John Dickson Carr Part 3. This installment covers the novels from 1950 on, plus the short story collections, and a couple of books about Carr. As always, be advised that there are spoilers below.
John Dickson Carr opened the 1950s with an historical mystery novel, The Bride of Newgate, set in 1815. Dick Darwent has been framed for the murder of a gentleman in a duel, although no duel ever took place. Shortly before he is to be executed, he agrees to marry Carolyn Ross, who comes into her inheritance only if she is married prior to her 25th birthday. She has hit upon this plan to meet the letter of the law, even though she expects to be widowed within the hour. Unfortunately for her plans, Darwent turns out to have succeeded to the nobility just prior to the murder, which means he has to be tried in the House of Lords, who refuse to find duelists guilty. He is freed and she finds herself trapped in the marriage, although in a development typical in Carr’s novels, she and he immediately fall in love, even though he had planned revenge against her. Darwent also seeks vengeance against Jack Buckstone , who humiliated him while he was a prisoner, and manages to maim him in a duel. But he still has to figure out who his secret enemy is, the one who arranged the frame. He and his friends suspect that he was selected through a case of mistaken identity, that it was actually a man named Lewis who was supposed to be framed. The dead man was a clandestine moneylender, a profession which would have led to his disgrace had his identity become known. Solving the mystery is complicated by the fact that the room where Darwent first saw the dead body proves upon examination to be filled with cobwebs and clearly unused for years, which calls into question his entire version of events.
Although there is a mystery in this one, which is explained after a familiar string of red herring solutions, it is secondary this time to the adventure story. Despite Carr’s usual gimmicks – love at first sight, a few too many coincidences – this is actually one of his very best novels, with an exciting and fast moving plot to carry us through the unraveling of the mystery, and several well conceived supporting characters rather than his usual cast of stereotypes. The sudden change in attitude of both Caroline and Darwent toward one another is less than convincing, and the convenient death through illness of Darwent’s former mistress – thus removing an encumbrance to the lovers – is similarly disappointing.
Night at the Mocking Widow (1950) is a much more typical novel, a Henry Merrivale adventure whose comic relief this time had been done before and is as unnecessary as ever, but at least is brief. The village of Stoke Druid, dominated by the enigmatic carved Mocking Widow, has been troubled by poison pen letters which have led to one suicide and a great deal of bad feeling. Merrivale arrives there to visit his friend, a bookseller, who has enticed him in order to convince him to identify the source of the letters.
There are relatively few suspects because, we are told, the language of the letters suggests a highly educated person. The prime suspects therefore are Colony Bailey and his daughter Joan, who is planning to be married to Gordon West, a successful novelist. Also present are Stella Lacey, Marion Tyler, Squire Tom Wyatt, and the new vicar, Cadman Hunter. Hunter precipitates open conflict when he announces that he will preach a sermon on the subject after receiving a letter accusing him of behaving improperly with Joan Bailey. West, who dislikes Hunter intensely, threatens to kill him if he does so, but the confrontation actually helps reconcile the two.
The plot wanders a bit through the middle of the book and Merrivale is more opaque than usual. The main incident is a threat by the mysterious writer, who signs as the Widow, to visit Joan Bailey in her bedroom. This is accomplished, despite guards on the doors and windows, all of which are locked. A sinister figure appears, touches Bailey, and disappears despite all the safeguards, with only a strange shadow on the outside wall to suggest any other evidence. There is also the suggestion that the original Widow might not be responsible for the more recent letters, because there was a lengthy break following the suicide. We also learn that Merrivale is interested in Stacey and her husband, who died testing a new aircraft for the military.
The Devil in Velvet (1951) is the first of Carr’s timeslip mysteries. The protagonist is a professor in 1925 named Fenton who wishes to travel back in time to possess the body of a man involved with a murder whose resolution is lost in history. He also hopes to prevent the murder from taking place. To accomplish this miraculous journey, he makes a deal with the devil. When he awakens, he is back in 1675, sharing a house with his wife Lydia, whose murder he hopes to prevent, and his mistress Meg, whom he suspects of being the poisoner responsible. But Fenton also discovers that the displaced personality whose body he inhabits can occasionally seize control, and that they both share a physical attraction to both women.
Fenton also meets Giles Collins, his apparently devoted servant, and George Harwell, his closest friend. He is able to determine that Lydia’s rash is a side effect of slow poisoning and orders Meg out of the house, assuming her to be responsible. Fenton traces the poison, which was purchased by the cook, Kitty, supposedly by instructions from Meg. Just as he learns this, he is set upon by two professional assassins, whom he dispatches in an exciting sword fight. This leads to the discovery that he has made a bitter enemy named Lord Shaftesbury.
Fenton is able to uncover the identity of the person – a servant – who has been slowly poisoning Lydia, although her expulsion from the household obviously doesn’t mean that her death will not be accomplished by another party on the day she is supposed to die. He makes certain modern changes to his house, to the consternation of his servants. The argument about bathing is particularly amusing. Carr has clearly done his research and provides us with considerable detail about the conditions under which people lived at the time. He is, however, suspected of some form of witchcraft because he unwisely predicted the future based on his foreknowledge. More disturbing, he discovers that Meg is actually possessed as well by Mary, a woman he knew back in 1925, which complicates his romantic arrangements considerably.
Although there’s a mystery in this, it’s peripheral to the main plot. Fenton weaves his way through the politics of the time, survives a number of pitched battles, and eventually escapes after learning that Lydia was working against him, although she changed sides shortly before her death – poisoned by another servant who thought it would save her soul. The original poisoning was not the work of the cook, but rather of the untransformed Fenton, a memory not available to the time traveling interloper. He also discovers that Mary, now in Meg’s body, is a long time servant of the devil, who reappears for a confrontation about Fenton’s soul. The devil is defeated a bit too easily on a technicality I’d never heard of, and history does change, although ever so slightly. Some of the more interesting parts of the novel are the commentaries on sword fighting. Fenton’s familiarity with modern fencing provides him with tricks and techniques unfamiliar to the relatively unsophisticated enemies he faces, and Carr does a good job of explaining why and how. All in all, a quite good historical adventure, if a somewhat tepid mystery and fantasy.
Henry Merrivale goes to Tangiers in Behind the Crimson Blind (1952), hoping to go incognito although naturally that fails immediately. An American tourist named Maureen Holmes agrees to pose as his secretary. He is met there by Paula Bentley, whose husband works in the British embassy, and Commandant Alvarez, who conveys him to the local police commissioner. It seems that aboard their flight was a master thief so clever that no one has ever been able to arrest him. Merrivale helps set up a trap to capture him, but the thief – known as Iron Chest because he carries one with him – avoids capture by Bill Bentley and the local police. Alvarez fails to report to duty and is later discovered drunk in his room. The thief has made another miraculous escape, this time firing three rounds from short range, none of which struck their targets.
Coincidentally, Paula Bentley is apartment hunting and in a rather implausible scenario surprises the thief’s accomplice, a diamond cutter, at his work. The police search a few minutes later and the evidence has mysteriously disappeared. Also through coincidence and even less plausibly, Maureen Holmes also comes to look at the apartment. The apartment is fitted with crimson blinds, hence the title. Through gross incompetence, the police allow the accomplice, Collier, to leave even though there is some suspicion that he may also be Iron Chest himself. There’s some byplay involving romantic entanglements and departmental rivalries that aren’t really relevant to the story, and which are awkwardly done. Some local color is provided, much more skillfully, while Merrivale recedes into the background for several chapters.
Merrivale returns for the obligatory farcical encounter, which goes on for much too long without contributing anything to the narrative. Efforts are made to recapture Collier, but the details are almost comically inept. Eventually they decide to use Paula as bait, since Collier has vowed to kill her for reasons which are patently absurd. There is also a very long account of a fist fight that verges on parody, unintentionally. This is one of the least interesting of Carr’s novels. In addition to the usual inanities involving Merrivale, several of the other characters are similarly exaggerated and unbelievable. Except for the secret of the disappearing jewels, there isn’t even much of a mystery and the action sequences are brief and unrewarding. The efforts to add strong elements of adventure are largely misbegotten and fail miserably. There are also several cheats – withheld information and unreliable accounts being the most obvious and including a flaw in the passport that we weren’t told about, the absence of the real criminal from his job, the use of a double, erroneous testimony from witnesses, and so forth. Merrivale also helps the criminal escape because he likes him and because he only robbed from businesses, not individuals.
The Nine Wrong Answers (1952) is a standalone with none of Carr’s recurring detectives. It also makes extensive use of direct addressing of the audience in the form of footnotes. On nine occasions – hence the title – Carr suggests that the reader may have formed an opinion based on what is taking place. In each case, he refutes that possibility. Bill Dawson is a down on his luck expatriate Englishman living in the US when he by chance crosses paths with Larry Hurst and Joy Tennent. Larry is being offered a large inheritance if he returns to England and pays regular visits to his uncle, Gaylord Hurst. Larry is terrified of his uncle, who tormented him as a child, and he offers to pay Dawson to impersonate him for a few months, to find out if Gaylord contemplates murder. Dawson is desperate enough to agree to the plan although Joy thinks it is a horrible idea. They exchange passports and other paperwork and are working out the details in a bar when Larry dies suddenly, apparently after being poisoned. There is evidence suggesting that Gaylord may have been in the bar at the fatal time.
Dawson is determined to avenge Hurst’s death and decides to continue with the original plan, at least partially. Joy disappears, and he has a lingering suspicion that she was involved in the murder, although there seems to be no way that she could have accomplished it. He is also bothered by the fact that he and Hurst switched drinks, which suggests that it was possibly Dawson who was the original target. He manages to evade the authorities and boards a plane for England.
Then comes one of Carr’s most improbable coincidences of all time. Dawson’s ex-fiance just happens to be aboard the same plane. She just happens to know Larry Hurst and Joy Tennent. They reconcile and he talks her into impersonating Tennent, convinced that she would be in no danger. She accepts readily enough, just happy to be back with him. All of the playing pieces are now in place for the main plot to begin. Carr then reverses direction during the initial meeting between Dawson and Hurst. Although Hurst apparently does not know that his nephew is dead, he does know Dawson’s real identity. He and his mysterious servant Hatto engage in a grueling duel of wills, during which the real Joy Tennent shows up, just in time to complicate matters further. There is also a Scotland Yard inspector watching Dawson, who appears to have no connection to Hurst. Hurst, a thoroughly horrible person, offers Dawson a proposition. They will meet once a week for three months, during which time Hurst will at one point attempt to murder him, in exchange for secrecy about the impersonation. Dawson accepts.
There are a few good moments during the duel of wits that follows, but it’s foreshortened and never really convincing. The final revelation – that Larry Hurst is not dead, that he has been impersonating his uncle in order to frame Dawson for the death – is built on a framework of wild coincidences and implausible actions that really doesn’t support the story. Carr is able to get away with this sort of thing in a more conventional mystery because we know that the story is a puzzle and that it has been contrived to fool us, but in a more straightforward adventure story such as this, the reader has a right to expect that things will function more or less as they do in the real world. Although I applaud the effort to broaden his scope – and his historical novels do just that – this one is nearly as complete a failure as was Behind the Crimson Blind.
Merrivale returns in The Cavalier’s Cup (1953). Virginia Brace requests the aid of Scotland Yard, and indirectly Henry Merrivale, when an item is moved – though not stolen – in a locked room , which had greatly disturbed her husband. The object in question is the Cavalier’s Cup, a goblet decorated with precious gems, which would have been easy to dispose of by a crook but which was left despite obviously having been moved. The room is described but only after the mandatory absurd Merrivale side story, in this case his decision to become a singer. The early chapters are also slowed considerably by Carr’s acerbic description of the Labor Party as stuffed shirts and intellectuals out of touch with reality. Unfortunately, the comic relief goes on, and on, and on, consuming most of the first half of the novel, and intermittently thereafter. There is in fact very little story.
Inspector Matthews spends a night in the locked room and the cup is moved again, but someone also knocks him unconscious and moves other items as well. Outside of Tom and Virginia Brace, their eight year old son and Virginia’s father, there appears to be no one suspicious, with the exception of Jennings, their missing butler, whom Masters believes to be a notorious forger. One other character is Miss Cheeseham, who functions as the butt of Carr’s and Merrivale’s political jokes and as romantic interest for Virginia’s father. The awkward comedy continues through the end where we discover the solution to the mystery, removal of one of the panes of the window, and the culprit, Virginia’s father, in a totally unconvincing mix of bad motivation, unlikely events, and confused ethics. This was another new low for Carr, a thoroughgoing mess of a novel.
Carr’s productivity declined dramatically during the 1950s, and many of his later – and better – novels were historical rather than contemporary mysteries. His next book was the excellent Captain Cut-Throat (1955), set during the Napoleonic Wars. The French army is troubled by seemingly impossible assassinations of soldiers on duty by the title character. The Minister of Police coerces a captured English spy, Alan Hepburn, and his wife to investigate and solve the murders. The couple had previously separated because Alan suspected his French born wife of having mixed allegiances, and she is incorrectly assumed to be his associate when he is captured. Complicating matters is a femme de fatale who is obsessed with Hepburn, and a mercenary soldier named Schneider who declares himself mortally offended by Hepburn’s manner.
En route to the army encampment where the murders have taken place, Hepburn expounds upon his theory of how the knifings were done – they were actually sword thrusts with a darkened blade, names the man he considers responsible – our friend Schneider, and provides the motive – Schneider is working for the secretive Olympians, a group which hopes to overthrow Napoleon and re-establish the republic. They travel to the military encampment, where each pursues his or her own agenda. Hepburn has realized that the supposedly imminent invasion of England is a feint, that Napoleon plans instead to attack Austria, and now has to find a way to save his wife and get the intelligence to England.
Hepburn and his wife evade their captors and he attempts to transmit his information using hand signals to a British ship that is patrolling off the French coast. Although he manages to relay the message, the ship sinks and the information is lost. The story is resolved with our heroes being allowed to escape after manipulating the minister of police and Napoleon himself, the latter of whom is actually the man directing Schneider in the murders in order to eliminate certain spies of the Olympians within the army. The ending is a bit contrived but this is still one of Carr’s best novels.
The egotistic lawyer Patrick Butler returns to solve his own case in Patrick Butler for the Defense (1956). A fellow lawyer, Hugh Prentice, receives a visitor who identifies himself as Abu of Ispahan shortly after his fiancé, Helen, makes a joke about a character named Omar of Ispahan. Abu insists that his brother will be murdered unless Hugh helps, and that the problem has been caused by Hugh’s gloves. There is a bit of a language problem, and Hugh is overdue for an appointment, so the interview is cut short before he learns all the facts. Moments later while he and his partner, James Vaughn, are watching the only entrance to the room Abu (who turns out to be Omar, a stage magician) is stabbed to death. An unlikely series of events and stupid actions by both men make them prime suspects and both go into hiding.
More connections emerge. The senior partner in the firm, Hugh’s uncle Charles, visits the presumed widow of Omar in her dressing room that night. Hugh, along with Butler, Helen, and Butler’s girlfriend Pamela, investigate when they see a sign advertising historically significant antiquities for sale. Pamela’s father is Father Bill, a shady aristocrat whose thugs attack but are soundly defeated by Butler and Prentice. The foursome then takes rooms in a hotel near the theater where Omar’s act has now been replaced by that of Madame Feyoum, his widow.
Although there is a murder in a locked room, most of the first half of the novel is more adventurous than most of Carr’s earlier work. In addition to the encounter with the thugs, there’s a perilous journey across a window ledge and fire escape to avoid the police and an escape from a police museum. There are few clues to go on in the solution of the crime except that one of the incidental characters is a knife thrower, and the presence of Uncle Charles and the antique gloves suggests that Abu/Omar might have mistaken one Prentice for the other.
Prentice ends up spending the night in the bedroom of Lord Saxemund (Father Bill) when he brings Pamela home in a drunken stupor. Violence is averted when Pamela announces that she’s in love with Prentice, a sentiment which he returns. As frequently happens in Carr novels, love can be transferred from one person to another at the drop of a hat. Butler resolves the mystery, although it is obvious from early on that the senior Prentice is guilty, at least of the defrauding of the late Abu. Nor is the solution to the locked room particularly clever; I had pretty much figured it out during the opening chapters and knew who the real killer was even before that. Not a great mystery as such, but still one of Carr’s more entertaining books.
Fear Is the Same (1956) is another time travel mystery. Jennifer Baird and Philip Clavering were lovers in the 20th Century and now find themselves back in 1795 in similar but not identical bodies. Philip is married to the unappealing though attractive Chloris, and Jennifer is the not quite socially acceptable relative of Lady Oldham, visiting London temporarily. She, however, is engaged to be married to the son of a highly respected soldier, who is flirting with Philip’s wife. Philip discovers that he is supposed to be terminally ill and completely spineless, unwilling to assert his own rights as Chloris’ husband. Incensed, he shocks everyone by assaulting the soldier, Colonel Thornton, snubbing his wife, and announcing that he would terminate their marriage in favor of Jennifer.
Philip is less than judicious, offending the Prince of Wales and being forced into a battle with a prize fighter, which he wins easily using techniques unknown in the 18th Century. Jennifer then remembers that he was a boxer back in their original time, and that he was accused of murder. That event is also mirrored in the past when Molly, Chloris’ maid, is found murdered while she was standing in for her mistress. Since Philip has made threats which sound incriminating, it is immediately assumed that he killed her thinking she was his wife. Together with Jennifer, he goes on the run, determined to prove his innocence.
Eventually he does so, naming his wife as the killer. Unfortunately, his evidence is destroyed and his witnesses are killed in an accident. Carr cheats us out of the end of that story by having them returned to the 20th Century while in mid-flight, where the same solution resolves the murder then. It’s technically a locked room mystery as well, but the room isn’t very locked and the solution is pretty routine. This one’s pretty good, but doesn’t measure up to his other historical mysteries, although structurally and in tone, it’s very much like The Devil in Velvet. The motivations of the characters aren’t always completely plausible. Philip is repeatedly seduced by the wife he despises with remarkable ease on more than one occasion, solely to cause conflict between the other characters. Jennifer has so many bouts of hysterics that I really disliked her by the end of the book.
Fire, Burn (1957) is also a time travel mystery, potentially one of the best since it is set during the early days of Scotland Yard and provides an interesting contrast with modern methods. Jack Cheviot steps into a cab and steps out into 1829 London, where he finds himself involved romantically with a widow just as he applies for a job as one of the Yard’s first detectives. As a test, he is sent to the house of Lady Cork, who has been plagued by a thief who steals only birdseed, and who is accompanied by the mildly mysterious and possibly sinister Margaret Renfrew. He also manages to offend a young soldier of dubious honor named Hogben. Flora, his confused lover, warns him that Hogben will seek revenge for the slight.
The bird seed, we learn, was used to hide jewels, which are also missing, although it appears that Lady Cork suspects which member of her household is responsible. Then Renfrew is fatally wounded, shot in the back, in front of Cheviot, a man named Henley, and Flora. Flora is apparently holding the murder weapon when Cheviot approaches her, although it appears impossible for her to have fired the shot and, of course the reader knows she isn’t responsible. Later we learn that the weapon had been fired prior to the murder, that Flora had claimed it because Renfrew borrowed it from her some days earlier.
Cheviot believes that the killer was Renfrew’s secret lover, but he cannot figure how the murder weapon was fired from behind his back at the closed end of a passageway. He is also hampered by the fact that the upper class was under no legal obligation to cooperate with the police, and in fact considered them contemptible, while the lower class considered them to be spies. The familiar formula is repeated as Cheviot is compelled to fight a duel after outwitting a master criminal, exposing a gambling fraud, and solving the crime – although we don’t learn the solution until the very end. The solution surprised me but largely because of the cheat of Withheld Information, technical in this case since I had no idea that the air gun had been perfected this early. Carr does provide a hint by mentioning puffs of air used to rig a roulette wheel. Cheviot is “killed” but returns to the present where he refuses to believe it was all a dream. This is the best of Carr’s time travel novels.
Gideon Fell returns in The Dead Man’s Knock (1958), which is set in Virginia rather than England. Brenda Ruthven is no longer in love with her husband Mark, and has become romantically involved with Frank Chadwick. Mark in turn has been pretending to dally with Rose Lestrange, a woman of uncertain reputation. The Ruthvens are mutually the friend of Caroline Kent, who is engaged to marry Toby Saunders. The setting is a college community and the immediate cause of concern is a series of practical jokes that seem to suggest a murder is going to be committed. Someone has been painting copies of a prominent statue inside the buildings and on one occasion dropped a heavy object that almost killed a man, and a second attack is even more serious. The school, abhorring scandal, asks Samuel Kent – Caroline’s father – to lead an investigation. And naturally Dr. Gideon Fell is about to pay a visit to the Ruthvens.
Brenda finds that she can’t go through with the affair but, as is the case with most of Carr’s female characters, she takes offense easily, refuses to believe that her husband has been faithful, and acts generally irrationally. The male characters are generally only slightly more sensible. Toby suspects that Rose is behind the pranks, but that theory is destroyed when she is found murdered, stabbed through the heart in a locked room to suggest suicide. More puzzles arise. Why did Samuel Kent, Toby Saunders, and Judith Walker, a widow, all show up at the dead woman’s house first thing in the morning? Who called Mark Ruthven and told him anonymously that something had happened at the cottage? Why was the book he loaned the dead woman replaced during the night with another volume from his personal library? And where has Brenda gone after storming out of the house convinced her husband was having an affair with Lestrange?
The title refers to a supposed locked room mystery that Wilkie Collins had planned to write, and the locked room in this case appears to use the same trick Collins had devised. Collins, incidentally, will show up later in one of Carr’s final novels. The characters exchange a great deal of information before calling the police, and we discover that Lestrange was having an affair, although no one appears to know the man’s name. This isn’t surprising since ultimately we discover that she had no interest in men but was in fact engaged in blackmail, which provided the motive for her murder.
Fell unravels things reasonably well, although the solution to the locked room is fairly simple, and I actually did figure out the only person who could have arranged it. Carr fooled me, however, because this was not the same person who committed the crime or even a confederate, but rather a good intentioned Toby who believed he was protecting Brenda. Oddly, Carr never mentions the most telling clue, that Toby was one of the few people who recognized the significance of the book and therefore replaced it – the original was splattered with blood – thereby suggesting that the body had been moved. Although this is one of Carr’s better novels, I was put off again by the conspiracy at the end in which Fell and the police suppress the evidence against the real murderer – Caroline Kent – because she was “justified” in murdering the blackmailer. This is particularly outrageous in this case because her secret was that she was the prankster who nearly killed two people.
Scandal at High Chimneys (1959) is another historical, but without time travel, set in the mid-Victorian period. The protagonist is Clive Strickland, a writer and acquaintance of the Damon family. The family consists of Matthew Damon, his second wife Georgette, an ex-actress, and three children. Kate and Celia and their brother Victor are all adults but unmarried. Victor attempts to convince Strickland to represent a noble named Tressider who appears to be interested in marrying Celia, although neither she nor the rest of the family are aware of this. Strickland considers Tressider a scoundrel and dismisses the whole matter as in bad taste, but he is intrigued by a recent painting of Kate.
By chance he encounters Matthew and Georgette on a train. They relate to him a mysterious figure who appeared in their house the previous evening, frightening a guest named Penelope Burbage. She believes she was nearly attacked by a man, but other than Matthew and the servants, the only male in the locked house is another guest, Dr. Thompson Bland. They are horrified out of proportion when they hear of Tressider’s interest in their daughter. Strickland is also aware of the fact that some vague oddity hovers over Matthew and has throughout his career, possibly connected to rumors that he was improperly involved with some young women whom he helped convict of a crime.
Damon then tells Strickland that years earlier he adopted the child of a convicted murderess and believes the child inherited the evil traits of the mother, but before he can identify which child it is, someone fatally wounds him in Strickland’s presence and escapes without being identified. The only other person who knows which child is the one in question – according to Damon anyway – is apparently the nurse, now housekeeper. Before he can say more, he is shot and Strickland is briefly locked in the study. When he emerges, he tries to ascertain where everyone was at the time.
The servants were all together, except for the housekeeper and Penelope, who went to their rooms. Celia and Kate were together upstairs, and Mrs. Damon had left the house some time previously. Victor had not yet returned home. This seems to leave us with very few suspects. We also have some hints of other motives. Celia hates her stepmother, who has apparently been having an affair with Tressider. Strickland suspects Penelope of lying and also believes that the reason he was allowed a glimpse of the killer was so that he would remark on the man’s clothing, which actually concealed a woman. Victor seems oddly unaffected by the death of his father. And Strickland appears to be a prime suspect.
Strickland avoids the police and goes to London to interview the private detective employed by Damon. While there, he encounters Georgette by chance just as she is hiding a set of men’s clothing, although these could not be the same ones worn by the killer. She appears unaware of the fact that her husband is dead and has been hiding the clothing which was planted in Kate’s room to implicate her. We also learn that the housekeeper is the sister of the murderess. The perceptive reader will recall that Kate mentioned earlier that Victor was always her favorite. This, coupled with the very obvious avoidance of anything indicating the sex of the child, suggests that Victor is the murderer, perhaps with the assistance of his aunt, the housekeeper, who could have let him into the locked house.
There is a good deal of creeping around in the dark, and conversations during which people refuse to reveal everything they know. Georgette Damon is found strangled and Strickland and Kate become fugitives. A private detective insists that he knows the identity of the murderer, but won’t reveal the name yet, and he also believes that Kate also knows the truth, but she won’t talk either. This is all dramatically effective but gets pretty infuriating after a while. The closing chapters attempt to throw a few red herrings into the mix, but they don’t accomplish much and the solution is almost painfully obvious, although the story itself is not badly done.
In Spite of Thunder (1960) moves to Switzerland. Brian Innes, the protagonist, is asked by her father to intervene in the friendship between Audrey Page and Eve Ferrier, the latter a famous actress and former Nazi sympathizer whose fiancé died of an apparent accident while the two of them were visiting Adolf Hitler prior to the war. Ferrier has also invited Gerald Hathaway and Paula Catford, who were present at the death of her fiancé, ostensibly to convince them to support her innocence. She is now married to Desmond Ferrier, whose son Philip is interested in Audrey. Hathaway, who considers himself an amateur criminologist, believes that Eve is a killer and that the meeting has some hidden, sinister motive. The tension is ratcheted up quickly. Eve Ferrier seems disturbed and provides further evidence that she was not responsible for the death, a rumor she wants cleared up. Her husband, Desmond, hints that she is trying to poison him and a bottle of perfume in her purse turns out to contain sulfuric acid. Hathaway is determined to prove that she did murder the man long ago, and tells her his intentions, while Paula insists that she was watching and that she was nowhere near the man when he fell to his death.
The party convenes and Eve accuses Audrey of having an affair with her husband. During the argument, she falls to her death in the same way as did the man many years earlier. Innes, determined to protect Audrey, makes her leave and misleads the police into believing she wasn’t present at the fatal moment. Gideon Fell cooperates with this series of lies. The situation is greatly contrived by the idiotic actions of Audrey in particular, and the set up this time is not even remotely credible. She repeatedly breaks promises, disobeys instructions, and violates confidences, and she’s supposed to be the “good” girl. The mystery itself is well done, but the plotting in this one is atrocious. Even the solution involves a couple of small cheats, an Unreliable Witness – Hathaway lies for no obvious reason, and withheld information, facts about Eve’s former marriages that might have pointed to her current affair.
The Witch of the Low Tide (1961) is an Edwardian mystery that has some of the trappings but none of the energy of Carr’s early novels. The protagonist and default detective is Dr. David Garth, who is romantically interested in Betty Calder, believing her to be a complete innocent despite a report by the irascible Inspector Twigg that she is guilty of blackmail and prostitution and caused one of her victims to commit suicide. This is explained about mid-way through as the work of her sinister sister, who can pass for her when they are dressed similarly. Garth is also friends of Vince and Marion Bostwick, although for reasons never adequately explained, he doesn’t wish them to know Betty or vice versa.
Other characters include Garth’s clerk, Fielding, who is apparently also involved with the sister, Glynis, and Garth’s nephew, another reprobate who reportedly is not involved with Glyis. Marion Bostwick’s one time nanny, Aunt Blanche, is assaulted early on by Marion, although we are originally led to believe it was Betty and then Glynis who is responsible. Marion’s guardian, Colonel Selby, also seems disturbed. This entire sequence rings false because not only because the police never bother to question the victim, but because Marion makes up a locked room mystery in her effort to blame Glynis, which is totally unnecessary and only makes her story sound even more fake than it is. Glynis is then murdered on a beach, and the only tracks leading to her body are those Betty admits having made, and those we know that Garth made. This therefore appears to be an impossible crime.
The story meanders for about a third of its length with various encounters among the characters. The conversations are unfocused and boring, don’t advance the story in any material way, and the motivations of the characters are self contradictory when they are explained, which they usually aren’t. By the time we reach the summing up, all of the tension has been dissipated and I was just glad to be getting it over with. The resolution is trite and not entirely plausible, and relies on an Unreliable Narrator – we discover that Garth has been lying about what he found and saw. Not a successful book at all.
The 18th Century is the setting for The Demoniacs (1962). Jeffrey Wynne has just succeeded in bringing home to England a young woman named Margaret Ralston, ward of her uncle, Sir Mortimer. Although they are in love, neither will admit to it. Margaret ran off to France to spite her uncle and his cruel mistress, Lavinia. There is some mystery involved suggesting that Lavinia is blackmailing Sir Mortimer, and Wynne also appears to be involved in something he does not want made public. She promptly runs away again, this time to look into Wynne’s affairs. This has most of the less appealing aspects of Carr’s historical mysteries with fewer of the good ones. Once again the hero is opposed by a rogue with a reputation as a mankiller. There’s a nefarious woman and a younger one who is feisty but needs to be protected despite herself. The plot advances in part because the characters often act not only irrationally but illogically, refusing to speak when it is in their obvious interests to do so, remaining silent for patently artificial reasons. Most disappointing of all is that Carr fails to bring the historical period to life as well as he did in previous books, despite appended notes about the authenticity of the details.
An elderly man is being blackmailed by his mistress, who in turn must conceal the fact that she is married to another. The heroine is in danger of being imprisoned as a prostitute, and she and Wynne love one another but refuse to have an actual conversation. There is murder, of course, but a not very clever one, followed by others blamed on a mysterious club which might have taken up murder as a hobby, an interesting device which Carr does little to utilize. Although not as disastrous as The Cavalier’s Cup, this one is barely readable.
Most Secret (1954) is a revised version of Devil Kinsmere, which Carr had published under a pseudonym in 1934. It is not a memorable work, dealing primarily with the youthful adventures of Roderick Kinsmere, as retold by his grandson, during the 17th Century. Kinsmere is a rogue who uses his sword with wild abandon when caught up in royal politics and international intrigue. There’s a bit of mystery involved, but not an engaging one. As always, Carr fills the story with interesting background information about the time and place where it is set, but the results are still awkward and surprisingly flat given the highly adventurous plot.
Gideon Fell returns in The House at Satan’s Elbow (1965). Garret Anderson renews an old acquaintance with Nick Barclay, son of a wealthy businessman now deceased, who has unexpectedly been bequeathed an estate by his grandfather, who was estranged from his father. Nick wants nothing to do with the estate and wants it transferred to his surviving aunt and uncle, but he also wants an explanation for a number of strange incidents at the family home, which appear to indicate someone is pretending that the dead have risen. He recruits Garret’s help in the matter. Garret had met a young woman who called herself Fay Wardon, to whom he became greatly attached a year earlier, but she harbors some dark secret she won’t reveal and subsequently disappeared. Anyone familiar with the use of coincidence in Carr’s fiction will know that she is involved with the mysterious goings on at Satan’s Elbow.
Action shifts to that locale and we get introduced to the other characters. Andrew Dawlish is the family lawyer. Pennington Barclay is Nick’s possibly suicidal uncle, who was originally believed to have inherited the estate. Estelle Barclay is his spinster sister, who doted on her father despite his being a bit of a tyrant and more than a bit of a chauvinist, and Deirdre is his wife. It appears that Pennington is more than mildly paranoid and does not believe that Nick is planning to turn over the estate. On the other hand, it also appears that Nick is concealing secret knowledge about things happening at the house. Then, predictably, Garret discovers that Fay is serving as Pennington’s secretary under an assumed name, which she refuses to explain.
Just as the party arrives at Satan’s Elbow, a shot is fired. Pennington insists that a shadowy figure fired a blank pistol at him, then departed through a sliding window which is found locked on the inside. He is partially substantiated by a house guest, Dr. Fortescue, who saw the robed figure walking outside the house, but his sister Estelle insists he is making the entire incident up. She also accuses him of being in love with his secretary, Fay Wardour, as she is known here.
The wise reader will be instantly suspicious when we learn that Estelle can mimic anyone’s handwriting, since she’s the one who found the controversial will that pre-empted the one leaving everything to Pennington, whom she clearly hates. She also “finds” another cache of papers from their father which she turns over to the lawyer. Gideon Fell arrives, having been invited by Pennington, who is almost immediately found shot at close range in a locked room, with every appearance of having fired the weapon himself since it is right beside him. Fortunately, the wound is serious but not fatal, and in fact no one is actually murdered during the course of the novel.
Although this is in many ways a return to Carr’s classic form – a locked room solved by Gideon Fell – the novel suffers from too many liars. Virtually every character is lying at one point or another. The first shooting incident never happened at all even though two people – independently – claimed to have witnessed it. The sister forged the will. Nick has been secretly having an affair with Deirdre for years. Fay lies about her past and Deirdre conceals both her affair and her knowledge about Fay, which she has also conveyed to the lawyer, Dawlish. The narrator is reliable only technically, since he is the one who repeats the various lies, and the solution comes out of nowhere – Dawlish secretly and rather stupidly believes that Deirdre would marry him if Pennington was out of the picture.
Fell travels to America in Panic in Box C (1966). Fell and his friend Knox are en route to the United States on a ship that also carries Margery Vane, widow of a British nobleman. Knox grew up in a small town in New York in which Fell is interested because of the founding there some years past of a repertory company led by an Englishman, Adam Cayley. Cayley was also Margery Vane’s first husband until he died of a heart attack on stage. Vane is accompanied on the trip by Elizabeth Harkness, her friend, and Larry Porter, her secretary. Meanwhile, back in New York the old theater group has been reformed under Barry Plunkett and Anne Winfield. One other potential player in the game is John Fosdick, an actor Vane fired when she was young who has subsequently disappeared. And as a side issue, Knox has not seen his own wife for twenty years, when she left him and went to the United States.
Vane is not a nice person and, shortly after seeing – or dreaming – that the dead Adam Cayley appeared on deck, someone fires a revolver in her general direction, although since all of the named characters aboard are present, it also may have been arranged by some artifice. Once they reach the US, we get introduced to a bunch of new characters including Judson and Connie Lafarge, connected to the new theater group, and Willie, a drunk who knows a secret way into the theater. The cast of the play, for reasons never explained, are equipped with genuine working crossbows with real live ammunition. Almost equally inexplicable is the interaction between Knox and his wife, who has turned up coincidentally. Like many Carr characters, they refuse to make simple statements that would clear up misunderstandings and their emotional lives are caricatures of reality. There is an unusually strong misogynistic strain this time as well.
More plot threads emerge. A crossbow disappears from the theater. Judy Knox is obviously and mysteriously terrified by Margery Vane, particularly after a brief meeting alone with her. Vane has asked the police to arrest Larry Porter for theft, although he apparently has disappeared. Vane is murdered, predictably, by a crossbow bolt, and the missing jewels are found nearby. Porter turns out to be from a wealthy family with no reason to have stolen them, and he claims that Vane concealed them herself.
Not surprisingly, Vane is murdered while watching the dress rehearsal, killed by a crossbow bolt while sitting in a locked private box. I suspected early on that it wasn’t actually fired at her, just used like a knife, but I didn’t guess the killer’s identity because the device by which she avoids surveillance at the time is too far fetched for me to accept. There are also a host of other coincidences, which are okay, but a couple of cheats – one significant, one not. The reason Knox’s wife conceals her earlier contact with Vane is trivial and immaterial. That’s minor. Another character who appears to have witnessed part of the crime makes the entire story up for no good reason at all, which makes analysis of the whole situation impossible. This one’s pretty good up until the final revelations.
Dark of the Moon (1967) was the last Gideon Fell novel. Fell and Alan Grantham have been invited to a party in Charleston, South Carolina. Their host is Henry Maynard, one of whose ancestors was mysteriously killed just after the Civil War in an “impossible crime”. Grantham provides the prime viewpoint character again, and Carr uses his status as a college professor to give voice to his dislike of literary figures like Marcel Proust and James Joyce, a kind of reverse snobbery. Maynard is a mathematician living in his late brother’s house with his daughter, Madge. Madge is being wooed, secretly and openly, by others including Yancey Beale and Rip Hillboro, both lawyers. Their other guests include Camilla Bruce, who is in love with Grantham, Robert Crandall, Dr. Mark Sheldon, and Valerie Huret, the last of whom has her eye on Maynard. Maynard lets slip that he needs to consult Fell on a serious but unrevealed matter concerning his daughter. She in turn is concerned that her father has become obsessed with the mysterious death in 1867, a man bludgeoned to death on an unmarked patch of beach sand.
One night, Camilla sees a mysterious figure in the house, who cannot be found when a search is conducted. The following morning, however, they discover that the scarecrow has been stolen from the garden. Shortly thereafter, Henry seems upset about someone who may have looked at some private papers, then insists that it is of no consequence. He consults Fell – in a discussion part of which the reader does not witness – about his daughter’s future, and suggests that there may be a mysterious, third, unknown suitor. There are additional reporters of a skulker and then an antique tomahawk is stolen from its display.
Carr lets drop hints which may or may not be relevant. Great care is taken to make sure that we know that Dr. Sheldon brought his medical bag into the house, even though he would ordinarily have left it in his car. We also discover that Crandall, despite his advanced age, was able to climb up the exterior of the house without a ladder, all the way to the roof, suggesting his fitness and the house’s vulnerability. Eventually, and to no perspicacious reader’s surprise, Henry Maynard is found dead, his head bashed in, in the middle of an area that bears only his own footprints, almost exactly the method that claimed two of his ancestors. There is also an anonymous call to the police about the theft of the tomahawk and a taunting message scrawled in the house, presumably by the same person.
Carr teases us a bit by having Fell announce that no woman was guilty as the killer or accessory, although one or more may be “involved” in some unspecified fashion. There’s a cryptic reference to “string” (which is a red herring soon disposed of) and Helen Maynard is found searching for hidden documents only hours after the murder. There are some nice surprises at the end of this one, but there is so much withheld information, and a touch of unreliable narrator as well, that the already rather implausible solution seems even more so.
All of Carr’s remaining novels were historical mysteries, the first of which is Papa La-Bas (1968) set in New Orleans in 1858. Richard McCrae is the British consul in New Orleans. He has been bothered recently by a sense that someone is following him, spying on his activities, although he can think of no reason why this would be the case. He is a friend of Isabelle de Sancerre, a prominent Creole woman who wants her headstrong daughter Margot to finally commit herself to marrying Tom Clayton, but her daughter is balking. In fact, Margot has apparently become obsessed with a years old scandal about a woman who may have mistreated her slaves, and stories about the Voodoo Queen.
Their discussion is joined by Judah Benjamin, a senator and lawyer, and Jack Dowser, a common sailor who warns them against voodoo. They are then interrupted when a mysterious figure disrupts their conversation and leaves without being identified. Young Harry Ludlow arrives from England to take a position as McCrae’s assistant, after a mildly mysterious encounter on a riverboat. McCrae is also infatuated with yet another mysterious character, a woman he met by chance on two occasions and whose name he doesn’t know. Then Margot disappears and a prominent judge dies, apparently of a heart attack, but the reader knows better even though it is apparently an impossible crime.
There are impersonations, alarms and excursions, and a great deal of talking, sometimes repetitive. The voodoo elements are peripheral and not much time is spent on them. The solution is less than brilliant, depending upon a man in his thirties successfully impersonating another more than ten years his junior, even in the presence of people who knew the original man as a child, and even though one is British and the other American. Some of the historical detail is interesting, but some of it is also rather intrusive. A lesser novel with some structural problems.
The Ghosts’ High Noon (1969) is also set in New Orleans, this time in 1912. Author and journalist James Blake is sent there to look into rumors of coercion in an election campaign. Before he is able to leave town, he has a mysterious encounter with Jill Matthews and, in typical Carr fashion, falls in love on the spot, even though she disappears, insisting she is returning homeright away. The politician he’s concerned with is Clay Blake, no relation, who has the backing of young newspaperman Alec Baird and playboy Leo Shepley, an old friend of James Blake. In another incredible coincidence, both Blakes, Shepley, and Matthews all end up on the same train to New Orleans, each acting independently.
Shepley and others confide to James Blake that Clay is under some kind of extortionary pressure to drop out of the senate race. He is romantically linked to Yvonne Brissard, a noted courtesan, but this is not considered to be a problem. He may have been unfairly linked to Flossie Yates, a madam who specializes in underaged girls. Although no specific enemy is specified, Happy Chadwick is the man Clay defeated in the primary. Clay also had a public argument with Peter Baird – a sort of wastrel brother – although both men claim it has been forgotten. Meanwhile, Jill continues to be mysterious and disappears a second time for no apparent reason. We also learn that Baird’s newspaper office has been receiving unsettling anonymous calls, but we don’t know what they’re about.
A complex and not entirely plausible series of events including a faked phone call lead most of the characters to witness the death of Shepley, who apparently has shot himself just before crashing his car. Except that the weapon is nowhere to be seen. Clay Blake then confirms that someone is trying to force him out of the election by threatening to produce evidence that he has had sex with underaged girls. A very large chunk of the novel then consists of the unraveling of Jill Matthews ‘ secret, which is that she is the sister of the British actress who is impersonating Brissard in order to get some privacy while writing a book. How impersonating a famous courtesan would accomplish this is never adequately explained and in any case it’s peripheral to the story and takes up a disproportionate amount of space. Although not as badly written as The Cavalier’s Cup, it is similarly unfocused. The solution isn’t even particularly impressive.
The final New Orleans novel was Deadly Hall (1971), set in 1927. It opens with the same artifice as the previous book, several of the characters independently taking the same method of traveling to New Orleans, in this case on a riverboat. They include Jeff Caldwell, the protagonist, a novelist summoned by a mysterious note from a lawyer, Ira Rutledge, after the father of two of his friends dies of natural causes. The friends are Dave and Serena Hobart, who are planning to sell the family mansion even though there is reportedly a great store of gold concealed somewhere on the premises. Serena, who has been acting mysteriously of late, is accompanied by Charles Saylor, who is interested in writing about the family estate. They also meet the widow, Kate Keith, who may have her eyes on Dave. There is also reference to Penny Lynn, with whom Caldwell is in love although he hasn’t seen her in years, and Gil Bethune, Caldwell’s relative and a prominent politician. There is also an odd character named Minnoch on the boat who seems unusually interested in the Hobarts and whom we eventually learn is a police officer.
Dave Hobart tells Jeff that he is concerned about his sister, and suggests there may be some significance to the death of Thad Peters, a family acquaintance who fell down a staircase at the mansion in the middle of the night while on some unexplained errand of his own, even though this incident happened when he and his sister were both children, and away from home at the time. Hobart is also traveling under an assumed identity, for reasons which don’t appear to make any sense.
Caldwell subsequently learns that under one provision of the will, if both Hobarts die before the end of October of that year, he and the son of an old friend of the family split the estate. He also hears intimations that the estate is greatly depleted, which explains Dave Hobart’s interest in the cache of gold supposedly hidden in the house. There is also a businessman intent upon purchasing the estate, rumors that someone has asked the Peters case to be reopened, a mysterious message asking Caldwell to visit a cigar shop in New Orleans, and the theft of an old journal that may have contained clues about the gold’s location. An expert on hidden rooms also arrives and is promptly vamped by Kate Keith. There are also suggestions that Serena has a secret lover.
It was obvious to me that the other residual heir, son of a family friend who has never been seen by any of the other characters, was behind the killings, probably impersonating someone else. This narrowed the choices to the expert on hidden rooms or Saylor, and Saylor seemed too obvious so I correctly guessed the truth. Serena is murdered, apparently thrown from the window of a locked room, and Dave is assaulted in another supposedly impossible situation, although in his case I spotted the solution immediately. Everyone has an alibi for Serena’s death, which suggested some kind of mechanism, which proved to be the case, a convoluted one in which a person walking a ledge outside a window is given a brief electric shock that breaks their grip. It would work, but we never have a satisfactory explanation of why Serena was ledge walking in the middle of the night.
There are other annoying aspects to the solution. An apparent assault on Caldwell is dismissed as a momentary and nonsensical impulse by the killer. He learned of the existence of the electric device from the deceased father, who not only would have had no reason to describe it to what he thought was a perfect stranger, but who had no reason to have it built in the first place. The story itself is quite readable, but the closing chapters are very disappointing.
Carr’s final novel was The Hungry Goblin (1972). Kit Farrell has just returned to England in 1869 after almost a decade in the United States. There he is reunited with an old friend, Nigel Seagrave, and meets Nigel’s wife Muriel for the first time. He also converses with Colonel Henderson, an old friend of the family and currently head of Scotland Yard. With the usual Carr fondness of coincident, he also catches a brief glimpse of Patricia Denbigh, the girl he loves but hasn’t seen in years, and Jim Carver, an American friend, who also just happen to be in the hotel. Then he receives a note asking him to visit Patricia, which he does, but she insists that she can’t explain why she never responded to his letters for another 48 hours. Kit also notes that she seems to be under some mild duress from her cousin, Harvey Twyford, and is introduced to George Bowen, an inoffensive man who professes his admiration for Nigel’s career as an explorer.
Kit and Patricia reconcile, despite her secretiveness, but their reunion is interrupted again by the arrival of Sir Hugo Clavering and his ward, Susan Clavering. A few moments later, someone takes a shot at him when he investigates a mysterious sound at the door. The following day, Colonel Henderson introduces Kit to the author, Wilkie Collins, and enlists his help in solving the mystery. We also hear of a mysterious Jenny, known to Patricia and Muriel but none of the male characters. Nigel starts Kit by claiming that Muriel is an impostor who has fooled everyone except him, replaced somehow while he was traveling, but he becomes less certain after a few minutes. We also meet the family physician, Laurence Wescott, who pays an unexpected visit late one night at the family home, christened Udolpho, who reports having seen a woman prowling in the area.
Most of the major characters gather for a dinner party at Udolpho, in the midst of which Nigel is wounded by a pistol bearing intruder, or perhaps one of the guests in disguise, who disappears from the scene even though all exits were watched or locked. More confusion ensues before we learn that there are indeed two Muriels, that they switched places because the false Muriel is in love with Nigel while the real one is not. Even with the distance between husband and wife in the Victorian age, I found this impossible to believe, that the impostor could fool her husband, parents, and friends, no matter how well she had been coached. Eventually Wilkie Collins unravels the murder plot, which is also less than convincing. One of Carr’s least successful and least interesting novels.
John Dickson Carr also wrote a good deal of short fiction including radio plays, some of which I have been unable to find so far. Most of these have been collected over the years. The Department of Queer Complaints first appeared in 1940, later in paperback as Scotland Yard. Colonel March works in Department D-3 of the Yard, which office is dedicated to investigating unusual cases, as in “The New Invisible Man.” A man reports witnessing an impossible crime, which turns out to have been a stage illusion put on for his benefit because he is a peeping tom. Clever trick, though I’d heard variations of it before – mirrors placed to make a hidden spot look empty – but not much of a story. March unmasks a man who walked on his hands in someone else’s shoes through the snow in “The Footprint in the Sky.” The set up is very contrived in “The Crime in Nobody’s Room”, but it’s a pleasant puzzle. The protagonist apparently wanders into the wrong apartment, finds a murdered man, gets conked on the head, and later is unable to identify the apartment, which has been altered in appearance.
In “Hot Money” March finds stolen money concealed inside a fake radiator. “Death in the Dressing Room” is very minor, but uses one of Carr’s favorite devices, the time of the murder is disguised through impersonation of the victim. “The Silver Curtain” has an ingenious solution to an impossible murder, but I’m not convinced that it is possible to be certain of dropping a knife from a roof so that it fatally wounds its intended victim, and a miss would have been catastrophic. “Error at Daybreak” is probably the most interesting story in the collection, although it is based on an unreliable witness who lies about a possible murder. The stories are quite uniform in quality, and entertain without impressing.
The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes (1954) contains twelve new adventures of Holmes and Watson, half of them by Adrian Conan Doyle alone and half collaborations with Carr. The first of the collaborations is “The Adventure of the Seven Clocks”, a fair story whose mystery – why is a man obsessed with destroying clocks – is somewhat predictable and not very believable. “The Adventure of the Gold Hunter” reads a lot like Carr’s own fiction, an impossible murder performed via chloroform. In “The Adventure of the Wax Gamblers” a not very interesting mystery is solved in a wax museum. Much better is “The Adventure of the Highgate Miracle”, wherein a man apparently infatuated with his umbrella concocts an elaborate scheme to disappear and change his identity. “The Adventure of the Black Baronet” is fairly routine, except the murder turns out to be an accident caused by a trick object. The last collaboration is “The Adventure of the Sealed Room”, another story clearly more in Carr’s style.
The Door to Doom and Other Detections (1991) is one of three published by IPL, the other two of which – Merrivale, March and Murder and Fell and Foul Play – I have never seen and which now command hefty prices. It includes a good deal of the very early fiction of Carr, starting with “As Drink the Dead”, a so-so piece about a cup rigged so that the handle administers the poison. This is followed by several stories of Henri Bencolin, a bit more likeable than the character in the later novels. In “The Shadow of the Goat” we have several trademarked Carr items – the house party, the impossible exit from a locked room solved through an exchange of identities, and several of the details resulting from happenstance rather than the killer’s plan, which actually make the case more difficult to solve. The Fourth Suspect” also involves Bencolin and an impossible crime, a man shot to death while “alone” in a room, but it’s not nearly as good as the previous one. He solves another quasi-locked room in “The Ends of Justice”, which has a clever solution, most of which is telegraphed rather obviously. Bencolin’s last story is “The Murder in Number Four”, a very fine story of murder on a train.
The collection contains a selection of Carr’s radio scripts. He wrote these mostly during World War II, for production both in the US and in Great Britain. Probably the most famous of these is “Cabin B-13”, a clever piece about a couple who board an ocean liner, after which the husband immediately disappears and the wife appears to be insane. Nice resolution as well. Gideon Fell appears in “The Hangman Won’t Wait”. He saves a condemned woman by proving that the account by a supposed witness contains a falsehood. “The Phantom Archer” is nicely suspenseful although the solution is pretty obvious this time as well. There’s a good impossible crime in “The Bride Vanishes” but “Will You Make a Date with Death?” is pretty dull. The last of these, “The Devil in the Summerhouse” is another pretty good murder puzzle. Also included are two very short plays, both parodies of Sherlock Holmes.
Although Carr frequently used supernatural devices in his stories and novels, they were almost always explained away at the end. Three genuinely supernatural stories are included here, starting with “The Man Who Was Dead”, which involves a murder plot but also has death itself stalking after a man who reads his own obituary in the newspaper. “The Door of Doom” has an interesting set up – a traveler at a disreputable inn who escapes murder at the hands of his host – but it doesn’t make a lot of sense. A ghost intervenes and saves the day. “Terror’s Dark Tower” is about a family curse, but in this case it is rationalized as the work of an ingenious madman. The book concludes with two essays, one a collection of historical anecdotes, the other a very fine analysis of the nature of the detective story.
The title story in The Third Bullet (1954) is a short novel and has one of Carr’s best problems. An ex-convict has threatened the judge who sentenced him, confronts him in a closed room, admits firing a shot at him. But a second gun is found in the same room, also recently fired, but neither bullet was the fatal one That was fired by a third gun, not found at the murder scene although later apparently planted to throw suspicion on one of the victim’s two daughters. The door and all the windows were locked or watched or both, and there are no secret exits, mechanical devices, or other obvious solutions. It is patently absurd to think that the killer brought three weapons, discharged all of them, hid one and made a second disappear, all in a matter of a few seconds, and the shot was fired from close range. The solution is clever although it depends upon two characters acting in collusion and a third telling lies, some withheld information, and the usual string of coincidences.
“The Clue of the Red Wig” is less ambitious. A woman is found dead, nearly naked, in a park on a cold night, and evidence strongly suggests she undressed herself. There is also a red wig with her clothing. I was pretty sure from the outset that she hadn’t been murdered where she was found, and that proved to be the case. Henry Merrivale appears in “The House in Goblin Wood” to explain a disappearance twenty years previously and expose a young woman who claims to have fey powers, but ends up solving her murder. “The Wrong Problem” is a revision of the radio play “The Devil in the Summerhouse,” solved this time by Gideon Fell. Fell also unravels the murder of a supposed spy in “The Proverbial Murder.” “The Locked Room”, also featuring Fell, is a minor puzzle marred by the fact that a crucial bit of testimony turns out to be an hallucination. “The Gentleman from Paris” is also pretty minor, an historical mystery solved by Edgar Allan Poe.
The Men Who Explained Miracles (1963) contains stories featuring Coloney March, Gideon Fell, and Henry Merrivale. The two March stories are both very minor. “William Wilson’s Racket” involves the use of a body double. “The Empty Flat” has moments of real tension, but the solution is another variation of the body moved after death. Neither story involves an actual murder. “The Incautious Man”, a Fell story, is a reworking of the central murder in Death and the Gilded Man, the victim found dead while apparently attempting to burglarize his own house. Two stories, “Strictly Diplomatic” and “The Black Cabinet”, do not involve any of Carr’s recurring detectives. Both are minor, the latter involving John Wilkes Booth. “All in a Maze” (aka “The Man Who Explained Miracles”) is a novelette featuring Henry Merrivale. It was his last appearance and it’s not a bad story. An overly protected woman is receiving death threats but it’s a plot to frighten her back to France engineered by her fiancé, and the only one actually in danger of being killed is the young Englishman who befriends her, and with whom she falls in love. The guilty party’s identity is quite obvious almost from the moment he appears but it’s still a clever tale.
ADDENDUM: Mike Blake was kind enough to loan me a copy of Fell and Foul Play (1991), so I was able to read a few more of his scripts and short stories. The first of these is “Who Killed Matthew Corbin?” , is a pretty good one. “The Black Minute” is even better, based on a trick used by Harry Houdini, but my favorite is “The Dead Sleep Lightly.” All three of these feature Gideon Fell. There are also several historical shorts. “The Dim Queen”, one of his earliest stories, is an adventure set in the age of Napoleon. “The Other Hangman” is very good. A condemned man is murdered in his cell just before he is to be hanged. Why would anyone take such an unnecessary risk. “Persons or Things Unknown” is a partially rationalized ghost story, but only so-so.
S. T. Joshi has done a book length study of Carr’s work, John Dickson Carr: A Critical Study, 1990). His study consists of two parts, one addressing the individual detectives, the other a more general approach to themes, methods, and characters. For the most part, I found myself agreeing with most of his opinions and disagreeing about only minor issues. He thinks the love affair between Jeff Marle and Sharon Grey should have been developed rather than dropped, suggesting it might have developed into the Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane level, but I doubt that Carr was a sophisticated enough writer to have made it work that well. Joshi also contends that the character of Bencolin was consistent from the early short stories to the novels, but he was actually a sympathetic character in the short fiction, and we are not meant to like him at all in the novels. His opinion of It Walks by Night is also considerably more favorable than mine. (He also has a higher opinion of The Arabian Nights Mystery than do I, and a lower one of The Blind Barber.)
In his discussion of Gideon Fell, Joshi points out Carr’s penchant for having his detectives interfere with the course of justice, letting murderers escape, kill themselves, or otherwise avoid punishment. He clearly prefers Fell to Merrivale, and rightly so, but I think he’s a bit overly critical of Carr’s attempts at humor, although there are clearly times when it is awkward and ineffective, particularly in the later Merrivales.
The second part of his book analyzes Carr’s political and social attitudes, justly criticized as elitist, reactionary, and short sighted. On the other hand, I don’t understand Joshi’s contention that the fact that Carr set none of his novels during World War II “avoided giving broader meaning to his work.” Some of the novels allude to World War I, but this is incidental information and does not give broader meaning to those works either. Nor am I convinced that Fell’s statement in The Three Coffins that he is a character in a detective story is meant literally rather than metaphorically. Carr never broke the barrier between reader and character in that way before or since, so I see no good reason to assume that was his intention here.
The discussion of Carr’s theory of detective fiction seems to be right on throughout. I am puzzled by a comment in the chapter on Carr’s supernatural fiction which claims that a new mental power should inspire horror “as in the best science fiction.” Presumably this is either a consequence of the author’s unfamiliarity with science fiction or his own personal set of values rather than an objective observation. Joshi does allow his own personal prejudices to pop up later when he takes a swipe at Dorothy Sayers’ prose and her fans.
The book avoids the eccentric language of most literary criticism and is very accessible and entertaining., but since the author inserts his own viewpoint on matters other than just Carr’s literary merits, you have to make allowances for the author’s preconceptions. For example, since he disagrees with Carr’s contention that the primary purpose of literature is entertainment, he asserts that Carr is inferior to, for example, Rex Stout because the latter had a more subtle approach to characterization and had “more to say”. A defensible position, but not an objectively determined one, and many people will disagree. Readers will learn almost as much about Joshi’s opinions on a variety of subjects than they will about Carr’s.
The only thorough biography of Carr is John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles, 1995) by Douglas G. Greene. It opens, not unexpectedly, with a recounting of Carr’s younger years in Pennsylvania, the authors he was most fond of reading – many of whom are forgotten today. Greene also discusses Carr’s rejection of realism in writing in a great deal more detail, describing it as a fundamental belief that Carr accepted so unquestioningly that he never made any attempt to actually defend his position, just assumed everyone would see it. The biography is very thorough and examines some of the novels in much more detail than I have here. One of the best literary biographies I’ve encountered. He also is quite lucid in his description of Carr's theories of writing, detective fiction and otherwise, and provides considerable insight into an admittedly reactionary, clearly chauvinistic, brilliant but occasionally self deluded man who carved out a territory between mainstream detective fiction and gothic horror, particularly in the early part of his career.