Obituary: Joseph Commings

Joseph Henry Commings, writer, born New York City 29 September 1914, died Harford Maryland 21 November 1992.

JOSEPH COMMINGS was the Grand Old Man of the Miracle Murder, a writer with an extraordinarily creative, not to say devious, imagination who, during the 1940s and 1950s, wrote a succession of dazzling 'Impossible Crime' stories, many comparing favourably with the very best of John Dixon Carr, the undisputed master of the genre.

The Commings approach was at times strikingly original. He was fond of death by shooting in his stories - a banal enough murder method in others' hands. Not in Commings's, who came up with, for example: death by shooting where the murderer could only have been hanging upside down when he pulled the trigger; or where, mere seconds after the deed was done, the smoking murder-weapon was produced from a sealed envelope in the next-door room; or where, at the time of death, the murder weapon was in an innocent person's pocket six blocks from the scene of the crime.

Most crime-fiction writers worth their salt ought to be able to dream up brain-racking problems and situations to baffle their readers. That is easy enough. The real trick is to deliver a solution which is not crass, ludicrous or feeble, and leaves no loose ends, and Commings's genius lay in his ability not only to invent baffling and bizarre problems but to explain all neatly, logically, entertainingly and, above all, and within the special parameters of the plot itself, utterly fairly. And he pulled this trick off again and again.

Born in 1913, Joe Commings attended first grade at high school, thereafter educating himself. While leading a peripatetic existence during the 1930s, he began writing for the newspapers, graduating to detective fiction in the Second World War (in which he served in the USAF). His first stories were scribbled out in a pup tent in Sardinia, within the sound of battle, to amuse his comrades.

After the war he cracked the pulp market in the dying days of pulp magazines, his stories appearing in 10-Story Detective, Ten Detective Aces, Hollywood Detective and even (such was his ingenuity at creating impossible-crime situations out of the most unlikely milieu) the cowboy pulp Western Trails. But the majority of his stories were written for Mystery Digest, a curious bi-monthly run by the distinctly eccentric Rolfe Passer, who never quite seemed able to make up his mind whether the magazine should run mystery stories or sex stories, or pieces about UFOs, mind-power and the activities of the more lunatic- fringe cultists. The contents page was invariably a strange stew of oddball items, by-lined by names which positively screamed 'pseudonym' - Commings himself became 'Monte Craven' for a while, at one stage actually editing the magazine.

When, with the inevitability of the sun going down, Mystery Digest folded, in the mid-1960s, Commings took to knocking out paperback smut for one of the gamier publishing houses. Titles such as Man-Eater, Lesbian Heaven and Sailors' Nympho kept the wolf from his door and, doubtless, the bank manager from his throat. At the beginning of the 1970s he was felled by a massive stroke and wrote no more. For the last decade of his life he lived quietly and comfortably in a rest-home in Edgewood, Maryland. His death last November passed unnoticed in the press.

He wrote one novel, The Crimson Stain, which contains a couple of clever gimmicks but is otherwise a fairly lifeless performance; hence, though written during the 1950s, it remains in manuscript only. His genius (by no means too strong a word) was firmly tied to the short story, through which, in flavoursome prose, he usually related the colourful and often bizarre exploits of his chief character, the rambunctious and massively girthed US Senator Brooks U. Banner.

Joe Commings's non-Impossible mystery fiction was perfectly competent, perfectly average; no more than that. However, his reputation - which, ironically, has grown enormously over the past decade - as one of the most ingenious and brilliant plotters in the Impossible Crime genre of the post-war period will last.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Geography Teacher

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: We require a teacher of Geogr...

HR Assistant / Human Resources Assistant

£Neg + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: An HR Assistant / Human Resources Ass...

Talent Community Coordinator

£Neg + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: A Talent Community Coordinator is nee...

Business Support - Banking - Halifax - £250 pd

£150 - £250 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - HR - Halifax - £150 - £250...

Day In a Page

The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on