Before 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!
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.