Fatal Descent was originally published in 1939, and has been occasionally, but infrequently, reprinted since that date. It took me a long time to plough through this somewhat interesting, but ultimately unsatisfying tale, so long, in fact, that I rather lost my place along the way. Whether that’s a testament to my short attention span, or to the weakness of this novel, I’m not entirely certain.
When Sir Ernest Tallant is found dead in his private elevator, in the offices of Tallant Publishing, it appears to have been an impossible crime. The police struggle to find both a useful, clear motive and the killer himself (or herself). Many people appear to have a motive, including Tallant’s niece and successor, Patricia, her fiancée, and a handful of other key members of staff. But all of them also appear to have that most crucial of features… an alibi. However, when a second member of the firm is also murdered, the pool of suspects narrows, and the net begins to tighten. Will Dr. Glass and Inspector Hornbeam find the killer in time?
Fatal Descent appears to be a one-off both for John Dickson Carr, in his Carter Dickson guise, and John Rhode. I have not read Rhode prior to this book, but he appears to have written a good number of detective novels himself, and was a member, like Carr, of the famous Detection Club. However, the characters in Fatal Descent (originally titled Drop to His Death) are not to be found elsewhere in either author’s canon. Dr. Horatio Glass is a police coroner very much in the Gideon Fell / Henry Merrivale mould, while Inspector David Hornbeam acts as both Glass’s foil and his restraint. It is suggested by Carr biographer Douglas G. Greene (in The Man Who Explained Miracles) that Carr sought out Rhode for technical assistance to make his impossible murder viable, but that Carr himself did most of the writing. The ultimate style and tone is slightly different from Carr’s, to my untrained eye, but there are certainly substantial touches of a Dicksonian whimsey.
At the end of the day, though, this lesser-known work of Carr languishes in perhaps deserved obscurity, and although I’m glad to have read it, I am happier in a “ticking it off my check-list” sense, than pleased to have enjoyed a quality piece of writing. It’s a fine title for Carr / Dickson (and perhaps even Rhode) completists, but definitely not one for the wider public to trample their local bookseller to find. 2.5 of 5 stars.
Originally reviewed 20 September 2015.
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