Here we have another Carr book that seems to be held in decent regard but doesn’t garner too much attention. The title alone was too much for me to resist. I had enjoyed The Nine Wrong Answers, in which the author breaks the fourth wall and directly challenges the reader. The very title of The Reader is Warned suggests a similar approach, but, alas it isn’t. Ok, to be fair, there are a few footnotes that qualify, but not in a way that is so essential to the story.
This Merrivale tale involves a series of murders that happen under vexing circumstances. A self proclaimed psychic warns a party that he can kill by the sheer will of his mind. Murder follows, repeatedly. In the case of each death, evidence proves that the psychic couldn’t have been directly involved in the murder.
If you haven’t read the book, the puzzle may sound like “how did he do it?” Well, sure, there’s that. However, the real puzzle that presents itself is “how did they die?” This is what separates The Reader is Warned from other Carr books that I’ve read. It isn’t so much about how the murder was accomplished, but instead trying to figure out the cause of death.
The first victim is found “dancing and staggering” in a large open hallway, before collapsing dead. The cause of death can’t be explained – there are no marks on the body and no evidence of poison. This isn’t quite an impossible crime – the location of the murder has many doors around it, so if the answer had been “he was shot with a blowgun from across the hall”, I wouldn’t have blinked. Carr uses this openness to his advantage simply because the cause of death is so perplexing. The psychic proclaimed he would kill the man, who minutes later is found dead with no discernible cause.
The story has a very small cast of characters. Assuming the psychic isn’t actually doing the killing, then there are few choices for who did. But then, how is the psychic foreseeing the deaths? Or, is he ultimately responsible? Carr uses this aspect of the plot to tie you in knots, subsequently drawing you into the story.
Atmosphere-wise, this is respectable for the author. Not quite the dread of The Red Widow Murders, but maybe comparable to Hag’s Nook. A country mansion is transformed into a setting for danger, and the eerie nature of the deaths heightens the suspense.
Overall, how does it fair? Well, you’re going to wince a few times at some things that don’t play well with modern culture, but then again, you’re reading a book from 70 years ago. As for the solution to the whole thing – not a blockbuster by Carr’s standards but it isn’t going to leave you disappointed by any means. For more details, I’m going to have to resort to spoilers. No, I’m not going to give away how it was done, but I will discuss details that could ruin aspects of the story if you haven’t read it yet – the reader is warned (seriously, I can’t imagine there is a single review that doesn’t resort to this lazy pun).
I’ve seen reviewers that take issue with the final reveal scene. Yes, it is reminiscent of a Bond villain laying out their evil plan, but I’ll afford Carr some latitude. The culprit was a total surprise. Well, that’s Carr’s knack, isn’t it? For all of the focus on locked rooms and impossible crimes, his real talent is hiding the guilty party.
As for the solution to the actual puzzle? Mmm, I have two takes on this:
1. Carr’s use of misdirection is brilliant, as always. He focuses the reader so strongly on premeditation that the notion of an accident never enters the mind. The focus on the psychic also allows Carr to weave together loosely related events into what appears to be a carefully planned series of crimes.
2. The actual cause of death disappointed me a bit at first. I guess I just assumed that a medical examiner would recognize the cause. Regardless, the method works in well with the narrative and it sits better with me as more time goes by.