People hold weird beliefs: that the moon landings have all been faked, for instance, or that the moon is hollow, or that the phases of the moon have anything at all to do with your love life or finances. Some people might even hold weird beliefs not about the moon. Here’s one: I firmly believe that for the remainder of human history there will never again be anyone who writes the detective novel as well as did John Dickson Carr at his peak. When I eventually narrow my ten favourite detective novels of all time down to a list that is actually ten books long, there’s a real chance all ten of them will be by Carr. And, I’ll tell you now, it will definitely feature The Problem of the Green Capsule, which in my current mood I consider to be the pinnacle of the form.
Running it pretty close, though, is Till Death Do Us Part, another poisoning case with impossible overtones that overflows with the flourishes and flashes and tiny little moments of sinister intrigue that compel Carr above all-comers. It has plot enough for about four modern crime novels and is brilliantly aware of its own developments in the way that only Carr maintains for me: as it gets more and more complex, it seems more and more simple; as it gets more and more unlikely, the patterns emerge which shape everything into the form it holds because of course that’s how it has to be and the whole enterprise leaps into focus, only to then veer off again with a dexterity that is all the more phenomenal for being repeated throughout most of what Carr wrote in this decade. It is a masterpiece, and I’m going to go on about how wonderful it is for another 500 words, but really you should just go and buy it right now.
What I especially enjoyed about it, and I’m a little sorry to take this aspect away from you, is how unexpected it was. It is without Carr’s brilliant conceptual gimmicks — Green Capsule, The Plague Court Murders, She Died a Lady, etc — and instead appears to simply be a quiet and fairly typical detective novel of the period: we open at a small country fair, where some Shenanigans occur from which there are a couple of Consequences and everything should run to an expected pattern. You’ll have a fairly decent idea of what key deveolpment to expect, and when that happens you start to settle down into some standard fare and then suddently it changes, and then changes again, and you realise how fully Carr has his hooks into you.
By this stage in his career, Carr no longer needed to lean so heavily on the Gothic unease of his earlier novels, and so instead is able to throw out moments of beautifully compact atmosphere, like the following on page 1:
He nodded ahead, where the shadow of the storm gave everything a nightmarish and unreal quality, like sunlight through smoked glass. Nothing stirred on the lawn. Tents and booths, touched to uneasy life by the wind, seemed deserted.
She nodded towards the ranks of books, riddled with their curious criminal histories like worms in apples.
Even Fell’s gruff cantankerousness is quelled from his first appearance at the halfway stage “possessed of a subdued and savage wrath,” excusing the absence of the anticipated bullying of, with, and by Hadley and giving a quite frightening glimpse of the man when his nose is down.
But then is it a case that requires the good doctor at his very best, as it twists like a cornered viper. To give one example without spoilers: a casual mention is made of something early on which, just after the halfway point, is used to explain a key aspect of the case in a way that makes perfect sense and throws new light onto proceedings. Then, about 15 lines later, that explanation is blown out of the water — and in a single line, no less — with all the calm assurance you’d expect from a man who has just led you happily into a bear trap. But still that original explanation has a part to play, and this kind of construction is maintained across virtually all of the misdirection throughout. Honestly, this is possibly the best book I have read this year, and I’ve already abandoned two books since finishing it because they’re so pedestrain by comparison.
There might, in the final few pages, be one small aspect of clewing that it would be possible to have an issue with, but I don’t think it’s that crucial and is more just Carr tying up the parcel with a final flourish. Additionally, the pat explanation of one thread of intrigue — a regular offender, let’s say, though getting a bit creaky by now — dropped on the last page doesn’t take anything away from that because of how well the overtones were handled throughout. So, y’see, I’m not blind to its possible flaws. It just also happens to be a wonderful example of everything this genre does right when done right.
Now can somebody please explain to me why Carr is so largely out of print? Seriously, guys, something needs to be done about this…
This is my entry for 1944 as part of this month’s Crimes of the Century over at Past Offences. I also submit this review for the Golden Age Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt at My Reader’s Block under the category Bottle of Poison.