  The best of these, the famous “Episode of the Nail and the Requiem”, is a pure, materialist detective story, albeit with the clue in a mad artist’s painting.  In many of these, as in the Sherlock Holmes tales, there is little mystery of who the villains are; the main problem is how.  The two most imaginative stories in the book, and arguably the best, “The Final Bargain” and “The Perilous Talisman”, are more mystical, albeit with some crime elements in the latter.  These build on the mythical elements of the earlier tales, and have Tarrant discovering the lost wisdom / “magic” of the Ancient Egyptians, a higher civilisation.  These are splendidly original, and appeal to my taste for the outré.

·        Katoh—The Pink Panther?!

·        Suspicious of democracy—natural aristocracy / nobility praised in “Vanishing Harp”, and equality of man scorned in “Man with Three Eyes”.  Higher knowledge of Tarrant and Monsieur Hor.


Nick Fuller.


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