This installment covers the novels 1940 through 1949. Installment three is in process and will cover 1950 through the present, plus Carr's short fiction.
I took a significant break after reading John Dickson Carr’s novels up through 1939, partly because of the press of other events and partly because I find that reading too much of a single author in a short period of time sometimes dulls my appreciation of the later books. And so it is that I finally got around to starting the next decade with And So to Murder (1940), a Henry Merrivale novel.
The story opens by introducing us to Monica Stanton, daughter of a clergyman and author of a steamy popular novel which causes some degree of outrage and scandal within her family and community. Monica has accepted a position writing screenplays for a major movie studio even though she has no experience in that form. Much to her dismay, she is not going to do the adaptation of her own novel, but rather that of a detective story by a man she unfairly despises, while he is going to do the adaptation of her creation. Obviously, this is a situation fraught with tension. The studio is currently filming a thriller called Spies at Sea but there is something strange going on, as though the movie was just a cover for some other activity. We are introduced to Howard Fisk, the director, Thomas Hackett, the producer, Frances Fleur, the leading lady, and her husband, a German expatriate named Gagern. We also learn of a serious near accident on the set when a bottle of sulfuric acid was somehow substituted for a water bottle. More acid turns up later when someone makes an attempt on Monica’s life, from which she is saved by the efforts of Cartwright.
The first quarter of this novel probably draws on Carr’s experiences as a screenwriter, and has a very authentic feel. The absence of Merrivale, who is always at least a mildly comic figure, is a plus, and the strained interaction between the two principal characters works quite well. We also have an odd mystery furnished with bizarre events to whet our appetites, with no hint of motive or the identity of the failed murderer. A second murder attempt follows before Cartwright, who is convinced that Gagern is responsible, finally contacts Merrivale for help. Unfortunately for his theory, it turns out that Gagern is actually a British intelligence operative searching for the thief who took some sensitive footage of British naval defenses. We also meet a new character, an American script doctor named Tilly, who arrives and attempts to facilitate the Cartwright-Stanton romance, but who turns out to be an imposter.
There’s a third unsuccessful murder until the closing chapters, when Tilly takes a poisoned cigarette apparently intended for Monica. Merrivale shows up to solve the case with lightning speed, and recover the missing film as well. It turns out Tilly was the intended target from the outset. I actually did guess the killer but more by chance than reasoning. There are several cheats in this one, including Withheld Information and an Unreliable Detective – Merrivale tells us a falsehood or two. It is unusual, however, in that no one dies in the book, and Merrivale’s antics are kept at a minimum, possibly because Carr’s mood was more serious in the opening days of World War II.
Merrivale returns in Nine – And Death Makes Ten (1940, aka Murder in the Submarine Zone, aka Murder in the Atlantic). Eight passengers – although there are rumors of a ninth – take passage to England on a munitions ship from America. The protagonist is Max Matthews, whose brother is the captain. Among the other passengers we have a woman seeking a divorce who appears to have mysterious information, an attorney sent to accompany a gangster about to be extradited, and other people with mysterious aspects. The small group of passengers is swamped by the size of the ship, but that doesn’t prevent someone from being spotted practicing knife throwing one night, although the culprit isn’t identified.
Shortly afterward, one of the two women aboard is found with her throat cut. A bloody fingerprint seems to be a crucial clue, but it doesn’t match anyone aboard the ship, and there are no stowaways, a fact Carr reiterates in a footnote so that we don’t think he’s simply cheating. We also discover that the mysterious ninth passenger is Henry Merrivale, which is both convenient and predictable, and that the murdered woman was carrying some bulky object in her purse which is now missing. All of this, which is basically the setup for the rest of the story, consumes the first half of the novel and leaves us with, realistically, five suspects, since we can safely rule out Max and the remaining woman, who is clearly going to be his romantic interest, although she is frankly one of the dimmest and most annoying characters Carr ever creasted.
Another suspect is eliminated when a French officer is shot and thrown overboard. This effectively leaves us with four suspects, the attorney, a doctor, and Kenworthy, a somewhat foppish member of an aristocratic British family. Merrivale is prevailed upon to investigate. The young woman admits that she was in the murdered woman’s cabin before the body was discovered, searching for incriminating letters written by Kenworthy. Kenworthy insists that no such letters exist. She also states that she saw the Frenchman leave the cabin shortly before she entered, which convinces her that he committed the murder – a crime of passion – then committed suicide, even though this contradicts the witness who saw the man shot. Finally, there’s a false alarm during which someone assaults Merrivale and kills one of the crew members, but unaccountably does not steal the fingerprint cards which were presumably his goal. Merrivale has figured out the solution anyway.
Carr had actually taken a somewhat similar cruise so the atmosphere is authentic. There are intermittent but unconvincing attempts to convince the reader that the young woman is a foreign spy. There are some minor cheats, specifically Withheld Information. Merrivale knows that the French military uniform is improperly decorated, but we never even hear it described. The solution does involve a clever device – two of the people aboard were actually the same person – but even under the circumstances I’m not convinced that it could actually have been accomplished, given the very tight security restrictions during the ship’s departure. Otherwise, it’s well above average for Carr.
The Man Who Could Not Shudder (1940) opens with the description of a possibly haunted house where a butler once died after swinging back and forth on a chandelier until it broke loose and fell on top of him. The house is purchased by Martin Clarke, who wants to invite several people down for a ghost party including the narrator, Bob, and his fiancé, Tess. The various guests arrive and Tess is the first to be frightened when someone or something grabs her ankle in the dark. Clarke explains the history of the house and we discover that the married couple, the Logans, are experiencing difficulties because Mrs. Logan has been having an affair, apparently with Clarke, and her husband suspects her.
Mr. Logan is shot to death the following morning in the presence of his wife, who claims that the murder weapon leaped off the wall and fired of its own accord, then fell at her feet. We know at this point that the narrator and Tess are innocent. Two of the remaining suspects appear to be above suspicion; one was with the narrator at the time of the shooting, the other did not arrive at the house until just before the incident. This would appear to leave only Mrs. Logan and Clarke as suspects, and we already suspect that they are lovers. The solution is obviously too simple, and the probability that the levitating gun is the product of some mechanism suggests that the new arrival, Enderby, and the other witness, an architect named Hunter, may still be in the running.
The clues only make the mystery more complex. It appears that the murder weapon was fired while it was still mounted on the wall, and fell in response to the recoil. There is evidence that there are no secret passages in the house. Clarke apparently gave Mrs. Logan a small key, which may or may not have fit a locked triptych in the room where the murder was committed, although it appears to be unlocked and uninteresting. Tess also discovers that the basement of the house is filled with drums of gasoline and concludes that Clarke, whom she never liked, was planning to burn the house and its occupants to the ground. Frightened, she sends a telegram to an acquaintance at Scotland Yard, who shows up with Gideon Fell in tow.
The initial interviews confuse things even further. Enderby was seen looking through a window into the murder room at the time of the crime. He denies this at first, then admits to it after Fell demonstrates how he could have fired the mysterious gun from a distance. But then he tells the narrator that his second story was a lie and that he never did look in through the window. Mrs. Logan then tells Tess that although she never had an affair, she did flirt with another man, a man she won’t identify and whom they suspect is Clarke. Indeed, Clarke does look appear to be the most likely candidate for murderer, which automatically makes him less suspect to the reader. That leaves Enderby, who may be lying about his lies, Hunter, and Mrs. Logan.
There are multiple endings to this one. Although readers have likely ruled out Clarke on the basis that he’s too obvious, Fell accuses him and presents a formidable case. Unfortunately, perhaps, the house burns down, destroying the evidence that Clarke used hidden electromagnets to move items remotely. And Clarke has an unshakable alibi for the time of the murder. Hunter is seriously injured when the chandelier falls on him, echoing an earlier death, but Fell exposes most of the supposed history of the house as bogus. We then jump forward two years. Clarke was indeed the mastermind behind the killings, but he manipulated Hunter into committing the crimes. Hunter has recovered from his injuries, but he doesn’t face charges either, because at the last minute he decided not to commit the murder, and Logan’s death is, theoretically at least, accidental. This is all a bit of a strain on our credulity, and I suspect Hunter would still be criminally accountable even if he didn’t actually activate the fatal mechanism itself – the narrator actually was unknowingly responsible – because he set up the apparatus in the first place. Clarke, a thoroughly bad man, is accounted for when he is lost at sea. Although I thought the solution mixed cleverness and awkwardness, as a whole this was rather good.
The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941) also features Fell. Alan and Katherine Campbell, two distantly related scholars, meet on a train while answering a summons to visit a remote part of their family after the death of Angus Campbell. Despite their initial animosity – typical Carr interactions between his two romantic leads – they arrive in company with a Mr. Swan, a journalist who was summoned by Campbell’s widow, Elspath. Campbell was found dead below the window to his room at the top of a tower, with the door locked. The insurance company is inclined to believe that it is suicide, but the local lawyer objects, pointing out that a wire animal crate, collapsed, was found under the dead man’s bed which was not present when he locked up the night before. Other evidence suggest the death was not accidental, including a violent confrontation with Alec Forbes, who was ejected from Campbell’s home shortly before his death. Colin Campbell, the victim’s brother, has arrived to oversee the disposition of things, while a third brother remains missing after some unspecified trouble years earlier. The wise reader will not forget the existence of the brother, who is not mentioned simply to take up space. Finally, Alec Forbes is missing.
Not much appears to happen in the next few chapters, until we are told that someone saw a figure at the window of the tower room during the night, a figure that appears to be a mutilated highlander. Campbell died bankrupt thanks to poor investments, but has a considerable amount of insurance, which will only be paid if he did not commit suicide. Colin Campbell decides to spend a night in the tower room, and is found seriously injured and comatose early the next morning, having apparently jumped from the window.
The evidence is designed to make us believe that there was some kind of dangerous animal which frightened the two men into jumping, but instead it turns out to be a kind of dry ice which made them desperate for air and disoriented. Then Fell upsets everything by telling his companions, though not the police, that Angus committed suicide so that his family could collect his insurance, and designed it to implicate Alec Forbes. Unfortunately, his plan went awry and the evidence he’d planted – the poison gas – dissipated through the open window. But that doesn’t explain how Colin nearly met the same fate.
In an effort to get answers, Fell and company track down Alec Forbes, only to find him hanged, an apparent suicide in a locked room. Fell insists that while the suicide was designed to look like murder, this murder was designed to look like suicide. The method in this case was fairly easy to figure out; the killer stuck something through the wire mesh window with which to lock the door from the inside. The killer is also predictable, after a fashion, since we know it must be the son of the missing brother. His actual identity is not clear until Fell identifies him as the insurance agent who sold the policies, a minor character whom we could not have suspected from any evidence presented. This is also one of those where the detective contravenes the law. He allows the murdered to escape in order not to reveal that Angus killed himself, so that his destitute family can collect the insurance money. While his motive may be admirable in one sense, he seems to have no compunction about stealing large sums of money from the insurance companies. This one’s middle range in quality, with some of the better comic relief, but a less than scintillating conclusion.
Seeing Is Believing (1941, aka Cross of Murder) returns to Henry Merrivale. Arthur Fane is a cad who has murdered his mistress, a fact known to his blackmailing husband Hubert and his unhappy but ineffective wife Vicky. Frank Sharpless is in love with Vicky, but afraid to say anything. His friend is Philip Courtney, who is currently helping Merrivale write his memoirs. Ann Browning is a friend of the family, and she attracts Courtney’s admiration. Finally we have Dr. Richard Rich, a psychiatrist and hypnotist whose attempt to prove that he is not a fraud will precipitate a new and puzzling murder. Alas, I don’t buy the way hypnotism is portrayed here, but if we give Carr a pass on that, he does present us with a puzzling situation.
Vicky Fane is the subject. She has been shown a harmless knife before the trance. During the trance she is told to stab her husband, which she does, but somehow the knife has been switched for a real one and he dies. The real puzzle is that no one approached the table where the knife lay except the victim, who checked to make sure it was really rubber. Hubert briefly left the room, but went nowhere near the weapon either coming or going. A good deal of lurking about and eavesdropping follows. Rich gets Vicky to tell him that she’s in love with Sharpless and that she knew about her husband having murdered a young woman. That gets overheard and told to Merrivale, but someone else eavesdrops on that conversation, although we aren’t told who.
Then Vicky almost dies of poisoning and Ann Browning is attacked in the park by a man she doesn’t see clearly. It appears that the only two possible suspects are Hubert and Rich, unless Carr breaks his usual pattern and Sharpless is the killer. This isn’t entirely unlikely because we have a second set of lovers, Courtney and Browning, which means that we could still have a romantically satisfying conclusion even if Sharpless, or Vicky for that matter, was the murderer. One interesting possibility is that Rich, whose wife left him years earlier and took the kids, might be the father of the murdered woman, which would give him a motive to kill Fane, except that it appears that he does not learn of the murder until after Fane is himself dead, and eventually discover that while he did know the dead woman, she was only his stage assistant. Carr also suggests that the dead woman physically resembles Ann Browning, points out that Sharpless delivered the food bearing the poison to Vicky, and suggests that someone may have seen Rich perform his nightclub hypnotism act previously, which would explain how they were able to prepare a knife that strongly resembled the false one.
There is a flurry of suspense toward the end when a burglar appears to have broken into the house, considerable confusion, and the discovery of Hubert with a severe head wound. Except that Hubert is the killer, and in fact we discover that he killed the young woman before the novel opened, not Arthur. This is an enormous and unforgivable example of the Unreliable Narrator, because on the very first page the omniscient narrator states quite specifically that Arthur killed the girl, arranged for his family and servants to be away from the house, and disposed of the body. If we can’t rely on the omniscient narrator, then there are no rules at all. Nor is the physical solution, which involves complicated use of a mechanical contrivance faultlessly, with no practice, even remotely convincing. One of Carr’s very worst novels.
Death Turns the Tables (1941, aka Seat of the Scornful) revolves around Justice Horace Ireton, an imposing judge whose daughter Constance is planning, with considerable trepidation, to tell her father she is going to marry Anthony Morell, whose past is somewhat clouded. Other principals include a friend of the family, Jane Tennant, and a young lawyer, Fred Barlow, who also feels some romantic inclinations toward Constance. Tennant is in love with Fred. Morell turns up dead and the judge is found sitting nearby with the murder weapon in his hand, having picked it up carelessly according to his story. Motives are obvious. Morell was a fortune hunter who wanted a payoff to go away, and the judge didn’t have enough to pay him off. His fiancé had learned his true nature and was outraged, while Barlow was frustrated by his failure to win Constance’s hand. An additional puzzle is that Morell was carrying a large sum of money identical to what he had tried to extort from the judge. The police are summoned promptly because Morell (or was it Morell) was calling for help when he was shot (or was he?).
More information clouds the issue. Morell’s lawyer informs the authorities that Morell was actually quite well off and didn’t need the money, that he’d come to the house that night specifically to show the judge that he was not the cad he’d been portrayed as and that he had independent means. This conflicts with Tennant’s account of Morell’s history, in which he tried to blackmail the father of another young woman, who found out the truth and shot him. Morell was outraged because the authorities then contrived things to prevent his assailant from being convicted. His true nature is obscured by the contradictory accounts of his character.
The weapon which killed Morell turns out to be the same one with which he was wounded years earlier, a weapon known to have been in the possession of a man whom the judge met with earlier that same day. Morell’s lawyer, Appleby, also appears to be hiding something. The usual Carr formula suggests that Fred will end up with Tennant, eliminating them as suspects, and since it is clear that the judge is the primary suspect, he’s also in the clear, although the reader must be wary because Carr does sometimes vary from his formula. The prime candidate at this point must be Constance, with the lawyer Appleby as a very distant second.
Some of the physical evidence is puzzling. The telephone near the body has been badly damaged, and there is a small pile of red sand under the body. There are also hints of other elements only briefly alluded to, such as Barlow’s discovery of a drunken vagrant lying in the road at about the time of the murder, a vagrant who subsequently disappears. It is also suggested that Appleby’s story of wandering around looking for the right address might not be as truthful as it appears, and the fact that he has remained in the area raises his visibility on our list of suspects. Also mentioned is Cynthia Lee, the young woman who previously tried to kill Morell, and who resides in a sanitarium nearby.
Fell partially clears up matters at an early conference, but also adds another layer of complexity. The telephone’s damage was sustained from a shot at close range, which suggested to me that Morell was already dead, that the shot that damaged the telephone was secondary, meant to mislead the investigators. More perplexing is Fell’s startled reaction when he learns that the previous owner of the judge’s house was Canadian, which does not appear to have any relevance to anything that has gone before. He also points out some minor contradictions in Constance’s story that she saw Morell arrive but stayed out of sight until she heard the sound of the gunshot.
New evidence discredits Constance’s testimony completely, and she herself is temporarily missing. Barlow confesses to Tennant that he believes he fatally injured the vagrant by striking him with his car, but that the man wandered off and disappeared before he could call for help. Carr hints at more complexity when Constance reappears, suggesting that she is lying about where she was when she was out of touch. He also offers his unexplained condolences to Barlow, which is a nice bit of misdirection, shortly after someone frightens Tennant, although apparently with no intent to actually do serious harm. Constance then admits that she was responsible, an impulse based on her envy of the older woman, a not very convincing explanation. We also discover that the vagrant was not seriously injured after all. All of this sets the stage for the final revelations.
It’s no surprise at all that Morell was not shot where he was found. The absence of an odd bullet suggested that two shots had been fired right from the outset, and the sand was actually spilled from a stuffed moosehead into which the second round was aimed. Carr does break the formula somewhat in his double reverse ending. The case is made, quite convincingly except for motive, that Barlow killed Morell and rigged it to look like he’d died elsewhere. The actual killer, however, is the judge, who eventually confesses in order to save Barlow’s life, although in fact his arrest was a sham designed to force his hand. The complications resulted from Morell’s having for a time survived what would prove to be the fatal shot. Wounded, he made his way to the judge’s house and staged the rest in order to have evidence to bring charges of attempted murder, never realizing that he was dying at that very moment.
This is also one of several morally questionable endings in which Fell decides not to expose the killer, particularly offensive in this case because it turns out that Morell had in fact reformed and his murder was not remotely justifiable. We are told that the judge has learned that he is infallible, but he never once expressed any remorse about having taken a human life. I also thought that the red herrings – the lawyer and the assault on Tennant – were unusually inept and unbelievable. Carr makes a good argument for the use of coincidence in mysteries – since more realistic situations would hardly be as interesting to read about – but at times he stretches the concept too far.
Next up is The Emperor’s Snuff Box (1942), which has neither Fell nor Merrivale and which was filmed as That Woman Opposite in 1957. Eve Neill has divorced Ned Atwood, a spoiled and occasionally cruel man, and is now engaged to marry Toby Lawes, who comes from the very respectable family that lives directly across the street from her. One night, unfortunately, her ex-husband shows up at a disreputable hour, lets himself in with a key he never surrendered, and she is so afraid of scandal that she doesn’t call for help, arguing with him instead. They are engaged in that argument when they happen to look across the street just in time to see Maurice Lawes slumped in a chair, obviously bludgeoned to death. Ned insists that he can identify the killer, but he doesn’t tell her who it was. She finally gets him to leave but (1) only after accidentally knocking him down the stairs and giving him a concussion, and (2) without noticing that someone else is active in her house, perhaps the new maid Yvette.
The body is discovered and the police arrive in the midst of all this, and Eve finds herself locked out of her own house. She manages to get in, but looses the waistband of her nightgown, which has Ned’s blood on it. The maid sees her washing the blood out and the police secretly take possession of the gown. All of this seems coincidental, but they also find a sliver of the snuff box that was broken during the fatal assault on Maurice Lawes, which suggests a connection we have not yet seen between the two houses. The most immediate suspect is the maid, Yvette, for reasons as yet unknown.
Carr’s strategy is quite different this time. Although there are four surviving members of the Lawes household, we see very little of them through most of the first half of the novel. Yvette’s sister Prue is also introduced relatively late in the story. Even then, we don’t learn much about their personalities, their possible reasons for wanting Maurice dead, their alibis, or much of anything else. The police are poised to arrest Eve, although their consultant, Dr. Kinross, disparages their theories. Kinross is obviously attracted to Eve and when Toby proves to be more concerned with his reputation than her guilt or innocence, it’s obvious that he’s not going to end up with her, which also increases the probability that he’s the killer. His sister, Janice, also reveals that their father was once responsible for sending a man to prison, where he died, suggesting another possible motive. The remaining family members are Mrs. Lawes, who appears to be genuinely shocked by the death, and her brother Ben, who claims to be sympathetic to Eve’s position, but who must also be looked upon as a suspect. Ned, predictably, is in a coma and cannot confirm her story about what happened that night.
The climax is rather low key. Everyone is gathered together and Toby is forced to admit that he lied, that he’d planned to steal one of his father’s valuable collectibles and replace it with a copy in order to buy off Prue Latour, who was his mistress. He was startled to discover that his father had been killed and slipped away without raising the alarm. Since he has now been revealed as a thorough cad, it’s easy to suspect him of the crime, but we’ve actually been misled by the comment – made several times by various characters – that only Eve and the Lawes family had keys (the two houses have identical locks). As we should have remembered, Atwood also had a key. One of Carr’s most effective tricks is to alter our perception of when the crime took place, and that’s what happens here. Atwood murdered Maurice because he’d been recognized as a fugitive from justice, then carefully arranged an alibi with Eve. Retrospectively we realize that most of what Eve “saw” that night was actually relayed to her by Ned. On balance, an above average title.
Death and the Gilded Man (1942, aka The Gilded Man) is a Merrivale story. The story opens in the house of Flavia Venner, a one time unconventional actress, now dead, her home in the hands of the Stanhope family. This consists of Dwight and Christabel, Dwight’s daughter Eleanor by a previous marriage, and Christabel’s daughter Betty, also by a previous marriage. They are having a small party to which have come Nicholas Wood, a police detective whose reason for being there is not immediately obvious, although the chemistry between him and Betty is, which means that neither of them – per the usual Carr formula – is going to turn out to be the villain. Eleanor also has a romantic interest, Vincent James, a bit of a jock who apparently does not return her high regard. Also attending is Buller Naseby, a business associate of Dwight’s who is concealing some secret relationship between the two, and who has quietly questioned the reason Dwight has taken his valuable paintings out of the safe and put them in an area not covered by a burglar alarm. A couple of servants round out the group.
Wood is there secretly at the request of Dwight, but Wood is suspicious of the man’s claim that he suspects he is about to be victimized. That seems justified when Dwight is found dressed as a burglar who has apparently broken into his own house to steal one of the valuable paintings, only to be stabbed in the process. General alarms break out but no one admits to having wielded the knife. Although the knife wound has not yet proven fatal, the victim appears to have been seriously wounded again by someone literally jumping up and down on his body. Of possible significance is the fact that the same knife drew blood earlier that same day, when Eleanor cut her finger while cutting fruit. Revelations follow, muddying the waters. The obvious suspicion is that Dwight wished to fake a robbery to collect insurance because of financial difficulties, but it turns out he is quite solvent and the paintings were not insured in any case. There is also mention of the “gilded man” but no hint about what it refers to.
Naseby, who did not spend the night, returns the following morning accompanying Roy Dawson, a naval officer. He explains that the Gilded Man is a reference to the painting that Dwight was attempting to steal, which depicts a lake in South America supposedly filled with gold. Naseby was trying to get Dwight to help finance an expedition to dredge the gold out of the water. A few other clues turn up – blood on the roll of tape used to hold the cut glass in the window, rumors of similar burglaries in the area, the – misleading – assessment by the doctor that the assailant was a small person, probably a woman. This last – and I’m not sure a doctor could have made that determination through a cursory examination anyway – is a small cheat. The killer was a very large man who happened to be wearing tennis shoes, which prevented him from doing proportionate damage. Sorry, I don’t buy that one. We are also told repeatedly that the crime suggests really deep, personal hatred, which is also misleading because it was not a contributing factor. Carr notes that Dwight was present in two of the houses when they were burglarized, but neglects to tell us that another member of the cast was also present.
The solution is, however, reasonably clever. It was NOT after all Dwight who broke in but actually Vincent James, whose dumb act is just that. He’s the serial burglar. Dwight tricked him into breaking into the house – which he does by climbing down a rope from an upstairs window – and caught him in the act. There was a struggle and both men were wounded by the knife. James then swapped clothing with Dwight and left him as the apparent burglar, creating a disturbance and then quickly climbing back up the rope to his room. I’m not sure I believe that such a successful burglar – who wanted the theft to look like an outside job – would have neglected to consider the fact that there would be no footsteps in the snow leading to and from the house, but it’s a minor point.
Merrivale and company are singularly careless. Even after they know who the real culprit is, they allow him a second opportunity and he successfully kills Dwight this time. Unfortunately for him, the truth is already out. Confront, he bolts and is accidentally killed. Another middle of the road mystery with a slightly better than average solution, despite the cavils mentioned above. I did guess that James was the villain, but couldn’t figure out exactly what had happened.
Merrivale also solves the case in She Died a Lady (1943). The story opens with a typical love triangle. Alec Wainwright’s much younger wife, Rita, has fallen in love with an American actor named Barry Sullivan, and he appears to be equally in love with her. It is not clear initially if Alec knows what is going on, but he is depressed and drinking heavily, ostensibly because of financial reversals brought about by the war. The narrator, Doctor Croxley, is present when the two lovers leave the room at the Wainwright cottage, never to return. He looks for them, finds their footprints leading to the edge of a cliff, and presumes that they are dead. Their bodies are subsequently recovered. Alex, who admits he knew of the affair but didn’t care, was never out of Croxley’s sight during this incident. There is also a suicide note identified as Rita’s handwriting.
The straightforward situation has some interesting details. Someone had cut all of the telephone lines to the house, and drained the gasoline out of both cars. It therefore required a lengthy four mile walk before the police could be summoned. In the aftermath, we meet additional characters. Molly Grange is the daughter of the Wainwright family lawyer, who had recently argued with Rita. Paul Ferrars is a talented artist who painted Rita’s portrait, a suspicious circumstance only because Alec suggests that this was not Rita’s first affair. Tom Crowley is Doctor Crowley’s son, also a physician.
The obvious explanation begins to wear thin after the bodies are recovered. Both were shot through the heart at close range, not inconsistent with suicide except that the murder weapon is found miles from the cliff side, lying in the road. It was apparently meant to be found. If this was a murder that was supposed to look like suicide, why were so many things done to draw the attention of the authorities to the fact that it must have been murder? As Carr has mentioned in the past, however, it is rare for a complex murder plan to go smoothly, and sometimes it’s the flaws in the killer’s actions that prove to be the most confusing. That’s true here, because the weapon was lost by accident and it was indeed supposed to look like a suicide.
Sullivan’s wife enters the picture, after which we learn that she was another victim of the elaborately planned fake suicide conceived by Rita and her boyfriend, who planned to escape to America under new identities. It is clear that they were murdered by Rita’s previous romantic interest, but is it the artist or the lawyer or someone else entirely? Complexities ensue. Sullivan had a car which was driven into a pit of quicksand. Alec is morbidly attached to a key which fits the jewelry box that held Rita’s diamonds, which are still there. A garden roller has gone missing.
I was generally disappointed in this one. For one thing, using a roller to wipe out an extra set of footprints was so painfully obvious that the police would have considered that possibility right from the outset, although it apparently never occurs to them. There is also a sequence in which Dr. Crowley is threatened with prosecution for perjury for insisting that he did not remove the gun from the murder scene – which he did not – that is absolute nonsense. The revelation of the killer’s identity – it’s the younger Crowley – did catch me by surprise and was not really cheating, but he’d been such a minor character in the story that it felt as though it was. Despite a very well written first half, this is one of Carr’s least interesting mysteries.
He Wouldn’t Kill Patience (1944) starts off badly. The Merrivale books invariably have at least one comic scene, but the opening sequence in the zoo is so silly that it sets the wrong tone for the entire book. The story itself concerns the apparent suicide of Edward Benton, manager of a zoo, who succumbs to gas in a room hermetically sealed from the inside. The two lovers this time are Carey Quint and Madge Palliser, the last members of two feuding families of stage magicians, who are invited along with Merrivale to a dinner party at Benton’s home. They arrive to find the house empty except for the sealed room, supper burning in the oven, and they are themselves temporarily locked into one of the rooms.
The potential suspects include Benton’s daughter Louise, who was called away at the last minute by someone claiming that a friend, Dr. Rivers, had been seriously injured. Rivers himself shows up at the house just as the body is being discovered, claiming that the dinner party was called off at the last minute and that he just stopped by to see Louise. Other potential suspects include Benton’s brother Horace, who might have been unhappy about Edward’s plan to invest his savings in a private zoo, and Agnes Noble, who had contracted to provide a number of exotic animals she claims to have secured, although there is no evidence that she actually has them despite having been paid. Mike Parsons and Angus MacTavish are workers at the zoo, but both appear to be below suspicion. Patience is a valuable, exotic snake which also perished in the gas filled room. The police believe it to be suicide, as do some of the suspects – or at least so they say – but the daughter and Merrivale contend that it was murder.
The plot advances badly. Someone locks Madge in her room and turns on the gas in an obvious murder attempt. She manages to attract the attention of a policeman, who lets her out, but no one except her seems particularly concerned. The policeman doesn’t even summon an investigator. She then goes to the Benton house, where the police had requested that everyone come in the morning, but no one is there – no police, no daughter – and she finds a loaded gun after entering (how?) and spending hours searching the house. This sequence of improbabilities and logical lapses is very out of character for Carr and just increased my already bad feelings about the novel.
Brother Horace appears to have a solid alibi for the time of Benton’s murder. Agnes Noble claims that Benton was worth more money to her alive than dead, although she doesn’t offer to refund his first payment. Her aversion to snakes seems potentially interesting, and rumor that her husband has been in England rather than out filling Benton’s order suggest strong support for her motive to eliminate the man who employed her to fill his new zoo with specimens. There’s another attempt on Madge’s life, via poisonous snake this time, and it’s such a contrived and unlikely sequence that I had to grit my teeth to get through it. We also discover that the burnt match which she noticed at the original murder scene has some major significance, but that even she doesn’t remember why she took note of it at the time.
The resolution isn’t much better, and I guessed the killer early in the book and never had any doubt that I was right. Merrivale extracts a confession using a device that I found absurd, isolating the killer in a room with himself and a handful of poisonous snakes. It’s particularly ludicrous because Merrivale admits that it was unnecessary. They already had sufficient information to arrest her from her accomplice, who isn’t even really a character and therefore constitutes a cheat. Nor do I believe the locked room trick would work – vacuuming gluey paper through the borders around the door so that it seals from the inside. I’m not sure if Carr was rushing, tired, or just running out of ideas, but this was definitely one of his low points.
Till Death Do Us Part (1944) has a rather different set up than most of his other books. Dick Markham is engaged to marry Lesley Grant, whose past is somewhat a mystery. During a social event, a visiting police consultant identifies her as the woman whose two previous husbands, plus one fiancé, all apparently committed suicide in locked rooms by injecting poison into their body. The police were convinced that it was murder but not even Gideon Fell was able to figure out how she did it. He advised Markham that he is likely to be the next victim. At that very moment, Grant “accidentally” fires a gun which slightly wounds him, and the same weapon disappears shortly afterward, although it appears impossible for her to have made off with it.
The plot thickens when someone spies on Markham in his cottage, then lures him out with a telephone call just in time to see an unknown party fire that same rifle through the window of the consultant’s cottage. Although it appears initially to be a fatal shot, when Markham breaks in he discovers the man died of an injection of poison, in yet another locked room. Although he cannot identify the killer, Cynthia Drew is suspiciously present at the time, and she has an obvious crush on Markham. Other potential suspects include the morose Lord Ashe, and residents Horace Price, Bill Earnshaw, and Dr. Hugh Middlesworth, although no one except Grant appears to have a motive. Lord Ashe and the doctor are also about at the wee hour of the morning when the shot is fired at the dead man. Adding to the clues is a box of pins found at the scene.
More suspicion centers on Grant. She apparently went out during the night, although she claims otherwise. The story of her previous involvement with poisoning has gotten out, which also means that anyone in the area could have heard it and committed the crime deliberately in a fashion that would implicate her, although it is problematic that they would be able to duplicate the locked room setting of the previous deaths unless they were involved with those as well. Since both female characters appear to be sympathetic, it is not immediately clear which of them will turn out to be innocent and end up with Markham, who is also clearly not the killer.
But then Carr stirs the pot. Drew is found in Grant’s bedroom, trying to open her wall safe. Gideon Fell shows up, looks at the body, and advises Markham that the man was an imposter, not a police consultant at all, and that as far as he knows, the story about Grant and the earlier poisonings is a complete hoax as well. But a second mystery arises. Drew is found knocked unconscious in Grant’s bedroom, beside the empty safe, and Grant is missing. Drew claims that they were having a calm conversation, but we know that she threatened to kill Grant if she didn’t reveal what was in the safe, and her account of her injury is also nonsensical.
Clearly someone believed the false story and is trying to frame Grant for reasons as yet unknown. The safe contained only some jewelry with a complicated history that proves to be a red herring. We know that Drew believes that Grant was involved with poisonings in the past, but we don’t know who else in the village might have swallowed the same story. And then, just to make things even more confused, a witness places Grant at the cottage at the time its occupant was murdered.
The resolution, which follows the murder of a minor character, is particularly unsatisfactory. Grant’s appearance at the cottage is explained as sleepwalking, the most unbelievable use of this device since Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. The actual killer is the doctor, who was being blackmailed by the confidence man and killed him to cover himself, but there is no possible way we could have known any of that in advance. The locked room solution is okay, but I had actually guessed how it must have been done. Another well below average mystery.
The Curse of the Bronze Lamp (1945, aka Lord of the Sorcerors) is another Merrivale. The early chapters are somewhat reminiscent of the macabre overtones of his earliest books. An expedition to Egypt has uncovered a number of artifacts including a lamp which is given by the Egyptian government to Helen Loring, daughter of Lord Severn, leader of the expedition. A man named Alim Bey prophesizes that she will not live to reach her own room back in England and in fact she mysteriously disappears immediately upon entering the house, even though all windows and doors are under surveillance and no one knows where she has gone. Fortuitously, Merrivale has met her previously and impulsively visits, suspecting that some evil plot is underway.
The other parties include Sandy Robertson, who has remained behind in Egypt and who has unrequited romantic feelings for Helen, as does Kit Farrell. Robertson is in turn admired by Audrey Vane. We might also be a little suspicious of Bill Powers, the plumber, who was working inside the house when Helen disappeared. The butler, Benson, and the housekeeper, Mrs. Pomfret, also appear to be more significant than are servants in most of Carr’s novels, as they are concealing something connected to Helen’s arrival. We also need to consider Leo Beaumont, a rich American who was rebuffed when he tried to acquire some of the artifacts which the expedition unearthed. Two additional clues command our attention. A painting of the woman who caused the mansion to be built mysteriously disappears the same afternoon, and a report comes from Egypt that two valuable artifacts were somehow stolen from the collection.
The painting shows up at a local shop run by Julia Mansfield, apparently dropped off by the missing Helen Loring only minutes after her disappearance. Mansfield also seems to be hiding something, and the authorities believe that her visitor was an impostor whose purpose was to suggest Helen was alive, when actually she was dead, her body concealed some in the house. Lord Severn and Robertson return from Egypt, as does the American Beaumont, who announces he wishes to purchase the lamp. Merrivale also presents a tantalizing but enigmatic clue when he mentions that it was Benson who picked the daffodils that day.
Merrivale announces that he has the solution, although naturally he won’t reveal it, at least not until the arrival of Lord Severn. But when he does arrive, he promptly disappears just as mysteriously, and the bronze lamp has been moved from Helen’s room to his study. Then Mansfield is seen clandestinely giving a package to Beaumont. Just when it seems the puzzle might be solved, Merrivale himself vanishes, then reappears to reveal the secret. As I had suspected from the outset, Helen Loring disappeared voluntarily, although I hadn’t realized that the butler was her accomplice in a somewhat circumlocutious plan to show that the curse was nonsense. I also figured out how she did it.
On the other hand, the disappearance of her father confused me completely, and the explanation in this case was quite good as well, although I instinctively picked the correct person as the villain. Carr drops just a few too many hints that Robertson is not a nice guy, so I knew he couldn’t end up with the sympathetic Audrey Vane, particularly after hearing that he’d been having an affair with Mansfield. It also made sense that he was the one smuggling artifacts out of Egypt, given that there were no other candidates. There’s a little bit of contrivance – Helen is described as being so utterly unphotogenic that no one could ever identify her from one of her pictures. And the comedy relief with Merrivale is restrained to an acceptable level. This is one of Carr’s strongest books from this period.
He Who Whispers (1946) is a Fell story, told from the perspective of Miles Hammond, an historian newly enriched by a legacy from his uncle, who owned a legendary library. Hammond is one of three people invited to a meeting of the Murder Club, a group that includes Gideon Fell. The other two guests are Barbara Morell and Professor Rigaud, who was supposed to speak at the meeting. Their plans are altered because other than the three guests, no one else appears and there’s no word of why they are absent. In due course we learn that this is an elaborate hoax, that Morell maneuvered the club members into not coming so that she could be there instead and hear Rigaud’s story of a mysterious murder in France several years in the past. For no good reason, she gives her real name, which enables Hammond to make a connection later on.
The story involves the arrival of Fay Seton to work as secretary for Howard Brooke, an Englishman living in France with his wife and grown son, Harry. Harry and Fay fall in love and, after some mysterious reluctance on her part, agree to marry. Their plans are disrupted by unspecified rumors about her, which cause Howard to decide that he needs to pay her to leave them alone. They are to meet at the top of a circular tower, but instead Howard is stabbed in the back at the summit and the money disappears, even though every possible entrance to the tower was watched by multiple people. Harry then dies in the war and his mother soon afterward. The crime remains unsolved and the money is still missing. The rest of the account is not revealed due to a not entirely convincing set of plot contrivances, but the stage is adequately set for what follows. One clue which will prove significant is that there are blood stains inside the scabbard of the sword cane which was used to kill Brooke.
Carr then makes use of his usual coincidence. Hammond is looking for a secretary/librarian to catalog his late uncle’s books and, to no reader’s surprise, Fay Seton applies for the job. She also mentions having known someone named Jim Morell, and that suggests a motive for Barbara’s interest. She joins Miles Hammond at the family estate, where also reside his sister Marion and her fiancé, Stephen Curtis. Although reluctant to reveal his knowledge of her past, she confronts him with the story, which he has also told to the other two. We are now ready for the story to move forward. Clearly Hammond is not a potential suspect, and it also seems improbable that Seton is a killer.
Fell and Rigaud arrive that same evening. Rigaud insists that Seton is in fact a vampire capable of levitation, and to Hammond’s dismay, Fell concedes the possibility that vampires might exist, a statement which seems to me a contradiction of the stress on rationality that Fell has displayed in all of his earlier exploits, although he reverses his position a few pages later. While they are talking, Marion Hammond fires her pistol in her room and is found apparently dead of shock, although Rigaud manages to save her life. There is no sign of what may have frightened her. Curtis arrives the following morning and becomes distraught, and Seton leaves without telling anyone, promising to return. Fell is immediately alarmed and convinces Hammond to go after her.
We are left then with three victims – the young man in France who was supposedly found in a weakened state with bite marks on his throat, the scandal which so alarmed the Brookes , Howard Brooke’s impossible murder, and whatever happened to Marion, all three linked to Seton. We also have essentially no suspects, unless Curtis somehow managed to sneak back hours before he officially reappeared. In this sense, He Who Whispers is quite a departure from Carr’s previous novels, all of which presented a variety of suspects.
Hammond searches the train and is convinced that Seton is not aboard, but when they reach London, Barbara Morell meets the train and tells him that she saw Seton get off. They pursue her onto the subway, where we discover that Morell does not suspect Seton of murder after all, believes her to be an innocent victim. She also suggests that Harry Brooke was not at all a nice person, contradicting Rigaud’s account. He was the source of the rumors, wanting to put pressure on his parents to pay for him to spend two years studying in Paris to get him away from Seton’s “bad influence”. The chemistry between her and Hammond is more like Carr’s usual low key romance, which suggests that either Seton is not entirely innocent, or that she will become a victim before the story ends, leaving the other two free to connect. These revelations immediately made me suspect that, despite reports of his death, Harry Brooke was still alive.
The two pursuers miss their stop in an uncharacteristically bad piece of writing, so Seton is on her own in London. They catch up to her at her flat in time to see that she has Brooke’s briefcase with the payoff money, and something else which they aren’t allowed to see. Fell’s friend Inspector Hadley shows up at the same time, having been contacted by Fell, clearly aware of more information than the reader has yet received. Before he can enlighten us, someone turns off the lights and a figure enters from the passageway, steals the briefcase, and flees. Seton and the others pursue, recovering the money but not the unknown object, and Seton suffers a heart attack and collapses. As I suspected, Seton does not have long to live and is eliminated as Hammond’s lover.
The revelation was pretty close to my guess. Brooke was mortally wounded by his own son, but attempted to cover up by having his last conversation with Rigaud and throwing the briefcase, containing a bloody raincoat, into the river, where it was recovered by Seton. Her motivation in suppressing this evidence is pretty wonky, and the added revelation that Brooke’s trumped up charges were partially true – she suffered from nymphomania – is both silly and unnecessary to the plot. My other two suspicions turned out to be aspects of the same fact, a combination I didn’t suspect. Harry Brooke is in fact still alive but he changed his identity and became Stephen Curtis. It is no wonder then that he contrived circumstances so that he and Seton never met.
The solution is mostly quite clever involving a plot directed to frighten Seton to death that was applied, in the dark, to the wrong woman. There’s also a bit of a surprise in that Hammond does not end up with Barbara Morell, at least not that we can see, because he vows to see Seton through to the imminent end of her life. With a few relatively minor cavils, I found this to be one of Carr’s strongest efforts.
Carr continues to vary from his usual formula with My Late Wives (1946), a Merrivale mystery. There is a brief prologue chronicling the career of a man who murdered at least three wives and one lover, none of whose bodies were ever found. He changes his name in each case and no one has ever been able to develop as much as a good description of him. Eleven years pass since Scotland Yard first tried to catch him in earnest. Bruce Ransom, an actor, has decided to star in a play about the legendary wife killer, despite the opposition of his friend, Beryl West, and her friend, Dennis Foster, the latter of whom is our chief narrator this time. We are supposed to be instantly suspicious of Ransome, who has the same initials as the killer, though reversed, and who is exactly the right age. Unfortunately, the story quickly becomes awkward and even offensive. The play - by an author whose identity is known only to Ransom - is about a man who pretends to be the killer in order to get material for a book. West and Ransom decide that Ransom should try to do the same in real life. Foster is initially horrified, and rightly so, by the plan to deliberately play with the emotions of some as yet undetermined young woman and her family, as well as the possible distraction to the local police. Then, inexplicably, he reverses course and decides that it’s a good idea and that he will appear to his friends at Scotland Yard to help smooth the way. Foster at least is supposed to be a sympathetic character and his about face on this unconscionable idea is both unbelievable and corrosive to his character. This was such an unappealing set up that I actually set the book aside for several days before finally returning to it.
When they approach Merrivale and Scotland Yard – after a particularly unfunny piece of supposed comic relief – we discover that the play contains details which the police never released to the public. What puzzled me right off was that if we were supposed to suspect that the real killer is the author of the play, whether or not Ransom is the author/killer – then how would he know information that was known to the police, but NOT KNOWN TO THE KILLER, specifically what a happenstance witness – Mildred Lyons - saw when she peaked through his window on the night of the fourth murder. Unless, of course, it is Merrivale who wrote the play for some reason. But then Lyons shows up at the theater, opening the possibility that she is the author.
Merrivale also favors Ransom’s plan, which made me consider putting the book aside again, but I persevered. Someone steals the only copy of the play, Ransom disappears for a month, and West spends the same amount of time visiting America. The all gather together again after Ransom has gone through with his plan, although he falls in love with Daphne Herbert, the woman he victimizes in his pretend love affair. Daphne finds out the truth when she travels with her parents to a tourist hotel run by Commander Renwick, a retired military man with one arm. Her father is not pleased when he hears the truth and threatens to kill Ransom, not unsurprisingly. Also in the area is Chittering, a local man fond of gossip.
The situation becomes very complicated. Some of the supposedly hidden clues were not, according to Ransom, actually in the manuscript of the play, although he also rewrote parts of it to reveal others. None of this makes apparent sense, nor does the police attitude toward their witness, Mildred Lyons, who shows up at the theater, disappears, cannot be located by the police, and later shows up dead in Ransom’s hotel room. West, who is in love with Ransom, also suspects he is the mysterious killer, although the narrator assures us that this is not the case. Why she would not have looked into Ransom’s background, which would easily have disproved her theory, is never explained.
Ransom hints that he is allied with Merrivale and that the real killer is in town. He also enlists Foster’s aid in disposing of Lyons’ body, for more unknown reasons, and Foster – whose attitude toward the masquerade continues to be inconsistent – unaccountably agrees even though he is a lawyer and knows that this is a crime. Ransom also confirms one of our suspicions – that the killer is the author of the play. There’s a rather silly sequence involving efforts to hide the body, amidst which we learn that Chittering and Daphne’s father both had good reasons to know that Ransom was not whom he pretended to be but just an actor. And Merrivale asserts that the killer has become completely insane and could strike again at Daphne at any moment.
More confusion. West insists that Ransom came back from disposing of the body and declared his love for her, that neither he nor Daphne was actually in love. But we don’t see Ransom to confirm this, and then we’re told that he and Daphne have in fact eloped. Merrivale finally begins to explain. The fourth murder was a sham because Mildred Lyons lied, which explains how the author of the play (aka the killer) knew what she had seen. Except that this is such an obvious flaw that it is hard to believe that the killer didn’t realize what he would be revealing, or that no one but Merrivale would notice the discrepancy. Since I noticed it immediately, I’d say it was flaming obvious.
The plot is a mess from beginning to end. The killer stole the manuscript back, but then why did he send it in the first place? The revelation comes after a completely unnecessary business about hanging the dead woman’s corpse in a military training building. There is a more than usually unlikely string of coincidences, including the fact that Ransom turns out to be the brother of the first victim. There’s a major cheat of Withheld Information – Daphne is not the daughter of the man who is supposed to be her father. He is actually much younger than we have been led to believe. I actually had picked him as the killer despite the awful camouflage, simply because there were no other likely candidates. There is, however, no evidence at all in the story which would lead us to figure out the solution logically. This was far and away the worst novel Carr had ever written.
There’s another variation from the standard plotline in The Sleeping Sphinx (1947). Donald Holden returns from the war only to discover that his friends believed that he died a year earlier, including Celia Devereux, the woman he loves. He has not seen Celia since the day her sister Margot married Thorley Marsh. Holden discovers that Margot is dead, supposedly of a cerebral hemorrhage though Celia insists she was driven to suicide by her husband’s abusive nature, and that she had made an earlier try and narrowly survived. Marsh, however, insists that Celia is suffering from delusions, that there was no earlier attempt and that Margot’s death was perfectly natural. Holden is uncertain who is telling the truth, but there is some evidence that supports Celia’s contention. On the other hand, an unimpeachable family servant and the family doctor both insist that Celia is imagining things. Additional complications are added by Doris Locke, a young woman whom Wade now wishes to marry, much to the dismay of her youthful suitor, Ronald Merrick, and her father, Danvers Locke, who also suggests that there is some question about the circumstances surrounding Margot’s death. One final character is introduced, Derek Hurst-Gore, who is apparently romantically interested in Celia, and not happy to discover that an old lover has returned from the grave. The set up this time is quite well done and the characters are convincing if somewhat exaggerated.
As the story progresses we discover that both Margot and her husband were having affairs. Marsh was involved with Doris, but no one knows who Margot’s lover was, although he is described as distinguished and older. That proves to be in part a red herring because he is in fact much younger than she is. Her lover, who is also her killer, is Ronald Merrick, who discovered that she was mentally unstable and feared that she would interfere with his chances of marrying Doris. He is, of course, unaware of her affair with Marsh. The natural suspect is ruled out when Gideon Fell announces that he is completely innocent despite appearances to the contrary, and explains his lies as efforts to avoid embarrassment. This is a bit hokey, but not as much as Celia’s elaborate play acting about the supernatural, part of her effort to prove that Marsh drove her sister to suicide. Part of this involves coffins mysteriously moved inside a sealed crypt but the solution, that they were moved when water rose and flooded the crypt, is quite obvious the moment it is mentioned that the coffins were airtight.
There is a rather contrived final confrontation when we are supposed to suspect Danvers Locke, and he was in fact my choice based on the characterization of Margot’s lover as an older man, a slight Cheat of Misinformation, although Carr offers a somewhat ameliorating excuse. Merrick commits suicide when he is exposed after another conveniently coincidental meeting. One nice touch is that Doris, who was not interested in the boring young Merrick, admires him in death because he secretly led such an interesting life. Average quality thanks to the slightly weak ending, but the first half is quite good.
The Skeleton in the Clock (1947) returns to the career of Henry Merrivale. Another set of coincidences leads to the explanation for a murder twenty years in the past as well as present day infamy. There is also the echo of The Sleeping Sphinx in that the protagonist, Martin Drake, has finally found the woman he met and fell in love with, although he didn’t know her name, Jennifer West. She is now engaged to Richard Fleet, who is only too happy to terminate the arrangement – the result of pressure by their respective families – because he is in love with another woman, who doesn’t figure in the story. Fleet’s father died in a fall from the roof twenty years earlier and it was ruled an accidental death at the time.
A second circle of people includes Ruth Callice, who is interested in Drake herself and therefore has refrained from telling him that he knows the identity of his missing love, and John Stannard, a criminal lawyer who asserts that he was present when the older Fleet died, although no one remembers him. The two of them and Drake had been speculating about ghosts and managed to get permission to spend a night in an old, disused prison which happens to be near the Fleet estate. Also of interest are Sophia, West’s domineering grandmother, and her aunt Cicely, who is also Richard’s mother. Lesser characters include the family physician, Hugh Laurier, Arthur Puckston, who runs the local inn with his daughter Enid, and a maid named Phyllis.
Merrivale appears very early for a comic encounter with Sophia at an auction house where he inadvertently purchases a grandfather clock casing with a human skeleton mounted inside. He decides this has some relevance to the death of George Fleet, which he is coincidentally about to re-investigate. This moves the last of the playing pieces onto the game board. The police are also involved because they have received three anonymous postcards suggesting that the death was murder and referring to a pink flash.
The plan to spend a night in the condemned cell of the old prison progresses despite Drake’s attempt to renege on his promise to attend. Sophia plots to sever the bond between her granddaughter and Drake. Merrivale wants to know what the color of the lawn furniture that was kept on the roof at the time of the accident – it’s black and green. Stannard explains that he was in fact present at the time, that he’d been sent down to deal with a legal issue with the elder Fleet, the nature of which is not explained. We also learn that it was Laurier who wished to buy the clock with the skeleton inside.
The scene at the prison strains credulity. They find a collection of swords which formerly belonged to the dead George Fleet, as well as a knife with fresh bloodstains, even though the facility is supposedly secure. The knife is also a red herring as it was planted to make everyone believe the murder had already been committed, but it actually hadn’t. They go on with their plans anyway, don’t even bother to tell the police. Stannard spends the night locked in the execution chamber with Drake keeping watch outside. Once in the night and first thing in the morning, Stannard answers from inside the room, but Drake never actually sees him, which raised immediate suspicions that someone else was answering for him, although this is a red herring.
Drake returns to the estate where someone tries to kill him by pushing him off the roof, the same method used to eliminate George Fleet. Fortunately, Drake’s fall is broken by an awning. Unfortunately, someone is dead, Enid Puckston, whom we have hardly seen as a character, stabbed to death and mutilated in a fashion reminiscent of another earlier crime. It was undoubtedly her blood on the knife found in the prison. We are now told that a pair of field glasses is a crucial clue, and in fact both Fleet and Drake were looking through them when they were pushed. But this is also pretty much a red herring.
I guessed the killer – Richard Fleet – more through chance than anything else. I could not have guessed the method easily, because the truth was obscured by the fact that three different people were lying to cover up the fact that the boy was not on the grounds with the governess at the time of his father’s death. Despite this, I found this to be one of the better novels from the 1940s, and the final few chapters are particularly strong.
Below Suspicion (1949), which introduced Patrick Butler, an Irish lawyer, also opens with the murder already committed. Joyce Ellis, companion to the elderly Mrs. Taylor, has been arrested for murder after Taylor is found dead one morning, having been poisoned during the night. Her fingerprints are on the container in which the poison was found, she was mentioned in the dead woman’s will, she didn’t answer the emergency bell which it is believed Mrs. Taylor must have pushed. The circumstantial evidence is strongly against her, but Butler is convinced that will be found innocent, even though he believes her to be guilty. After a brief court room scene, Ellis is in fact acquitted. She tells Butler that one day he will realize that he was mistaken in believing her guilty. This appears to be supported by a rash of similar poisonings that occurred before Taylor’s death and while Ellis was in custody, including the murder of a man named Renshaw, presumed to be the work of his wife. But the acquittal of Ellis makes Renshaw’s wife the prime suspect, and Butler declares that she is innocent, although there doesn’t appear to be anyway that the murder could have been brought about without her connivance.
Fell is of the same opinion and in due course we learn that Renshaw and Mrs. Taylor were the two leaders of a satanic cult who were apparently knocked off by the third in line of succession in order to secure control of the group. It later turns out that Taylor’s death was in fact accidental, although Renshaw was murdered for exactly that purpose. This is one of the more overtly active mysteries with Butler battling a pair of thugs on more than one occasion. The thugs turn out to be an associated but independent problem. It seemed pretty obvious to me that Ellis had to be the mastermind, primarily because the title suggests that fact. Butler is one of the few Carr characters to actually have some depth rather than being a caricature and this is one of Carr’s best novels. Butler, alas, was only to return for one further adventure.
The last Carr novel from the 1940s is A Graveyard to Let (1949), a Henry Merrivale mystery that opens with a fascinating set up. Frederick Manning is a millionaire philanthropist suspected of embezzlement and who is known to be keeping a woman on the side, informs his three adult children that he is going to disappear before their and Henry Merrivale’s eyes. He then jumps into a swimming pool, fully clothed, submerges, and never comes up. The police drain the pool but no secret exit or other device can be found. The three children are Crystal Manning, who gives the appearance of stupidity but is anything but, her sister Jean, and brother Bob. Bob is a frustrated baseball player who has been drifting through life. Jean is romantically involved with Huntington Davis. The other significant characters are Cy Norton, an outside who gets dragged into the situation and who becomes our viewpoint character. Since he is interested in Jean, I was immediately suspicious that Davis would turn out to be at least shady and possibly a killer, if a body ever turns u, but Carr is using misdirection here because Norton transfers his affections to Crystal, the older sister. Also present is Betterton, Manning’s attorney, and Stuffy, an aging servant who apparently knew Merrivale when they were both considerably younger.
Other clues include a model of the electric chair found near the pool, and the mysterious appearance of Merrivale’s luggage (a red herring) and a revolver (not a red herring). Other clues include a pair of suspiciously clean hedge clippers, a cylinder of folded paper, and some inconsistency in Manning’s statements about when he expected the police to arrive. It was immediately obvious that this was a case of substitution and the only possible co-conspirator had to be Davis, even though the two men obviously didn’t like each other. It was also apparent that Manning had not done anything shady, and that his lawyer was well aware of that fact. This led me to believe that it was an elaborate plot to show up Davis as a crook and prevent his marriage to Jean, which turned out to be the case. The fact that Manning left a surprisingly informative note where the police could find it, and Merrivale’s active efforts to cover things up only confirmed what I already believed.
Manning is found seriously wounded by a knife in the cemetery adjacent to his property and near a mausoleum which he had obviously been using as a hiding place. Carr then muddies the water by having Merrivale state unequivocally that Davis did not commit the crime, a cheat of False Authority. The plot then disintegrates into implausibilities. Manning’s wife, believed dead when a boiler exploded aboard a ship more than fifteen years earlier, turns out to be the “mistress” he’d been keeping on the side. She hid from the family all that time because the accident had left her with scars on one side of her face, scars which are easily corrected with plastic surgery. If you can stomach that unlikelihood, there’s another. Manning found her by hiring a private detective agency. Why would he do so after believing her dead for more than a decade?
The motivation for Davis is a bit more believable. The rumors that Manning had stolen a large sum of money were the lure. The revolver, left by Manning, was filled with blanks but Davis surprised him by having a knife. That was okay. The substitution solution in the pool is not because it involves multiple layers of conspiracy. Jean, Davis, Manning, Betterton, and the wife were all aware of what was going on. This is just too large a conspiracy. With that many people lying, there is no way for the reader to figure out the solution. There’s also an unnecessary and annoying subplot in which Mrs. Manning attempts suicide on the mistaken belief that her husband has died.
The 1940s on the whole showed Carr as a more skilled novelist, particularly in Below Suspicion. He was also varying the structure of his novels somewhat to avoid using the same formula over and over. He had, however, begun to run out of clever solutions to his locked rooms, and he still hadn’t outgrown the use of several transparent devices – love at first sight, the innocence of the primary romantic couple, the increasingly silly comic episodes involving Merrivale and to a lesser extent Fell. He would continue to change in the 1950s, and became less prolific as well.