“The Derek Smith Omnibus,” by Derek Howe Smith (Locked Room International)


Whistle Up the Devil; Come to Paddington Fair; Model for Murder; The Imperfect Crime

By Derek Howe Smith

Locked Room International. 621 pp. Paperback, $29.99

There are detective stories, and there are crime novels. These days the rage is for the latter, and tales of our mean streets — or the mean streets of Scandinavia, Scotland or Sicily — regularly make the bestseller list. More than ever, the crime novel functions as a lens through which we examine the nature of our society or reflect on the mysteries of the human heart. The more vile, corrupt and gruesome a book’s characters and their actions, the truer the picture of the way we live now. Or so we are encouraged to believe.

By contrast, detective stories — whodunits, cozies, Golden Age puzzles — are commonly dismissed as utterly artificial and old-fashioned, mere entertainments of the most inconsequential and embarrassing sort. Who, besides spinsters, tweedy academics and devotees of “Masterpiece Mystery” and Malice Domestic would bother with them?

In fact, like other fixed forms, such as the sonnet and the pastoral, the detective story should be judged according to the beauty and elegance of its execution. The elements may be traditional — the isolated country house, the body in the library, the commedia dell’arte company of stock characters — but their ingenious and artful combination is what creates masterpieces such as “Whistle Up the Devil” and “Come to Paddington Fair,” both included in “The Derek Smith Omnibus.” Such fair-play mysteries are, above all, intensely self-conscious of their ludic qualities: They test our skill as readers, employing every form of misdirection in their clueing, yet at their best leave us satisfied that, had we been a little shrewder, we might have grasped the truth before the final pages.

Within this puzzle-oriented genre, the most constraining and hence the most aesthetically pleasing subcategory is the locked room murder, a.k.a. the miracle crime. In “Whistle Up the Devil,” a man intent on defying a family curse barricades himself in a sealed and closely watched study in which there are no secret panels or cubbyholes. Tradition says that a ghostly assailant will stab the inhabitant of this ancient room at precisely midnight. Stuff and nonsense, of course! Still, two guards are placed near the only door into the room; another stands outside to be sure that no one approaches its French windows. Yet when a scream is heard and the door broken open, the man within will be found dead with a knife in his back. How was it done? And by whom?

The great master of homicide within what is sometimes facetiously called “a hermetically sealed chamber” is John Dickson Carr (who also wrote as Carter Dickson). Look at any list of this sub-sub genre’s most ingenious works, and it will include at least a half-dozen of his books, starting with “The Three Coffins” “The Crooked Hinge” and “The Judas Window.” Clayton Rawson’s “Death from a Top Hat” (featuring the magician-detective The Great Merlini) will also be on the list, along with Hake Talbot’s “Rim of the Pit” and Randall Garrett’s “Too Many Magicians.” So, too, Israel Zangwill’s “The Big Bow Mystery,” which remains the locus classicus of one particular twist, and Gaston Leroux’s “The Mystery of the Yellow Chamber,” which was John Dickson Carr’s own pick for the best locked-room mystery of all time.

As I count myself an aficionado of such stories, I am ashamed to confess that until a few weeks ago I had never heard of Derek Howe Smith (1926-2002). But just start “Whistle Up the Devil” or “Come to Paddington Fair,” both set in England during the 1950s, and you will do what I did — sigh with audible pleasure. Here are two masterly works of subtle, highly imaginative intricacy. The third novel included in this omnibus is Smith’s hitherto unpublished homage to the famous detective Sexton Blake, but I’m saving it — and the short story “The Imperfect Crime” — for sometime later this fall. It’s always wise to keep some good wine in reserve for a long evening.

Algy Lawrence — an unfortunately frou-frou name, in my view — is a fair-haired romantic young man in his 20s who worked in intelligence during his military service. A strictly amateur investigator of independent means, he is nonetheless a good friend of Chief Inspector Stephen Castle, who recognizes the sleepy brilliance of this Jimmy Stewart look-alike. While Lawrence explains that he solves crimes as “a service to society,” he is also searching for love.

“Whistle Up the Devil” appeared originally in 1953 and is now a scarce book. “Come to Paddington Fair” is even rarer. With typical obtuseness, British publishers turned down Smith’s second Algy Lawrence mystery, although it strikes me as even finer than the first. But in 1997, a Japanese collector agreed to finance a limited edition of, reportedly, just 80 copies. So this is its first American publication.

Mysteries of any sort must deal with the difficulty of distinguishing between appearance and reality, truth and illusion. So it’s quite natural that many Golden Age classics are set in theaters. In “Come to Paddington Fair,” Chief Inspector Castle receives, anonymously, two front row seats to a matinee performance of “The Final Trophy.” Mystified but intrigued, he takes Algy along. At the play’s climax, a stage revolver filled with blanks is used to shoot a certain character in the heart, but on this particular afternoon, a second, real gun is simultaneously fired from one of the theater’s boxes. Algy captures the assailant.

It’s obviously an open-and-shut case, with scores of witnesses, including a policeman at front row center. And yet the riddles and red herrings are only just beginning. As we all know, a lot more goes on backstage than a theater’s audience is aware of. In short order, Smith undercuts every obvious explanation of how the murder was committed and by whom. And, astonishingly, he keeps on doing this all the way to the very end. Similarly, in “Whistle Up the Devil,” Smith caps his initial impossible murder — the stabbing described earlier — with another one, equally miraculous: A person of interest in that first death is found strangled in a locked jail cell, which nobody could have entered or left.

Smith really is audaciously clever: For instance, he likes to casually drop a tiny hint that a close reader leaps upon as, to use a Sherlockian adjective, suggestive. But just as one is feeling quite smug, a character will present our very own suspicions to Algy, who will convincingly cut them down.

If you’re a fan of traditional detective stories, “The Derek Smith Omnibus” will have you scratching your little gray cells and purring with pleasure. Smith’s prose may be no more than efficient and Algy Lawrence a bit too moony around pretty young women, but complicated murder mysteries don’t come any better. And yet Smith’s books are more than just puzzles: In the end, these crimes are committed for simple, deeply human reasons we can all understand.

Dirda reviews books every Thursday for The Washington Post.