The Bowstring Murders

bowstringmurdersBefore there was Merrivale and Carter Dickson, there was Carr Dickson.  You see, John Dickson Carr was cranking out books at such a ridiculous rate that he was producing more than his publisher would bear (2 books a year).  Rather than let up the gas or build a backlog, Carr created his first pseudonym and started releasing works under another publisher.  The Bowstring Murders was the first of these efforts, and the only work published under the name Carr Dickson.  His original publisher complained that the name was too similar, so Carr adopted the much less similar Carter Dickson.  Superman himself would be proud of such a clever disguise.

The Bowstring Murders catches Carr at an interesting transition in his early career.  He’s recently wrapped up his main Bencolin works, only resurrecting the detective once more in 1938’s The Four False Weapons.  1933 has given us the first two Dr Gideon Fell works – Hag’s Nook and The Mad Hatter Mystery – providing a glimpse of the fledgling series detective.  We stand at the precipice of greatness – 1934 will start a landslide of killer puzzles that doesn’t let up for the better part of a decade.  The early Merrivale works will find Carr at a completely new level in terms of the impossibilities that he offers.

The setting for The Bowstring Murders is Bowstring Castle, owned by the erratic Lord Rayle.  Unlike the atmospheric castle settings of Castle Skull and Hag’s Nook, this is a much tamer locale, more along the lines of a museum.  There are no horrors of the past here; no dripping dungeons, no rats, nor fantastic storms.

Instead, we have an impressive dwelling, albeit a dark one.  Lord Rayle likes to kick it old school and eschews electric lights in favor of candles – tons of them.  The castle is well known for its armory, which houses Lord Rayle’s vast collection of weapons and armor from the ages.  It is in this armory where a puzzling crime occurs.

Lord Rayle storms through the library past several witnesses and barges into the armory, slamming the door behind him.  Some twenty minutes later, his daughter – who has been in the expansive and completely dark armory the entire time – stumbles upon his body.  He lays in an odd slumped position, strangled to death with the bowstring of a crossbow – a bowstring that had been stolen from the armory weeks earlier, along with a pair of gauntlets.

The fact that there is no way in or out of the armory other than the door by the library (which was under constant supervision), makes this somewhat of a locked room mystery.  Well, other than the fact that the daughter was in said locked room at the time of the murder.  In a sense, we have a variation on The Judas Window or Below Suspicion, where we only have an impossible crime if we believe the story of the one obvious suspect.  The armory is very large, it was nearly pitch black, and there is the constant thunder of a nearby waterfall that makes hearing difficult.  It is entirely conceivable that the daughter could have missed a murder take place, but then how did the killer escape?

There is one detail that sweetens the mystery a bit for me.  There actually is a well known second exit to the armory, but unbeknownst to the members of the household, it had been nailed shut from both sides by Lord Rayle in one of his harebrained schemes.  As such, we have the strong possibility of an accidental impossible crime, wherein the killer may have wanted people to assume that the other exit had been used for escape.  This is a theme that Carr touches on in several of his books, and for me it has created some of the finest moments of realization.  We typically assume that a murderer has created an impossible situation to avoid detection, but in several cases, Carr’s villains find themselves having blundered into the creation of an impossibility that itself endangers their plans.  I’d love to list several examples of other books, but I think that it risks giving them away.  In the case of The Bowstring Murders, the realization of the possibility of an accidental impossible crime is exposed early on.

The story itself follows Michael Tairlaine, who would later appear in The Red Widow Murders – a Merrivale novel.  Tairlaine is a guest of Bowstring Castle and is one of the witnesses to the circumstances surrounding the murder.  Well, murders.  This is called The Bowstring Murders after all.  Several more deaths occur, and in somewhat typical Carr fashion for auxiliary deaths, they don’t involve an additional impossibility.

John Gaunt, a retired (and somewhat disgraced) detective is known to be nearby and is called in to assist the local police with the puzzling case.  Gaunt is a legend as an investigator and has a history of solving crimes almost immediately based on intuition alone.  In fact, this is somewhat a sticking point for the detective – he rejects the notions of modern forensic techniques and instead relies on his gut.  Interestingly enough, there is a passage early on that implies that Gaunt had recently clashed with Bencolin regarding the use of forensics for solving crimes.  This ties the Carr detective world fully together – both Fell (Death Watch) and Gaunt make mention of Bencolin, and Tairlaine appears in a later Merrivale book.

Gaunt is a likable enough detective; fairly normal other than his alcoholism.  He is no overbearing enigma like Merrivale or Fell, fitting into a scene rather than dominating it.  The most comparable Carr detective in personality might be Dermot Kinross from The Emperor’s Snuff Box.  Yet, unlike Kinross, Gaunt has the Fell/Merrivale/Bencolin-like capability to instantly divine the solution.

The story itself is nicely done.  The impossible nature of the puzzle gets center stage, and the additional murders keeps the pace moving nicely.  Lord Rayle’s character provides a good example of Carr doing humor well, as opposed to the heavy handed slapstick of later Merrivale novels.  Once particular scene, involving the victim dictating a letter to his lawyer, is probably Carr’s funniest work aside from The Case of the Constant Suicides.

As far as comparing The Bowstring Murders to another Carr work, hmm… I’d probably go with Hag’s Nook without the atmosphere and historical mystery angle.  The author provides a solid story that stands on an intriguing locked room mystery, and remains engaging on the back of an adequate pace.  We’re given a small enough cast of suspects that I’d had the luxury of contemplating just how the eventual guilty party could have pulled things off, but I still couldn’t make the pieces fit.  Everything is fairly played in the end, although Carr provides such a delightful twist that I never would have gotten it, despite key elements of the solution being waved directly in my face.

My biggest complaint is that we don’t get a map.  The castle is fairly large and key scenes take place in various locations, but it’s hard to get a good understanding of their proximity to each other.  Midway through, a character draws a floor plan for Gaunt, but we never get to see it.  I would have died to learn that other editions of the book included a map, but my research so far indicates that one was never published.  I did track down an interesting attempt at a recreation, available here.

I’d be delighted if there were more Gaunt novels.  The detective was enjoyable enough, and I don’t always need a character as over the top as Merrivale/Fell.  I’m curious why Carr abandoned him.  I rule out the possibility that The Bowstring Murders was intended as a Fell story, with the detective changed simply to go with a different publisher.  Fell is such a different personality that Carr would have had to have accomplished a massive rewrite.  I wouldn’t entirely rule out this being a repurposed Bencolin story – Gaunt is staying at a nearby hotel, so it is conceivable the french inspector could have been on vacation.  Both characters are tall and fairly similar in manner.  I doubt it though – I’m willing to bet Carr was just exploring a new character.

The Bowstring Murders is an interesting yet brief chapter in Carr’s career.  I’ll happily recommend it to anyone who has read a handful of the author’s works.  The mystery is really engrossing, the pacing is respectable, and the solution offers everything I’m hoping to get out of this type of book.  I do have a few more thoughts, but they’ll rely on spoilers.  I’m not going to give away the trick to the puzzle, but I will be discussing some factors that would detract from the mystery of reading the book.  Speaking of spoilers – be careful about reading other reviews of this book.  After I finished it, I read through several other blog reviews and noticed that some make an analogy to the ending of another mystery – an analogy that could possibly point you in the direction of one key aspect of the solution.  You still wouldn’t figure it all out though!

Spoilers

Man, we really could have used a map.  Like, really.  Location and proximity were critical to how the crimes played out.  The map wouldn’t have helped me solve the puzzle, but it would have contributed some additional forehead smacking when the solution was revealed.

On another note, I don’t understand the lack of focus on the daughter.  She should have been suspect #1, but she pretty much disappears from the story right after the body is discovered.  Carr could have played up the “did she?” angle a lot more if he had kept her in the story and maybe made her a suspicious romantic interest.

As for the killer – I thought long and hard about how the guilty party could have pulled the crime off.  They were one of my top suspects, but I just didn’t see two important elements coming – the timing and the detail about identity.  The timing element was beautifully done by Carr – he had me so fixated on the crime that it never dawned on me to think about what was going on beforehand.

End Spoilers

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20 thoughts on “The Bowstring Murders”

  1. I would have loved a map with this — diagram mad, I am — but I didn’t feel I had a difficult time keeping track of things without it. In fact, having looked at that map you’ve linked above, I think it may have made things less helpful! But then, I do also remember one particular point (the placement of a certain item, let’s say — wink, wink) that could have been perhaps a little clearer (or, y’know, possibly I wasn’t paying attention).

    On the subject of that map…hoe much does the person who drew it do this book down, eh? And if you dislike it that much — “a careless and sloppy piece of hack work” indeed, I should take my horsewhip to you — why got the effort of reading it so closely in an attempt to provide a map? I’m not poring through Galdys Mitchell books trying to draw maps of the villages they’re set in. Sheesh, hair shirt much?

    Anyway, I digress. I love this book — it was an early one for me, and completely unheralded, and it took me by surprise in the best possible way. Interesting idea you have about Gaunt being a replacement for Bencolin, too, I never considered that. But I feel somehow that there’s not the whiff of sulphur enough about this case to rouse Henri from his arrondissement and Carr was done with him for the time being, pastures new for someone a bit more likeable and easy-going. I’d have liked more Gaunt, but I can see that he doesn’t really fit Carr’s remit; the ordinary men are typically those who get swept up in the story, and his sleuths have to be larger than life to provide the necessary bluster and force to see the thing through.

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    1. In reading other reviews of The Bowstring Murders, I was surprised to discover that quite a few people really don’t like the book (the map maker included). I find that surprising – it’s a solid meat and potatoes Carr locked room mystery. It’s not at the level of his best by any means, but it was thoroughly enjoyable and delivered what I’m looking for.

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      1. The motivations for the second (and possibly third?) murder is rock solid, too, as opposed to the occasional “Hmmm, she must have seen something…” or the old “I know who the killer is! But I’ll tell you tomorrow morning after sleeping in my unlocked room in the isolated wing of the house with the window open. And I’ll take a sleeping draught, too, because I’m tired from securing all the flooboards and oiling the hinges to my door so nothing makes any noise now”.

        But, well, people like what they like, sometimes in the face of frank reason. I’m tempted to look at this one again in some depth, because I remember it being really good and am noe extra curious how I’d respond to it with a lot more Carr under my belt.

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      1. It is a great site and one that I consult every time I finish a book. His reviews typically contain some spoilers (as brief as they are), so I caution you to only read reviews for the books you’ve already read.

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      2. Haha, thanks — already learned that the hard way elsewhere several years ago; caution is now my modus operandi anywhere new, but I appreciate you confirming it in this case.

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  2. Hmm, I read this again not that long ago – September last year – and liked it a bit better that time, but I still think it has some weaknesses. The puzzle of the first murder is smart enough but I found it not all that unexpected if anyone has read enough of these impossible crime stories.
    Also I found Gaunt somewhat colorless. He was OK but not as dominant as I would have liked and I got the feeling that Carr only fixed on him as the main detective when he was half way through the book – it almost Tairlaine was being prepped as a ‘tec and then Carr thought he was far too dull and instead introduced the slightly less dull Gaunt.
    As for him being a replacement for Bencolin, have a look at the cover of the Zebra edition of the book (the one which actually reinstates the Carr Dickson pseudonym) and there is, to my eyes anyway, a slight similarity to the imagining of Gaunt and that of Bencolin from the same publisher – Gaunt looks more conventional, naturally, but even so…

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      1. Fell isn’t too bad in them, in my opinion and I reckon Bencolin is quite well rendered. I feel IPL did a better job when it comes to Merrivale though.

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  3. This book sounds like another beauty, you keep drawing me to different Carr’s that I don’t know where to go next! (Not really a problem, actually it gives me more to be excited to get to).

    What I am really happy you brought up here is the ‘accidental impossible crime’ angle. I think that is such an interesting idea in locked room stories, and one of my favourite types. Crispin in one of his book makes reference to ‘the one that Fell missed out in his locked room lecture’ in one of his brilliant impossibles. I’d love to do a whole post about that strand of locked rooms, but again as you said it would give away solutions.

    But of the top of my head I’ve seen Crispin, Hoch and Renwick use this the best so far. And it was nice to read that Carr uses it as a subversion as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There are other two Carr works that I can think of that involve accidental impossible crimes. You haven’t reviewed them on your site, and I can’t recall whether we’ve discussed you reading them.

      The first one that I encountered sent my head spinning. The impossibility was so amazingly air tight, and I stretched my imagination to grasp at how a villain could accomplish such a feat. And then, to learn that it was an accident, and actually put the villain’s plan’s in jeopardy… Ah, the finer things in life.

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  4. For JJ: (There’s no reply button under his reply to my previous post…)
    Grobius Shortling was quite an opinionated fellow – I was a member of a GAD mail discussion list which he also subscribed to, and his mails were always worth reading.

    As you can see on the site, he also created a map for “Castle Skull”. I seem to remember that he made some others as well, but that may just be my memory failing me.

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