The 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.
Plus….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.
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!)