Max CarradosJanuary 9, 2011
I recently acquainted myself with Max Carrados, Ernest Bramah’s blind detective. The Carrados stories were first published in the Strand Magazine, alongside the Sherlock Holmes stories, and were apparently just as popular. And actually, they’re pretty good. They’re a little too fantastical, probably, but in such an entertaining way that I hesitate to call that a complaint.
The first story, “The Coin of Dionysius”, gives us the setup: Max Wynn takes on the name Carrados in order to inherit a fortune earned by fraud on the part of an American cousin. Later he gets poked in the eye with a twig while riding and is blinded. Meanwhile, his school friend Louis Calling has become a lawyer and, after being disbarred and changing his name to Carlyle, a private detective. Carlyle has what may be a forged tetradrachm on his hands, and consults Carrados, who is a noted numismatist. Tetradrachm and numismatist, incidentally, are both words that I really enjoy.
Carrados has only to touch the forged coin to know the name of the forger. Granted, he figures it out mostly because of his preexisting knowledge of the coin-collecting community, but still. The skills Bramah gives this guy are ridiculous — very often the other characters refuse to believe that he’s blind, and it’s hard to blame them. Anyway, he solves the case, and from then on Carlyle brings him all of his most difficult problems and Carrados solves them with ease. And maybe that’s my real complaint about these stories. Carrados never seems to have the slightest bit of trouble figuring anything out. The mysteries are outlandish, but they’re too easy for him. And the explanations of how he figures things out are great, but he’s kind of too smart to be an engaging character. I mean, he’s likable, but he’s also essentially unknowable. If Carlyle was engaging, it wouldn’t be a problem, but Carlyle constantly made me wonder why anyone would entrust him with any kind of intellectual problem at all, much less allow him to run a detective agency.
Really, though, the absence of characters one can engage with is barely a problem. The mysteries may not work as stories about people, but they do work as puzzles, and work well.