The Judas Window

judaswindow2The definitive locked room mystery novel.  For an author whose name is so entwined with the locked room genre, The Judas Window showcases Carr at the top of his game.  Too often, the label “locked room” is applied loosely, covering a range of impossible crimes in which a murder occurs in an inaccessible location.  Not so here – this is text book locked room.  Steel shuttered windows.  A door thoroughly bolted from the inside.  No conceivable way in or out of the room.  And, yet, as Henry Merrivale repeatedly states, every room has a Judas window.

Carr wastes no time, presenting us with the impossibility immediately.  A man is found dead in a comprehensively locked room, stabbed through the heart with an arrow that had been mounted on a trophy display.  There’s a twist though – the victim is not alone.  Young Jim Answell is found passed out on the floor, a gun in his pocket and his fingerprints on the murder weapon.  Upon coming to, he swears to his innocence, claiming that he had been drugged and that the victim was still alive when he slipped out of consciousness.  Yet no trace can be found of the whiskey tumblers and decanter that he swears delivered the dose that put him under.

It seems like an open and shut case… unless you believe Answell’s side of the story.  Well, someone does – Henry Merrivale.  The detective returns to practicing law for the first time in 15 years, playing the role of defense council for the accused.  Pretty much the entire plot of the book plays out in court, with the prosecution presenting a fairly airtight case and Merrivale cross examining witnesses.

Sounds pretty boring?  Well, it’s not Carr’s typical arena.  A few of his stories (Below Suspicion, The Reader is Warned, The Crooked Hinge) contain brief court scenes or inquests, but an entire story set in court?  And yet, it’s absolutely riveting.  How?  Well, think about it this way:

Merrivale is going into court to defend a man who by all appearances is obviously guilty.  The detective naturally has a game plan and will use his sparring with the prosecution and witnesses to prove the innocence of the accused  When do you typically get this sort of behavior from a Carr detective like Fell or Merrivale?  At the very conclusion of a book, as they present their long winded solution to the puzzle and reveal the killer.  In a sense, we get Merrivale in this form for much of the story.  Now, don’t let me oversell this – The Judas Window isn’t a 190 page reveal scene, but it does have a bit of that feel.  You get the sense that you’re always moving closer and closer to the solution.

For a story primarily set in court, the pacing is amazing.  Similar to Till Death Do Us Part, pretty much every chapter ends with some jaw dropper of a twist or revelation.  And just like that book, each time you feel that you’ve learned something new, you actually get the sense that the puzzle tightens.

Published in 1938, The Judas Window captures Carr in a three year window that has to be the absolute peak of his career.  1937 – The Burning Court.  1938 – The Crooked Hinge.  1939 – The Problem of the Green Capsule.  Oh, plenty of killer books were to follow, arguably some of his best, but this era sticks in my mind as the pinnacle.  The Judas Window holds its ranks alongside these classics, and you’ve no doubt noticed it as a staple on Carr top 10 lists.  It’s a position that’s well deserved, hoisted by one of the author’s strongest impossibilities, a fevered pace, and a jaw dropping solution.

judaswindowbackPlus….we get a map!  Well, one of my editions has a map.  If you have only have a non-map edition, then it sucks to be you.  The map lets you skip the mental gymnastics of figuring out the floor plan (curse you Death Watch!!!) and may or may not provide some insight to the puzzle.  I’ll leave that to you to figure out.

As much as I love The Judas Window, I will admit that I haven’t had complete success in sharing that adoration.  I lent it, along with The Problem of the Green Capsule, to two family members.  Both enjoyed the story, nitpicked the ending, and unanimously agreed that The Problem of the Green Capsule was better.  Well, I won’t argue that last point, but I’d say it’s close.  Plus, I lent them my non-map edition, so my bad.

As to the end?  Well, I’ll leave those details for spoilers.  I’m not going to explicitly discuss the solution, but I will raise a few points that might detract from your enjoyment of the story.

Spoilers

What genius decided to release the book under the alternate title of The Crossbow Murder?  I mean, you might as well throw in a few more solution-oriented details to the title while you’re at it.  Now, admittedly, I knew about the alternative title of the book when I read it, and it spared me no surprise when the solution was explained.

Well, “surprise” is one way to describe me reading the solution.  A better description would be “read the same paragraph three times in a row trying to understand what was being described.”  Screw the map, give me a diagram of how the trick was accomplished!

Ah, but it was a satisfying ending once I understood it.  To this day, I find it hilarious.  That Carr had the gall to use one of the very things that gives a locked room its nature….  Perfection.

My family members nitpicked the motive of the killer and the timing of the execution.  Bah, who cares about such details!  I had my perfect impossible crime and a fun solution, who am I to complain!  Plus, they’re Christie fans, and you know how those are… (I kid, I kid!)

End Spoilers

John Dickson Carr review index

Whenever I finish reading a Carr book and hit “Publish” on my latest post, the hunt begins.  I pull up a browser window and comb through some of my regular haunts, seeing if I can track down other reviews of the same book.  I love seeing how others’ experience compare to mine – did they enjoy the same aspects?  Did they hate it?  Do they have some interesting insights that I hadn’t thought of?  Well, the answer to that last question is always ‘yes’.

My post-read ritual has been fairly clumsy up to now – pull up Google and type in “John Dickson Carr”, the title of the book, and “wordpress” or “blogspot”.  Sure, there are other review sites out there, but I tend to find the best material on these platforms.  As you may expect, my searches lead me down some well tread paths – Beneath the Stains of Time, The Invisible Event, In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, and several others.

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Seeing is Believing

The Cross of Murder

seeingisbelievingPublished in 1941, the same year as The Case of the Constant Suicides, Seeing is Believing falls in the middle of an amazing eleven year stretch for Carr.  Starting with Death Watch and The Hollow Man in 1935, and finishing with He Who Whispers in 1946, the author churned out 31 novels, many of them considered to be his best work.  Consult a Top 10 Carr list and they’re almost all guaranteed to come from this era.

One could question if Carr experienced a brief dip in quality around the time Seeing is Believing was published.  Although the period from 1939-1941 features some of his best work (The Problem of the Green Capsule, Nine – and Death Makes Ten, and the previously mentioned Suicides), it also features a string of titles that were less well received (The Problem of the Wire Cage, The Man Who Could Not Shudder, Death Turns the Tables, And So to Murder,….and Seeing is Believing.  In fact, pretty much all of the “weak” titles from the 10 year period came out during these three years.

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Below Suspicion

“In a detective story, no person is above suspicion.  But there are several types who are below it.”

belowsuspicionI did it.  I finally did it.  I knew that if I explored some of Carr’s less popular works, I’d find a gem worth savoring.  A book that for some reason has fallen out of favor, leaving it a neglected treasure to be stumbled upon.  Below Suspicion is that book.  Let me explain how I got here.

Several months back, I took a chance on The Man Who Could Not Shudder, based on a comment from JJ at The Invisible Event that it had an audacious ending.  The book definitely had a few weaknesses, such as a plodding first half and a surprising lack of atmosphere for a plot that revolves around a haunted house.  Still, I enjoyed it.  The pace picked up in the second half and the finale was truly enjoyable.  To be clear, it wasn’t top tier Carr, but it didn’t strike me as deserving of the derision it receives.

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John Dickson Carr – Five beguiling puzzles

When it comes to evaluating impossible crimes, there are two super obvious criteria.

  • How gripping the puzzle is
  • How clever the solution is

It isn’t surprising to note that the two aren’t always the same.  The best solutions aren’t alway preceded by the most bewildering impossibility, and the most rapturing puzzle doesn’t alway leave you satisfied in the end.  I’ve previously covered some astonishing solutions, and now I’ll be looking at five beguiling puzzles (hint: where the two lists intersect, you’ll find some killer impossible crimes).

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Castle Skull

castleskullPoor Castle Skull.  How it lingered for months in the top five of my To Be Read list, only to be displaced multiple times by various events.  The arrival of The Burning Court.  The lure of Till Death Do Us Part.  The sudden insatiable urge to read The Witch of the Low Tide.  I’ve tucked Caste Skull into my luggage on four separate trips, each time planning to turn to it after finishing my current reading.  A fairly well traveled book, for me never having read it.

The final delay in starting Castle Skull was my decision to approach the Bencolin works in order.  Back down the stack it fell, and up roared It Walks By Night and The Lost Gallows.  And, now, that last set back finally leads me to its pages.

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The Case of the Constant Suicides

caseofconstantsuicidesJohn Dickson Carr has some books where the title alone draws you in – The Nine Wrong Answers, The Reader is Warned, The Four False Weapons,…  The names suggest that the reader is going to be played with – presented with a set of clues that promise to be false.  Amongst these ranks, we find The Case of the Constant Suicides.  The title suggests deaths – multiple of them – and they’re going to look like suicide.  But this is Carr, so we know it’s not going to be that easy.

This is a classic that I’ve been holding onto for a while.  For one, I simply had to get a copy with the best cover.  Second, this is one of the handful of Carr works that I have left that are unanimously considered among his top works.  I’ve come to learn that I enjoy Carr in general, even if I’m not dealing with the more popular works, but I’ve also come to appreciate that with many of those revered stories, everything just snaps into place.

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