Having worked through the Bencolin books in order, I’ve now reached the final destination – The Four False Weapons. Carr’s final outing with the detective comes not in a continuous run with his first four books, but after a six year hiatus. During this time, the author introduced us to Fell and Merrivale – the series detectives that would provide countless classics over the decades to come. More importantly, he had significantly refined his story telling. His deftness for atmosphere, with works like Hag’s Nook and The Red Widow Murders. His ability to deliver head spinning impossibilities, with The Hollow Man, The White Priory Murders, and The Unicorn Murders. Perhaps most important, his ability to build layer upon layer of story, with narratives like Death Watch and The Burning Court.
The Four False Weapons always jumped out at me. How could it not? The title alone invokes the what I love most about Carr – the suggestion that the author is going to directly challenge the reader with a series of clues that he openly admits are red herrings. The title harkens back to The Nine Wrong Answers and The Reader is Warned, although it’s worth noting that The Four False Weapons came first.
Carr absolutely delivers on the misdirection that the title promises. This isn’t an impossible crime, but it has all of the trappings that endear me to the genre. Instead of presenting us with a locked room or footprints in the snow, Carr thrust the reader into a bewildering crime scene so bloated with eyebrow raising clues that it becomes impossible to know what to make of any of it.
Rose Klonec is found dead in bed, having bled to death from an unusual cut on her arm. Despite the nature of the wound, there is no blood on her body, her nightgown, or in the bed. The room where she is found is littered with puzzling items. An ashtray filled with 10 cigarettes laid out in an even circle. An uneaten meal for two. A pair of pliers. These are just a sample of the oddities scattered among the crime scene. And of course, you have the four false weapons – a pistol, a dagger, a razor, and a partially used container of sleeping pills. Rest assured – this is no case of a criminal intentionally leaving behind a confusing crime scene. Each and every clue has a clear meaning and design.
The set up of the story was such that I expected Dr Fell to appear any moment. Instead we get Bencolin, or at least a lion-in-winter version of the detective. The once great juge d’instruction is now retired and living in a rural area on the outskirts of Paris. His introduction to the story is somewhat awkward – he pretty much just shows up at the scene immediately after the crime is discovered.
Missing is Jeff Marle, Bencolin’s steady sidekick in all four previous novels. In his place we get Richard Curtis, a visiting lawyer from London. Curtis has been called upon by Ralph Douglas, the owner of the villa where the crime occurs. The house should have been deserted, but someone seems to have been occupying it lately. The two arrive to investigate and stumble upon the crime scene.
The victim isn’t the only occupant of the supposedly empty house. A maid is there, and she swears that Douglas had been at the house the night before and even engaged in direct conversation with her. The maid reports that as she retired for the night, Douglas was preparing to bring a dinner tray up to Klonec…after he finished sharpening a straight razor.
To be clear, I’m only scraping the surface of the immense riddle that Carr throws at the reader. I could go on and on with weird clues and damning testimony, but I advise you – the less you know, the better.
From this puzzling opening, the story follows Curtis’s attempts to prove Douglas’s innocence, and his involvement in the case alongside Bencolin. The mystery is complex enough that Carr feeds the reader a steady dose of revelations, which helps give the book a brisk pace. With about a third of the book left, Becolin drops a bombshell that explains a significant amount of the puzzle, and yet opens the door for many more questions. From this point on, the story picks up a fevered pace. The last six chapters have enough packed in them for multiple book endings.
One interesting aspect of The Four False Weapons (giving away nothing) is how forensics plays a role in solving key details of the crime. Bencolin had used the labs of the Paris police in past books, but in this case, core aspects of the very solution hinges on what is determined via science. Of course, the detective still has his knack for divining the meaning of clues that render mere mortals like Marle or Curtis (plus the reader) stumped. This is about as complex of a solution that Carr has to offer, but it is all very much fair play.
Carr has furthered the humanizing of Bencolin that began in The Corpse in the Waxworks. The detective is somewhat a shadow of his original character, steeped with self doubt. Still, he seizes on the crime at the villa and his chance for one last great mystery. Personally, I didn’t see the need to transform Becolin’s character, with my opinion on the matter being best summed up by the detective’s own thoughts on ideal mystery fiction as recounted in The Lost Gallows: “The detective never errs, which is exactly what I want. I could never understand why writers wanted to make their detectives human beings, patient workers, liable to error…”
This is a minor qualm for me though. The Four False Weapons is an absolute triumph – easily the best of the Bencolin books. Published in 1938, the story stands alongside other greats from the same year – The Crooked Hinge and The Judas Window. Although perhaps not quite as accomplished as its brethren, it feels at home in the run of classics that Carr put out in the late 1930s. Is this a top 10 Carr offering? Mmm, not quite. It falls into the pack of books savagely pounding at the threshold. If you’re a casual enough Carr fan that you’re only looking to read the best of his work, definitely seek this one out.
I have a few more thoughts to share, but they border on spoilers. I’m not going to reveal any details as to how the crime was committed, but I will be discussing some things that could lessen your enjoyment of the book if you haven’t read it.
I absolutely love the multi-layered solution to this book. The way that what appears to be a single confounding mystery is actually the intersection of a number of only loosely related events. Not just loosely related events, but loosely related accidents. That Becolin could basically identify “the killer” and how it was done with almost 100 pages to go, and yet you still really only have the tiniest sliver of what really happened.
And talk about a complex solution. You could probably explain the puzzle and solution of The White Priory Murders to a friend in less than a minute (and it is brilliant in that regard). The Judas Window – that might take you two minutes – three if you added some of the more auxiliary aspects of the puzzle. I don’t know how you explain The Four False Weapons without just handing someone the entire book. My copy is 254 pages. You could probably scrape off 100 of them to get down to the skeleton of the puzzle and solution.
While fair play, there is no way anyone could realistically figure this one out. It would require immaculate attention to time tables and alibis. Even if you detected the gap in one person’s story, that would only give you a partial glimpse into what had taken place. To Carr’s credit though, there is a key clue in what happened at the Hill of Acorns that could allow you to spot the hole in multiple alibis.
I’m thinking this book will end up in my top 15 Carr works, although I fear that it will be the one that I forget the details of. I can pretty much recall all of the key elements of the author’s works that I’ve read so far, but this one is complex enough that I question if I’ll be able to remember it all.