Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Blue Air Message

上空 舞うもの達と Over Drive
紙吹雪のように鳥が舞う キレイね
 『Over Drive』(Garnet Crow)

In Over Drive with those dancing high in the sky
I want to be surrounded by a world of blue
The birds are fluttering around like confetti, how pretty
"Over Drive" (Garnet Crow)

I don't fly that often, but only once have I experienced the "Is there a doctor on the plane?" myself. There were none present, by the way (or least nobody said they were).

C. Daly King's Obelist Fly High (1935) starts with a visit by Dr. Cutter to the New York City Police, as he has received an alarming letter, stating: "YOU WILL DIE APRIL THIRTEENTH AT NOON EXACTLY CENTRAL TIME". The death threat is especially dangerous, because Dr. Cutter happens the only surgeon on American soil at the moment who can perform a certain life-saving operation, and luck has it the Secretary of State, who is also his own brother, is in desperate need of that very procedure right now. Captain Michael Lord is given the mission to travel  together with Dr. Cutter and his entourage (his nieces and assistent) in their trip from New York to Reno and protect the doctor from harm. After some diversionary tactics plotted by Lord, the Cutter entourage makes it safely into a plane heading for Reno (with stops in between). However, on April thirteenth, at noon (Central Time), Dr. Cutter does indeed drop dead from his seat. Who could've committed the murder on the small plane?

Like many people in today's world, I too have to think a lot of time zones and stuff while working, but as I live in a country with just one time zone, I do have to admit I had never thought of having to specify a time zone in a murder announcement (within one country).

First time I read something by Daly King actually. I'll leave the details about him as a writer to other writers (the internet is a wonderful thing), because let's be honest, considering I know next to nothing about him, I'd be simply copying from other writers. Anyway, I first learned of this book while I was reading up on Ayukawa Tetsuya, a Japanese writer who wrote a lot of (great!) alibi-cracking mysteries and mysteries set on trains (transport). With novels like Obelists at Sea and Obelists Fly High, it appeared Daly King would very likely be a writer who could interest me, so I picked up the first easily available release.

Overall, I think Obelists Fly High is an entertaining mystery novel, but one that has some obvious flaws. First of all, this story is probably much longer than it should've been, because it drags quite a lot from the midsection on. There is only one murder in this novel, and it's also mostly set inside a small plane (they do have to change planes a couple of times), so everything feels incredibly cramped, both in terms of 'space for the characters to move in' as well as the focus of the story. Over the course of the story, we'll see several characters propose theories as to the how and who of the murder, but these theories are not like those you'll see in a Berkeley novel, or something like the theories in Kyomu he no Kumotsu. The theories are incredibly simple, and mostly driven by psychology rather than a logical analysis of the cirumstances, so they don't really feel satisfying. They're really nothing but conjecture, with nothing to prove or disprove them.

Speaking of that, it appears Daly King was a psychologist, so that would explain the emphasis on psychology in the story, though I am not sure whether I can call his usage of it in this book a success. On a side note, this book has some very old-fashioned views on topics like homosexuality, presented through the mouth of protagonist Captain Lord, and I am not sure whether they're "character traits", or more likely seeing how it's presented here, Daly King's personal views. But when you have characters discussing theories about who the murderer is based on 'the perverted psychology of homosexuality'... It's tiring to read, especially as I already noted that these theories hinge on little less than these psychological analyses..

A fair amount of the story is taken up by a very detailed examination in the alibis of all the people on the plane. Let me confess right away that I had to think back to Aosaki Yuugo's Suizokukan no Satsujin right away, which revolved around the alibis of 11(!) suspects. I really didn't like it there and I still didn't like it in Obelists Fly High. It's too detailed, too many time stamps that say too little. Ayakawa Tetsuya has also written novels that revolve around the whereabouts of persons/objects down to the minute (Kuroi Trunk, Doukeshi no Ori amongst others), but they were about the movements of ONE person/object at a time. In Obelists Fly High, you have more than ten persons to keep track off, with some persons vouching for other persons' alibis at set times. I just lose interest with all these interlinked alibis. The final resolution of this alibi part is also ridiculously simple and should not have needed a set-up like this.

The book does have an interesting structure, starting with the epilogue, and ending with the prologue. The final solution presented is... I think supposed to be very surprising, except for the fact it is not. I think the premise behind the solution is great though, and I think it's the best part of the book, but it is also so obvious because of the way the narrative tries to cast as little suspicion as possible in that direction, almost conspiciously so. The way it was done, would also demand for some of the characters in this story to act as stupidly as possible. Seriously, Captain Lord is horrible as a detective character. The things he does are idiotic at times, and not in the hahahaha-Roger-Sheringham-oh-you-silly-fop way, but oh-my-god-why-would-you-even way (seriously,  what eventually happens in that plane is all his fault). In fact, he even creates a kind of plot mistake through his actions. Seriously, the plot as presented in Obelists Fly High contains a rather fatal mistake and it's all Lord's fault (though one could "explain" it by saying that shows how bad a detective Lord is).

I did like the Clue Finder at the end of the book a lot. It's a list of all the hints contained in the text, complete with page and line reference, all sorted by category (clues to how, who, motive etc.). It's a great, and daring way to 'prove' a story is fair to the reader, and it's actually quite fun as a reader to see how many of the hints you picked up. This is not a Queen story though, so a lot of the clues are more psychological (of course), than physical or based on logic.

Which reminds me, there is a moment in the book where Captain Lord declares he knows who the murderer is, similar to the moment right before Queen or other writers would insert a Challenge to the Reader. The thing is: there is no reason for that moment to happen then. In Arisugawa's works for example, such Challenges always follow after the introduction of the final, decisive clue. So the detective character couldn't solve the crime until they got posssession of that particular clue. That is a logical structure. In Obelists Fly High, Captain Lord is sitting on the same clues for a while, when he suddenly figures out what happens, without any stimulus for why then, and not earlier. It's really weird, because narrative-wise, there is no reason why he couldn't have figured it out earlier.

Like Berkeley's work, Obelists Fly High does obviously takes some cues from the anti-mystery, that use the form of a mystery novel to criticize the possibilities and tropes of the genre itself (for example, seeing Captain Lord basically screwing up in a lot of ways even though he probably means well). It works quite well in this novel actually, and is one of the reasons why I did have a good feeling about this book on the whole.

As I'm lining up my ideas on this book, you might think I might not have liked Obelists Fly High, but despite the annoyances I named, I really did enjoy the book overall. I think a lot of the ideas in the book are really sound, and even if they weren't all great in terms of execution, in the end, if you were to ask me yay or nay with a pistol pointed at me inside a flying plane, I'd say yay (there are of course many examples where a botched idea ends up in a complete failure). I for one am quite curious to other novels by C. Daly King. 


  1. Well, I'm glad you got something out of this, because I bloody hated it! I actually think it's bad enough to put people off the genre for good, without any of Berkeley's deliberate fun or attempt at legitimate invention (as you more or less point out).

    Sure the poisoning trick is clever, but that makes it one good idea in 300 pages. I see this as about a short story's worth of plot with added unfunny character names and lots of padding describing people sitting in a plane and not much happening. Easily one of the most disappointing GAD novels I've ever read.

    Tastes are a funny thing, eh?

    1. It's definitely not an even novel by any standards, so I can definitely understand if you didn't like it at all. To be honest, I'm not all too sure about the intentions of King with this novel myself, but I think that at the core, there's enough interesting stuff going on in terms of 'core mystery plot' and anti-mystery play IMHO

    2. King reminds me a bit of Clayton Rawson in this regard -- I'm not sure of Rawson's intentions in his novels, but there's always at least one decent idea in there somewhere.

      It's difficult not to feel like there's a very good short story rather than a novel in the setup here, and I enjoyed the couple of Mr. Tarramr stories by King that I've read...maybe her, like Rawson, was more successful in the shorter form.

  2. The author wrote 6 novels, of which three are Obelist books. Of these, the hardest to get seems to be Obelists En Route, of which I have never even seen a copy posted for sale. Your best bet may be The Complete Curious Mr. Tarrant (Crippen & Landru), which is mainly impossible crime stories

    1. Thanks for the pointer. Obelists At Sea and Fly High are still available in print in Japanese, and the Japanese En Route can still be picked up used for a not too ridiculous price, so I might go that way.