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

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35 thoughts on “The Judas Window”

  1. Clearly, Ben, I would like to meet you . . . r family! What a ball we would have discussing the superior mystery writer.

    But Judas Window is my very favorite Carter Dickson title . . . and I’ve read two of them. Halfway through She Died a Lady, and I think I can predict that the standings won’t change yet.

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  2. Thanks for the reviews – they are making me re-think my recollections of various Carr novels. I recall reading ‘Judas Window’ after ‘Plague Court Murders’, and I definitely liked it (alot) more than the first Merrivale novel, but I still didn’t think it was especially great. If I had to do a Christie vs. Carr showdown I wouldn’t pick ‘Judas Window’ for an even fight… Of the Merrivale titles I’ve read, I thought ‘She Died a Lady’ and ‘Nine – and Death Makes Ten’ were better written, even if the core mysteries were not significantly superior. Then again, thanks to your recommendation, I would say for now the best Merrivale puzzle I’ve read is ‘Unicorn Murders’, and the best Merrivale novel is ‘Nine – and Death Makes Ten’. 😀

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  3. I’m a fan of this in many ways, but I still think the mid-novel reveal about the victim’s unaccountable volte-face regarding Answell is a by far superior reveal to that of the locked room trick…and for me the rest of the book was a little — only a little, mind — damp thereafter. I’m also not comfortable with one key development right at the end, but that’s gigantic spoiler talk.

    For the most part it is a very, very, very strong puzzle, and I should probably give it another look (I’ll never finish Carr at this rate…), but I am a little mystified at how people fall over themselves to love it and place it at the top Carr table. I just don’t see it alongside Green Capsule (the book!), Till Death, He Who Whispers, She Died a Lady, and even Plague Court, Bowstring Murders, etc. It’s rather more of a to Wake the Dead in my eyes — ingenious and masterfully structured, but flawed in its central enterprise enough to niggle at the mind once finished.

    But that volte-face, man, that’s genius pure and simple.

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    1. “…but I am a little mystified at how people fall over themselves to love it and place it at the top Carr table.

      Well, you can certainly make a case that Carr wrote mystery novels that were superior in terms of plot and characters, but The Judas Window is also a courtroom drama, which people love, with H.M. in the role of barrister for the defense. A role he played masterfully. It enhanced every other aspect of the book and elevated it to the top of the pile. And the fact that H.M. would never again appear in that role also made it special.

      So that’s pretty much the reason why people hold the book in such high regard and not entirely unjustified.

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      1. I’m not saying it’s unjustified, but for me there are better books that get easily overlooked, possibly on account of not having been reprinted in the last few years as this was; once again, let me point out my own oddness with regard to Carr’s works — I love Death-Watch and The Man Who Could Not Shudder, for pity’s sake — and the fact that I feel this is still very very good, as I say, and definitely in that top tranche, but the eulogising of it feels a bit like learned behaviour for my tastes.

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    2. I just don’t see it alongside Green Capsule (the book!), Till Death, He Who Whispers, She Died a Lady, and even Plague Court, Bowstring Murders, etc.

      Wow! I don’t believe I’ve seen Bowstring elevated to that kind of company before. I tried to like it better, and it’s not a poor book, but I can’t see how it could be considered to belong anywhere other than the lower middle rank – the murderer and the method of their concealment/bluff is very obvious to anyone who read even a few mysteries. And Gaunt is dull in the extreme, and it honestly looked for a time like Carr couldn’t decide whether to make him of Tairlaine the detective in the story.

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      1. I’m hoping that Colin is wrong on this one. I’ve been struggling to abstain from immediately reading The Bowstring Murders ever since I got my hands on a copy. It’s currently #3 on my TBR, so we’ll see soon enough!

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      2. I admit that I have a slight personal affinity for Bowstring because it was the first non-famous Carr I read and it completely caught me out in a couple of key regards — not least the way that after the first murder you then get another one in a way that’s actually relevant to the plot rather than just tossing in some intrigue, and the crucial nature of the geography of the castle that you’re left to work out (and is fairly communicated, too, AFAIR). But then, the response we have to books is entirely subjective; I#m not denying anyone their right to this being a favourite, just don’t see it as the top top-tier dweller that its typically made out to be.

        But then again, I loved The Ten Teacups until I reread it recently, so frankly what do I knbow, eh?

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      3. You’re right about the subjectivity of these things and, regarding Bowstring, I also think you have a point on the second murder being relevant to the plot – it’s better technically too.
        In the last few years, I’ve gone back to reread a few titles I thought I’d maybe judged too harshly before or hadn’t been in the right mood for. In most cases I found my second visit was a happier one and brought more enjoyment. Bowstring was one where I felt my original impression was borne out though.

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      4. Given my inability to just get on and read the Carrs I haven’t yet, evinced by the large amount of rereading I seem to be doing, I’ll doubtless get back to this before too long and find that memory has played tricks on me again. Anybody would think I don’t pay attention first time around or something…

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      5. Seeing as I blithely forget details (like who the culprit is!) even some time after the second reading, people might suppose I wasn’t paying attention either. Still, at least I haven’t reached the point of not recalling actually having read the books. Yet.

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    3. …so you’re saying I should read To Wake the Dead!!!

      I personally see She Died a Lady to be the slightly over rated one. The puzzle is top notch, the plot is pretty good, the comedy is slapstick, the trick is adequate but not great, and the killer – well, that part’s brilliant.

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      1. To Wake the Dead is great, insanely dense and kinda borderine impossible, but there’s one very frustrating aspect of the plotting that doesn’t become apparent until the end and left me feeling a bit…well, cheated may not be to strong a word. It’s one that flies under the radar for a reason, because it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny in every single regard, but it has that classic-era construction that’s near-perfection in Carr’s hands.

        And, I mean, you;re gonna read it at some point anyway, so there’s no special rush… 🙂

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    4. I find that the best of the Merrivale titles don’t seem to compare with the best of the Fell titles I’ve read – I thought ‘Death-Watch’ and ‘Till Death Do Us Part’ were a league ahead of ‘Nine – and Death Makes Ten’ and ‘She Died a Lady’. In particular, I read ‘Till Death’ and ‘She Died’ side by side – and thought the former was clearly superior.

      I can see why ‘Green Capsule’ and ‘Till Death’ might outstrip ‘Nine’, but I definitely preferred ‘Nine’ to ‘Plague Court’ – I think ‘Plague Court’ was the worst of all the Carr titles I’ve read.

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      1. Oops, this is what happens when I have two blog posts open side by side – replace ‘Nine’ with ‘Judas Window’… And I agree with JJ wholeheartedly regarding the middling nature of ‘Judas Window’. 😛

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      2. Well… By the time I started on Carr I had read sufficient reviews to keep a wide berth from ‘And So to Murder’, ‘Mocking Widow’, ‘Papa La-Bass’ and ‘Patrick Butler’. But if they are any worse than ‘Plague Court’ then I definitely want to keep a _very_ wide berth…!

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  4. This is definitely one of my favourite Carr novels and he does the court room drama so well, as I have read a few authors who make this type of scene quite dull. I much prefer this book to The Crooked Hinge or The Burning Court and there are other Carrs I would also put above them as well.

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  5. Great review, was really looking forward to this one. I felt much the same as you, and I’m really glad you brought it up, that the solution was grand but that I also had to re-read the paragraph about 5 times. I think this revealed it to be a solid solution, but with the pace of the book being so fast, with those gut wrenching cliff hangers and revelations, I really wanted the solution to hit home with the same speed. I think that does make things a little deflating (and I mean little) compared to other works that people may prefer, so i can understand some of the sentiments on here. However it is still a solid solution, and a great and original(?) trick.

    In saying all that, it’s not really a huge thing to fault, and the reveal certainly isn’t on the mad side of complex like Ellery Queen’s Chinese Orange Mystery for example, I must have read that solution ten times and I still couldn’t understand it.

    And by the way I love maps in locked rooms books, I’m going to do a post about that soon, unless someone else (JJ/TomCat) hasn’t got to it already.

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