Panic in Box C – John Dickson Carr

pacnicinboxcI’m taking a jump towards the end of Carr’s career as I return to our regularly scheduled program.  Published in 1966, Panic in Box C is the second to last Dr Fell story and the sixth to last novel by the author.  Popular consensus tends to regard the previous year’s House at Satan’s Elbow as the beginning of Carr’s end of career slide, although I have seen some reviewers state that they enjoyed Panic in Box C, Dark of the Moon, and The Ghosts’ High Noon.

Panic in Box C feels different than earlier Fell works, although there is also much that is the same.  At this point, the author had been living in the United States and focusing much of his output on historical mysteries.  Nearly 20 years has passed since the core run of well-regarded Fell and Merrivale novels.  The historical mysteries that filled the gap (as far as I’ve read) have been deep in research and adventure, but lighter on mystery.  You can somewhat feel that effect on Panic in Box C.  The fact that this is a Fell novel seems to result in Carr putting more focus on the mystery, yet he also applies a liberal sprinkling of trivia on wide range of subjects.

The story opens with Dr Fell crossing the stormy Atlantic on a voyage to New York.  Both he and his traveling companion (and point of view character) Phillip Knox are bound for the lecture circuit, which will take them throughout the States.  Joining them on the voyage is Margery Vane, a retired stage actress, and her small entourage.  A spirited conversation between the group in the lounge of the ship is interrupted when a mysterious figure fires a gun at the actress through a window.  The shot misses, but the assailant vanishes unseen.

A search of the ship’s passengers reveals no suspicious characters or gun.  “Then the whole thing’s just impossible,” exclaims one character, to which Knox replies “Yes.  Dr Fell has met impossibilities before.”  To which I thought, “uh, this had better not be the impossible crime, or I’m going to be angry.

Fortunately it wasn’t.  Knox and Fell reunite months later in Connecticut for an event that will provide the basis for much of the plot.  A long abandoned theatre has been renovated by Margery Vane and is set to open with a performance of Romeo and Juliet.  Knox tours the theatre on the night of the dress rehearsal and meets a cast of characters that we can be sure will form our ring of suspects.  Here we learn that the play is being performed with real weapons, with several characters wearing authentic working crossbows.

The play starts, and Knox can see Vane watching the rehearsal from one of several boxed seat enclosures on the upper level.  Midway through the play, a crossbow shot echoes out from the side of the theatre.  Upon breaking down the door to Box C, horrified witnesses find the actress lying dead, pierced through the heart by a crossbow bolt.

Herein lies the core impossible crime, although it could be considered light on impossibility.  The question is how a murderer could have fired such a conspicuous weapon in a theatre with multiple witnesses in the audience, plus actors on stage and musicians in the pit.  There is also the question of how the actress was struck in the back even though she was watching the show while seated in a chair.  How did the killer get her to stand and turn so that the fatal shot could be taken?

Clearly, this isn’t quite an “impossible” crime, more an improbable one.  It is unlikely the shot could have been made unseen, but well within the realm of possibility.  Yet, I think most readers will see through an obvious misdirection, the result of which actually makes the circumstances of the murder that much more baffling.  I’ll leave that part for the spoilers section, as Carr seemed to think this was a detail to reserve for the final stages of the book.  It’s worth mentioning though, as a reader will actually get a more interesting mystery than what appears on the surface.

Unfortunately, the murder doesn’t take place until nearly midway through the book.  The story was interesting enough up to then, but I did have a sense of The Man Who Could Not Shudder, where you feel like it’s taking forever to get to the meat of the mystery.

That isn’t to say the story drags.  There are a number of smaller mysteries, but they’d require a significant amount of explaining to make any sense.  In addition, Carr entertains us with historical facts ranging from Stonewall Jackson to why the Confederate Flag had 13 stars.  We get the history of crossbows – the bolts were called quarrels and actually had square-shaped tips for piercing heavy armor (as pictured on my book cover above).  We also learn the rules of fencing in the time of Romeo and Juliet and other trivia pertaining to the play.  This aspect reminded me of the research that Carr pours on the reader in such historical works as Fire, Burn.  It isn’t all roses though – one unnecessary chapter is devoted to various Ivy League college fight songs, as revelers at a bar work themselves into a near riot in a scene that the author must have felt played as comedy.

It isn’t just that Carr’s writing has changed over time, but the times have changed as well.  The 1960s were definitely more liberated, and lead to some scenes and conversations that would have left a 1940’s reader scandalized.  Apparently “goosing” was a big thing, and Carr’s characters employ it liberally.  We also get Dr Fell making unnatural feeling comments like “I dig.”

Panic in Box C comes nowhere close to the best of Carr, but it was by no means a bad experience.  The solution to the impossibility is fairly clever, although it relies on a ridiculous alibi.  I’d rate the book close to The Demoniacs in terms of quality – stronger on the traditional mystery, yet lacking the flare for adventure.  Panic in Box C provides a respectable mystery that receives proper focus, a plot that meanders yet never drags, and an interesting enough solution.  Enjoyable, but not a book that I’d recommend to someone merely flirting with the author.

Now for some spoilers.  It’s going to be difficult to discuss these without revealing some key aspects of the solution, so I encourage you to skip this section if you haven’t read the book.  If commenting below, please be sensitive to avoid spoilers and keep your comments cloaked in generalities.

Spoilers

I have to think that anyone reading the book realized immediately that the actress hadn’t actually been shot with the crossbow.  Well, at least not anyone who regularly reads this kind of story.  The funny thing is, the mystery is that much more impossible seeming if you accept that she wasn’t shot.  Now you have to figure out how a killer got in and out of a seemingly inaccessible box unnoticed.  I would have preferred if Fell had dropped this as a revelation several chapters after the murder, which would have pushed the pace along and refocused the investigation.  The addition of a map of the theatre could have also helped cement just how unreachable Box C was.

The murder method itself was actually pretty clever, although I question if it would have resulted in death.  The quarrel does have some sharp points, but it is blunt.  I’m not sure how heavy it was supposed to be, but I would think that it would have had to weigh a decent amount to penetrate so deeply.

The killer was well hidden from me because I latched on to the main detective as the culprit early on.  I know, I know, the detective should never be the killer!  Yet, at the time of the murder, you may remember that he was purposely following Knox, which led me to suspect that he was trying to give himself an alibi for a murder that he had already committed.  Given my focus on this, the actual killer wasn’t even remotely on my radar.

Speaking of suspects, the entire mystery surrounding the relationship between the wife and the actress got completely brushed off in the end.  Given the focus that this received throughout the book, I felt a little unsatisfied with the lack of attention to it at the conclusion.

End spoilers.

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16 thoughts on “Panic in Box C – John Dickson Carr”

  1. That’s very fair, I think. I remember feeling the book was generally reasonable, and better than that in places. The quality had dropped off from that of the peak years but it’s no dud either. I think you make a good point there about Fell (and the Golden Age characters in general) feeling a bit out of place in the rapidly changing world of the 60s.

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    1. Your comment reminds me of a detail I had noticed. Carr has always had a habit of describing the hat that people were wearing, which I assume is due to the older social standard of men always wearing hats outside. In Panic in Box C, I noticed that Carr mentions several times that certain characters aren’t wearing hats, which I suppose had become the norm by that time. It’s a very minor point, but an interesting detail.

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      1. Hats were still worn at that time but nowhere near as often so that’s an observation that rings true – older writers would notice a gradual change like that and thus be more likely to pass comment on it. Cop movies from the sixties show the slow shift away from hats if you look out for it – you can see Sinatra sporting a trilby in The Detective and Widmark doing the same in Madigan while McQueen goes hatless in Bullitt.

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  2. Haven’t read this one, Ben, but I have rad – and very much enjoyed – Dark of the Moon. It has been too long to remember the details, but it was a fun romp, as I recall.

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    1. Yeah, I’m looking forward to Dark of the Moon a bit based on a few positive comments that I’ve seen. I’m kind of suspecting that it will be in the same league as Panic in Box C. We shall see!

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  3. I’m glad to read this. I recently read Satan’s Elbow and while not top notch Carr, I thought it was decent. Maybe his late period novels aren’t quite as dreary as advertised.

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  4. I think most of Carr’s later works (not the Hungry Goblin) are quite readable, but they are nowhere near his brilliant best. I find the discussion of mathematics in Dark of the Moon especially amusing as a mathematician.

    It is definitely noticeable that Carr can write more openly about sex, something I am sure he would have wanted to all along.

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  5. The House at Satan’s Elbow, Panic in Box C and Dark of the Moon inexplicably brought Dr. Fell back for an encore after his last appearance, five years previously, in the very decent In Spite of Thunder. A book that really should have been his last recorded case. I know some like these three titles, but they always struck me as a sad after note on one of the great Golden Age detective series.

    Satan’s Elbow is dull and boring with an attempted murder in a locked room substituting for a proper murder, but the solution is embarrassingly simplistic and unworthy of Carr. Dark of the Moon only has the ghosts of everything that once great about Carr’s detective stories. Panic in Box C might as well be the best of these last three, but that’s not saying much. The impossibility concerning the crossbow bolt is based on an old principle and the method for entering the theater box was lifted from one of his famous short stories.

    So, no, I found these three titles to be disappointing at best. And that’s coming from a JDC fanboy who defended Behind the Crimson Blind.

    Interestingly, all of the flaws bugging these late titles tended to diminish in his historical fiction (e.g. The Ghosts’ High Noon).

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    1. Does that make The Witch of the Low Tide the last great traditional murder mystery by Carr? Technically it is a historical novel, but only by a few decades, and the progression of the plot is inline with what you might expect from a Fell or Merrivale book. Granted, TWotLT does have its flaws at the end, but I felt that overall it was fairly strong.

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  6. I just think it’s amazing I’ve found some places where I can read (and sometimes participate in) debates on the world’s greatest mystery author.

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