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.

But were they really weak?  This question nags at me.  I can’t fathom that Carr could be producing such heights as The Problem of the Green Capsule while also dropping a series of duds.  Based on my recent enjoyment of The Man Who Could Not Shudder and Below Suspicion, I’m starting to suspect that these weaker works are actually fairly enjoyable.  What better way to test the waters than the most heavily criticized book of the era, Seeing is Believing?

The setup of the book is classic Carr, weaving mysticism with impossibility.  In front of a captivated audience, a demonstration of the power of hypnotism leads to murder.  The entranced subject, asked to stab her husband with a harmless rubber knife, strikes without hesitation.  The thrust is fatal, as the weapon has somehow been swapped with a real one.

You may notice a similarity to The Problem of the Green Capsule, in that both focus on a murder that takes place in front of a fixated audience.  With Seeing is Believing though, we know who the killer is – the wife.  The question becomes how the rubber knife was switched with a real one when it was seemingly impossible to do so.  The victim himself had demonstrated the knife was fake, and then noone else came near it until the wife picked it up.  The only possibilities that we’re left with is that the wife faked hypnosis and swapped the knives to get away with murder, or the husband swapped the knife knowing full well that he would be stabbed with it.

Carr lets the impossibility simmer, devoting an entire chapter to just how inconceivable it would be for the knives to be exchanged without anyone seeing it.  Merrivale and Masters are brought in and the investigation unfolds in typical HM style.  Ah, well, there’s also the matter of a poisoning that takes place, but I’ll leave the unfolding of that for your own reading.  Suffice to say, each object shown on the book cover above plays into the mystery.  The poisoning shares a similar theme to the core puzzle – we know who delivered the poison, but we don’t know whether it was intentional.

Carr adds plenty of humor with a subplot involving Merrivale dictating his memoirs to a local author (who serves as the focal point for the novel).  Merrivale’s stories focus on his childhood, which was mostly spent tormenting his uncle George.  Carr can be pretty heavy handed with slapstick humor, but in this case the stories are hilarious and had me wiping tears from my eyes.

“I unscrewed the big mirror from over my mother’s dressing table.  I took this out on the roof, among the chimney, on a fine sunny day when I knew George Byron Merrivale would be driving along the road in his fine trap.  I caught the reflection of the sun in the four-foot mirror, and I sent the beam from it smack into his eyes.”

For the overall feel of the book, I’d compare it to She Died a Lady.  There isn’t the darkness of early Merrivale, nor the dread present in late 30’s Carr works like The Crooked Hinge.  If you’re a fan of Carr’s overall writing style during his classic period, you’re most likely going to enjoy this book from beginning to end.

So, why all the hate?  I have a few theories.

First, we have a plot revolving around hypnotism.  The very subject feels pulp-fictiony and flimsy.  I’ll give Carr some leeway here because the book was published in 1941.  More so, the hypnotism scene added some nice flair to the story and created an excellent backdrop for an impossible crime.  It is a dangerous rope to walk though, and Carr treads it well.  I had my concerns while reading the book that the solution was going to devolve into an Inception-esque multiple-levels-of-hypnotism rabbit hole.  I’m happy to report to you up front that it isn’t the case.

Our next potential weakness is a villain that I could spot a mile away – your milage may vary.  Although Carr is famous for his impossible crimes, it has always struck me that he’s a master at cleverly hiding the culprit.  Out of nearly 30 of his works that I’ve read, the only time I haven’t been surprised by the reveal was The Lost Gallows.  Well, that might just be luck of the draw that I finally got one right.  Plus, just because you have a feeling you know who committed the crime doesn’t mean that you have any clue about how they did it.

The final weakness is the solution.  No, it’s not a complete dud, and it doesn’t necessarily disappoint.  A good analogy would be the false solution to The Crooked Hinge.  My reaction to both was “…oh.  I guess I wouldn’t have thought of that.   Mmm…yeah, I guess that would work…”  I’ll tell you, it is a unique solution, and one that I can’t imagine you’ll see coming.

The verdict?  It depends.  If you’re a casual Carr reader who’s looking to only hit the best of the best, this isn’t for you.  If you took issue with The Ten Teacups and The Red Widow Murders, this isn’t for you.  But, if you are a fan of classic 1930’s/40’s era Carr, I’d say you should check it out.  Your going to get the writing style, characters, crimes, devices, and puzzles that you enjoy.

As a bit of trivial – the alternative title of the book – The Cross of Murder – is a reference to an X that is drawn on the soon-to-be victim’s shirt.  The hypnotized subject is instructed to stab on the mark.

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26 thoughts on “Seeing is Believing”

  1. I do not own and have not read this, so I’m afraid I can’t comment on the book just yet and have only given this the briefest of skims, but I wanted to raise a moment of appreciation for the superb Berkeley editions such as the one you have pictured in this post. I think of all the various Carr editions that I have — and I’ve tracked down and been sent quite a variety — these are probably my favourites. I mean these Bantam editions run them close for their excellent cover design, but the Berkeleys feel a bit higher quality in the overall production. If I could stock an entire Carr collection of these editions I’d be a very happy man…

    However, I appreciate this adds nothing to the conversation. This sounds like a divisive one, a la Death-Watch or Crooked Hinge, and I love me a devisive Carr; it’s all well and good crowing about his brilliance when they’re obviously brilliant, but the borerline ones are so much more fun!

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  2. This book sounds awesome, I am yet to read this as well, but totally convinced that I should. I know I mentioned this recently, but I wonder if Carr suffers from some real hate for some of his books because of writing so many impossible books? Does it work against him when it’s not the very best of his impossibilities and that distracts? My wife said to me recently on Carr that from what she sees that he seems to really polarise people, even fans, about his works – haven’t seen such polarisation for Christie for example? (Clearly as case of rambling on my part here).

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    1. I can’t fully comment since my reading is primarily focused on Carr. I’ve read a lot of other authors in short story form (for example the Black Lizard collection), but I understand that you can’t quite grasp an author based on that form alone. I have a few theories:

      1. I am a complete Carr fanboy and I give him a pass that I wouldn’t give other authors. I personally don’t think this is true, as I have fairly critical opinions on some of his works and I don’t feel like I have anything invested other than curiosity.

      2. The blogs/reviews that I read are from people with a wide range of reading backgrounds. Whereas I’m mostly focused on Carr and impossible crimes, many others are reading a breadth of authors and may be looking for something different in a mystery than I am. I personally love Carr’s writing style and the way that he captures an era. Perhaps those who are more broadly read than I see things differently.
      And, to be sure, there are a number of Carr books that I wouldn’t hand to someone who is just dabbling in getting introduced with the author. There are about 10 other Carr books I’d want to make absolutely sure you’d read before picking up Seeing is Believing.

      3. It’s easy to make flippant remarks on the web, and even easier to misinterpret them. Perhaps when people refer to Below Suspicion as “bloody awful”, they’re just making a humorous jab.

      In my early research of Carr’s library, I kept a keen eye out for the books to avoid. My thoughts at the time were that I’d probably only read 10 or so of his books and then move on, having extinguished the best. Forums like this seemed helpful: http://www.jdcarr.com/forum/showthread.php?t=2132

      In retrospect, I think I created an illusion that I bought into, where there were distinct layers to Carr’s work and some that should be heavily avoided. My view by now has changed. For my tastes, all of Carr’s work is fairly good and consistent, with a few exceptional books shining above the rest. In hindsight, this seems obvious – while the strength of the puzzles and solutions may ebb and flow, his overall style of writing and storytelling remains strong. I’m now convinced that I will fully enjoy any book of his, although there is an overwhelming consensus that his last few were pretty bad.

      Well, shoot. I probably should have just done a blog post on this topic…

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      1. Thank Green, this is rally helpful.

        1 – I do feel your opinions are balanced (even as a fan boy).

        2 – I would also be very select in giving out Carr books to friends, particularly if they are not crime readers. They are rich and deep works and its going to take an effort to read them in many cases. And they seem to work better when you are familiar with GAD work, or have had a start with more easy going stuff. I think what you said about wider reading styles is helpful too, and if you just want to hear his best then those lists can come in handy.

        3 – Yes the online world can be a flippant and contradictory place! I think I felt bought into this Carr illusion as well, particularly when I was just starting out on my journey of reading crime and locked rooms. But now I think the classic top ten locked rooms list needs a massive overhaul! (If thats not a too flippant and internet world thing to say!) I mean coming across A Graveyard To Let in a second hand shop meant that I just gave it a go, and although you won’t find that on many people’s top 5/10 lists I absolutely love it.

        Thanks for your continual work through Carr, it’s definitely helping me get to his hidden works.

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      2. Be careful with that forum! It can be really fun to read, but I’ve stumbled upon a few comments that give away more plot details than I want. They do a decent job of marking comments as “spoilers”, but a few slip through the cracks.

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  3. I appreciate the fact that your blog is excavating, bit by bit, some of the lesser known works, to help me make choices about what to read next. I tend to save the best for the last, so I’m currently making my way through mid-tier Carr before hitting his best works. In fact, I’ve just received a package containing ‘Unicorn Murders’ and ‘Gilded Man’, and I’m thinking of getting ‘Below Suspicion’ off the back of your recommendation.

    In terms of Carr novels that there seems to be a general consensus against: I’ve avoided ‘Blind Barber’, ‘Patrick Butler’ and ‘And So to Murder’ based on widespread criticisms…

    I’m thinking of getting a stack of Carr novels to give away as birthday presents to friends this year – a foolhardy move, perhaps? I’m thinking in particular of ‘He Who Whispers’ (though I haven’t read it), ‘She Died a Lady’, ‘Death-Watch’, ‘Constant Suicides’, ‘Till Death Do Us Part’, ‘Emperor’s Snuff Box’.

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    1. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on The Unicorn Murders. Once you hit the impossibility midway through it is excellent.

      That’s a great list of Carr books for a gift idea. I’d throw in The Problem of the Green Capsule – I’ve had really good luck with that book when I lend it to people.

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      1. Oh yes, ‘Green Capsule’ was the very first Carr novel I read, and while I think it’s puzzle is no worse, even possibly better, than the titles I listed in the earlier message – I think it isn’t written as well. I read it side-by-side with ‘Plague Court Murders’, and there were times when I felt a cheese grater was put onto my eyes. The amount of screeching (and Merrivale wasn’t even in ‘Green Capsule’) slightly hurt my ears too. 😛

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      2. (Though I should clarify and defend ‘Green Capsule’ by adding that the cheese grater comment applied much more to ‘Plague Court’, and much less to ‘Green Capsule’.)

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  4. Spoilers
    It is interesting that you do not comment on Carr’s outright lie in chapter 1, which I’ve always seen as the main component in the low ratings this novel gets. In fact, it’s quite similar to “And So to Murder” in this regard, even though the latter at least has Merrivale explain the lie. Here there is no such thing.

    I don’t particularly care – I quite enjoy this book – but I did feel a bit cheated when the truth about the first chapter was revealed towards the end of the novel.

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    1. Spoilers
      I had actually read similar comments in other reviews, and it caused me to immediately question the statements towards the beginning of the book. With this in mind, I was very careful to pay attention to the wording that was used, and I wouldn’t say I consider Carr to have lied. He phrased things in such a way that you could very easily be misdirected, but I wouldn’t consider it a cheat or a lie. Carr used very similar misdirection in The Emperor’s Snuff Box, and that is commonly regarded to be a top tier book.
      Granted, just because I spotted the trick in the opening of the book, that didn’t mean I could be absolutely convinced as to who the killer was and how everything was done. That’s what is so great about Carr’s writing – even if you figure out one element of the puzzle, there are still a lot of additional mysteries remaining.

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      1. Spoilers indeed! Sorry for not indicating it better in my last post.

        I’d argue that there is quite a difference between the author telling me that it’s a fact (“admitted” or not) that someone did something, and the author writing a certain passage so that the careless reader will interpret it one way when in fact the text does not support that. To me, the former is a definite no-no, the latter is what mystery fiction is all about.

        If I cannot trust what the author tells me is a fact – as Carr does several times during his career, particularly in footnotes, and in each other case, he is truthful! – then what’s the point of trying to pit my wits against the author?

        One could certainly also argue that only the person who does something is the one who can admit it – otherwise it’s just hearsay. And obviously, the “admitted” culprit never does admit anything in the novel, it’s always someone else. But then it becomes a question of whether Carr’s choice of words is deliberately wrong and only used to fool the reader. To me, definitely a cheat.

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