Of all the Carr books, this might be one of the most difficult to describe. No, not because the plot is complex – like, say, Death Watch – but because it’s a fairly straight forward traditional murder mystery that lacks a definitive hook. No deadly rooms, no coven of witches, no prowling beast, nor cursed lineages. Not even an impossible crime.
To lay the plot out plainly — an estranged couple are in the middle of a fight late at night when they spot something horrifying in the villa across the street. Through the opposing window, they spy the body of an antique collector slumped over his desk. His head has been crushed in and in front of him lay the shattered remnants of an odd snuff box. They catch just a glimpse of the killer slipping out of the room and switching off the light with a gloved hand.
Nothing really impossible there – not even close. The house at which the crime occurred boasts a respectable cast of suspects, and there’s always the chance that some random person broke into the house and committed the crime. This is more of a classic whodunnit than the typical affair you would expect from Carr.
Why then is The Emperor’s Snuff Box commonly listed as one of Carr’s top 10 books, and why do I vouch for that ranking? That’s the part that is hard to describe, especially since I’m avoiding spoilers.
Well, to start, the characters are nicely fleshed out and the plot has a frantic pace. Rather than a plodding detective investigation, we’re treated to a taut thriller. You see, a series of unfortunate mishaps lead to the police suspecting one of the witnesses of the crime. We, as the reader, know she didn’t do it, but everything – from the fates to her own housekeeper – seems to be conspiring against her. Carr creates a vivid character that we can relate too, and we can’t help but feel her sense of jeopardy as the police close in and the case against her becomes tighter.
Fortunately, a visiting investigator has a suspicion that our heroine is telling the truth. A non-series detective, it’s unfortunate that Dr. Dermot Kinross isn’t featured in any other Carr works. While he lacks the eccentricity of Merrivale or Fell, he has a calm thoughtful manner and appears to have an interesting backstory. Kinross has an intuition that not everything is as it seems and works against the clock to exonerate the accused as the police prepare for her arrest.
Carr skillfully guides our attention from suspect to suspect, each getting their turn as the potential villain. Mmm…this sounds like pretty generic detective fiction, am I right? Ah, but Carr is the master of misdirection, and in the Emperor’s Snuff Box, he achieves one of his best misdirections of them all. I question whether anyone has ever finished this book without flipping back through and rereading a key passage.
I simply can’t say much more. If you’ve enjoyed a Carr book or two and haven’t read this one yet, consider it mandatory.