Thursday, 17 January 2008

What is an Obelist?

C. Daly King was one of the most intriguing American writers of the Golden Age. His work could be fascinating, but also frustrating. He is best remembered for his short story collection The Curious Mr Tarrant, which features a number of ‘impossible crime’ situations, including a much-anthologised classic, ‘The Episode of the Nail and the Requiem’, as well as a fresh take on the Marie Celeste mystery. His six detective novels include Obelists at Sea, Obelists en Route and Obelists Fly High.

‘Obelist’ was a word that King made up. He defined it in Obelists at Sea as ‘a person of little or no value’ and then re-defined it in Obelists en Route as ‘one who harbours suspicion’. Why on earth you would invent a word, use it in your book titles, and then change your mind about what it means?

It beats me, but it illustrates Daly King’s quirky approach. He was a psychological theorist, author of books such as Beyond Behaviourism, which maybe explains things. It certainly explains, though it hardly excuses, the rambling debate about psychological theory in Obelists en Route (one footnote draws the reader’s attention to ‘as good an account of the hormic apologetics as can be found’ in a journal called ‘Psychologies’, which I’m sure is not the same as the glossy publication on sale in W.H.Smith.)

Julian Symons thought King wanted to demonstrate psychological theories through his elaborate whodunits, but if that is so, he wasn’t really successful. And yet there’s something about his work which compels interest, despite the failings. As Symons says, Obelists Fly High is ‘an astonishing performance…almost nothing is as it seems.’ True to form, King started the book with an epilogue and ended it with a prologue. As Symons said, the latter is likely to leave the reader ‘gasping and possibly indignant…There is a plan of the plane, and not one but two full pages given to the ‘reported movements’ and ‘actual movements’ of the characters at given times. Top this with the ‘Clue Finder’ which…suggests nearly forty points that might have led you to the murderer, and you have – well, certainly you have one of the most extraordinary detective puzzles of the twentieth century.’

Obelists En Route boasts no fewer than seven diagrams, a Clue Finder and a ‘bibliography of references’. Obelists at Sea under-achieves, with a measly five diagrams and no Clue Finder. I’ve never seen Clue Finders in any other detective novels, although I’ve heard it said that Elspeth Huxley used a similar device in one or two of her books. They were rather an appealing idea.

Daly King published three other detective novels. I found Bermuda Burial dull and disappointing. Arrogant Alibi and Careless Corpse are fabulously rare and I’ve never come across copies at an affordable price. But, because he was such a quirky writer, I will keep looking for them.


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