Obituary: Joseph Commings

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The Independent Online
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.