#94: Death in Five Boxes (1938) by Carter Dickson

Death in Five BoxesFour people are discovered sitting around a table as if at a dinner party, each with only a glass in front of them.  Three of the four have been poisoned into a catatonic state and the fourth has been murdered by being run through with a narrow blade.  Of the three who remain alive, one has two bottles of poison in their bag, one has the workings of an alarm clock in their pocket, and the third is carrying four pocket watches in various pockets about their person.  At this point you are three chapters into the eighth Sir Henry Merrivale novel written by John Dickson Carr under his Carter Dickson byline and we haven’t even touched upon the revelation that greets you at the end of that chapter…suffice to say, boy are you in for a ride!

Death in Five Boxes is, if anything, probably the book that best exemplifies Carr for me and helps clarify why he is so beloved and disdained in equal measure (of course, it could just be that I’ve had long enough to see it clearly, and so many of his books would have sufficed…).  It is, bluntly, an absolute masterstroke of construction: at the point where other detective novelists would have settled happily upon their clever explanation, Carr has already dismissed that and come up with a second one, only to then dismiss that and finally offer you a third.  Those four watches, for instance, are explained, and then explained again, and then turned into something which is both perfectly logical and makes that first false explanation sensible and then turned into another facet of the character involved that opens up all kinds of new possibilities.  For hooks, twists, developments, reversals – for sheer plot – you can’t beat Carr at his best, even at his most middling, and for plot-hounds like me he’s rarely a disappointment.

For character, well.  Typically you get your totemic amateur genius – check – your professional policeman – check – a few police underlings – check – and a young couple destined to fall for each other – check – and then some Suspects who fill a variety of roles as either patsy or herring.  Things really kick into gear when H.M. appears on the scene – we’re at the stage in Carter Dickson’s career where elements of broad comedy are introduced with regards H.M., perhaps to help separate him in Carr’s mind from that other gargantuan reprobate Gideon Fell – and, of course, you just know that things are ticking over enough to grind to a halt for him to sweep in, fruit wagon and all, and kick everyone in the right direction.  He’s a wonderfully bracing creation, still well-served by Dickson at this point, who will happily gripe about not wanting to be involved in crime because he has a reputation to uphold, and then throw a flowerpot at a policeman ten pages later.

But this isn’t just H.M.’s show, everyone gets a chance to shine – Supt. Masters believes that he is ahead of the old man for once in understanding some of the esoterica of the setup, Sergeant Bob Pollard gets to map out the timeline of the crime from information received and is privy to additional revelations in the course of his investigating, even Carr’s Generic Young Man – this time around it’s research scientist Dr. John Sanders – has his moment in the sun.  Indeed, there’s an air of collaboration here that’s notably absent in a lot of Carr’s other books, and if it’s undercut somewhat by Merrivale being aware of everything already you at least feel that these are people more than cyphers.  Not people you know well, but recognisable and doing their bit nonetheless.

And then the end is…not quite as brilliant.  The impossible poisoning is now a fairly old idea, and has been rehashed in many different forms, but it is at least a nice take on the idea and the fact that it’s not strictly fair-play is helped by its familiarity.  My main problem is the killer, and how the killer comes by the key details they need in order to kill, and especially how the already-shown-untrustworthy testimony of a criminal then takes on cast iron validity when it supports Merrivale’s reasoning.  In this regard it reminds me of the Gideon Fell book To Wake the Dead from the same year and equally hamstrung by a dizzyingly creative setup that falls apart in one key regard come the conclusion.  And this is where Carr stumbles – not that the mechanics don’t make sense, but that the people don’t; he’s deliberately vague on certain aspects of how things would be known…and there’s nothing there for you to fill in yourself.

Accept this going in – accept this as an occasional occupational hazard with Carr – and you’ll be fine and have a very great many happy reading hours ahead of you (provided you can track down his books, mumble mumble gripe grumble).  We’d love everything to be The Problem of the Green Capsule, of course, but at least those dazzling beauties have a few stars like this to keep them company.

star filledstar filledstar filledstar filledstars

I submit this review for the Golden Age Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt at My Reader’s Block under the category Bottle/Glass for Drinking.

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9 thoughts on “#94: Death in Five Boxes (1938) by Carter Dickson

  1. The poison trick was used by Carr in a radio play broadcast in February 1943.

    SPOILER ALERT !

    Regarding escape of Ferguson from the building without being seen, I quote from Chapter 4,” There’s a rainpipe on that back wall; but it’s nowhere near the window, and Ferguson would have to be first cousin to a gorilla to reach it ” We subsequently learn that Ferguson did indeed use the rainpipe though he is not a first cousin to a gorilla but only a cat burglar ! Isn’t this a cheat ?
    The poison was in a certain item. While the various persons described the preparation and serving of drinks, this item was never mentioned by anyone. Isn’t it strange ?

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    • Haha, yeah, that’s what I mean about it not being strictly fair-play…part of me wonders if the drinks would have implicitly included said item and this would simply be common knowledge at the time of writing: “Well of course you use that when making this drink”. I do feel, however (like with The Crooked Hinge, though regarding a completely different thing) that there was an opportunity missed to throw in a subtle little hint – even just one tiny nudeg in the direction required would have improved it for me.

      But, well, it’s not like I ever wrote a raft of throroughly baffling puzzle novels, is it?

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  2. Thanks for this JJ, second tier Carr from the period is usually better than first rate anybody else in my view 🙂 This is actually one of, I think, only three Merrivales I have yet to read and which i have been saving for a rainy day so that I still have brand new ones to read a bit later in life (the others are the final two, which I have put off reading for rather different reasons, due to their critical reputation even among fans) – all sounds very good indeed. The best of Carr, as in EMPEROR’S SNUFFBOX and HE WHO WHISPERS, are those where the plots are dazzling and the characters also really pull you in. But I am very partisan, and will always prefer Carr to practically anybody else from the GAD period, definitely including la Christie,

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    • I’m starting to reach a point with Carr where I either pick off the few classics that remain or dive into the supposed weak end of his career to spread them out a bit, and I’m not sure what to do. I’ve been reading Christie in order for a good few years (not a first, but for at least the last 9 years or so) and have found the decline…undeniable but also very interesting and full of enough interest to keep me intrigued without any sense of dread or horror just yet (and, hey, I have only ten of her novels remaining).

      The sensible thing with Carr would be to do the same, but due the the unavilability of his stuff I’ve read him in a rather mixed order. To be perfectly honest, I’ve lost track of precisely what I <have read with Carr given how long I’ve had to go between bursts of book-finding in the past. I definitely haven’t done Snuff-Box, though, so could always go there next since you rate it.

      There is, as always, the chance that I’m over-thinking this…

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      • I know people dismiss it, but I thoroughly enjoyed Dark of the Moon. I hope you find and enjoy that one. The last few Christie’s are gonna run you through the mill . . .

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      • I think we got cut off there chum, but I see where you are going. With Christie the drop off after the late 60s is disastrous and terribly sad. With Carr THE HUNGRY GOBLIN is certainly very weak but I think PANIC IN BOX C (for example) is still highly memorable (though others strenuously disagree) – but I like his work much more than Christie – much more humour and atmosphere and ingenuity (at least to my liking, obviously).

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  3. Argh, now I’m kicking myself all the more for not snatching up that cheaply-priced second-hand copy. 😦

    Then again, your assessment of its strengths and weaknesses makes me think that I might not quite like it. I’ve just finished ‘The Red Widow Murders’, and it reminded me of some of the things about Carr’s writing that don’t find endearing. Which slightly surprised me as the novels I read before that (‘Death Watch’, ‘Peacock Feather Murders’) were enjoyable – and made me think that I was getting used to the grand-master.

    Liked by 1 person

    • My feeling is that up until the late 1930s it’s still a bit of a choppy ride with Carr – once you hit the 1940s you’re on much steadier ground.

      Red Widow Murders is one that I’ve not been able to track down yet, so I feel much the same about that as you do about this…

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  4. Pingback: #107: Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt Update | The Invisible Event

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