This installment covers the novels through 1939.
John Dickson Carr was an American mystery writer whose first book appeared just as he was on the verge of marrying an Englishwoman and moving to Europe, where he lived until the late 1940s. Carr was one of my favorites when I first encountered him in the 1950s and I quickly acquired copies of almost all of his books, filling in those remaining in the years since. He is best known as master of the locked room mystery or the impossible crime, and his most famous detectives are Gideon Fell, Henry Merrivale, Henri Bencolin, and to a lesser extent Colonel March and Patrick Butler. A few of his historical mysteries involve time travel. Carr also wrote as Carter Dickson, less frequently as Carr Dickson and Roger Fairborn. Several of his scripts were produced for radio and television, but only one of his novels ever appeared as a feature film, The Emperor’s Snuff Box, released as That Woman Opposite and The City After Midnight.
I have mentioned my interpretation of mystery fiction as the only genre where the reader is meant to be conscious of the author’s hand in an earlier retrospective on Nicholas Blake, but it is an even more valid point in the case of Carr, who occasionally dropped all pretense of reality and challenged the reader directly, as in The Nine Wrong Answers and The Reader Is Warned. He was not a literary stylist, although his prose is certainly readable, and he was rarely prone to unnecessary melodramatics, which appear mostly during the early years of his career. In some cases, the question of who committed the crime is much less important than how the crime was committed. The discussion that follows is intended to be informal, to demonstrate how the interplay between reader and author works in classic detective fiction. Stories from this era did not ignore characterization and other elements of writing entirely, but they were usually subordinated to the puzzle. Early in his career, Carr began inserting humor into his novels, frequently presenting his heroes as accident prone or in some other manner comical. A good detective story is like a chess game, with the author and reader facing one another, each aware of the other’s identity. The author’s job is to present the story in such a way that the reader cannot guess the solution, but to do so without cheating, as described below. The reader’s job is to analyze not just the facts of the case as presented, but also the strategy of the author.
Carr’s first published novel was It Walks By Night (1930). It featured Henri Bencolin, director of the Paris police, but more of a Sherlock Holmes figure than anything else. He is described as quiet, perceptive, commanding, and tolerant, as well as brilliant and insightful. He is also referred to as satanic, cruel, devilish, and inhuman at times, although this appears to be unusually strong hyperbole. There is a suggestion that his marriage is not entirely happy. The story is narrated in the first person by a long time friend of his, effectively a Dr. Watson, named Jeff Marle through whose eyes we see Bencolin’s initial steps to prevent rather than solve a crime. He has been approached by Raoul de Saligny, a popular man about town and athlete, who has been married that very day to Louise Laurent. She in turn was once married to Alexandre Laurent, a brilliant but warped intellectual who emotionlessly attacked her with a razor for no discernible reason, precipitating their divorce and his commitment to a sanitarium. Laurent is free – we learn a bit later that he escaped – and de Saligny is concerned that his life is in danger. I wouldn’t be surprised.
To further his understanding, Bencolin meets with Dr. Hugo Grafenstein, the psychiatrist who treated Laurent. He is enlightened about Laurent’s self analytical personal style, his intellectual achievements, his love of literature, and his ability as a linguist. Carr also slips in a commentary on the changing norms of society, particularly the way that marriage is evolving. “To the modern marriage…there seems to be something slightly indecent about privacy.” The unfortunate consequence of Laurent’s marriage are, of course, a matter of public record, and the more recent marriage of his one-time wife to de Saligny is celebrated as a public rather than private event.
Bencolin then reveals that Laurent employed a famous plastic surgeon, known to have few scruples, who was subsequently murdered. This is a transparent plot device to establish that Laurent could be anyone whose personal history is not clearly established, a device used in numerous lesser mystery novels. While it clearly suggests disguise, the experienced mystery reader will also be wary of a red herring, though Carr takes great pains to assure us that Laurent is in fact the villain of the piece, a man who has compared himself to a werewolf, warned all concerned that he has found a unique method of housebreaking, and proved his madness by decapitating the plastic surgeon who altered his appearance.
The new bride surprises everyone by announcing that she has seen Laurent that very day, that she recognized him despite superficial physical changes. Her accuracy is compromised by the fact that he disappeared from a room with no exit, by her addiction to hallucinatory drugs, and by her claim that he dropped a trowel at her feet. The trowel, however, is in fact present. Suspects are introduced, including Edouard Vautrelle, a friend who is present when a waiter discovers de Saligny, decapitated, in a room whose exits were all under surveillance. Vautrelle also makes a point of publicly checking the time, which readers will certainly suspect was either an effort to provide himself with an alibi, to alter the perception of when the murder occurred, or perhaps both. Also at hand is Sid Golton, an admitted recent acquaintance, Fenelli, the shady drug dealer, and Gersault, a newly employed valet. The condition and position of the corpse suggest that there was no struggle, perhaps even acquiescence. We also learn that the dead man was vain, that he carried photographs of himself, that he was a drug addict, and that he had indicated he was expecting to meet someone in the card room, where he was killed. This last information is supplied by Vautrelle and cannot be independently confirmed.
A floor plan is provided so that the reader can see for himself how difficult it is to enter or exit unobserved. This is, of course, a standard device in locked room murders as is the detailed timeline, which is introduced later. Bencolin (and through him the author) takes great pains to ensure that we understand how clever the murderer has been. The only window is secure and too high to allow escape, both doors were being watched by reliable witnesses, there is no possibility of a secret passage or a place within the room where the killer might have been hiding. Nevertheless, de Saligny was decapitated with a sword in that very place.
There are also several seemingly unrelated clues. Although red herrings are common in mystery fiction, Carr rarely introduced an anomaly unless it was germane to the solution. The clues in this case include a copy of Alice in Wonderland found abandoned nearby and the question of just who rang the bell that summoned the servant, triggering discovery of the body. Was it the victim or the killer? Later we learn as well that de Saligny was exempt from customs inspections, which raises the question of what he might have smuggled back during his recent trip to Vienna.
The plot advances further when the narrator, sent to check the room directly above, stumbles upon the dead man’s mistress, who herself encountered a mysterious figure there a short time before. This particular sequence betrays Carr’s first novelist status. The mistress, Sharon Grey, is allowed to leave by the narrator who accedes to her wishes to avoid the police. This kind of well meaning obstructionism is common in the less successful mystery novels of the era (and some a good deal more recent). It is designed more as a convenience to the author, a way to withhold information, than it is an accurate portrayal of how a person would actually have acted under those circumstances. The nearly omniscient Bencolin has eavesdropped on their conversation, however, and reveals that she is also the mistress of Vautrelle.
Carr makes some interesting observations during the course of the book. One of the characters is accused of acting melodramatically. She pleads guilty and cites the “pernicious influence of the cinema. We have to find a substitute for the standards of acting laid down in Victorian novels…” She then offers her opinion that the murder itself was overly dramatized, staged in fact. Bencolin then provides a brief lecture on forensics, implying that very small items of physical evidence can provide a great deal of information if processed by properly educated technicians. He also expresses contempt for amateur detectives, who rely on instinct rather than science. This was a surprisingly advanced attitude for 1930.
There’s considerable misdirection about Vautrelle. Louise confirms that he was known to de Saligny while Laurent was still incarcerated, which suggests that he can’t be the murderer, whom we have been told authoritatively by Bencolin is in fact Laurent. Laurent’s fingerprints are later found in the card room, though not on the sword, seeming to confirm this fact. But further investigation casts doubt. Vautrelle’s supposed personal history seems to have been made up, suggesting he is not who he claims to be. The play he has been writing involves a murder committed by a man with a perfect alibi. There is also clear animosity between him and Bencolin. The experienced mystery reader will recognize this as overkill, almost certainly designed to shift our attention to Vautrelle as prime suspect, only to have the rug pulled from beneath our feet. Carr accomplishes that by having Vautrelle murdered, almost under the nose of the narrator.
Bencolin’s solution is quite unexpected. Laurent had murdered de Saligny some time before, altered his appearance to that of the dead man, carried his body back from Vienna in a trunk, walled it up in the wine cellar, only to be killed by Louise, with the aid of Vautrelle. She later killed Vautrelle when she discovered his infidelity. This is all quite surprising, but while part of the solution is clever, part results from the author having cheated.
The first cheat is a variation of the Unreliable Narrator. One of the conventions of the mystery field is that – having established a trusted authority figure, usually the detective or the narrator – one can rely to a reasonable degree on his or her judgments. If Sherlock Holmes says: “I am certain that the stolen statue has not left the city”, we can be sure that he is telling the truth. It is a code by which the author assures the reader that a particular line of speculation is unnecessary. Although as Carr says, the art of murder involves “directing your attention to the wrong place,” the author cannot blatantly lie. Bencolin tells us early on that he is certain Laurent committed the murder in the card room, but that’s not true.
The second cheat is more common, and to a degree, more forgivable. This is the cheat of Withheld Information. Portions of the solution are there to be found. De Saligny is described as incapable of speaking in any language other than French, but another character remarks upon his excellent English. We are in fact told that the false de Saligny refused to allow his servants into the wine cellar, suggesting concealment. On the other hand, there is no way for us to know that de Saligny was right handed, that the pencil found in his desk was the one that wrote the threatening letter, either of which would have suggested that he was not the person he claimed to be.
The third cheat is Fantasy Forensics. I’m not sure that a document could be traced to an individual pencil. I can accept the possibility that handwriting analysis might suggest that the writer was under the influence of drugs, but not that it could be used to determine the specific drug in question, even if the document was not written while the individual was presently under its influence. Bencolin also fails to make a key observation. When he first sees the body, it has supposedly been dead for only a matter of five minutes or so, but it has actually been lying there for the better part of an hour. I find it hard to believe that an experienced investigator would not have observed that the blood was already drying or dried.
Finally, there is the resolution of the locked room. In this case, it comes perilously close to cheating. Part of the explanation is quite clever. De Saligny/Laurent was actually lured to the card room and killed much earlier. This allowed Vautrelle to enter, disguised as the dead man, walk quickly through to the exit, where he asked the time of the posted police officer, who somehow didn’t notice where he’d come from. I also question whether Louise could actually have severed a man’s head with a single blow of a sword, particularly given her weakened physical condition resulting from her drug addiction.
On balance, the payoff fails to live up to the opening. The prose drifts into the purple on several occasions, and the love at first sight element is trite and implausible. It’s also much too easy to carry off impersonations. Vautrelle is a former street urchin masquerading as an expatriate Russian nobleman. Laurent impersonates de Saligny well enough to fool his fiancé - although she eventually realizes the truth - as well as several casual acquaintances. Only Vautrelle recognized him almost from the outset. And then Vautrelle briefly impersonates Laurent impersonating de Saligny. On the positive side, the clues are all instrumental to the solution, there is a genuine sense of suspense and for the most part the narration is crisp and efficient. Although the revelations involve considerable complexity, Carr explains them all clearly, though not necessarily convincingly. It is certainly not one of his best novels, but for a debut work, it was ambitious, clever, and certainly entertaining.
Three characters are carried over into the second novel, The Lost Gallows (1931). Bencolin’s adventures continue to be chronicled by Jeff Marle, and the mildly enigmatic Sharon Grey is also present. The former two have traveled to London in order to attend the stage presentation of the play written by Vautrelle in It Walks By Night and are visiting with an old friend at the Brimstone Club, an exclusive organization with a somewhat sordid past. There’s a nice bit of description. The club resembles “a young lady trying to look wicked in an 1890 bathing suit”. Indeed, the author’s ability to bring the physical scene to life is demonstrated repeatedly during the course of the book and is one of his stronger assets. Carr then introduces multiple mysteries in rapid fire fashion, using coincidence and propinquity as shortcuts. In anything other than a mystery, this would be a major flaw, and even in this case it is noteeworthy. There is a sense that we’re being rushed through the early stages of the plot so that we won’t see the puppeteer’s strings.
First of all, their host, Sir John – a retired Scotland Yard inspector – relates the story of a young friend name Dallings who became disoriented in the London fog and chanced to see the shadow of a gallows projected against a wall. Moments later, a detailed model of a gallows is found in a chair in the room they’re occupying, having been left behind by an obviously disturbed Egyptian gentleman named Nezam el Moulk. The woman Dallings had been seeing home happens to be an acquaintance of both Bencolin and el Moulk.
The threesome go off to see the play, where they run into Dallings, after which Marle is nearly run down by el Moulk’s automobile. Although the driver is clearly dead, the vehicle negotiates its way through London and stops at the Brimstone Club, a melodramatic scene which Bencolin shrugs away casually, asserting that the real driver must have been concealed in some fashion, after which he slipped away in the fog. There are odd aspects to the crime – fingers almost severed, buttons and tassels removed from the driver’s uniform, and el Moulk is nowhere to be found. They call Scotland Yard and reach an inspector who, again coincidentally, has just been pondering a call that referenced “Ruination Street”, which does not exist in London. Bencolin speculates that it is entirely possible that a street or neighborhood was somehow overlooked and left off the map.
Next is the introduction of potential suspects. Graffin was the Egyptian’s secretary. Joyet, his valet, is currently on vacation. Dr. Pilgrim is also staying at the Brimstone Club, where the model gallows now has a model corpse. This is the point at which Bencolin announces that the woman Dallings was courting is Colette Laverne, a leap of intuition which seems to have no logical basis. More coincidences follow. Laverne happens to be living next door to Sharon Grey and she happens to have an hysterical fit just as Dr. Pilgrim is passing.
Through Laverne, we learn the motivation. El Moulk and two other men, one using the nom de plume of Keane, were all interested in her some ten years past. El Moulk apparently murdered the one man, framed Keane with some peripheral complicity by Laverne. Keane is dead and no one knows his real name except an Englishman, who turns out to be Dallings. Laverne is convinced that someone is seeking revenge for Keane’s death, has already kidnapped the Egyptian, and will kill her in the process. This mysterious villain is the man who sent the toy gallows, and he signs his correspondence “Jack Ketch”, the name of the legendary English hangman.
Bencolin, who announces halfway through the book that he already knows the solution, refuses to pass on his information, but does launch into an interesting lecture about improbability in fiction. Readers, he asserts, say that they want their fiction to be realistic, but then complain that the author has failed to provide them anything extraordinary. That’s certainly not the case here, of course, because mixed in with the melodrama is such a web of coincidence and secret identities that there is no question of the reader believing this to be a plausible scenario. It’s all a puzzle, contrived by the author, which the reader is meant to solve. The problem is that Carr doesn’t provide the key pieces we need to reach a resolution.
There are a few clues. Why did El Moulk pick up the corsage he ordered rather than have it delivered to Laverne? What is the source of evident tension that existed between El Moulk and Graffin? Does the fact that Dr. Pilgrim wrote a history of crime have any bearing on the case? Why were the items found missing in the death car returned furtively to El Moulk’s study? What happened to the dagger that used to reside in El Moulk’s study? Carr reveals part of this through – what else? – another coincidence. Dr. Pilgrim’s office window faces El Moulk’s rooms, a fact he hadn’t previously realized, and he had noticed (at 1:00 AM and quite by chance) a woman’s hand taking down the dagger the night before the murder.
Shortly after Dr. Pilgrim expounds upon his theory that El Moulk is not dead, that he arranged his own disappearance for some reason, the Egyptian apparently telephones Laverne and tells her that everything is all right, that someone from Scotland Yard will come by to bring her to safety. The real policeman guarding the house is murdered and Laverne is abducted, perhaps killed. This calls into question Bencolin’s decision not to reveal what he claims to already know, a decision which may have cost two lives, but that issue isn’t raised by any of the characters.
It seems to me that Carr made quite a few of strategic mistakes in this one. Since he makes it clear quite early what the motive is – revenge for the death of Keane – it is quite simple to remember that on page two we learned that Sir John lost his son in the war and has never been the same since. That draws our attention to the play they attended in the early chapters, during which they were forced to take seats widely separated from one another, suggesting that it would be quite easy for Sir John to have absented himself for long enough to waylay El Moulk. There is also a dearth of viable alternatives. Except for Dr. Pilgrim, no one at all seems a plausible candidate. Finally, Sir John is absent from the second half of the book until the climax, an error many writers make, because this attempt to make us forget the character only draws our attention to the author’s hand.
There are also a great many cheats, including withheld information. The distances between streets are never mentioned until the resolution, at which point we discover that Dalling's story has to be wrong. A second instance of this is the explanation of Ruination Street, which turns out to be a place mentioned in the novel by Keane. There is also the dreaded cheat – the Secret Passage. In this case it’s a secret room, which Sir John coincidentally discovers through the person of his accomplice, a mentally retarded dwarf, and which coincidentally happens to be directly over El Moulk’s quarters. I tumbled to this mostly because all of the mysterious items appearing in that room were in exactly the same place, and because Bencolin showed some unexplained interest in the ceiling, clearly implying a trap door. A third cheat is the Unsuspected Confederate, in this case the dwarf, who drove the car after the chauffeur was killed, but who was too small to be seen. The use of confederates in the solution of mysteries is a very chancy business unless the reader has been warned of the possibility in advance.
This is not one of Carr’s better efforts. Although a certain amount of coincidence and contrivance is part of the game, the author is obligated to convince us that the story at least COULD have happened that way, even if it is very unlikely. That’s not the case here. Nor is the awkward love affair between Marle and Grey particularly useful; it doesn’t advance the story in any way and seems to have been an offhand concession to those desirous of a romantic element. The melodramatic sequences – the bizarre car chase, Marle’s sojourn through a nearly deserted Brimstone Club – are unconvincing and just not very suspenseful. Finally, there is the question of Sir John’s motives. Although he has a justifiable grudge against the two people he abducts, he cold bloodedly kills a chauffeur and a police officer, in the latter case particularly appalling because it is unnecessary. This doesn’t jibe with his later insistence that the dwarf return some trinkets he stole from the dead chauffeur, because he wishes to preserve the purity of his revenge. A possibly interesting sidelight is that in the space of a few pages, Carr mentions three terms that would later figure in titles of novels – Punch and Judy, the Red Widow, and the Hungry Goblin.
Bencolin’s third adventure, Castle Skull (1931), was the first Carr novel I ever read, way back in 1960. Carr wisely dropped Sharon Grey this time, apparently realizing that her affair with Marle was simply filler that didn’t contribute to the story. The novel opens with a dinner conversation during which the wealthy Jerome D’Aunay entices Bencolin and Marle to visit him in Schloss Schadel (Castle Skull) to investigate a most peculiar crime. With considerable foreshadowing, we listen to his recounting of the story of a fabled wealthy magician named Maleger, who reportedly had a dark personality and who is assumed to have died some years back, his body found only after it had spent a considerable amount of time in the Rhine River. Maleger formerly owned Castle Skull and transformed it into a chamber of horrors, presumably with secret passages and the like. In addition to the melodramatic background details, the wary reader should keep in mind that bodies long immersed were much more difficult to properly identify during the 1930s, suggesting the possibility that Maleger is not dead after all, a situation which Bencolin alludes to in due course.
The case D’Aunay wishes investigated is the murder of an actor named Myron Alison who was shot three times, then doused with kerosene, and set afire among the battlements of Castle Skull. Bencolin agrees to investigate and shortly thereafter Carr’s penchant for coincidence manifests itself again. Marle is traveling separately, picks up a book on local legends, then is approached by its author, Richard Gallivan, who happens to be on assignment to look into the Alison murder, and who just happened to have been Maleger’s press agent for two years.
We are then introduced to some of the suspects. Agatha Alison, known as the Duchess, is the dead man’s sister. Sally Reine is a houseguest, as was D’Aunay and his wife Isobel, a musician named Levasseur, and a man named Dunstan. They were not at the castle but across the river in the Alison home on the night of the murder. At some point, Myron Alison was taken across the river in a boat, by persons unknown, and killed while everyone else in his party remained across the river, each of them with apparent alibis. Once again, this is effectively a locked room mystery, even though the castle is not as self contained, and the earlier murder of Maleger – if that’s what it was – took place aboard a railroad car where he was the only passenger, and where the only entrance was guarded.
More details emerge. The castle’s caretaker has disappeared, but we aren’t told exactly when that happened until later, when one of the servants tells us that he went missing the same night Alison was killed. The motorboat which presumably took Alison across to the castle was later returned, but we don’t know by whom. It appears that Agatha has the best alibi; she was with her maid playing cards at the time of the murder, but as experienced readers know, appearances can sometimes be deceiving. She also suggests that there was a connection between her brother, whom she clearly disliked, and Maleger’s death. On the other hand, suspicion points in an unlikely direction – D’Aunay – because according to Bencolin the road accident that nearly cost them their lives on the way to the murder scene was deliberate, that D’Aunay had been trying to kill them both.
Bencolin begins the inevitable questioning. Dunstan comes across as a bit of an ass, and too imaginative for his own good. Sally Reine, however, recalls an occasion when Alison refused to conduct a tour of the castle proper, and blanched when the subject of ghosts and the dead was raised. The allusion to Maleger is clear. Levasseur’s alibi is that people heard his violin playing throughout the incident, but while this may have been a new trick in 1931, it’s transparently obvious as a poor alibi today. Bencolin accuses Reine of lying about part of her testimony, and this introduces us to another common element of classic detective fiction, the witness who is known to be lying, usually to protect another. Done well it can be effective, but done poorly, it can be frustratingly artificial.
At this point, Bencolin is presented with a rival in the person of Baron Von Arnheim, a crack German detective with whom Bencolin had an espionage duel during the War. The two men play off against each other for the balance of the book, but there’s never any doubt that Bencolin will prevail. The caretaker’s body is eventually found, but clearly had been concealed for some time after the murder. Other clues include mud on Alison’s shoes, the murder weapon found in a pocket in his private rooms, and evidence that whoever fired it must have had very strong fingers. At this point we have seen progressively less of D’Aunay, Levasseur, and Agatha Alison, making them strong suspects. Nor have we seen much of Gallivan, who was certainly not introduced into the story to provide the meager information at his disposal.
Dunstan, supposedly secretly engaged to Reine, is even more secretly having an affair with Isobel D’Aunay, and eventually we discover that it was they who took the motor launch on the fateful night, raising the question of how Alison and his murderer managed to reach the castle in the first place. An additional possible motive is suggested when we learn that Maleger was a pseudonym, that he had a secret wife as well as a mistress, the latter of whom bore him a child, all identities unknown.
Bencolin remains opaque for the most part. As Marle says in exasperation, “You never know what Bencolin is thinking about…particularly when he tells you.” The Baron believes that he has already solved the case and proposes that the entire party decamp to the castle for the traditional gathering of suspects. Just as they’re getting started, Levasseur disposes of the question of whether or not he was playing a recording to mask illicit activities by demonstrating that it is impossible. This suggestion of a solution with subsequent rebuttal is a kind of misdirection and twist combination that Carr would use repeatedly, and more effectively in the future. There is also a hint of revelation when D’Aunay and Gallivan meet for the first time, and D’Aunay thinks that he looks familiar.
We are treated to a pair of solutions this time. The Baron has discovered an insane Maleger, who was kept prisoner in the castle for almost twenty years, and who escaped one day – according to the Baron’s reconstruction – and exacted a horrible revenge on Alison. D’Aunay was partially responsible as well, but he has now conveniently succumbed to a heart attack, and Maleger himself is only weeks from death. The explanation seems to fit all the facts of the case, but once he is done, Bencolin reveals – but only to a small group – the truth of the matter. Agatha is responsible for the murders; she was Maleger’s secret wife and when she learned of his fate, almost by chance, she exacted revenge on her own brother. Bencolin’s willingness to cover up her crime is reflected in some of Carr’s later novels, in which he repeats the premise that justice sometimes trumps the letter of the law.
Although there are some plausibility problems with this novel as well - the coincidences, the poor explanation for why D’Aunay attempted to kill Bencolin, the supposed familiar face of Gallivan, and so forth - there are also signs of significant improvement as a writer. The pacing is smoother, with far less concentration on a staccato presentation of facts and events. We have a deeper appreciation of at least some of the characters, although the motive this time, though murky, is apparent from early on. The Secret Passage Cheat is more pardonable as well, because creepy old castles are supposed to have them, and much of the solution does not rely on its existence. Nevertheless, and despite some strong points, Castle Skull remains one of Carr’s lesser efforts.
The fourth Bencolin book, The Corpse in the Waxworks (1932, aka The Waxworks Murder), starts with a great first line. “Bencolin was not wearing his evening clothes, and so they knew that nobody was in danger.” Nevertheless, he conducts his friend, Jeff Marle, to a nightclub for an interview with the owner of a wax museum and a young military officer and it is clear that he is on the job. The officer, Chaumont, had followed his fiancé, Odette, to the wax museum a few days earlier, surprised by her atypical recent behavior, and waited outside for her to reappear. She never did, and her body was found floating in the Seine river, dead of multiple stab wounds. We later hear a rumor that she believed Chaumont had been unfaithful to her and that this was the cause of her odd attitude. The museum owner, Augustin, admits that he saw Odette in the museum, and also indicates that he has recently been spooked by his own exhibits, fancying that one of them – a murderous woman - has been moving around on its own. As with Castle Skull, Bencolin’s advent in the case comes only after several days have passed since the crime, in this case because the body was not immediately located.
After drawing our attention to a mysterious figure whom Bencolin obviously recognizes, the party proceeds to the museum where we meet Augustin’s daughter, Marie, who tells an obvious lie about letting the dead woman out of the museum some considerable time after Chaumont had stopped watching. The investigators are also curious about the stature of a satyr, supposedly a representation of a fabled river creature, about which the dead woman had inquired. Since her body was subsequently found in the river, the connection is evident. When Marle reaches the statue of the satyr, he at first assumes the limp woman in its arms is also a waxwork, but it turns out to be another victim, a friend of Chaumont’s fiancé. Both women were also daughters of ex-cabinet ministers.
The body was evidently brought in through a supposedly unused service entrance which almost qualifies as a secret passage, although dramatically it doesn’t have that effect since we know of its existence from the outset. Carr then provides us with several clues. The dead woman was wearing a pendant, which is missing, she carried the name and address of Etienne Galant in her purse, a domino mask is found near her handbag, and for some reason Bencolin doesn’t want the authorities to photograph and search the alley. The first three of these are normal mystery clues; the last is an artifice of the author, that is, the link to the crime is filtered through the mind of Bencolin, so that we are seeing his reaction to a piece of evidence rather than the evidence itself. This is very difficult to do well, and is often a form of cheating, but Carr makes such a point of it that we know that it has to have considerable importance. The note about Galant, which also implicates him, is not in the dead woman’s handwriting. The significance of the mask is explained readily. Based on its size and shape and the length of the elastic string, the owner had a small face but had long, thick hair, at least according to Bencolin, who later admits this was a ruse and that the mask might not have belonged to Martel after all. This is a flagrant cheat, since the reader has to be able to rely on Bencolin’s honesty to play the game. If he is unreliable, then all of the other “facts” which he has presented are open to question.
Bencolin then makes a leap of intuition that isn’t totally credible. When Augustin’s daughter lied about having seen Chaumont’s fiancé, she provided an incorrect description, but that description perfectly fits the newest victim, Claudine Martel. Bencolin assumes therefore that Martel was known to Marie Augustin and confronts her with the information that she has considerable sums of money in bank accounts which could not have been saved from the museum’s meager income. In short order we learn the truth. The museum is adjacent to a sex club where masked members come to indulge in random or prearranged affairs. Some of the more nervous members choose to use the museum as a secret entrance bypassing the outer, locked courtyard, and Marie has been assisting them in return for payments above the usual admission fee. Both Odette and Martel were members of the club, as is Paul Robiquet, a friend of both women.
Bencolin and company then visit Etienne Galant, the man seen earlier at the nightclub, also owner of the sex club and a known blackmailer. It is potentially significant that Odette’s father committed suicide when she was a child after being blackmailed, and there are hints that Galant was responsible in that case as well. Galant, a long time enemy of Bencolin, is also implicated by his expertise with a knife, since both murdered women were stabbed to death.
At this point, Bencolin himself suggests that there are too many women in the case. In addition to Marie Augustin, we have the following:
Almost by chance the investigators discover that Gina Prevost and Estelle are the same woman, by eavesdropping they learn that she was the woman with Galant, and by inference they assume that she is also the woman in numbers 4,5, & 6. Bencolin also reveals that Prevost was the one who wrote the note containing Galant’s address. Clearly Prevost and Galant are engaged in some clandestine activity together, and Bencolin’s mention that Galant had an agent recruiting clients for his club suggests that she is providing that service, perhaps in return for his help in secretly pursuing a career on the stage.
At the same time, we have a very limited number of potential suspects. Galant seems the most obvious, which argues against his guilt. He also appears to have a verifiable alibi, and his interest in the murder is almost certainly because it offers an opportunity to blackmail the killer, if his or her identity can be ascertained. Augustin was with Bencolin when Martel was murdered. Odette’s mother is too frail to have committed the crimes, as is Martel’s, who is also deaf. Her father also seems unlikely to have killed his own daughter, and he would be further hampered by the fact that he has only one arm. That leaves only Robiquet, about whom we know very little but who seems to have been introduced solely so that Bencolin could acquire one of the treasured keys to the club, and Marie Augustin, who appears to have no motive. Coincidentally – and there are several coincides sprinkled through the narrative – Robiquet’s private club room is adjacent to that used by Galant. By default then, Marie Augustin seems to be the leading suspect in a very weak field of candidates. But there is one other. Chaumont has been so obviously thrust under our noses that he has become almost invisible. Is this a clever ploy, or is he a red herring Carr has prepared for more sophisticated readers?
Although the scene of Martel’s murder is not a locked room, it bears some similarities. There were three entrances, two of which can be opened from either side, given the proper key, the door directly into club and the door from the courtyard to the street. The entrance from the museum can only be opened from inside the building, which necessarily means that the murderer must have entered through that door, committed the crime without allowing the door to close and engage the lock, then carried the body back inside. Revelations continue, some of which I anticipated, some of which caught me by surprise. I did correctly assume that the missing item that Martel had worn around her neck was her key to the club. Since that’s where she’d been going, and it wasn’t among the things in her purse, that was the only explanation. On the other hand, I strongly suspected she’d been murdered by another woman, because the key could not have been used by a male assailant (men and women had different sorts of keys).
The action resumes when Marle volunteers to infiltrate the club, disguised as Robichet, to eavesdrop on Galant’s meeting with Prevost. This he manages to do with unconvincing ease, although he is subsequently discovered. Prior to that he learns the truth about Odette’s death. She had been lured to the club by her false friends, and fell from the window by accident. Although the fall itself would almost certainly have been fatal, Galant hastened her death with a knife, thereby acquiring leverage over the two women. Martel’s murder caught him completely by surprise, and he is convinced that Chaumont was responsible, seeking revenge for Odette’s death. This might have swayed my opinion had it come later, but it was far too soon for the second murderer to be revealed, which meant that Chaumont was crossed off my rapidly shrinking list.
Marle also learns that Galant has a partner in the sex club, to whom he has just sold his share. It came as no surprise to learn that the partner is Marie Augustin, whose intimacy with the club was obvious from the early chapters. Marle’s escape from Galant’s thugs is drawn out a bit too far, but accelerates again when he and Marie discover the museum door open, and eventually stumble upon the body of Galant. Bencolin is summoned for the final explication, and he unmasks the second killer as Martel’s rigid, aristocratic father, who overheard her confession of her involvement in Odette’s death and other sordid activities and acted to preserve the family honor, later silencing Galant for the same reason. Although the explanation is plausible, Bencolin’s reconstruction of the trail of clues that led him to the truth is not entirely convincing.
Bencolin also experiences a rare moment of introspection during the course of the book, lamenting that “the brain is a greater liar than any man” because it allows us to fool ourselves, and then goes on to say that “introspection is the origin of fear”, that knowing ourselves too well is a frightening experience. This attempt to make Bencolin a more human character may have been an indication that Carr was feeling hampered by the image he’d created of a self confident, unemotional, and rigidly correct protagonist. He would soon drop the character altogether and launch a new series featuring his most famous detective, Dr. Gideon Fell.
Poison in Jest (1932) further illustrates Carr’s change of direction. It is, essentially, a Bencolin novel without Bencolin. The frantic pace of the previous novels is also tempered; the first third of the novel consumes less than an hour of real time. Jeff Marle is the narrator, but he’s on his own, answering a summons by Judge Quayle, with whose children Marle grew up in Pennsylvania. There is a short, unnecessary preamble full of foreboding, but the plot is otherwise straightforward. Carr still displays his taste for the macabre, in this case the supposedly animate marble hand severed from a statue in the Judge’s study, which is seen at various times scurrying about the house.
The Quayle household includes his wife, who suffers from a nervous order and who has been estranged from her husband for the past five years after a quarrel drove oldest son Tom from the house. He has not been heard from since. Tom’s siblings are Matthew, who pleased his father by taking up the law but who appears to have little will of his own, Virginia, who is angry because her father drove off her lover, Pat Rossiter, Mary, the oldest daughter, who keeps the house and seems neurotic, and Clarissa, the spoiled beauty. Clarissa is married to Doctor Twills, a man of contradictory impulses and an unlikely suitor to have won Clarissa’s hand.
Judge Quayle has supposedly summoned Marle to discuss a book he’s been writing, but in point of fact he believes that there is a conspiracy among his family to drive him mad or even murder him. As if to prove the point, he promptly collapses, having consumed poisoned brandy, but Dr. Twill saves him, having suspected poisoning, he claims, because Mrs. Quayle was unsuccessfully poisoned only a short while before, although with a different poison. Twill is himself independently wealthy and admits that he would like to move to Vienna, and Marle finds it curious that he has not done so.
The incidents involving the white marble hand began the day Tom left the house, which is certainly more than coincidence, although it doesn’t necessarily imply that he was involved. A few potential clues are revealed. Clarissa mentions morphine, a poison used in neither attack, and appears uneasy. She also claims to have seen the Judge standing at a window when she approached the house, which is impossible given his physical condition. She picked up the groceries that morning, because the delivery van had broken down. There is also the suggestive story of the Judge’s childhood nursemaid, who died at a very advanced age when his own children were alive. Although it has no obvious direct bearing, Carr would not have spent such time elaborating the story if it had no significance.
Even though everyone knows this was an attempted murder, the family refuses to involve the police – a ploy convenient to mystery novels of this era and, apparently, not without its basis in the real world. They suggest that Marle conduct the investigation, due to his work with Bencolin, but it is actually Twills who makes most of the early discoveries. There is also a sketchy timeline. It is clear that the poison was added to the soda water for the brandy between 5:30 and 6:45, because the Judge was in his library between 6:45 and Marle’s arrival at 8:00. Unfortunately, one could make a plausible case for any of his children – except possibly Virginia who may not have been in the house at the time – to add poison to the drink as well as the food on Mrs. Quayle’s tray. On the other hand, it is equally possible that the two acts were independent. Twills remarks upon the family’s easy acceptance of the fact that one among them is a potential murderer, suggesting that this comes as no surprise to them. He also suggests that he knows who is responsible but won’t reveal his suspicions until the following day, which should tip off any experienced mystery reader that Twills will not survive the night.
As expected, Twills is found dead in his room the following morning, apparently having drunk poison placed in a bromide in the bathroom he shares with his wife. She, in fact, almost drank one herself the night before, suggesting either that she had a narrow brush with death at the hands of a none too careful killer, or that she was trying to ensure that her innocence would be rendered more credible. On the other hand, it is well known that Twills took a bromide nearly every evening, and that Clarissa rarely did so. She took a sleeping pill instead, which would explain why she was unaware of the quiet conversation and suppressed laughter that were heard late that night by others in the household. Carr describes the murder scene in excruciating detail, not presenting the reader with red herrings but with so much information that we instinctively feel that there must be something significant in that description. As is often the case with Carr, it’s a dead end.
There is no choice but to call in the police and the coroner this time. The county investigator is intelligent but not particularly intuitive, and he’s thoroughly cowed by the family. He questions them all and constructs a timeline, which convinces him that anyone except Virginia could have been responsible for all three poisoning attempts. Her exclusion matches her dramatic positioning; she is the only person in the family who seems normal and likeable, and she is in love with Rossiter, who arrives shortly thereafter, an eccentric but intelligent young man who declares himself to be a professional detective, but who is also the novel’s comic relief. If this were a lesser writer, we might safely assume that the couple will live happily ever after and that neither could be seriously involved in the murder, but Carr is tricky and the wise reader will not eliminate her from the list of suspects. Similarly, the Judge and his wife, though both were themselves poison victims, should not be considered above suspicion, although it seems very unlikely that the latter, who was constantly being attended to, could have managed matters.
We do, however, receive some clues at long last. Twills had been making notes, and one of the questions he asks is about something that was burned in the fireplace, an allusion to events which are completely new to the reader, but suggestive of a will. A second clue is a brief glimpse of the Judge’s bare arm, which reveals multiple needle marks, leading to the conclusion that he is addicted to morphine, yet another poison. We also learn that the Judge is bankrupt and that Dr. Twills had been quietly supporting the family for some considerable time, had even sent money after the estranged son Tom had sent a begging letter. The Judge relates an earlier discussion with Twills about the specific poison used in the attempt on his life, but admits that anyone in the family might have overheard it. This last point seems almost self evident, but for a change Carr gives the reader a hand. Marle specifically states that this last was the most significant clue yet revealed.
The final chapters are a bit of a jumble. The wayward Tom shows up, in poor mental and physical health, just as Clarissa is found murdered in the basement (a hatchet in her head). Pat Rossiter also appears, perhaps because Carr found himself in a bit of a quandary. First person mystery novels are almost always told from the point of view of a Watson simply because if we were inside the mind of the detective, we would have access to information that author doesn’t want revealed too early. It would therefore be very difficult to have Marle reveal the truth, and the county detective is there chiefly to provide an outsider with whom Marle can exchange thoughts. Rossiter, whose eccentricities are so exaggerated that they vary from comic to ludicrous, turns out to be a licensed and rather talented detective himself, and he is the one who explains everything, although only after the murderer has already been identified.
Another device Carr uses to excess is blatant foreshadowing, although in one instance this is very cleverly done. After interviewing Mrs. Quayle, Marle remarks that this was the last time any of those present would see the woman alive, suggesting that she would be the next victim. The truth is that she is responsible for both murders and all of the poisonings, and that she dies of a stroke while attempting still another. There is a sprinkling of clues and motives, most of which are of no help in solving the puzzle. Matt’s power of attorney over Twills’ fortune suggests a motive, but Rossiter’s inquiry about whether or not Tom liked to walk is only marginally relevant. The crawling hand turns out to be a complete red herring. No will is found for either Twills or the Judge, but the latter’s manuscript is missing, suggesting that this was what was burned in the fireplace.
The revelation of Mrs. Quayle’s insanity comes as no surprise, but her opportunity to commit the various crimes has been cleverly concealed. Usually clues result from discovering that a character had unexpected knowledge of some fact, where in this case the opposite is the case. She was the only one who didn’t know the Judge was bankrupt, and her attempt on his life was to claim his money and divert it to the disinherited son, Tom. Her guilt also explains why she was given a different, and less dangerous, poison than her husband, and several seemingly rambling comments suddenly take on a deeper meaning. The solution is cleverly done, but the execution is still a bit clumsy. Poison in Jest is clearly a transitional novel marking Carr’s attempt to find a comfortable narrative stance.
One other interesting point needs to be made. Mrs. Quayle’s motives are described in detailed, psychological terms. Yet, earlier in the novel, one of the characters launches into a very uncharacteristic but heartfelt speech in which he declaims: “We are so enlightened and progressive that we cannot even have our superstitions unless they are enlightened ones, so we have created a voodoo called Modern Psychology, and tremble before its divining-rods. This is, in short, the Self-Conscious Age, wherein mumbo-jumbo has acquired a dignity never possible to earlier witchcraft.” But Carr’s explication of Mrs. Quayle’s motives and state of mind is just exactly that, a complex discussion of her obsessions and delusions.
Dr. Gideon Fell was introduced in Hag’s Nook (1932). The transition to a restrained narrative style is more pronounced here. Once again we have a young American narrator, Tad Rampole, whose visit to Fell becomes enmeshed with a murder almost from the outset, thanks to a chance encounter with Dorothy Starberth. The couple are immediately attracted to one another and declare themselves in love during the course of the novel. Fell and his wife live in a small village not far from Chatterham Prison, an ancient facility now falling into ruin. Fell is a prodigious reader and drinker of beer, is grossly overweight and walks with the aid of two canes. He is, presumably, retired or independently wealthy.
The prison is at the center of the problem that unfolds within the first few chapters. It is part of an entailed estate and, as a condition of the trust, the first born son must spend an hour alone in the prison office at midnight on his 25th birthday. The lawyer administering the trust will provide him with a set of keys that open a vault, the contents of which he must examine to the satisfaction of the lawyer. Dorothy’s brother Martin is about to face that trial, and his nerves are on edge. Their cousin Herbert is assigned the job of keeping Martin relatively sober and courageous. The siblings’ father, Timothy, died three years earlier, apparently thrown from his horse, although Fell suspects foul play. Timothy lived long enough to write several documents which were sealed and given to the lawyer to place in the vault.
Carr’s fondness for melodrama is evident. The prison has a grisly history and includes the Hag’s Nook, where prisoners were hanged, their bodies subsequently thrown into a large well below the warden’s private quarters. Through examination of old diaries, we learn that the first warden went insane, talked incessantly of a hidden treasure, developed unusual strength in his upper body, and died by falling from a balcony and breaking his neck. From this has arisen a tradition that the Starberth men all die of broken necks, although that is not in fact the case.
There are very few supporting characters available as potential suspects. Payne, the lawyer, is a disagreeable man. Saunders, the rector, a bit too proper. Budge, the family butler, seems an unlikely character. Fell has a premonition that something is going to go awry, so he, Rampole, and Saunders sit outside where they can watch Martin Starberth’s light as it enters the prison and climbs to the vault. They take alarm when the light goes off ten minutes prematurely, and Rampole and Saunders subsequently find Martin’s body, lying below the balcony with a broken neck and other injuries. His lantern, oddly, is found at some considerable distance.
We find ourselves with a paucity of suspects. Dorothy and Budge spent the entire time at the house, although cousin Herbert packed a bag and disappeared earlier in the evening. Saunders was with Fell and Payne and would seem to have no motive, since he could have used the keys in his possession earlier if he needed access to the vault. The police suspect Herbert, who has vanished without explanation, but are unable to find him. Fell keeps his own counsel, but suggests to Rampole that this new murder is linked to the death of Timothy.
There are very few clues to play with. At some point, Herbert instructed a maid to set all of the clocks ten minutes forward at Starberth Hall, but she only changed one before receiving countermanding orders from Martin. The vault, examined by Fell and the police, appears to have held a small box, which is now missing. On his death bed, Timothy supposedly told Saunders in confidence the identity of his murderer, but Saunders is sworn not to divulge that information. There is also a bit of doggerel verse, which is clearly some kind of code, and worn spots on the outside of the balcony.
The resolution of the puzzle – actually two puzzles - is not entirely satisfactory. The wear marks obviously suggest that the missing treasure was hidden in the well, which provided the motive for the murder of Timothy Starberth when he stumbled upon a thief retrieving the treasure. That thief is almost certainly responsible for Martin’s murder as well, but Herbert seems, and is, too obvious a choice. Fell and company decode the verse, which only confirms what they already knew, that the hiding place was in the well. The altered clock – usually a device employed by the villain – is in this case an inverted red herring, because it is actually an accident that disrupts the murder plan.
It is not a tremendous surprise when Herbert’s body is discovered. As I had suspected all along, he had taken his cousin’s place. Carr warns us early in the book not to derive facts from our theory but to develop a theory from the facts. As an example, we know that Martin’s body lies beneath the balcony. What we do not know is how it got there. In fact, he had been murdered prior to Herbert’s visit, and Herbert himself was murdered some time later. The culprit, Saunders, is forced to admit his guilt due to the arrival from Australia of his supposed uncle. The uncle immediately declares him an impostor. This coincidental (and unnecessary) exposure seriously dilutes the effectiveness of the solution and spoils what is otherwise an excellent mystery.
Fell promptly returned in The Mad Hatter Mystery (1933), called to London where he is reunited with Rampole and a new recurring character, Inspector Hadley. There are two crimes bothering the inspector, which may be related. Someone is stealing expensive hats and placing them in unusual places – on horses, statues, etc. – and someone has stolen a valuable document from Sir William Bitton – an unpublished story by Edgar Allan Poe - who wants it back even though his own claim to ownership is dubious. Bitton’s nephew, Driscoll, is a journalist who has been using the hat thefts to lampoon the police, and Bitton himself has twice been a victim, a fact too striking to be coincidental.
Bitton relates the circumstances of his household and the theft of the manuscript, almost certainly at the hands of someone resident in the house. But his daughter, Sheila, a visitor named Arbor who is also a fellow Poe collector, his nephew, and his brother Lester and the latter’s wife Laura were all apparently away from the house at the time it disappeared. He has barely finished reciting the facts when Inspector Hadley receives a call which definitely ties things together. Young Driscoll, the nephew, has been found murdered at the Tower of London, and his body is wearing Bitton’s stolen hat. He was killed by having a crossbow bolt driven into his heart. To tighten the connection a bit further, we know that Bitton recently visited the tower, and that its commander, General Mason, has a secretary, Dalrye, who is Bitton’s daughter’s fiancé. This all seems a bit cluttered for two chapters but is actually explicated in a very organized fashion. To aid us in picturing the murder scene, Carr provides a map of the Tower of London, but the one shown here is less cluttered.
Carr shovels on more complexity very quickly. Although there was ample time after the murder for anyone to have left the Tower area, which is a major tourist attraction, the authorities held everyone who was on the grounds at the time the murder was discovered. These detainees include Bitton’s daughter in law, his houseguest, and a woman named Larkin who lived in the same apartment building as the dead man. This can hardly be a coincidence. We also discover that Driscoll arrived expecting to find Dalrye waiting for him, but Dalrye insists that he received an excited telephone call from him requesting that they meet at his apartment, insisting that it was a matter of “life and death”. Fell suggests that the killer deliberately arranged things so that Driscoll would be unaccompanied and vulnerable. It is also ascertained that, despite the large number of crossbows at the Tower, none of them could have been used to fire the fatal bolt.
There are, in fact, almost too many clues in this case. The daughter in law recognizes the murder weapon as a souvenir she and her husband bought in France. She also appears to have realized something else significant about which she does not speak. In the dead man’s effects are a journal with some cryptic notes relating to the Mad Hatter, and a letter from someone named Mary setting an appointment to meet at the Tower, apparently the same meeting which resulted in Driscoll’s death. Arbor reveals that he is the actual owner of the missing manuscript, but insists it is not in his possession. Mrs. Larkin is exposed as a private detective hired by Lester to spy on his wife, who was having an affair with Driscoll. She did meet with Driscoll briefly at the Tower, at which time he told her he needed to take care of an urgent problem and would meet her again momentarily. He died moments later. Driscoll’s rooms are ransacked, probably by Laura, and then invaded again by Lester, who is found there by the police.
Although Fell announces halfway through the book that he knows the solution, but cannot prove it, the reader has not even met all of the principal characters until two thirds have passed. By then, Hadley has selected the likeliest subject, Lester, having previously made a fairly convincing case against Laura. The reader will have dismissed General Mason, Dalrye, and Larkin as suspects because the first two have solid alibis and the third is clearly not an intimate of the subject. Sheila Bitton is portrayed as such an airhead that she seems unlikely as well, and it is through her indiscretion that everyone concerned knew that Driscoll would be visiting the Tower. Arbor’s shock at hearing that Driscoll is dead and the fact that he is clearly in fear of his life probably eliminates him. That leaves Lester, the outraged husband, Laura, the jilted girlfriend, and the most likely of all, Sir William, who has stepped off stage for most of the book. Larkin was following Laura at the time, which seems to eliminate her as well.
Fell’s revelation about the stolen manuscript is clever though barely convincing. Sir William’s new hat was incorrectly one size too large and his valet adjusted it by stuffing some old papers into the hatband. By the time he realized that the paper was valuable, the hat had been stolen. This leads to the conclusion that Driscoll was in fact the Mad Hatter, which had earlier been suggested by his efforts to use his newspaper stories on the subject to secure a full time position with a newspaper. Hadley’s suspicions of Lester seem to be borne out when the latter commits suicide, and Fell seems to concur, although the length of the book remaining suggests otherwise.
The real solution relies on a trick similar to the one in Hag’s Nook. The murder was not committed where we think it was. Driscoll had actually left the Tower and returned to his apartment, where he found Dalrye in the process of stealing the manuscript to sell to Arbor. There was a fight during which Driscoll was accidentally impaled on the crossbow bolt, after which Dalrye drove the body back to the Tower and, under cover of fog, dumped it where Mason found it only moments later. The sequence of events is a bit contrived, but workable, and Carr had even provided a direct contradiction between Dalrye’s story and other testimony which might have triggered our suspicion. At the time, however, the reader should have been so firmly convinced that he was not a suspect that his statements were not given the attention they deserved.
Carr also tells us a great deal more about Carr this time around. He is widely read and sports a large, bandit’s moustache. At one point he is described as resembling a walrus. He was active in counterespionage during World War I and was very successful, and has solved several murders since, called upon by Scotland Yard as a consultant. This last establishes Fell as a legitimate detective, but Rampole’s continued role as viewpoint character is dubious. The novel also presents another theme which Carr would use again, the importance of justice rather than law. If Dalrye had not confessed, he would have gotten away with everything because Fell was covering up for him, misleading Hadley intentionally. His stated justification is that Driscoll’s death was an accident, that no jury would ever have believed his story, and that it would be a great injustice to have him executed. The more practical device is that Carr is thus able to pin the crime on a likable character with no unworthy motives. The introduction of considerable light humor into the story – chiefly based on Fell’s eccentricities – provides a counterbalance to the otherwise horrible events. Like Hag’s Nook, the novel demonstrates Carr’s move away from tense melodrama to a more relaxed narrative style. It also involves some very clever misdirection to disguise what would otherwise be obvious clues.
There is an even stronger note of comedy in The Eight of Swords (1934). Fell first utters his famous invocation, “Archons of Athens” in this one. The story opens with Inspector Hadley looking forward to his imminent retirement. Unfortunately, his tranquility is interrupted when he is asked to investigate a case involving poltergeist’s and a bishop who slides down banisters. The bishop is the guest of Standish, whose son has just become betrothed to the daughter of Septimus Depping, who lives in the guest house on the estate. The bishop was suffering from nervous exhaustion, and in short order was found climbing about the roof claiming he’d seen a known criminal walking on the grounds, and assaulting a maid whom he thought was wearing a wig as a disguise.
Hadley resigns himself to an interview with the bishop, but before the latter can arrive, he receives another visitor, Sigismunde Hornswoggle, an Austrian psychoanalyst, who turns out to be a disguised Gideon Fell. Fell reveals that he has been invited to visit Standish, for obvious reasons. Hugh Donovan, the bishop’s son, takes over the function of Rampole as primary viewpoint character. He has just returned from spending a year in America and fears his father’s disapproval of the use he made of his time there. The rest of the company include Burke, Standish’s business partner, Mrs. Standish and their son Morley and daughter Patricia, and Morgan, a writer who lives nearby with his wife, though we don’t meet any of these until after the announcement that Depping has been found shot to death.
The circumstances of his death are not quite a locked room. According to his servants, he received an anonymous visitor the evening before, whom the bishop believes is Louis Spinelli, a one-time blackmailer. During the visit, a fuse apparently blew out the lights. The servants retired before the visitor left, and found Depping dead in the morning, although he’d been shot just after midnight. The study door was locked, but the windows were open despite a rain storm and there was a balcony exit which was unsecured. Near the dead man’s hand was left an eight of swords from a tarot deck.
The circumstances of the meeting – the lights blown out intentionally, the fact that Depping ate everything on his supper plate except his favorite food – make it clear that this is another case of misdirection, that it wasn’t Depping who was upstairs at all. It’s so obvious that Carr confirms this quickly, explaining that Depping wanted an alibi while he sneaked out to kill Spinelli, enlisted the aid of a perhaps unwitting ally, and then returned in the guise of a stranger. The roundabout method of entry could be explained several ways, a lost key, a miscommunication, or part of a plot by the unknown ally to set Depping up for murder. Fell’s theory takes a minor hit when Spinelli shows up alive, although there’s evidence that there was an attempt on his life during the night in question. The open windows – despite the storm – were to air out the room after the distinctive clothing he wore was burned in the fireplace.
There are plenty of motives. Depping was formerly involved with organized crime. He is virtually estranged from his daughter. Almost all of his neighbors disliked him intently. Other than the circumstances surrounding the impersonation already described, there is only one significant clue - a footprint near the murder site was made by one of Morley’s discarded shoes. There’s also a sort of secret passage, which explains the poltergeist incident, but since the reader is told of its existence quiet early, it’s not a cheat. One important character – the lawyer who works for both Spinelli and Depping – is introduced late but although he is important to the dramatic ending, he contributes very little to the solution of the crime. The eight of swords is the Tarot symbol for “condemning justice”, which Carr doesn’t explain until very late in the book, but as it turns out, it’s a clue of little consequence. Although Fell’s reconstruction of events is logical, his conclusion that the daughter – supposedly in France – is actually Depping’s mistress and the murderer involves a leap of intuition that the facts might support, but from which it is unlikely that anyone could ever have come to that conclusion. It is therefore one of Carr’s lesser mysteries, although it contains some of his best humorous sequences, particularly the confrontation between Fell and Mrs. Standish, and the posturing of the bishop.
In addition to the humorous episodes, Carr makes a number of excursions during the course of the novel. The love at first sight encounter between Patricia and Hugh is practically a fixture in detective stories from this period, although Carr gives it some life in the repartee between the two. He also takes time to excoriate critics of detective fiction, and at one point steps outside the story to explain some of the conventions of characterization, a device he used more than once in later books. Because through misjudgment, Fell fails to prevent two deaths in the closing chapters, he declares this to be his last case, but if that was Carr’s intention, it didn’t last long, because he returned in the very next book.
The Blind Barber (1933) followed, one of Carr’s best books, though not one of his better mysteries. Although a story of theft, murder, assault, and impersonation occupies the central core, the book is essentially a comedic farce, a send up of detective stories set on cruise ships. It was such a diversion from Carr’s usual style that Gideon Fell only appears offstage. The story is related to him by one of the passengers on the Queen Victoria, the same Henry Morgan whom we first met in The Eight of Swords. Morgan therefore becomes our viewpoint character.
Farces generally require that the characters act nonsensically, that is, that they exhibit extremes of behavior that strike us as absurd, thus adding complexity to what might otherwise be a simple situation. Carr, through Fell, provides something of a justification for mixing murder and mirth. “Don’t say that it has no place in a murder case, or that a murderer himself can’t laugh. Once you set him up as a waxwork horror…you will never be able to understand him, and you will probably never see who he is.”
The plot starts plausibly enough when a minor diplomat, Curt Warren, is attacked in his cabin. The intruder has stolen part of a reel of film which reveals several prominent American government officials in compromising circumstances, a film which Warren mistakenly thought he’d destroyed. He was alerted to the truth by a radio message, which was overheard by several crew members and passengers, thus giving us a large cast of suspects. Warren enlists the aid of Morgan, the retired Captain Valvick, and a secretary named Glenn to support his pretense that he has not recovered consciousness, hoping to lure the culprit into a second foray in search of the remaining film. This foursome almost by the nature of things can be eliminated from the list of suspects, as they are together when murder is committed.
There are several potential suspects. Glenn works for Fortinbras, a puppeteer who uses life sized manikins, along with his assistant, Abdul. Captain Whistler seems an unlikely candidate, but there is also Lord Sturton, whose possession of a valuable jewel is known to have attracted a master criminal to the ship. Dr. Kyle is prominently known, but might be an impostor and Woodcock is a traveling salesman, almost by definition suspicious. The Perrigords are a pair of pretentious snobs. There is also a mysterious woman, who is found lying unconscious near Warren’s cabin and who was present when the radio message arrived, and whom we presume dead after her unconscious body disappears, leaving behind a substantial bloodstain and a straight razor decorated with a figure of a blind barber.
The trap is sprung, but thanks to the discovery of the unconscious woman, none of the party of conspirators actually sees who entered, or tried to enter, Warren’s cabin. Then they spot a mysterious figure on the rain swept deck and knock the man unconscious, thinking he’s the burglar, but in fact it’s Captain Whistler they’ve assaulted, and Whistler was carrying Lord Sturton’s valuable jewels. All of this is accompanied by sometimes clever exchanges among the foursome, who have perhaps indulged in a bit too much drink as well as alcohol. When the captain wakes up before they can get away, Green panics and throws the box through a porthole into a cabin rather than just pretending to have stumbled across the scene. Later she is unable to remember which porthole, but narrows it down to either the cabin of Dr. Kyle or that of the Perrigords. Neither party admits to having found it the following morning, and Dr. Kyle’s door was observed all night and no one came or went, which means he could not be responsible for killing the girl or stealing the second half of the tape. Further investigation is somewhat hampered by the fact that Whistler now thinks they’re all crazy, a conclusion one would find difficult to quarrel with.
Further complications are a given in farces and this is no exception. Woodcock apparently witnessed the first theft and knows who stole the film, but he refuses to believe that anyone was murdered and therefore won’t divulge the information unless Warren’s highly placed relative agrees to do a public endorsement of the product he’s hawking, an insecticide gun that works in the dark. That little invention is the basis for an uproarious scene in which Captain Whistler is once again physically assaulted. Although this new affront is smoothed over, Warren then suggests that Kyle is an impostor, which might have gotten him into fresh trouble if Whistler hadn’t just received a cable from the police in New York suggesting the same thing. The mystery, however, deepens because a check of the passengers demonstrates that no one is missing and no one has reported being injured. Then who was the mysterious woman they attended to during the night? Warren’s importunities have the predictable result – he is thrown into the brig.
Carr then provides an intermission in which Morgan and Fell discuss what has been related so far. Morgan has come ashore in the pilot boat, hoping Fell can solve the crime before the ship docks and the passengers disperse. Fell confirms that a murder did take place and he even knows the victim’s identity, although he doesn’t tell us. What he does reveal is a list of eight enigmatic clues. The fact that the razor was part of a set of seven. The others include multiple radiograms, opportunity, suggestion, terse style, invisibility, fraternal trust, and elimination. This is one of Carr’s famous direct challenges to the reader, and he even taunts us by announcing that he expects to derive eight more from the balance of the story.
We return to the main narrative in time for another startling revelation. Someone has anonymously returned the jewels to Lord Sturton. Whistler is so relieved that he refuses to further consider the possibility of murder or the presence of an impostor, but Morgan and his friends are less sanguine. They set about checking for themselves, but are unable to find the missing woman, or anyone who remembers that she ever appeared on the ship. There’s a rapid acceleration toward chaos. Fortinbras gets drunk and passes out while most of the remaining characters just get sillier, Abdul gets knocked out, and Warren escapes from the brig after clobbering Woodcock and using his inert body to fill his bunk, then searches Kyle’s cabin and finds the stolen jewels. Have they been stolen again or are these the originals and the ones returned to Sturton fakes?
Fell unravels the mystery in a comparatively few pages, explaining all sixteen of his clues. There is a bit of mild cheating here because some of the solution involves information which the reader didn’t possess, but it’s entirely possible to discover the solution without including each point, because the misdirection this time is in the farcical adventure, which is designed to distract us from the mystery. Two of the clues were sufficient to convince me that the impostor was actually Sturton and the victim his secretary. One was pretty clumsy. The only indication that she’s still alive after the assault is an overheard, one-sided conversation with Sturton, clearly suggesting that this was to disguise the fact that she really wasn’t there. The second, slightly more subtle one, is that there was no other possibility for concealing the disappearance of a passenger, unless one postulated a stowaway. A woman traveling alone would have been obviously missing, and the disappearance of part of a family group would have raised an alarm. I was somewhat less than convinced that the imposter could have fooled her for any length of time, even if she had only been in his employ for a few weeks. It was also obvious that there was a fake set of jewelry, but it’s significance is only evident once you’ve decided to consider Sturton as the villain. In the final pages, Carr also spoofs another common contrivance in classic detective stories, the killer who confesses and then takes poison to avoid being hanged. The bogus Sturton attempts to do so but Fell has thoughtfully exchanged the poison for something less final.
The Bowstring Murders (1934) first appeared as by Carr Dickson, but was later changed to Carter Dickson, under which name Carr would write the Henry Merrivale mysteries. The setting is Bowstring Castle where Henry Steyne, Lord Rayle, has been acting very strangely of late. The castle is deliberately provided with minimal electric lighting to preserve its ancient aspect, a device that allows for lots of shadowy action. It is also the site of an extensive collection of artifacts, from which there have recently been two thefts, the string from a crossbow and a pair of gauntlets. Once again we have an American visitor as primary viewpoint character, in this case Michael Tairlaine, a college professor who regrets that there has been no adventure in his life. Be careful what you wish for.
Tairlaine is visiting along with Sir George Anstruther, an old friend. Steyne’s family consists of his second wife Irene, his son Francis and daughter Patricia, a secretary named Bruce Massey, and a friend of the family, Larry Kestevan. There have been other recent upsets. A maid named Doris claims to have seen a suit of armor watching her one evening, and she has become nearly hysterical by the time the guests arrive. Doris also turns out to be pregnant, father unidentified. Lord Rayle promptly gets himself murdered in his exhibition room, his body apparently discovered by his daughter.
We have in this novel a classic locked room mystery. Rayle has been strangled with the missing bowstring, unsurprisingly. Tairlaine was watching the door constantly from the point when Rayle entered until Patricia sounded the alarm and no one else passed through. The only other exit has been nailed shut and there is no place to hide within. The only logical conclusion is that Patricia is the killer, which obviously clears her of any suspicion as far as the reader is concerned. Her story is further marred by her refusal to state why she was in the armor room in the first place, and why she was hiding there when the murder took place. Before the body has even cooled, however, a second corpse is found. Doris has also been strangled, and she has a string of pearls in her hand, perhaps the same pearls that Rayle recently purchased for his wife.
Carr turned to a new detective, John Gaunt, a Holmesian figure who drinks too much, fights with Scotland Yard constantly, and seemed to lose interest in life when his wife died. Gaunt happens to be nearby and is talked into investigating. Two potentially interesting contradictions show up right away. Although Doris was supposed to have stayed in her room all evening, she was seen entering Mrs. Steyne’s bedroom at one point. Another servant saw Kestevan walking in the area of the nailed up door, but he denies this heatedly. Francis Steyne’s reaction to the death of Doris is also interesting, confirming our natural suspicion that he was the father of her unborn child, but also suggesting that he is not the killer.
Next we learn more about the antagonisms in the house. Francis and his stepmother despise one another, nor is he fond of Kestevan, who apparently was attempting a clandestine tryst with Patricia, the explanation for her presence in the armor room. Irene admits to having no regrets about her husband’s death and states her intention of using her inheritance to produce a movie in which she will star against Kestevan. She also confirms that Doris was in her room that evening, supposedly asking her to intercede and prevent her from being discharged. Both of Rayle’s safes have been emptied of a considerable amount of cash and negotiable bonds. At this point, just shy of half way through, we have a pretty clear understanding of the tensions and motives, although it still appears that no one had the opportunity. The only remaining clue is an odd click that Tairlaine heard at approximately the time of the murder.
Gaunt turns the case upside down almost immediately. After examining the body, he announces that Rayle was dead before the bowstring was tied around his neck, and that the damage to his clothing suggests he was trying to escape his attacker and was caught from behind and, apparently, suspended for a time in the air. While this discussion is going on, the missing gauntlets are found in the dead maid’s room, tying the murders together.
The mid-point of a detective story is usually a good spot in which to reconsider each of the characters. Since Patricia appears to be above suspicion and Tairlaine is chief protagonist, they can be eliminated. Francis Steyne’s reaction to the death of Doris seems to let him out unless there were two murderers. For most of that period, he was with Sir George, but he left for a short period. Although this provides him with time to have committed the murders, it does the same for Sir George, whose presence in the story seems otherwise unnecessary, unless he’s a red herring. Kestevan appears to be too stupid. So Sir George joins Irene and Massey as prime suspects. Nor should we forget Dr. Manning, the family physician, who was attending Irene that evening and who went down to his car for a few moments with a particularly flimsy excuse. There are also a handful of named servants, but Carr usually observes the tradition of never telling us that the “butler” did it.
Gaunt raises three questions. Why was the bowstring tied after the murder? Why was he arranged in such an odd position? And why did the killer move the place a torn off button inside the dead man’s pocket? The local inspector, Detective Tape, then appears to eliminate one of the major suspects, because Sir George’s hands are too big to fit inside the gauntlets used to strangle one or both victims. The household retires for the night and Tairlaine briefly hears Irene’s tiny dog barking, and in the morning she is found shot to death in her bed.
Once again the resolution involves misdirection about the actual events of the death. Rayle was not killed in the armor room at all; he was dropped into it from a window. Massey then briefly impersonated him, faked an encounter at the door to the room, and withdrew. Carr has provided several clues less obvious but suggestive clues, including the similar manner of the maid’s death. There is also a subtle problem with the timing of Massey’s account, but it is only obvious if examined very closely. Carr cheats a bit in this one, however, because the doctor’s estimate of the time of death is glaringly wrong, which makes the subterfuge possible. We have been told that the doctor is not a particularly good one, but it’s still cheating. There are also a few minor aspects that “we’ll never know” why Massey did things that way, which isn’t cheating exactly, but it’s a bit sloppy. An average quality Carr, but it’s evident that he wasn’t happy with Gaunt as a detective.
The Plague Court Murders (1934) features Henry Merrivale, but only in a supporting role. The narrator and investigator in this case is Kenneth Blake, who is approached in the opening chapter by Dean Halliday, who wants him to help debunk a haunted house – a house he owns but which has been vacant for more than a century. Dean’s older brother James was favored by his aunt, Lady Benning, but when James committed suicide, Dean became head of the family, to Lady Benning’s obvious dismay. She has also been convinced by a clever charlatan, Roger Darworth, that it is James’ spirit haunting the house in question.
Blake enlists the aid of Masters, a police detective who specializes in debunking the supernatural, and the three head off to the house, only to find it already occupied by Lady Benning, who has enlisted the aid of Halliday’s fiancé, Mation Latimer, and her gullible brother Ted. Also included in the party are Darworth’s drug addicted, mentally retarded assistant Joseph, a friend of the family named Major Featherton, and Darworth himself. Darworth has barricaded himself in a stone walled outbuilding, supposedly to prepare for the exorcism. As soon as we hear that his redoubt is impenetrable, we know that he will be killed, and it isn’t long before the alarm wire he had rigged is tripped. The door has to be destroyed to effect entry, but once inside the investigators find him lying partly in the fireplace, dead of multiple stab wounds made with a knife recently stolen from a museum. The knife, which once belonged to a hangman’s assistant named Playge, was donated by one of Halliday’s ancestors. Plague Court is in fact a degeneration of the original name, Playge Court.
Carr quickly assures us that there are no secret passages, that the windows were secure, and that the chimney is blocked by an immovable grate. The door was locked and barred from the inside as well as padlocked from without. There is no place where a person could have hidden from the investigators when they entered. The building is completely surrounded by soft mud, but there are no footprints anywhere. A minor but potentially interesting item is that a dead cat was found nearby, and Playge was known for having slaughtered cats. Blake also tells us that he is certain that the killer is one of the five people who were sitting quietly in a completely dark room when the murder was committed – Lady Bennington, the two Latimers, Major Featherton, and Dean Halliday. Joseph was under watch by another policeman, working undercover.
Although none of the others actively liked Darworth, there are no apparent motives strong enough to suggest murder. There was, however, an earlier séance in which Darworth pretended to be the conduit for automatic writing. Someone substituted another note for the one he had prepared, which he promptly destroyed. Two of those present say that they read part of the script, a reference to the death of Elsie Fenwick, an unknown, and what appears to have been a death threat. It seems, therefore, that some previous activity of Darworth has provided the motive, but as of halfway through the book, Carr has revealed no details, which makes it very difficult to choose among the potential killers, all of whom had exactly the same degree of opportunity.
At the halfway point, we learn more about Darworth’s background. Elsie Fenwick was his first wife, who disappeared years earlier under mysterious circumstances and whom, we can presume, he killed. He is now married to Glenda Watson, who was the maid who supported his testimony during an earlier incident in which Fenwick nearly died of arsenic poisoning. Presumably they are either co-conspirators or she is blackmailing him, and the fact that they live apart suggests the latter.
Carr cheats quite a bit in this one. First we have the unreliable narrator. When Blake tells us that he was certain that one of the five people sitting in the darkened room was the killer, his absolute certainty and assurance that he is giving an accurate account on other matters predisposes us to believe him this time as well. Second, there is withheld information. We don’t know that Glenda Watson was a circus performer, necessary for negotiating a dangerous passage from walls to a tree to the roof of the murder room. Third is the unnecessary false clue. Fell warns the police not to taste the white substance found in Darworth’s workroom, suggesting it is poisonous. It is in fact rock salt, which he fashioned into bullets that dissolve in a human body. Fourth is the implausible opportunity. Darworth arranged with Joseph, who is actually Watson in disguise as a man, to shoot him through small holes in the window casing, using the dissolving bullets so that it would appear that he was stabbed with the stolen knife, actually more like a poniard or awl. He had already inflicted several wounds on himself, and she was to use this method to add others at an angle he could not have managed by himself. This all seems an unnecessarily painful, dangerous, and unnecessary method to further his scam. Lastly, there is the matter of Joseph’s alibi. It turns out that the policeman who was watching him had been vamped by Watson and was an accessory to the crime. Since we’re given no hint of this prior to Merrivale’s revelation, this is perhaps the worst cheat of them all.
Merrivale, like Fell, is overweight though somewhat more mobile, although his laziness makes this less apparent. He is also married and works in some branch of military intelligence, although he often lends his services to Scotland Yard. He’s less sociable, but irascible, and more prone to accidents and practical jokes. In many ways he’s a farcical version of Mycroft Holmes, a comparison that Carr makes himself. In later books, Carr would add some details, but the essence of his personality was fixed in his first adventure, unlike Fell, who evolves slightly over the course of his career. He returns in The White Priory Murders (1934), this time with his nephew, James Bennett, as the narrator.
Bennett lives in America and meets Merrivale for the first time while visiting London. He is off then to the White Priory, home of Maurice and James Bohun, and Maurice’s daughter Katharine. Maurice is more than slightly priggish and domineering, and he has recently written a play which is to be produced through financing provided by Lord Canifest, whose daughter Louise Carewe, is also part of the party. Canifest’s interest is primarily because of the participation of a famous actress, Marcia Tait, who wants to perform the play to spite London critics who were unkind to her during the early part of her career. This has upset Rainger, who functions as her business manager and an agent of the studio to which she is contracted, and Emery, her press agent, both of whom believe she is risking her career. Canifest soon withdraws his support after hearing rumors that Tait is secretly married, because the possibility of a romantic entanglement was the primary attraction. James Bohun is to direct and the mail lead is Jervis Willard.
There are early signs that something is seriously wrong. On the voyage over from North America, someone sent Tait poisoned chocolates, although the dose was deliberately non-fatal. At White Priory, the party is exploring the hidden passageway when someone apparently pushes Tait from behind, almost precipitating her down the staircase. Louise Carewe hints that she was responsible, but Rainger claims to have seen Katharine Bohun do it, possibly because she repelled his advances earlier. It is obvious that Tait is going to die and she does so, bludgeoned to death in an outbuilding that is reminiscent of the situation in The Plague Court Murders. Although not locked, the Pavilion where she is killed is surrounded by fresh, unbroken snow and very thin ice. James Bohun claims to have discovered the body, and his tracks are the only set leading to Pavilion, which immediately led me to suspect that he had walked in his own earlier steps (it snowed from midnight to 2:00 and Tait was killed after 3:00), but the police determine that this is not the case.
There are few physical clues. Distinctive burnt matches are strewn around the murder scene, as well as pieces of a broken decanter. A dog on the property barked at 1:30, but was then shut away. James Bohun claims not to have reached the house until 3:30, and one of the servants confirms his story. Although there is a poker in the fire, the hysterical Louise says that Tait was murdered with a riding crop, one of which is later found under her bed. Louise had been found unconscious at 4:00 after seeing, she claims, a prowler in the house. She also physically assaults Katharine, possibly while hallucinating.
The story changes dramatically when James Bohun is found with a gunshot wound in his chest and a suicide note claiming that he accidentally killed Lord Canifest. The wound is serious but not fatal, and while he is still being attended to a telephone call is received from Canifest, who is still very much alive. Carr provides several informal clues. Merrivale tells us that the locked room problem was an accident, that the killer would never have wanted to create such a puzzle intentionally. He also points out to us that the broken glass near the body was crushed, not shattered, suggesting that it was done purposefully. He also implies that the matches were employed because someone didn’t want to turn on the lights, and then observes that the fireplace in that room was identical to that in another which was only maintained for a short period.
Maurice Bohun comes up with another plausible, but incorrect, explanation, but this time Carr’s previous devices suggest a different solution. If we assume that Tait was not murdered where her body was found, several puzzles are solved. The glass was broken to suggest that she’d entertained a guest and that there had been a struggle. The fire was not more extensive because she only remained in that room a short time. This leads us to the obvious solution about the single set of tracks – that James Bohun carried her dead body into the pavilion and staged his discovery, although it doesn’t necessarily imply that he is the killer. Maurice suspects Rainger, but Rainger is himself murdered, though Merrivale conceals this fact as part of an elaborate trap.
Carr cheats a bit at the end, since Tait and Rainger were both killed by her secret husband, Emery, whom we had thought confined to the hospital because of the poison he ate, at least while Tait was being killed. The novel is constructed to make the reader hope that Maurice is the killer, since he’s such an objectionable human being. The fact that Louise Carewe did in fact try to murder Tait by pushing her down the staircase (and in fact was going to assault her the evening she died, but was prevented from doing so by the heavy dosage of veronal she’d taken) is a somewhat clumsy and implausible distraction, since her motive (fear that she was vamping her father, Lord Canifest) seems unlikely under the circumstances. On balance, an average quality Carr that suffers a bit from its contrivances, particularly in the resolution.
Merrivale next appeared in The Red Widow Murders (1935), which also saw the return of Professor Tairlane who debuted in The Bowstring Murders as the narrator of the first John Gaunt novel. It is one of Carr’s best locked room mysteries. Tairlane is induced to act as a neutral observer in a rather odd undertaking. Lord Alan Mantling lives in a home where one room, the Widow’s Room, has been sealed since the death of his father, as part of a condition of his inheritance. Since the house is now scheduled for demolition, he is released from that condition and has decided to inspect it. There is a mysterious history to that room, where everyone who has remained alone for two hours has died, mysteriously poisoned, even though no one has ever been able to find a mechanism that could be responsible. Mantling and several others draw cards to see who will tempt the curse and a guest in the house, Bender, reveals that he has drawn the Ace of Spades, although we later discover that he palmed the real card in order to “win” the honor. Predictably Bender dies, poisoned, despite the fact that he was heard calling out regularly even long after he was dead.
Carr presents us with so many clues and motives, even before the crime is committed, that it is difficult to keep track of them, particularly since at least some are likely to be red herrings. First, there are the conflicts among the participants. Guy Mantling is the brother, an oddly repellent man who claims to have incurred some damage to his vision, which he blames on Lord Mantling. Next is Isabel Brixham, their aunt, who is openly at odds with her nephew Alan and who claims that there is a madman in the house who has already killed a parrot and a dog. Ravelle is a Frenchman who conceals the fact that he is distantly related to the Mantlings. Bob Carstairs is described as a friend of the family. Bender claimed to be an artist whom Isabel was patronizing, but he was actually a student in psychology secretly trying to discover the identity of the madman. He worked for Dr. Arnold, a haughty type who hopes to marry Judith, Lord Mantling’s sister. The remaining two characters are Tairlane’s friend Sir George and Henry Merrivale, both of whom we can safely assume are above suspicion.
There is considerable detail about the history of the room, whose furniture was built by one of Ravelle’s ancestors for a family of professional executioners in France. He hopes to purchase some of this for reasons he refuses to divulge. This also explains the name, because the guillotine was also known as the Red Widow. Four people died in the same mysterious fashion during the 19th Century, and Merrivale is particularly interested in one, a woman who died the night before her wedding to a prominent businessman. One of the others was a member of Ravelle’s family. When the party proceeds to open the room, they find that the bolts have been replaced by dummies and the room has been cleaned. Obviously someone has been visiting it secretly, perhaps to reset the poison trap. But if so, why give away the game by leaving such obvious evidence of tampering?
Now for some clues. Guy Mantling has a long standing interest in magic tricks and occult religions. Alan Mantling collects edged weapons, including a set of darts tipped with curare. Three of the darts and a blowgun have disappeared, and the poison used to kill Bender was…you guessed it…curare. We also learn that Guy is interested in the family history, about which he is very secretive, which suggests that he might have known of the connection to Ravelle. The dead parrot’s cage was positioned such that it would have seen anyone entering the corridor to the sealed room and might have raised an alarm. The dog offers the same possible motive. Alan Mantling is an accomplished ventriloquist, which immediately suggests the method by which the dead Bender appeared to be responding to their calls, but there is also a sealed but slitted window in the Widow’s Room through which it would have been possible to create the same effect. We also know that Bender was carrying a notebook when he entered the room, which is now missing, and that he was found with a piece of parchment bearing an old Latin prayer and the nine of spades, presumably the card he actually drew, lying on his chest. Merrivale’s mention of putty seems to disturb both Guy and Ravelle and, finally, we have a poison box, disarmed, found in the Widow’s Room, which is signed by its maker, Ravelle’s ancestor. If anything, there seem to be too many clues.
Next we have opportunity. At first it appears that everyone has an alibi. Arnold and Judith were out of the house and with others at the time of the murder. All of the remaining characters were together near the sealed room except for Isabel, who had retired to her room, and Guy, who had joined her. The two of them confirm each other’s story, but Ravelle insists that when he passed by the room a few minutes later, shortly after Bender’s death but before the body was discovered, that Isabel was alone and asleep. We already know of two methods by which the false responses could have been generated, and the poison could have been administered by a poison dart, but how was the notebook removed and what then happened to the dart? The evidence points directly toward Guy, who could have sneaked out of the house, fired the dart through the slit and then mimicked the man’s responses, but how did her remove the two incriminating items from the room? We could imagine a string tied to the dart, but the notebook presents a more significant problem unless it was (a) removed somehow before Bender was left to his own devices, or (b) purloined under the very eyes of Merrivale, which seems unlikely. Inspector Masters (now described as a young man although he was preparing to retire in his first appearance) demonstrates how the dart could have been drawn away by means of a silk thread, but his confirmation of my suspicion immediately made me doubt myself, since he is almost always proved wrong.
Things look dark for Guy, whose fingerprints are found on the window frame, but just as Merrivale experiences a brainstorm – which he does not share – news comes that Guy has been found dead in the Widow’s Room, murdered by means of the proverbial blunt object. A few false leads are exploded, but it has been evident for some time that it was Guy who had frequented the supposedly sealed room, where he located a cache of jewels hidden there for decades, and presumably he killed the parrot and dog to preserve his secret. His fingerprints on the window no longer suggest that he was the killer. They do, however, suggest that he was a witness, and that provides more than ample motive for his own subsequent murder. At this point, I was wavering between Lord Mantling and Dr. Arnold, but could not figure out how either of them had the opportunity.
Carr then does his usual surgical destruction of much of what we believed to be true. The cut on Bender’s face, believed to be the wound inflicted by the curare tipped dart, is identified as a shaving cut. The blowgun and darts were stolen by Judith, but as part of a practical joke. She accounts for all of the darts and that eliminates them as the means by which the poison was administered. Merrivale insists that it was Guy who made the responsive calls, for reasons as yet unknown, and asserts that Bender was indeed alone in the room when he was killed, suggesting a mechanical trap, even though there is no trace of one remaining.
As we rush toward the conclusion, a hypodermic needle is discovered concealed in a mattress, half full of curare. But there was no puncture wound on Benders and, if the killer still had curare, why batter Guy’s head in rather than poison him? Isabel then makes a declaration. She saw Alan Mantling carrying a hypodermic during the night, stole into his room, and found a blood knife, Bender’s notebook, and other incriminating items in a drawer, which the police then recover. It looks very much as though Mantling is the killer, but there are still forty pages left. Plenty of time for another reversal. Too much time for this to be the actual solution. Arnold still looms as a possibility, but now Isabel rises to second place on my list of suspects.
The solution is pretty clever. I guessed only part of it, that the curare had entered Bender’s bloodstream through a sore in his mouth when he drank brandy laced with the poison. Merrivale guesses this because of a brief mention that there was blood in his wash stand, presumably from rinsing his mouth, too much to have come from his shaving cut. This comes close to cheating because we never actually had a clear description, nor did Merrivale, but it’s a minor point and, as I said, I’d already figured out this was the only place where a puncture wound might not show up. A clue I missed was that it was Arnold who had tested Mantling’s other weapons to make sure they weren’t tipped with curare, which naturally suggests the means by which he acquired some of the rare poison.
Arnold was the first to administer to Bender when he was stricken, which explains how he stole the notebook and the poisoned flask. There’s a minor cheat here. The parchment curse, which fell out of the dead man’s pocket, was a charm against toothache, a fact known to Merrivale but never revealed to the reader. Arnold’s motive is money. He and Judith were secretly married, and he had planned to frame Alan for his brother’s death so that she would inherit the estate. He hypnotized Isabel and created the scene she’d described implicating her nephew. Although there are a few rough spots around the edges, the solution is generally convincing and a nice ending to one of Carr’s best books.
The Unicorn Murders (1935), another Merrivale, steps outside the usual pattern. It opens with the reintroduction of Ken Blake, now working for Merrivale but currently unassigned, who runs into Evelyn Cheyne, for whom he has mild romantic feelings. The set-up for this one is much more lively and action filled than usual, but it is also one of the most contrived, depending upon a string of unbelievable coincidences to get all of the players into their proper places. On the other hand, it also has some genuinely funny segments, chiefly involving impersonation and mistaken identity.
Summarizing the first few chapters is taxing in itself. Blake coincidentally to be in a restaurant in Paris where Cheyne arrives on assignment, mistakenly believing him to be her contact when he correctly guesses the correct response to her password. Intrigued, he decides to play along, and quickly gets to a point where it would be awkward to reveal the truth. They are to meet Lord Ramsden in Orleans. Ramsden is flying into France with a mysterious object called the “unicorn”, whose true nature none of them knows. A very public thief named Flamande has announced through the newspapers that he will be on that same flight and will steal the object. The head of the Surete, Gasquet, also intends to be on the plane, and since both are masters of surprise, no one is going to know who’s who.
Sounds okay so far, but here’s where things start to get confusing. Cheyne is convinced that the murder of a man named Drummond, stabbed in the head by what appears to be an animal horn, is the work of Flamande, who supposedly never killed before (although it is later mentioned that he did kill a guard earlier on, just one of several contradictions scattered through the text). Drummond, coincidentally, is the brother of Harvey Drummond, who is the man Cheyne was supposed to have met in the restaurant, although no one connects the two names until considerably later. Blake, who coincidentally, has lost his passport to a forgetful police officer, and Cheyne decide to drive to Orleans, but vary from the route assigned to them. They are then passed and stopped by a car carrying two police officers and a mysterious figure whom they believe to be Flamande, so they assault him and escape. It turns out he is actually Harvey Drummond, who somehow got on their tale.
As they are fleeing, a sudden rainstorm washes out the crossings of a river and their car becomes mired. While they dither, another car arrives and becomes similarly trapped, and this one disgorges none other than Henry Merrivale, who coincidentally followed the same route, looking for Cheyne to tell her the mission has been canceled, although even he doesn’t know why. As they talk, they hear an aircraft in trouble overhead and, you guessed it, this is the plane carrying Ramsden, Flamande, and Gasquet. It lands in a field, disgorging six men and a woman, one of whom claims to be the real Harvey Drummond. Coincidentally, they are not far from the chateau of a wealthy recluse, D’Andrieau, who tells them he received a letter from Flamande indicating he would disable the plane when it flew over, and that D’Andrieau should be prepared to feed and house overnight guests. Even more astonishing, he also received a letter from Gasquet, who somehow anticipated Flamande’s plan. Next – and we are getting to the end of the preliminaries now, I promise – the man Blake assaulted shows up, and it turns out he is the real Harvey Drummond. Merrivale then accuses the other Drummond of being Gasquet in disguise, and Drummond/Gasquet admits that this is so, and announces that he will unmask Flamande the next day. The reader might suspect that something is fishy here, because the floorplan Carr provides shows the man’s room as “the murdered man’s room.” Coincidentally, the house has just enough bedrooms for the number of guests plus their host and his servant. One final coincidence. The medical examiner assigned to the case of the murdered Drummond brother is one of the passengers on the plane, or at least so he identifies himself. And one final complication. D’Andrieau receives a new note, supposedly from Flamande, insisting that the first Flamande letter was a forgery.
Now for the inconsistencies. First, there is the question of whether or not Drummond’s brother was Flamande’s first victim. There are conflicting claims. Second, we are told early on that the dead man’s wound was at first mistaken for a bullet hole because it was just the right size, but later that it was clearly not caused by a bullet because it was much too large. At one point the wound is measured to be four inches deep, but later it is six inches deep. This kind of inconsistency of detail is very unusual in Carr’s fiction.
The stage is now set and all the characters in place. The man we believe to be Gasquet announces that he will reveal only to Merrivale and Ramsden the identity of Flamande, which naturally marks him for death. He is then killed in front of at least two people, though in darkness, at the head of a staircase, and when his body is examined it has the same deep, mysterious wound as was inflicted on Harvey Drummond’s brother. This leaves us with eight real suspects, the six surviving passengers plus the host and his servant. However, we can’t be sure at this point who was killed. Was it really Gasquet, or was it Flamande pretending to be Gasquet, or a third party entirely? Despite the horribly contrived set-up, the question of who is who is even more tantalizing than the explanation of how the murder was committed.
But Carr isn’t ready to relent just yet. There’s another astounding coincidence about to be revealed. Elsa, the one female passenger, has been traveling with Middleton, whom she hopes to marry once she divorces her present husband. It is only now that we realize she never heard their host’s name, because it is the name of her husband, and the man who greeted them is, therefore, clearly an impostor. That also implies that his manservant is part of the plot. Merrivale merely harrumphs and says he has known all along that D’Andrieau is the real Gasquet. So who did Flamande murder, or was he himself the victim? This latest twist does explain the coincidental landing of the plane nearby; it was obviously arranged in advance by Gasquet to lure Flamande into a trap. So the reader takes a deep breath and plunges onward to the scene where the great detective, Gasquet, summons all the players together.
Gasquet lays out a very convincing case, which we know has to be wrong because all the evidence points to Blake, from whose viewpoint we have been seeing the entire story. The argument goes back and forth, with new evidence arising to contradict his theory, but always receding as Gasquet provides a modified explanation that takes these changes into consideration. He has found the murder weapon – a butcher’s gun that drives a post into the animal’s skull – and described a plausible explanation for how it was used, but it only seems to work if Blake was the killer.
The revelations are very frustrating. The supposedly real Drummond is actually Flamande which means that neither of the men who said they would be on the plane actually were. Neither Merrivale nor the author ever tell us that they carried through on their promises, but this does seem like a rather cheap bit of sleight of hand to keep us guessing. Part of Merrivale’s solution involves interpreting tones of voice, which are obviously not audible to the reader, and that’s cheating as well. Another part requires that one know that French matches smell badly when ignited, which isn’t conveyed elsewhere in the text. That’s still another cheat, withholding information. The first false Drummond was actually the brother impersonating him to catch Flamande, because the latter had killed the real Harvey. This is pretty close to cheating, as well, particularly since there is no readily plausible way for the brother to have had so many details about Harvey’s supposedly hush-hush assignment. Flamande was secretly in the house all the time – which is more than slightly a stretch – and the strange behavior exhibited by the brother was actually his. But that implies that this ruthlessly logical and cool master criminal would throw suitcases out a window in a momentary rage in full view of a police officer. There are also several features of the lower floor of the house that helped Flamande’s plotting, but we never previously had a description of them and the floorplan is only for the second floor. So in one volume we have one of Carr’s most interesting puzzles, and possibly his least satisfying solution.
Gideon Fell next appears in Death-Watch (1935), supposedly his most frightening case. There's a bit of foreshadowing, and we are told of a shoplifting attempt that ended with an unsolved murder, and the theft of the hands off a clock. Fell, who has moved to London and works as a consultant to Scotland Yard, is interested in the Carver family. Johannus Carver is a famous clockmaker connected to both cases. Through another convenient coincidence, Fell and his companion, Dr. Melson, arrive at the Carver house just moments after a man is found dying inside. He is attended by two young men, one of them a lodger in the Carver house named Cosgrove, and Eleanor Smith, Carver's ward. Although Cosgrove is holding a revolver, the dead man was stabbed in the back by one of the purloined clock hands. None of the three admits to knowing the identity of the man, who is shabbily dressed.
We are then told that several people live in the house, including Carver, an older woman, servants, and the family lawyer. There is also mention of a locked passageway that leads to the roof. Cosgrove is described as a meticulously orderly person. Certain incongruities lead Fell to suspect that something was being staged, that the dead man was not an intruder but had been invited, and that Cosgrove is not telling the complete truth. Cosgrove's companion, Stanley, is a retired police officer who appears to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The last major character is Hastings, Eleanor's boyfriend, who apparently had a bad fall while descending from an assignation on the roof the building about the time of the murder. Additional characters include Miss Steffins, who functions almost as Carver's wife, a border named Paull, a maid, and the housekeeper, Gorson, who was at one time an actress.
In a nice twist, we discover that the dead man was the detective assigned to investigate the shoplifting murder, that he suspected one of the five women living in the house, had an anonymous informant inside as well, and found a way to enter in order to identify stolen merchandise. This ties the two cases together, and Fell adds his observation that two hands were stolen off the clock although only one was used as a weapon. Why was the other taken? The narrator supplies another vague clue by alluding to the significance of Carver's glance at a row of clocks, with no hint of why this should be noteworthy. Inspector Hadley arrives so that he and Fell can restate everything to make sure the reader understand the situation and the investigation proceeds. We are also told that the murder weapon appears to have been deliberately treated to mar the varnish.
Some explanations seem clear and are at least partly confirmed by Fell. Stanley was hiding in Boscombe's room, presumably to secretly witness his meeting with Ames, although the purpose for this is initially unclear. We also learn that the lawyer, Handreth, knew that Ames was a policeman because she recognized him when he first started hanging around in the neighborhood. Then Hastings tells his story, which unfolds a very unlikely scenario. Boscombe and Stanley had planned to kill a random person, Ames, as part of an intellectual exercise. Hastings had overheard them weeks before, but never notified the authorities. This, we discover, is because Stanley shot Hastings' father to death while serving as a police officer under shady circumstances. He is forced to confirm that Ames was already fatally wounded before he reached the two plotters, however, by persons unknown. He also says that he saw another figure on the roof, a figure whose hands were stained with the same paint as on the murder weapon. But then we discover that Boscombe never planned the murder, that it was just an elaborate joke to humiliate Stanley, an extraordinarily implausible development.
Carr uses a familiar gambit to explain the multiple coincidences that have already been revealed, having one of the characters point out that very fact. "If the thing were fiction and not fact, I'd flatly refuse to believe it." There is a growing body of evidence pointing toward Eleanor, who was a kleptomaniac as a child, and Hadley eventually makes a detailed and almost convincing case to that effect. Fell, and the reader, disagree because there is in fact too much evidence, and from the reader's point of view, the fact that Hadley advances the theory automatically makes it suspect. Then the shoplifter killer is captured and Fell's opinion that the two crimes are unrelated is confirmed.
The solution, alas, is based on a cheat, a secret panel that allowed Boscombe to slip out of his apartment without the other man in the room, or the one watching through the skylight, from noticing his departure. His motive is convoluted, but Fell's recounting of how he pieced together hints and clues to figure out who was responsible is very well done. Despite a couple of serious flaws, this was a solid mystery and I never even considered the right suspect.
The Three Coffins (aka The Hollow Man) is probably Carr's most famous novel, at least in part due to the inclusion of a lengthy lecture on locked room mysteries which is incorporated into the text. It also includes a brief tirade by Fell about horror or ghost stories that try to be artistic and obscure. "Terror ceases to be terror if it has to be worked out like an algebra problem." The story opens by addressing one of the potential cheats, the unreliable witness or narrator, by telling us that there wouldn't be much of a story if the reader didn't know that "somebody is telling the truth." We are therefore advised that Stuart Mills and three other witnesses are truthful – but that doesn't necessarily mean that they aren't mistaken, a distinction which could prove important.
The murder victim is Dr. Grimaud, a specialist in the lore of the supernatural, who is approached at his club by Pierre Fley, a stage illusionist who claims that he was one of three people buried alive, and that only one escaped – and that the escapee was not himself. This unsettling madness seems to affect Grimaud, who purchases a very large landscape which he claims will defend him against a visit from Fley's "brother", however, one snowy night a masked figure comes to his house and shoots Grimaud fatally. Not only is there undisturbed snow marking every possible escape route, but neither are there footsteps indicating the man's arrival, which immediately led me to believe that the killer was already in the house and faked his apparent entrance.
The residents in the house include Stuart Mills, his secretary, his daughter Rosette, his housekeeper Mme Dumont, who is Rosette's mother, and Drayman, an elderly acquaintance. Grimaud's three closest friends are Pettis, a specialist in ghost stories, Mangan, a journalist, and Burnaby, the artist who painted the landscape mentioned above. Dr. Fell, Hadley, and Ted Rampole, back from America, arrive just as Grimaud is dying and are therefore witnesses to the impossibility of the crime. Fell almost immediately mentions the term "seven towers", which upsets Dumont and which is a clue opaque to all of the remaining characters, as well as the reader.
Fell does clear much of this up in the early going. He makes a few leaps of intuition and incorporates some evidence we haven't been told about and surmises that Grimaud is actually from Transylvania, that he and his two brothers were sentenced to the Seven Towers prison, and that he somehow escaped, but gained the animosity of the brothers, one of whom is Pierre Fley. This explains much of the oddest elements of the mystery without touching upon the method of escape from the locked room and only hints at the motive, but it comes early enough – less than a quarter of the way through – that Carr isn't really cheating this time.
We learn a little more about the potential suspects. Rosette dislikes Drayman, who is nearly blind, lost his children in an accident, and has been living on Grimaud's charity for years, apparently because he once saved his benefactor's life. Grimaud survives for some time before expiring, and his final words blame his brother for his death, but without identifying him. Hadley advances my own theory – that the killer was in the house from the outset – but Fell seems disinclined to accept it. Neither mentions the possibility that he never left either, which would explain the unbroken snow on all sides of the house as well as the roof. The one major clue remaining is a mass of half burned paper in the fireplace, paperwork apparently destroyed by Grimaud as he was dying, whose import is also known to Dumont. Neither Hadley nor Fell make any effort to discover their nature until well into the investigation.
Fell suggests another explanation of Grimaud's past, that the three brothers were imprisoned for theft, that they faked their deaths during an outbreak of bubonic plague, and that Grimaud was supposed to get out of his own coffin and free the others. Instead, he left them to die, grabbed the loot, and changed his identity. The brothers were then rescued by chance, probably sent back to prison, and were only freed many years later. Hadley plans to test this by interrogating Fley, but he has also been killed, shot by the same weapon that claimed Grimaud's life. More puzzling are the circumstances. He was shot point blank in the middle of a wide street, and the only tracks in the snow are his own.
Hadley's men find a rented room which turns out to be Burnaby's secret hideaway, which leads to the revelation that he knew Grimaud's secret, or at least most of it. He is also romantically interested in Rosette, who in turn is interested in Mangan. There is also the possibility that another man from Grimaud's past may have been involved, the doctor who helped the brothers fake their death. And in the midst of this, Fell lets drop the enigmatic statement that church bells have told him the name of the murderer, though not the method by which either was committed. The final major clue at this point is a bloody overcoat which was hanging in Grimaud's house, one which is described as having been two different colors at two different times, and does not fit any of the occupants.
Fell launches into his lecture on locked rooms late in the novel. He starts by making the point that it is unfair to dismiss explanations as improbable in a mystery novel because it is the improbable that makes the story interesting. If the author confined the plot to probable causes and events, then it would be no task at all to solve most of them well before the author intended us to. His disquisition on the subject is fascinating and detailed and I'll only summarize it quickly. After dismissing secret passages as cheats, he groups the various possible solutions into eight broad categories. These are:
1. It was not really a murder, although it looks like one.
2. It was murder, but the murderer was never in the room – e.g. slow acting poison.
3. It was murder, the murderer was not in the room, but he/she left a murder device such as a poisoned needle or rigged gun.
4. It was suicide intended to look like murder.
5. An impersonation was involved. After the victim died, the killer impersonated him to confuse the time of death.
6. A mechanical device was involved, but it was outside the room.
7. The victim was believed to be dead before that was actually the case. He was actually killed after the room was opened.
8. The doors, windows, chimney, or other physical features of the room had been tampered with.
Two late revelations turn the entire case around. First we discover that the third brother is certifiably dead and has been for thirty years. Carr cheats a bit with the second, because there's no way that we could have known that the clock near the scene of Fleys' body was almost an hour wrong and nobody noticed. That changes the order in which the two men died. Fell then explains how everything fits together – that Grimaud and Fleys actually killed each other – that Grimaud's elaborate plan to fool people into thinking that he never left the house went badly awry. There is also another cheat, an entranceway into the basement of the house that was sheltered from the snow, hence would show no tracks, about which we were never previously told. Many of the bits of dialogue from early in the book take on a very different meaning in this context and, despite some minor cheating, the resolution is quite clever.
The Punch and Judy Murders (1936, aka The Magic Lantern Murders) is a Henry Merrivale story. He bullies Ken Blake into attempting to burglarize the home of a German national who has indicated he is willing to the reveal the true identity of an international spy known as L. Things start to go wrong right away. Dr. Antrim, who knows both the local chief constable and Hogenauer, the prospective squealer, shows up at the wrong moment, announcing that he is missing both his wife and a bottle of poison. Then a visiting American agent arrives in time to blow Blake's cover in front of Antrim. Blake proceeds anyway and is promptly arrested, supposedly on the orders of Merrivale, although he suspects otherwise and manages to escape from police custody.
Blake sneaks into Hogenauer's house where he finds Bowers, the manservant, and Hogenauer himself, dead in an apparent locked room. This is doubly puzzling because Hogenauer was supposed to be out of town for the day and had warned Bowers that there might be a visitor after dark. Unsurprisingly, Hogenauer was poisoned, almost certainly with the poison that Dr. Antrim reported missing. Dr. Antrim's wife is found hiding in a cupboard, claiming that she came to see Hogenauer after discovering that someone had switched the label on the poison jar just before her husband prescribed a bromide for Hogenauer, which presumably explains how he took the poison.
The murder scene is also strange. All of the furniture has been rearranged, and there are two academic books missing from a set on one of the shelves. The desk is neatly arranged with four sets of cufflinks displayed prominently. A 100 pound note is found stuffed in a discarded newspaper, but Blake suspects that happened after Hogenauer died. We also have two additional suspicious characters we have not yet met. Serpos was the Chief Constable's secretary, and he steals a great deal of what turns out to be counterfeit money from his employer's safe and through a combination of circumstances, the police confuse him with Blake, hence the arrest of the latter. There is also Keppel, the aging German whom Hogenauer was supposedly visiting. Keppel is the only one old enough to be L, but before our suspicions can crystallize, we are told by an American official that L is dead and that Mrs. Antrim is his daughter.
Through yet another coincidence, Blake runs into the fugitive Serpos, relieves him of the loot, but is nearly arrested himself in the process. He is reunited with his fiancé on a train to Bristol where they hope to burglarize Keppel's rooms and find a mysterious document. They discuss things with the American, Stone, who is also on the train, and Stone points out quite correctly that if someone changed the labels in Antrim's medicine cabinet, how could the killer have known that the doctor would prescribe a bromide for Hogenauer? At this point, I was briefly suspicious that Stone himself was L.
A lot of the mystery gets resolved two thirds of the way through, and after Keppel is found dead, having taken the same poison as Hogenauer. The odd arrangement of the furniture and other strangeness are explained as part of an experiment in clairvoyance the two men were conducting. This does not, however, explain the mystery of L, identify who substituted poison for bromide and why, or tell us how Hogenauer came to be in possession of counterfeit money. To remind us of this, Carr then has the phone ring in Keppel's rooms. The caller identifies himself as L and the call is traced to Dr. Antrim's house, placed while Merrivale and the Chief Constable were in the building. This leads to the inevitable gathering of all the suspects for the final interviews. The main questions appear to be whether someone broke into the Antrim house to change the medicine labels, or whether the break in was staged, and how the counterfeiting scheme connects to Hogenauer and his apparently bogus claim that he would expose L.
The resolution is not entirely satisfactory because it turns out that the Chief Constable, who has barely been present and about whom we know very little, is actually the killer, part of a convoluted plan to run off with a bunch of genuine money secreted amongst the counterfeit bills. The plot seems entirely too complex, the motivation is weak, and much of the information that leads Merrivale to this conclusion was withheld from the reader. Merrivale also arranges for the man to escape because of his past good service, which might be acceptable if this had been a crime of passion, but it was cold blooded murder for material gain and morally indefensible.
The Arabian Nights Murders (1936) is a Gideon Fell story, one of several in which Carr would experiment a bit with the way he unfolds his narrative. In this case, Fell is told of three successive investigations of the same mystery by three different people before he reveals the solution. The story involves the discovery of a dead man, stabbed through the heart, in a carriage that is part of a display in a private museum. The opening chapters introduce us to a large number of characters and considerable strange activity.
The first incident is when a police officer passing the museum is accosted and accused of murder by what appears to be an elderly man wearing white false whiskers, a man who disappears under mysterious circumstances, probably into a manhole. A short time later another office finds Gregory Mannering attempting to gain entry to the same museum, which is closed for the evening. Mannering becomes abusive as well and is taken into temporary custody. In his pocket there is a note that appears to allude to a murder inside the museum. He insists that he was invited to a special event at the museum, which is later explained when we discover it was cancelled without his knowledge.
Another police officer visits the museum and discovers the body, much to the consternation of the night watchman, Pruen, who insists that no one else was in the building. Pruen is also acting strangely and cannot explain some blurred footsteps marked in coal dust in one of the exhibit rooms. The murder weapon, a knife, was also one of the exhibits, removed from a locked case by someone with a key. To add to the confusion, the dead man is wearing black false whiskers and is holding a cookbook, and none of the other characters admits to recognizing him. Further investigation finds a broken elevator and disorder in the curator’s office.
Miriam Wade, daughter of the museum’s owner, arrives apparently unsuspecting that anything is wrong, but she tries to make a mysterious, disguised phone call to the apartment where the curator’s assistant, Holmes, is entertaining Miriam’s brother Jerry, a former fiancé named Sam Baxter, and a young woman named Harriet Kirkton. The investigator goes to the apartment where he notices that the woman in particular seems to be hiding something. Holmes admits to having a key to the display cases, but insists that all of them were together at the time when the murder was committed. Mannering is brought to the museum, announcing that he is engaged to Miriam Wade. He also insists that the note found on his person was one he took from Palmer’s flat shortly before going to the museum, and he insists that no one was there at the time, which contradicts the story they told to provide each other with alibis. Additional clues include a false moustache in the display case where the knife formerly resided, a case whose lock could be easily picked with a hairpin, and more coal dust in another part of the museum. We also meet one additional character, a late comer to the party named Richard Butler, who is disguised as a policeman and who provides a not particularly credible excuse. This suggests the possibility that the man in white whiskers had him confused with the first police officer when he accused that man of murder. The first section then concludes with evidence that the mysterious note was typed on Holmes’ office typewriter, although he disavows any knowledge of it, and the arrival at Scotland Yard of a letter from a curate named Illingworth stating that he was the man in white whiskers, that he witnessed the crime, and wishes to tell the story.
Carr’s strategy here is to overwhelm the reader with clues, suspicions, hints of conspiracy, and so much data that it is hard to pick out a specific pattern. The second testimony, by a Scotland Yard investigator, continues in the same vein. Illingworth, who was invited to the cancelled meeting at the museum, received a telegram reinstating the appointment, supposedly sent by Geoffrey Wade, the owner, who was according to all reports called out of the country unexpectedly. His subsequent experiences bore out my own theory, that there was some kind of staged playacting going on in the museum that had real, and deadly, results. Upon arriving, Illingworth encountered the various party goers, each wearing a disguise, and was mistaken for a hired actor who was supposed to participate in their game.
As I suspected, it turns out this was an elaborate practical joke being played on Mannering that went horribly wrong. The dead man is the real actor, whose dead body was concealed by Butler in the carriage to avoid a scandal. Illingworth saw just enough to make him suspicious and paranoid without realizing the truth. Butler refrained from telling the others in order to avoid precipitating a scandal that would reflect badly on them all, as well as on Geoffrey Wade. We do not, however, have any idea why the actor was murdered, or by whom, or why Illingworth received the incorrect telegram indicating the meeting was to go on as originally scheduled. On the other hand, when we learn that the dead man had recently been in Iraq, as had Miriam Wade and Harriet Kirkton, the fact that the latter seemed to know his name takes on new significance, and Miriam’s attempt to disguise her voice so that she could talk to Harriet privately on the telephone is explained. The telegram and the cookbook turn out to be red herrings, but the dead man’s landlady confirmed my suspicions when she announced that the deceased was married to Miriam and that the couple had a child together.
One of the devices Carr uses intermittently is key to this puzzle as well. The bizarre collection of clues and incidents is not part of an elaborate plot to conceal the truth. It is the result of a well designed plot that went awry, forcing the participants to improvise, or creating illusions and misapprehensions that were never attended. The reason that they don’t fit into any logical theory about the villain’s motives is because they were not part of the murder plot, but complications which arose during or after its execution. This particular mystery makes use of another device which I find less satisfactory. Most of the details about the movements of the characters in the very complex act in the museum are related by testimony from Illingsworth and Pruen, both of whom use unusual speech patterns and both of whom make things seem even more complicated than they really are. Carr seems to realize this and summarizes things later but by then the movement of the various characters has become mind numbing. During the course of this a few more oddities are explained. The mysterious note is another red herring, and a badly conceived one. The coal dust is more logically explained when we discover that the victim had been in the museum prior to his known visit, and that he had sneaked into the basement to speak to Miriam on that occasion.
Although the middle section of the book progresses very slowly, the conclusion almost redeems it. Hadley makes a very detailed, very convincing case that Mannering was the killer, that he sneaked into the museum basement, killed the victim, moved the body to the carriage, then reappeared disguised to look like the dead man in order to confuse the witnesses about the timing. Carr could have ended the novel at this point and the reader would be satisfied, but he goes a step further. As the investigators are finishing their discussion with fell, Geoffrey Wade arrives with a crowd of witnesses providing Mannering an unbeatable alibi. Although all concerned are certain that they were bribed, there seems to be no way to convict the man. Their frustration takes another turn when, in the last ten pages or so, Fell finally speaks and completely upsets their case. It was Wade’s son who committed the murder; Mannering knows it and Wade is protecting him in return for his silence. The conclusion is first rate, but in general the novel plods toward its destination, although once again we have the moral question of whether or not the police are justified in not pressing the case against the murderer.
The Burning Court (1937) is a standalone novel set in a small town in Pennsylvania. The viewpoint character is an editor at a publishing house named Edward Stevens who is puzzled by two apparently unrelated mysteries. The first is a crime writer named Gaudan Cross who insists that his picture be displayed prominently on all of his books, even though he is otherwise an intensely private man. The second revolves around the recent death, apparently by natural causes, of Miles Despard, a wealthy man whose estate will be divided among two nephews and a niece. The mystery involves the reported sighting of a woman in archaic attire in his room one evening, a woman who exited through a door that is bricked up and inaccessible, and a string with nine knots found under the dead man’s pillow.
Carr thickens the plot very quickly. The manuscript he is reading includes a photograph of a lady poisoner who was beheaded seventy years earlier. The woman looks exactly like his own wife Marie whom he met in Paris while visiting the house used by a 17th Century female murderer who also used arsenic on her victims. He concludes that she must be descended from the same family. A few other mysterious touches are mentioned in passing. His wife has a phobia about funnels, the local mortician is seen in public for the first time in Stevens’ experience, and he thinks he hears his name called even though there is no one around. The suggestions of reincarnation or some form of witchcraft is reinforced when we discover that the symptoms of arsenic poisoning are exactly those which attended the final days of the late Miles Despard. Coincidences and interrelationships multiply at a frantic pace. There is a defaced painting in the Despard house which supposedly represents one of the same two long dead women with a taste for arsenic, a woman who supposedly had some vague relationship to the Despard family in the distant past. Mark Despard, one of the nephews, believes that his uncle was poisoned with arsenic and wants Stevens to help with a clandestine exhumation and autopsy. The dead man became troubled shortly after returning from a trip to Paris, and became worse after Stevens and his wife moved nearby. And why did Miles insist that he be buried in a wooden coffin? It is clear once again that Carr deliberately provides such a profusion of disparate, sometimes even bizarre, clues in order to overwhelm the reader with possibilities, and give no time for us to think one through before the next rushes upon us.
Mark fears that his wife Lucy may be implicated since she delivered the last cup of warm milk to his uncle, which may have held the final, fatal dose of poison. He also found a second cup in the room at the time Miles died, and the body of the family cat, apparently also poisoned. Stevens is troubled by his wife’s evident interest in the story, and his recollection that on the night of the murder, he had felt unaccountably sleepy and had gone to bed early. Finally, just as he is about to embark on the clandestine exhumation, Marie tells him cryptically not to look too deeply into matters, suggesting that she knows much more than she is revealing.
The second stage of the mystery begins during the exhumation. The body is in an underground, granite walled crypt, and the only way in requires four men to move the thousand pound slab, and several hours of digging. Despite this, they discover that Miles’ coffin is empty except for a duplicate of the string with nine knots. The circumstances of the interment seem to rule out any possibility that the body was removed during the ceremony or before the crypt was sealed. It is in fact a locked room mystery, in a slightly different format.
Mark then reveals the story told by his housekeeper, which hints of the supernatural. She spied upon Miles briefly the night he died and saw a woman in his room, wearing the same dress as in the painting of the poisoner from the past, the same dress which Mark’s wife Lucy copied for the masquerade they were attending that very night. She also saw the woman exit the room through a bricked up door that proves to be solid and impassable. The mysterious woman was carrying the cup which held the fatal dose of arsenic. We are clearly meant to suspect that the murder was committed by supernatural means. To emphasize this we are told that it was an ancestor of the Despards who captured the 17th Century killer, and that the 19th Century kiler was taught the art of assassination by Gaudin St. Croix, a variation of the name of the writer Gaudan Cross, who was her lover. Contradicting the supernatural, however, is the mysterious use of telegrams to summon back parts of the household whom Mark had gotten out of the way in order to consummate the exhumation.
More clues emerge. A sleeping potion was stolen from Miles’ nurse’s room shortly before the death, which perhaps explains Stevens’ unusual sleepiness. The notes to various people purporting to be from the police and asking them to return to the house are matched by one to the police by someone with an uncanny knowledge of events on the night in question, someone who claims that Miles was murdered. The evidence slowly begins to point toward Marie Stevens, who has mysteriously disappeared, who inquired about purchasing arsenic, was seen near the stolen sleeping pills, and who made cryptic comments which seem to be linked to the Despard family’s past. The second nephew, Ogden, is identified as the person who sent the anonymous notes, although he denies it halfheartedly, and his siblings note that his behavior has changed dramatically in recent months, and that he has always displayed an unexplained animosity toward Marie.
I had mixed feelings about the resolution. Several incidents turn out to be red herrings, including the knotted string and the missing photograph. Stevens’ wife turns out to be adopted, not descended, despite her nearly identical appearance, which I found implausible. Her aversion to funnels is because she was punished with one as a child. The murder was committed by the nurse – Corbett – in cooperation with Mark Despard, who disappears and is never seen again. Corbett turns out to be his on and off mistress, who altered the plan in a failed attempt to incriminate Mark’s wife Lucy. This was why she wore a dress identical to that which Lucy wore that evening. Except that this was an awful lot of effort to go to when there was only a very small chance that the housekeeper would happen to eavesdrop at just the right moment. Corbett poisons Gaudan Cross, who solves the mystery, and it is his death for which she is convicted. The illusion of the phantom door is reasonably explained, and pretty much what I expected – an effect produced by mirrors – but the reason why this was not immediately obvious is so contrived that I laughed at it. The dead man was vain and spent a lot of time trying on his clothing, but in a failed attempt to conceal his obsession he locked the door and moved all the furniture around in order to make use of a mirror that was otherwise inaccessible. Poppycock. Since Mark was a conspirator, his various bits of puzzling testimony – the desire for a wooden coffin, etc. – were all fabrications. I am somewhat suspicious of mystery novels where two people are lying throughout, because it makes deduction by the reader almost impossible. The mystery of the body which disappears from the crypt is explained as misdirection during the exhumation, which could only have been accomplished by another piece of misdirection at the funeral. Except that there was no reason in the first event to anticipate that the second would become necessary.
Finally, there is the complete reversal in the final pages when we learn that Stevens wife is a reincarnation of the dead murderess after all, that Gaudin Cross was a reincarnation of her one time mentor. This seems superficially clever but in fact contributes nothing to the story and suggests that the previous solution was wrong. A disappointing ending to a well developed story.
Next came The Peacock Feather Murders (1937, aka The Ten Teacups), featuring Henry Merrivale. We start by revisiting an unsolved case in which a reclusive man who collected pottery was apparently lured to an abandoned house where he was murdered. He brought with him a valuable set of teacups which are found at the murder scene, although the box in which he carried them has disappeared, as has a puzzle jug from his collection at home. Oddly enough the murderer apparently sent a note to the police announcing the crime. When Inspector Masters receives a note in the same vein suggesting a rendezvous at another abandoned house, he convinces Merrivale to get involved. Preliminary investigation shows that the house has attracted the interest of adventurer Vance Keating and his supposed fiancé, Frances Gale. One other item of interest is that although both notes were typed, they used different machines, and the first is amateurish, the second professional. Once again Carr introduces his story with a bizarre situation, whose very strangeness serves to distract our attention somewhat from the actual events involved.
The murder follows promptly. Keating, who is wearing a hat that is obviously not his size, enters an attic room and closes the door behind him. The only window is under constant surveillance by the police, and another is inside, watching the only door. Keating is killed by two bullets fired point blank into his head and neck, and falls across a set of teacups laid out in front of him. The murder weapon, an antique revolver, is lying on the floor. Once again Carr presents us with the classic locked room, even though in this case neither door nor window is technically locked. The last clues provided at this point are that the wrong sized hat belongs to Keating’s cousin Philip, and that under the body is found a cigarette case marked with the initials “J.D.” It is then that we learn that the last occupant of both empty houses was named Jeremy Derwent, providing one link between the two murders, with a second because the first set of teacups had a peacock pattern, as does the tablecloth in the second.
We’re a quarter of the way through the book before we finally meet another character, Frances Gale. She helps to tie things together a bit without explaining any of the real mystery. Gale indicates that Philip Keating told her there was an argument between Vance and his friend, Ron Gardner, which Merrivale suggests might have been about her, and perhaps because Vance was flirting with Mrs. Derwent. She also identifies the murder weapon as having belonged to Gardner, since they used it during a murder game at a party hosted by Derwent, who turns out to be Vance’s lawyer. Another participant is Soar, the antiques dealer who sold the first set of teacups. Vance Keating was supposed to be at the party, but rather rudely backed out at the last minute, a detail which Merrivale – and by extension Carr - stresses is very important.
Interviews with the Derwents add little. Jeremy confirms that Vance was interested in his wife and in fact made her the sole beneficiary of his will. He also tells Merrivale that Keating purchased the peacock patterned table cloth from Soar the day before he was killed. Soar is also suspected of having dealt in fake antiques. Philip Keating suggests that there is a secret society known as the Ten Teacups and that Janet Derwent is a member, but she has an alibi for the time of the murder. And Merrivale directs our attention again to the divan at the scene of the murder, left there by the Derwents when they moved, an object of interest to Gale. There is also a new puzzle.
Gale and Jeremy Derwent insist that Gardner could not possibly have taken the murder weapon away from the murder party, but Philip Keating and Soar insist that he did. That turns out to be a major bit of misdirection, however, as Keating later admits that he relied on Soar’s comments to that effect, comments which Soar says were misunderstood. A second misdirection is the supposed argument between Vance Keating and Gardner, another misunderstanding as they were simply rehearsing a joke they planned to play during the murder game. One more puzzle arises when we discover that the hat with Philip Keating’s name in it is NOT in fact his hat, or so he says, and another connection is revealed when we learn that the peacock patterned cloth was purchased and delivered to Janet Derwent.
As everyone, including Merrivale, seems at an impasse, the situation changes again with the receipt of a third, similar note, suggesting that another murder is about to be committed in yet another abandoned house. This time it’s a ruse engineered by Derwent in order to prove that Soar’s father, now deceased, was responsible for the first murder. In most cases, mysteries that are resolved by having two different murders are perilously close to cheating, but Carr has taken pains to point out the dissimilarities in the two crimes, such that I suspected the second was an imitation long before it was revealed. The first victim was blackmailing the older Soar, who killed him to protect his secret. The evidence was in the large, missing puzzle jar, which was carried away in the missing box in place of the teacups. The Ten Teacup society was a fabrication, but the story was apparently used to lure Vance Keating to his death.
The resolution, though cleverly worked out, is a major cheat. First we have Unreliable Forensic Evidence. The burns on Keating’s head were inflicted the day before, not the day when he was shot. Next we have the Remarkably Fortuitous Coincidence. The killer threw the gun from one building through the window in the next. It landed in just the right position not only to fire, but to fire a second bullet into the victim’s back. Finally, we have Too Many Killers. In addition to the elder Soar, who committed the first murder, we have another conspiracy – Janet Derwent and Gardner – who were responsible for the second and third. Additionally, another character – Keating’s valet – is a partial conspirator because he also lied, although he didn’t know that murder was in the offing. When three characters are lying in concert, there is little chance for the reader to find the correct solution.
Bencolin returns in The Four False Weapons (1937). The narrator is Curtis, a young lawyer who travels to France to attend Ralph Douglas, a client, who is on the verge of getting married but who is suspicious of activities connected to his one time mistress, Rose Klonec. Klonec’s current patron wishes to purchase a cottage owned by Douglas, a remote place which is supposed to be closed up but which, Douglas discovers, has had power restored and the refrigerator stocked. He takes Curtis to see it and they find Rose Klonec murdered and a maid who insists that Douglas spent the night there despite his denials. Douglas is engaged to Magda Toller, who knows about Rose, despite the opposition of her mother, who does not know. Bryce Douglas is employed by the government. We also learn that Douglas has a brother who is preferred as a suitor by the mother. This immediately suggests the possibility of mistaken identity on the part of the maid, which is reinforced by her poor eyesight, by the fact that the killer “accidentally” knocked off her glasses and broke them, and by his obvious efforts to avoid being seen by Klonec until they were alone.
Like most of Carr’s novels, there is a plethora of clues and coincidental connections, and the opening chapters are extremely complex. First, near the body are found sleeping tablets, a handgun, a stiletto, and a recently sharpened straight razor – the false weapons of the title – along with ten burned cigarettes and a screwdriver. Klonec was killed by having an artery cut by the stiletto, after which she was held over the bath tub until she bled out, then placed in her bed, although it appears that she did undress herself at some point. This suggests that she may have been drugged and three of the tablets are in fact missing. There is also some mystery involving champagne. Prior to her arrival, all but one of the champagne bottles were removed from the refrigerator, suggesting the last was drugged, except that it is hard to believe that anyone could put the drugs into an uncorked champagne bottle. The empty bottle is missing as well. Another possible clue is evidence that a circular, sticky object was placed on a table, ruining the finish.
More connections are revealed. The maid, Hortense, was hired by means of a letter that seems to bear an authentic signature by Douglas. She had it translated by Richard Stanfield, who works for Magda’s mother, although he claims not to have told her about it. Klonec’s current lover, Lautrec, is suspected of having been a spy and Klonec had recently been contacted by the French secret service, for whom she occasionally did work. Hortense also indicates that when the killer – whom she believed to be Douglas – arrived late on the previous evening, he had sharpened a razor with a whetstone before going to Klonec’s rooms.
The local police officer has noticed a mysterious figure near the cottage, which turns out to be the now retired Henri Bencolin, who was also asked for help by the secret service. Bencolin in turn has noted at least two surreptitious visitors to the cottage, one of whom was Bryce Douglas. The crowd grows as Magda arrives, looking for Douglas, and then Stanfield, who accompanies the police in hopes of preventing a scandal. Stanfield also identifies the stiletto as one he gave to the dead woman some years past because she was a good client of the travel firm owned by Magda’s mother. Magda, it turns out, is the daughter of an executed murderer who was adopted as an infant by the Tollers.
My first theory was, of course, that brother Bryce was responsible for the impersonation, since he is also in love with Magda. This appears to be impossible as the two men are so physically dissimilar that even Hortense would have known the difference. The other two prime suspects are Lautrec, whom we have not yet met, and Stanfield, whose description is too vague to be helpful. The coincidences are a bit thick, however, and I never really understood why Bencolin would have been watching the cottage, which had been deserted for the better part of a year, but at the one third mark, the novel provides an interesting puzzle and a variety of suspects. Two of the major players, Lautrec and Madame Toller, have still not made an appearance, and there are vague hints that the local police officer is acting strangely, although we only receive this knowledge through the opinion of Curtis rather than by direct observation.
Then comes a familiar scene in Carr’s work. Bencolin tells Curtis and Bryce Douglas that he knows who the murderer is but that he cannot explain the circumstances. He assures them that Lautrec is definitely not responsible, which means we can safely eliminate him as a suspect barring a cheat on a scale unworthy of Carr. Bencolin also explains that they cannot trust the timeline they have created because it depends on Hortense’s testimony that she glanced at the clock frequently, a clock she could probably not have read clearly after her glasses were broken.
The explanation is complex and depends on what unfortunately I think is a bit too much coincidence. Three different people commit three different crimes simultaneously, two of them in the same place. As a consequence, all three are lying and there really isn’t any way that the reader can thread a path through the confusion. Magda came to confront Klonec, then blacked out, as a consequence of which she believes she killed the woman. In fact, no one deliberately killed her. The plan to drug her backfired due to a technical problem and resulted in her death. Although mysteries often rely on an unlikely combination of circumstances, there are just too many of them this time.
Death in Five Boxes (1938) also features Merrivale. A young woman enlists the aid of a passing doctor to investigate the top floor apartment where she believes her father may be in danger. Upon entering, they find the owner of the apartment, Haye, stabbed to death and three other people drugged to insensibility. The apparent murder weapon is a sword concealed in an umbrella, which they found in the stairwell. The woman, Marcia Blystone, claims not to know why her father came to the apartment, but noted that he’d been acting strangely and had taken four separate pocket watches with him when he left home that evening. A clerk named Ferguson, who works in the office on the floor below, suggests that they were having some kind of party. In very few pages, Carr has presented us with a puzzling mystery and the first of what will be several odd circumstances connected to the case.
The story slows a bit after that. We do learn that others of the four drugged people had odd items in their possession, the innards of an alarm clock, phosphorous and quicklime, and that none of the bottles used to make the drinks were drugged, suggesting that each of the four drinks was altered individually. The most intriguing thing is the Ferguson disappears from the building even though all the exits were being watched, and that it turns out no one of that name works in the building at all.
Two of the three survivors have plausible, though not necessarily truthful, explanations for the strange items they are carrying, but they seem honestly puzzled about how they could have been drugged. The third, Schumann, insists that he never saw the alarm clock parts before. We also learn that while Schumann did at one time have a clerk named Ferguson, the man left the firm ten years earlier and was reported death. One additional oddity which Carr pointedly brings to our attention is that there is a realistic, stuffed human arm in a trunk at the house of the third survivor, Bonita Sinclair.
In due course we are told that Haye invited the other three because someone had tried to poison him and he wanted to tell them that he had prepared five sealed boxes to be opened in the event of his death. Each of the boxes is labeled with one of their names, plus Ferguson’s and another, Judith Adams, who turns out to be an author who died many years in the past. The boxes are stolen from Haye’s lawyer and the contents of three of them were redistributed among the drugged victims. Each supposedly is a clue to a crime in their past. Blystone is a compulsive pickpocket, Sinclair was involved in shady art sales and is married to Ferguson, who is a thief and conman, and Schumann committed murder and arson years before.
Ferguson was supposed to eavesdrop on the conversation, then sneak out and steal the boxes, but someone beat him to it. He is able to leave the building even though it is locked because he is a cat burglar. This is perilously close to cheating since we were told that the drainpipe outside the window was too far away for the reach of a normal man. Ferguson then hides in Sinclair’s house where he is subsequently poisoned, though he leaves a message that explains part of the previous crime.
Merrivale then gathers all of the suspects and explains the crime. The actual killer isn’t there, however, and the solution is very unsatisfactory. The lawyer who had custody of the boxes is responsible. The only hint of a clue to his involvement is that Judith Adams wrote a book about dragons and his name is Drake. The device by which the drinks were poisoned is reasonably clever, although I guessed it; the poison was in the ice cubes. I didn’t figure out how the ice had been poisoned, however, which is why I never suspected Drake. Also, the first murder attempt was a poisoned bottle of beer which Haye gave to Drake to have analyzed. It would have been a simple matter to substitute an untainted bottle to allay his suspicion rather than report the truth and put Haye on guard. This is certainly one of Carr’s weakest efforts.
Merrivale is back again in The Judas Window (1938, aka The Crossbow Murder). The story opens with a classic locked room murder. James Answell visits Avory Hume in his study to ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage. They have a drink and Answell passes out, wakening to find himself in a sealed room with Hume, who has been impaled with an arrow, and with all traces of the drugged drink vanished. Even worse, his fingerprints are on the shaft of the murder weapon. During the course of the trial, we are told that Hume had an angry telephone conversation with Answell prior to his arrival, had decided to forbid the marriage, and had warned his servants that his guest was not trustworthy. This account appears to be in direct contradiction to the earlier narrative in which Hume indicated his satisfaction with the match just prior to his death.
The story then jumps forward to Answell’s trial, where he is defended by Henry Merrivale. This was the first protracted trial scene in a Carr novel, and the various other characters/suspects are introduced primarily through their testimony, starting with Amelia Jordan, the dead man’s long time secretary/housekeeper. Her story does not contradict those elements which we have been shown directly, although she also overheard Hume’s earlier negative remarks about Answell, which so acutely contradict his attitude during their brief meeting. Merrivale points out that Hume switched his opinion from favorable to unfavorable despite only having spoken to his daughter on the phone and having received an entirely neutral letter from her. There appears then to be no reason for his sudden shift then, just as there is no explanation for his shift back to hostile later. My early suspicion was that Hume was expecting two different visitors that evening, and that the witnesses were misled about the object of his anger. When I learned that Answell had a cousin, Reginald, I anticipated most of the revelations that followed.
Merrivale helpfully points out the important details to us, or at least of them. He refers to the Judas Window, without explaining what it is, and says that most rooms have them. He tells us that the disappearance of Seymour Hume’s suit and inkpad – Seymour is Avory’s brother who also lives in the house – are important, as is a piece of the fletching missing from the arrow used as a murder weapon. His explanation is that the feathers were cut when the arrow was discharged from a crossbow, one of which is missing from Hume’s collection. The bolt was fire from less than three feet away, which still doesn’t explain the locked room.
Other witnesses are called. Dyer, the valet/Butler and Randolph Fleming, the next door neighbor, essentially corroborate the case for the prosecution. A doctor who testifies that there was no sign that Answell was drugged is forced to admit that he made only a cursory examination and relied on information provided by Seymour Hume. Someone had also put a revolver in Answell’s pocket while he was unconscious, and when it is revealed that the weapon belonged to Reginald, and that Reginald was trying to blackmail the Humes, my theory of the correct explanation seemed much more likely. I was suspicious, however, because the first part of the novel is sub-titled “What Seemed to Happen”, with a short part two labeled “What Really Happened.”
Seymour Hume disappears, leaving behind a note admitting that he had provided the drug used on Answell. The brothers had incorrectly confused the two men and had planned to make it appear that he was insane so that they could place him in an asylum temporarily. But the letter also says that he saw Answell kill his brother, which might also be another case of mistaken identity, except that there appears to be no way in which he could have been present at the time of the murder. This is a very small cheat, since it is subsequently revealed that he lied about this, a circumstance reasonably justified. Similarly, it appears that despite the preponderance of evidence, Reginald had a firm alibi for the crucial time as well. If Merrivale is to save his client, he must provide an alternate explanation that covers the locked room as well as the opportunity for someone else to have committed the crime.
Merrivale then provides a witness who saw Avory Hume steal the revolver from the flat were both Answells were currently living. Reginald knew of the theft and who was responsible. Part of the missing fletching shows up in the purloined crossbow, which Merrivale has recovered. The remaining piece is found inside the doorknob mechanism in the door, along with evidence that the doorknob was temporarily removed from the outside, the bolt fired through it, then pulled back into place and reassembled. Answell is acquitted and in the aftermath, Amelia Jordan confesses to the crime. This was the best Merrivale to date, and one of the best of Carr’s novels overall, logically developed, crisp and fast moving, with a clever solution and only a very little bit of cheating.
To Wake the Dead (1938) is a Gideon Fell mystery. As usual it opens with a bizarre situation based on a series of coincidences. Christopher Kent is a writer who accepts a challenge to work his way from South Africa to England with no money and without ever revealing his true identity. He is to meet Dan Reaper and his party at a specific hotel at a specific time. He arrives a day early, completely out of money, and when a room card falls from a window in front of a hotel, he uses that number in an attempt to steal a free breakfast. He is trapped when the hotel receives a call from a previous guest in that room requesting that they find a bracelet she accidentally left behind. Posing as the husband of the woman who now occupies the room, he is forced to enter and look for the bracelet. It’s not there, but there is the body of a murdered woman, strangled and battered so that she is hard to identify. Kent sneaks out of the hotel and rushes to Gideon Fell, who along with Inspector Hadley has been trying to find him.
The dead woman turns out to be one of the party he was supposed to meet, the wife of his cousin Rodney, a woman some believe to have been an adventuress. Fell and Hadley were looking for Kent because Rodney himself was murdered two days earlier, and in exactly the same fashion. Carr then provides his usual array of bizarre clues, although not as many as usual. In the first murder, the victim was found in his bedroom the same morning that a local drunkard somehow entered the house and fell asleep on a couch. The drunkard insists that he saw someone wearing the uniform of a hotel worker at about the time of the murder. Another witness saw someone similarly dressed just before the wife was murdered, but the hotel manager insists that none of the staff members would have been on that floor at the critical time.
One of the more inexplicable facts is that during the two minutes between the time after Kent slipped out of the hotel room and before the hotel staff investigated, the dead woman’s body was moved and a bracelet was left where the missing one was supposed to have been left, but it’s the dead woman’s bracelet, not that of the earlier guest. We also know that two workmen were repairing an elevator that night and that no one could have come up the staircase without being noticed. Other evidence suggests that another member of the party, Harvey Wrayburn, could have entered the room unobserved through a second door, and in fact he admits to having a key to her room because they were having an affair even before her husband was murdered. The murderer also placed a pair of shoes outside the room, as though to be polished, but they were suede and mismatched, suggesting haste, although he or she also took the time to inscribe the privacy card with the words “dead woman” and hang it on the doorknob.
At the midpoint of the novel, we have five suspects. Dan Reaper and his wife, Harvey Wrayburn, Francine Forbes – who is in love with Kent, and Sir Gyles Gay, who was hosting them when the first murder was committed. Wrayburn confesses that he was the one who sneaked in briefly, moved the body and returned the bracelet. He also says that the key was left in the door on the outside, a point Fell tells us is important. The dead woman’s adultery is the only apparent motive, and that would have been strongest for her husband, who predeceased her. Since it doesn’t seem possible that any of them could have accomplished the crime, they have equal opportunity. Witnesses suggest that the mysterious uniformed figure, almost certainly the murderer, was a man, which would leave us with only two suspects – unless there is another twist coming. With Carr, there almost always is.
The twist is the revelation that all the clocks in the hotel can be controlled from a master switch operated by the manager, Hardwick. Hardwick also has access to the uniforms and other items in use. Fell theorizes that the uniform was used in the earlier murder and deliberately shown to the drunkard in order to draw attention to its use in the second instance. Although his motive is uncertain, Hardwick is propelled to the top of the list of suspects by Fell’s own statement, although it is so early in the book that the wary reader may be pardoned for remaining skeptical. The party returns to Sir Gyles’ cottage where a mysterious threat is found on a photograph and other evidence suggests to Hadley that Sir Gyles is responsible, though once again Fell points out serious flaws in his theory. Since Hardwick is still in London, that seems to eliminate him from consideration.
The solution comes as a surprise – but largely because it cheats. This is the big cheat of Withheld Information. The hotel uniforms are indistinguishable from police uniforms and the window of the linen closet at the hotel is within reach of the fire escape. We had been told that there was no physical way to enter the seventh floor from outside and that’s not the case. Even more onerous is the Secret Passage Cheat, in this case a trick door at the police station where we were told the killer – the town drunk – was locked up during the second murder. He left, committed the crime, and returned undetected. I find this very difficult to accept. It is, then, one of Carr’s weaker mysteries, too contrived to be plausible even though the explanation is otherwise quite clever.
Fell appears again in the superior The Crooked Hinge (1938), which opens with a situation similar to that in Josephine Tey’s classic Brat Farrar (1949). John Farnleigh was sent to America in disgrace as a young man and returns to claim his estate after more than twenty years. He marries and settles in, but is soon challenged by a second man, who has been going under the name Patrick Gore but who claims that he and the real Gore, now Farnleigh, arranged to switch identities while they were aboard the Titanic. Both men are extremely familiar with the background and questions asked in front of attorneys, family members, and witnesses fail to provide a clear answer. That will be established by the former tutor of the young John, who conveniently had taken experimental fingerprints of his charge.
The two men are printed again and the tutor, Kennet Murray, sits alone in a study to analyze the results. Readers will anticipate his murder but Carr is tricky. It is the sitting Sir John Farnleigh who is murdered, his throat cut while he stood in the garden alone, observed from a distance by more than one witness. Upon arriving, even Dr. Fell observes that the wrong person was murdered. If the dead man was the imposter, then there was no reason to kill him rather than simply turn him over to the authorities. If he was the genuine heir, his death serves no purpose since the fingerprints would have proven his case. It also appears initially that the original prints were stolen during the confusion, but Murray was clever and substituted another set, retaining the originals on his person. He and Fell independently confirm that Gore, the claimant, is telling the truth and is the rightful heir.
This is the main story, but there is another murder as well, the strangling of a woman named Victoria Daly, who died before the story began, apparently at the hands of a tramp who was killed while trying to escape. Fell and the authorities believe otherwise, however, that he was simply an opportunistic thief whose timing was bad. Since dramatically we know that the crimes must be connected, we must keep this one in mind while considering the new case. The only people known to be present are Patrick Gore/Farnleigh, whom we know to have lied about his whereabouts and who is reticent about his experiences working for a circus, the dead man’s wife Molly, who was John’s childhood sweetheart, the family lawyer Burrows and another representing the claimant, Kennet Murray, a servant, and a neighbor, Page, who functions as the foil for Fell this time around. Carr adds a footnote telling the reader that Murray was absolutely truthful “with regard to establishing the identity of the true heir” but leaves the question of his veracity on other matters to our judgment. The murder weapon, a clasp knife, is found in a hedge ten feet from the body. It’s another impossible crime, this time with no clear motive for any of the potential suspects.
Four other elements enliven the plot. First, the sitting Sir John suffered amnesia as an adolescent and honestly doesn’t know whether or not he is the real heir. Second, he is troubled by images of a crooked hinge, hence the title, although this proves to be a very minor point. Third, someone has been engaged in a little make believe Satanism. And finally, there is a creepy automaton in the attic, a clockwork device that at one time played music, apparently through some arcane mechanical contrivance, although this is later revealed to be a hoax. The automaton leads to a few relatively creepy scenes in this otherwise intellectual puzzle.
The solution involves a mild cheat, the Unreliable Witness whom we have been told is reliable. The sitting Sir John is in fact a fraud, and his wife knows it. He in turn knows that she was inadvertently responsible for at least two deaths. Neither can expose the other, but if the claimant proves his case, the displaced man will have no reason to shield his wife any longer. This proves to be the motive and Fell makes out a convincing case as to how the wife committed the crime, only to reveal that this is a ploy to make one of the servants, the Unreliable Witness, admit that he lied to give the claimant an alibi. It is the latter, whom we discover has artificial limbs, who committed the crime after removing those limbs, making him short enough to escape detection. I’m not sure I find this convincing, but the alternative, the method by which the wife might have done it, is clever as well so I’ll cede the point. The two conspirators escape, incidentally, one of many cases in which Carr seems to acknowledge that some people deserve to be killed.
The Problem of the Green Capsule (1939, aka The Black Spectacles) also features Fell. The heart of the story is a psychological experiment in which Marcus Chesney devises a complex theatrical display for three witnesses, who will then be asked to answer specific questions about what they saw in order to demonstrate how unobservant people really are. Aspects of the arrangement are quite clever, but the difficulty arises when the supposedly benign “poison” capsule turns out to be genuine and Chesney dies. His assistant is found unconscious near the house, having been struck over the head, and is in turn murdered by an injection of poison before he can speak.
The three witnesses are Marjorie Wills, his niece, who is suspected by the townspeople of being responsible for the random poisoning of some children, her fiancé George Harding, a chemist with an uncertain reputation, and Professor Ingram, a friend of the family. A fourth witness, Dr. Joseph Chesney, was unable to attend because of an emergency call, although there is later some suspicion that there may have been some hijinks with timing and that he might have had opportunity after all. There is also another witness. Harding was filming the entire production and that film, for some reason, was not destroyed by the murderer even though he had the opportunity to do so. The only other significant character is Inspector Elliot, who made his debut in The Crooked Hinge, and who is in love with Marjorie Wills, the prime suspect.
The novel is actually quite restrained for Carr, with few red herrings, almost no clues, and a very short list of suspects. I guessed the killer, and even the method, almost immediately, although not from analysis of the evidence. One of the formulaic aspects of Carr’s work to date has been the use of a younger protagonist as a companion and foil for Fell, obviously not the guilty party, in this case Inspector Elliot. Elliot’s romantic interest in Wills cannot be thwarted, so either Harding had to die or he was the killer. The latter seemed much more likely, so it was simply a matter of discovering how he went about filming the scenario while also appearing in it. When Carr emphasizes how dark the room was, it seemed to me quite evident that he had changed places with Emmet, the dead assistant, killing him later to secure his silence. When Fell points out the strange lack of thoroughness when the killer allowed the tape to remain untouched, I assumed he had a purpose, and that led me to suspect that there were two tapes, and the bogus one was left to be discovered.
Despite the transparency of the solution, the story is quite well done until the closing chapters. There is an incident with a revolver that I considered wildly improbable and totally unnecessary, since it does nothing to advance the plot. Wills’ motivations – she marries Harding hours before he is unmasked – are murky at best. Harding’s earlier exploits resulting in the death of a child, supposedly to establish that there was a poisoner at work before he arrived on the scene, also seem unlikely. The structural problems aren’t fatal, but they prevent this from being one of his better novels.
The Problem of the Wire Cage (1939) is also a Fell story. It’s a very good one, until the end which, alas, involves a very implausible act upon the part of the victim. There’s no question even in chapter one about who will be murdered. Frank Dorrance is a despicable cur, and almost everyone has an obvious motive. His fiancé Brenda White does not love him, and her other suitor, Hugh Rowland, is jealous and contemptuous. Dorrance was also responsible for the attempted suicide of another woman, and her boyfriend is a circus acrobat with a short temper. There is also Kitty, a young woman with an ambiguous past, who is in love with Frank, and his mentor, Dr. Nicholas Young, an irascible type currently confined to a wheelchair following an automobile accident. If there was any doubt in our minds, Carr dispels it by stating clearly that Frank has only a short time to live.
He is discovered in the middle of a tennis court – the wire cage – and other than his own prints in the soft mud, the only evidence that anyone else was there consists of Brenda’s tracks when she ran out to see what was wrong. Obviously this would make her the prime suspect except that she and Rowland concoct an elaborate story to make it appear that she is being framed. I have complained about untruthful witnesses in some of Carr’s earlier books, but in this case the device works because everyone is lying, we know everyone is lying, and therefore we can disregard everything they say and rely solely on the evidence we have been shown.
Unfortunately there’s not much of that either. A suitcase full of china was near the tennis court, and most of the china mysteriously disappears shortly after the murder. A newspaper also appeared and then vanished, taken by unseen hands. Since Sir Nicholas seems the least likely to have been the murderer in realistic terms, thanks to his broken arm and broken leg, the reader may well suspect that he is the killer. Carr attempts to dissuade us by having the character make the same observation, that in a book he would be the prime suspect. This ploy is not entirely successful, however, because he really is the murderer. Alas, Carr’s solution is to have Dorrance cooperate in his own murder, unwittingly of course, by placing a rope around his neck as part of an elaborate and not even remotely believable effort to measure certain aspects of the tennis court. Fell does suggest, and discard, a couple of other methods that are more plausible but less practical. The altered strategy in this one – the web of lies, the few bits of actual evidence – provided a nice change of pace, but the story falters and ultimately fails.
Merrivale takes over in The Reader Is Warned (1939), another book in which the author speaks directly to the reader. There is a good bit of misdirection in this one, and Carr also breaks from one of his standard ploys. The setting is initially a weekend party given by the Constables. Among the guests is Herman Pennik, who is supposedly a mindreader and whose remarkable performance, later explained as a combination of luck and research - although not very convincingly, and a typical Carr protagonist, Dr. John Sanders. Merrivale is supposed to arrive the following day. At supper, Pennik announces his belief that Sam Constable will die within hours, and so he does, in a very mysterious fashion. He is found collapsed at the top of the stairs and dies in front of Sanders, but there is no indication of the reason why he died, no poison, no marks. Stories by the various characters suggest that no one could have been responsible and Pennik claims to have committed the crime by means of teleforce, beamed thought rays. Mrs. Constable, formerly a believer in his abilities, suddenly declares him a fraud and challenges him to kill her in the same fashion. In due course, she dies in an almost identical manner and Pennik becomes a sensation with the newspapers, although the police have no justification for arresting him.
Much of the novel consists of the antics of Pennik, whose supposed powers get magnified and exaggerated. Sanders and Merrivale believe him to be a sincere nut, which turns out to be the case. In footnotes, Carr tells us that the murderer worked alone and did not use any mechanical device, the latter of which is technically not true. The real twist in this one is that the killer is the young woman Sanders feels suddenly attracted to, the romance something she consciously uses to manipulate him. The first "murder" turns out to be accidental electrocution, followed by some barely plausible but not completely impossible business about a recurring pulse after death. The police know that something is fishy because they catch Mrs. Constable in a series of lies, but she only killed him by accident, dropping an electric appliance into his bath, and then covered it up. Pennik, whom we know also has a crush on the real murderess - who has staged the second murder to establish Pennik's bonafides and use him to cover up the murder of her real target, her stepmother - is also influenced by her subtle techniques.
I had a couple of problems with this one in addition to the unlikelihoods already mentioned. At one point Pennik is spotted where he could not possibly be, suggesting the possibility of a twin or lookalike. It is only after we discover that his ancestry is partially African that we discover he has masks of his own face in his room, one of which was impulsively borrowed by the killer. The second problem is the almost casual attitude of the police toward Mrs. Constable, whom they thought at first might be a killer herself, and then the chances they take with the stepmother, who is severely manhandled in the final chapters. On the other hand, the device by which the killer makes Sanford believe that Mrs. Constable is still alive a hour after her death is clever. I was also amused by the situation early in the novel when all of the servants are injured in an automobile accident and the Constables and their guests cannot figure out how to feed themselves. Sam Constable can't even conceive of dressing unassisted. A sign of the times, long gone and deservedly so.
Fatal Descent (1939, aka Drop to His Death) is a collaboration with fellow mystery writer John Rhode, although it feels much more like a Carr novel than one by Rhode. It opens with a mildly scathing satire of the publishing industry, in this case run by Edmund Tallant, a domineering, prudish man who is shot to death while descending in his private elevator, even though he was alone and there is theoretically no access to the elevator shaft while the car is in motion. Horatio Glass bears more than a slight resemblance to Gideon Fell although in this case he isn't quite so omniscient. He guesses most of the details of how the murder was accomplished, but the identity of the killer is revealed by Inspector Hornleigh, a plodding, unimaginative, but tenacious police officer. There's a mechanical device involved, and I had figured out most of the mechanics of the process well before either of the investigators, although I was completely wrong about who was responsible. There's a nice bit of misdirection toward the end but the characters this time are exaggerated caricatures. An interesting puzzle but not nearly as good as Carr's solo work.
Next, the 1940s novels.