Richard Merven is a bank clerk tasked with transporting a briefcase that contains important material for his branch. Upon exiting his taxi, he is attacked by a mugger, but succeeds in fending him off, though the altercation leaves him with several injuries. Expecting a heroes welcome, he receives nothing, and soon his resentment begins to be fostered by the alluring Lesley Barre, who eventually convinces him to help her rob the bank’s strong room. However, she double crosses him, and he is arrested and tried for the crime. Throughout his arrest, trial, and imprisonment, he retains a deep hatred of Lesley, which evidently worries Inspector Castle, who fears for the worst once his term is finished.
We now flash forward to six years later. Chief Inspector Castle receives two tickets to a theatrical production at The Janus in the mail, with the cryptic message “COME TO PADDINGTON FAIR” written on a piece of pasteboard included in the package. This piques his interest, and he invites Algy Lawrence to be his plus one. They attend the matinee; a mystery play called The Final Trophy, and in the final act, where a character is killed by another, a shot rings out from a viewing box and maniacal laughter fills the room. The main actress is now dead of a bullet wound, and the obvious murderer is caught, revealed to be Richard Merven. His victim? Lesley Barre, now utilizing the alias of Lesley Christopher.
CTPF is a unique detective story. It lounged for decades in obscurity – considered one of the rarest books in the entirety of the genre, it achieved an almost mythical status among collectors of impossible crime fiction. Luckily, James Pugmire of Locked Room International republished the novel along with two other Derek Smith stories after discovering the rights holder, and made the work available to the general public.
The theatrical setting that forms the foundation of the story and helps start it off is very well drawn. We get to see the little inner workings of the theater and all of the components that work into producing a successful play. The characters often rely on their places in the theater, and motivations even results from positions and aspirations with it, backstage jealousy and rivalry being chief among them. Smith utilizes the setting in the mechanics of the crime, and directly ties it into the overall narrative. The theater isn’t simply something you could replace for a country house or city apartment with little effect; its something the story relies on in an effort to craft its crimes.
What I find fascinating is the buildup to the resolution. The original crime is seemingly very possible, with any potential spark of an impossibility snuffed out by the circumstances of it. However, as the story progresses we gradually get the creation of various impossibilities. They formulate as more of the puzzle pieces fit together and as a result everything grows more mysterious as we move along. What starts off as a non impossible story quickly becomes almost unabashedly impossible, it’s rather delightful if I’m being honest.
There is of course a fatal flaw that I can’t ignore when discussing CTPF, and it’s the length and pacing of the story. The beginning is smooth and silky, while it does feel disconnected, interest is held and it comes together quite nicely when the murder occurs. The initial investigation of the crime, a few other incidents, and some point of view scenes keep the ship sailing, but we hit a barrier when the last third or so starts. Everything starts to drag along – it almost feels like a constant realization of old facts with no injections of new information or action. I was left hoping for the solution to be revealed with every turn of the page, just so something could happen. In retrospect there is much importance in this part in terms of addition to the solution, but from a reading experience it feels almost detrimental to the story.
When the solution is finally revealed, it’s a doozy. I came in expecting a solid mystery story with a pretty good solution, at least based on the reviews I had read, only to be blown away when the true ingenuity of the crime was revealed. There is so much audacity in terms of plotting and execution, and as a result we receive a truly awe inspiring solution. It reverses most of what we’ve read previous, while adding a original solution to an impossible dilemma. Gears click into place, and while everything previous might not have been exactly the greatest, it all fits. The plot reaches its fullest potential here, and a complex dance of clueing and character is completely uncovered. You always hope for a solution like this, and you get all that and more here.
Now comes the age old question: Is Come to Paddington Fair better than Whistle Up the Devil, Smith’s classic locked room mystery novel? My answer, no. While its solution just might be the superior, WUTD is simply a much better mix of atmosphere, pacing, and overall plot that CTPF. Fair has a much more lighter tone and writing style, which I enjoy, while Devil has more darkness and a heavy way of description. I think that with a little more of revision, Fair could have beaten its predecessor, but I’m happy we even got the chance to experience it at all!
In conclusion, Come To Paddington Fair is probably one of the hardest stories to rate that I’ve ever read. On one hand, it has a superb beginning and an incredible solution, while on the other it slogs for a decent chunk of the narrative. Sometimes it’s best to stay in the middle, and I think I’ll go there by saying it’s about a 4/5, not a complete masterpiece, but well worth the expense. The fact that Derek Smith never wrote an entire libraries worth of stories is criminal in and of itself, but at the end of the day, we’re lucky to have access to this story, and all the others by him.