The Four False Weapons

fourfalseweaponsHaving 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.

Spoilers

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.

End spoilers

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19 thoughts on “The Four False Weapons”

  1. I’m happy you noticed that interesting bit 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…” I found a very similar comment in Carr’s The Eight of Swords, which I looked at last month. (https://noah-stewart.com/2017/01/15/the-eight-of-swords-by-john-dickson-carr-1934/) My contention is that Carr was … let’s use a non-value-laden term here and say “commenting” on the Humdrum school and particularly Freeman Wills Crofts. Lost Gallows is 1931 and Eight of Swords is 1934; apparently he took a couple more shots at FWC in other volumes, but I can’t cite them (yet LOL). Keep your eyes open during your magnificent project 😉
    I think you’ve summed up Four False Weapons perfectly when you say that you can’t explain it to them without handing them the whole book. That to me is its biggest drawback; it’s simply too complicated. I’ve never had the sense that Carr was using this book to “shut down” Bencolin … there could easily have been another volume in the series, it’s just that Carr had lost interest in Parisian catacombs and was more into everyday frights. He got bored with Bencolin, and I think this volume is where he shows it.

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    1. It would have been interesting to see Carr return to Bencolin one last time in the 1940s. Although Carr had a classic run in the late 1930s, I think we can all agree that he neared perfection of his craft with some of the 1940s titles – he just wasn’t cranking out as many books per year.

      I don’t mind being done with the Bencolin. Although I enjoyed the books, I never looked forward to them in the same way that I anticipate a Fell/Merrivale title.

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    1. I had kind of assumed you had read all of Carr, as you seem to have read pretty much everything I have reviewed so far. Of course, I’m still getting started. How much of Carr do you still have left to read? Are there any major books you haven’t read yet?

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      1. Let’s see, the unread stuff published as John Dickson Carr are, I think:
        The Problem of the Wire Cage
        The Man Who Could Not Shudder
        The Devil in Velvet
        Capt Cutthroat
        Fire, Burn!
        The Dead Man’s Knock
        In Spite of Thunder
        Most Secret
        The House at Satan’s Elbow
        Deadly Hall
        Hungry Goblin

        As for the Carter Dickson titles:
        The Unicorn Murders
        The Ten Teacups (Peacock Feather)
        Fatal Descent
        And So to Murder
        Nine and Death Makes Ten
        Seeing is Believing
        The Curse of the Bronze Lamp
        My Late Wives
        A Graveyard to Let
        Night at the Mocking Widow

        So, the answer is loads still to go!

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      2. Yes, I try to ration them and keep a few for a figurative rainy day. Of course, there are also titles I read so long ago (no, not last month!) that I’ve forgotten virtually everything about them – I sometimes think I may never have to buy another new book again.

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  2. I enjoy this one for the same reason I take so much away from Death Watch — you’re encouraged to postulate on a situation where it appears there’s simply no explanation that will fit, and then Carr rolls out smash after smash of brilliant ways that al these events came to overlay each other so that he ended up with the situation you were first presented with. And, amidst all this, it still remains so damn clear what’s going on, you’re never thrown for a loop to deliberately confuse you so that you’ll forget something and he won’t have to explain it — once you boil it doen to those 150+ pages, it supports itself brilliantly. It’s a virtuoso performance, it really is.

    The Eight of Swords, mentioned above, does the same thing, and I maintain that these three books — despite no impossiblility among them — represent the type of book Carr was trying to perfect in the first flush of his career. I very much see this as the first tranche of his writing, how he builds up from the Bencolins, introduced Fell and H.M., gradually makes them more complex and layered, and then finally works out how to nail this type of plot and so returns to Bencolin to underscore how perfectly he’s worked out how to write this kind of book: made it, Ma, top of the world, Ma…

    I will be very intersted to see what you make of To Wake the Dead, published the same year (in fact, his very next book, I believe) because that does the same thing less successfully…which weirdly contradicts what I said above, I know. I think he had a few ideas from this process left over and tried to turn them into something — a bit like the various threads that don’t quite gel in The Peacock Feather Murders, despite being individually superb — and see as a sort of mental tidying up exercise rather than a “proper” novel. I say this, because then you hit a run of awesomeness that concludes with TPot Green Capsule and feels like another deliberate step in refining his technique.

    But that is perhaps a discussion for another time…!

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    1. Death Watch is the perfect analogy to The Four False Weapons and you’ve captured the reasons well. The former has a strong element of “everyone is lying”, whereas the later has a strong sense of “this is the strangest set of clues ever.” I’d rate the books about equally, although I think the scales are slightly tipped in Death Watches favor due to Fell’s personality.

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  3. Quoting a part of your review: “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.”

    Why is that something to fear? That sounds like a blessing to me, because then a re-read will be just like reading it the first time again. I tend to remember most solutions to books I’ve read, so anytime I re-read a mystery novel and don’t remember what happened, it’s just a great feeling. 🙂

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  4. Thanks for the review, and I’ve been anticipating your take on this title given that I’ve heard good things about it. I like to save the best of each of Carr’s sleuths for the last, so I shall leave this Bencolin title to the end of my journey with Carr… Which title would you say is the next best Bencolin entry after this one?

    “Is this a top 10 Carr offering? Mmm, not quite. It falls into the pack of books savagely pounding at the threshold.”

    Will eagerly await to see which titles eventually squeeze their way – after stepping brutally on top of those pounding at the threshold – into your top ten rankings. 😛 Though I suppose you will only formulate the rankings at the end of your journey with Carr?

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    1. Yeah, I’ll be holding off on my top 10 until I’ve at least made it through 90% of the books. I have a feeling it will be safe for me to make the list without reading The Hungry Goblin.

      Next best Bencolin…hmm. I will be doing a post this week or next looking back at the whole journey, and I’ll probably cover that topic then.

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    2. I’d recommend either “Waxworks” or “Castle Skull”. The earlier two (“It Walks by Night” and “Lost Gallows”) still generate the feeling of a writer still trying to find his way, his true voice.

      These two later ones are more “Carrian”, and though they both have a tendency of producing the murderer out of a hat, there are many clever bits that compensate for the arbitrariness of the murderer’s identity.

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  5. Great review, excited to start this myself, what a great premise!

    I wonder why he decided to bring Bencolin back for one last book? Do you think it’s because the idea was pretty unique and felt he needed Bencolin on it? But then again you said you were waiting for Fell to walk in. Do you have any note knowledge on that?

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    1. I’m really interested in the answer to that question myself. The set up of the mystery felt very Fell-ian I don’t quite know how to quantify that. Although many people talk about Fell and Merrivale as being interchangeable, I think there is a big difference and I’ve noticed that Carr reserved certain types of mysteries for each detective. That isn’t to say that it is a defined line – Seeing is Believing is very similar in set up to The Problem of the Green Capsule, and yet it is Merrivale instead of Fell.

      JJ offers an interesting hypothesis in comments up above – that Carr had refined his non-impossible crime form, and thus chose to return to Bencolin, as the layering of story somewhat matches what Carr was going for in his earlier efforts.

      Or, I could imagine a publisher say “hey, now that you are famous, we could sell a lot of books with a ‘return to Bencolin’.”

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