Thriller Author James Corbett’s Mystery Writing Genius

Writing Essay at “The Genius of James Corbett” by William F. Deeck

Following my Fan Guest of Honor speech at the Malice Domestic Mystery Convention in1992, the popularity of thriller writer James Corbett, strangely neglected in his own time, has grown exponentially from one reader to eight, four of whom are not at present institutionalized.

Alarm and despondency has been the reaction by many to this astonishing growth, but they obviously have never sampled the joys that Corbett’s prose, plots, and characterization provide. As Bill Pronzini remarked in dealing with The Merrivale Mystery in Son of Gun in Cheek, reading Corbett is “about as stimulating as watching grass grow.” Can an author achieve greater approbation?

Someone, whose name I forget, once said about a writer, whose name I don’t recall, that the writer had spent the morning putting a comma in a sentence, and then had spent the afternoon taking it out. That is how I see James Corbett–writing, rewriting, polishing, perfecting, until each sentence gleams with a brilliant clarity. Without question, all of Corbett’s books qualify for that high praise a critic once bestowed on a novel: “Written on a typewriter, by a typewriter.”

Much has been made of P. G. Wodehouse’s mastery of metaphor and simile. His efforts were a mere nothing compared to Corbett’s. I remind the few of you who plodded through the text of my speech of that great line, “Your steps are feline and catlike”–a sentence Wodehouse, let’s face it, was incapable of writing–to demonstrate Corbett’s superior talent. Following are some Corbett similes, unmatched, I venture to say, by any other writer:

He was like a fish in deep water.

It was like looking for an ostrich in a forest of monkeys!

Pritchard sat up like a full-blown geranium.

Examples of Corbett’s way with words when not employing unique similes are too numerous and incredulous to quote. But I will subject you to some of them anyhow.

Amazed inquiry sat on her face.

They knew the anticlimax was at hand, and their satisfaction was unbounded.

I wish you would not speak so loud,” she cautioned. “There is no guarantee that one of those Yard men may not be a lip reader.”

You have been a misogynist long enough. It’s not good to remain in a state of protracted animation.”

He moved forward as he spoke with a shuffling gait.

He wondered if there was just the flicker of contempt in her gaze, yet he saw she was criticising him with a vast curiosity.

It was a morning gown of blue silk, one that stressed her grace of figure and matched her complexion.

She was visibly exid, yet not a vestige of her features betrayed her.

Nothing could have surprised the astonishment on his countenance.

The man in the grey suit looked uneasy, but his features soon regained control.

Although in evening dress, there was something repulsive about the man’s personality.

I think your philosophy deplorable,” Tessa murmured with a Sphinx-like groan.

In addition to being an incomparable prose stylist, Corbett was an undisputed authority on medicine. Indeed, some Corbettologists have speculated that he must have been a medical student before turning his vast talents to writing, and they have concluded that his patients’ gain was mystery writing’s loss. Or was it the other way round?

Some of you, I trust, will recall the doctor’s diagnosis in The Merrivale Mystery: “The two half-brothers are developing into congenital idiots.”

Additional examples of Corbett’s medical expertise abound. In Murder Minus Motive, the police ask a pathologist to examine a suspect and report on his sanity. The pathologist is, of course, aware of the difficulties of such an examination, and admits that it might take “an hour, an hour and a half- perhaps two hours or longer, even.” His examination consists of blood-pressure tests the next day.

In the same novel another suspect’s sanity is tested by a different pathologist. Though blood pressure is not mentioned, the second doctor does do a thorough job with “a pair of stethoscopes.”

In Murder at Red Grange the “greatest neurologist in Europe” is asked his opinion of the cause of death of a young man. His conclusion: “Something may have gone wrong with the youngster’s brain, and I do not deal in that realm.”

A fascinating diagnosis of the cause of a death occurs in The Monster of Dagenham Hall: “When a galvanic shock is caused to the system, Masefield, the recipient may collapse through fear without understanding the cause, and the mind may conjure up the supranatural, which is different.”

A doctor in Her Private Murder discusses a patient’s baffling symptoms: “His pulse is gradually growing weaker and even the arteries of his blood are drying up.”

Corbett’s heroes and detectives were as nearly as bright as their author. Here is an example from Murder at Red Grange in which a famous criminologist goes about his job:

“Let me see. You have just returned from abroad?””Quite.” Peterson subjected that word to a fierce analysis, never removing his eyes from the speaker. Was the baronet telling the truth? What lay behind his statement?

From the same book another example of Peterson’s acuity:

“Peterson knew him as a trustworthy colleague, his chief fault being failure to see the obvious, which meant he possessed no originality.”

An example from The Merrivale Mystery:

“…He [George Merrivale the invalid] could change his expression without effort, and this signified great mobility of thought and temperament. Serge saw at a glance that he was dealing with an intellectual.”

More telling yet is this quotation from The Man They Could Not Kill demonstrating a Corbett hero engaged in a cunning negotiation:

“Supposing the girl was forced to reveal her secret, what terms are you prepared to offer?” Meredith drew a deep breath. “Are you sane?” he asked hoarsely. “My God, Letitia, you do not know what you ask. The secret held by the girl Grayson could hardly be purchased by Downing Street. It is not for us to dictate terms. It is for you to state them!”

Combining both intelligence and medical knowledge, the detective in Murder While You Wait orders that a murder victim’s stab wound be X-rayed to discover if the knife that killed him is the same one used in an earlier murder.

Investigations of Corbett’s novels continue apace and, to use Corbett’s favorite word, stupendous discoveries are being made every decade or so.

Recently an expert spent two months reading Her Private Murder and reports that his full recovery is imminent. One person who has owned The Merrivale Mystery for more than 10 years has assured me that someday he will get beyond the first page of that fascinating tome.

Perhaps they or someone else with more stamina will elucidate the two most pressing questions regarding this literary genius. First, what language was it that Corbett was master of? Second, has anyone living managed to finish reading Agent No. 5?

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A well-known figure in the mystery world, William F. Deeck has had more than a score of articles and over 500 book reviews published in The Armchair Detective, The Poisoned Pen, CADS, The Mystery Fancier, The Mystery Readers Journal and The Criminal Record. A version of this essay was first published in The Armchair Detective, Vol. 27, No. 4, Fall, 1994, it is reprinted here by kind permission of the author.


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