The Cross of Murder
Published 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.