It’s funny how some books don’t really draw your attention. With 70+ John Dickson Carr books to choose from, some stand out as obvious reads. Others have a reputation as being the bottom of the barrel. Then there is the great middle ground. Even there, some books just jump out at me more than others. Perhaps it is the title, the cover art, or just the brief background that I know about the story. Who knows what my brain is up to, but it’s up to something
The Gilded Man is a prime example of my brain saying “I’m not interested in reading that book”, and I couldn’t even tell you why. Some part of me probably came to that conclusion when I had an awkwardly high TBR pile on my desk and I had to make some priority decisions. And then that reputation just stuck, and the book sat there, way down on my reading list…until now (cue dramatic music).
I was reorganizing my stack, as I’m known to do, and suddenly it struck me – “what is this doing way down there?” Here we have a 1942 Merivale novel, languishing in obscurity. 1942. You know, the year after The Case of the Constant Suicides. The year before She Died a Lady. The year of The Emperor’s Snuff Box. This is classic Carr era, and if I’m looking to draw out the sure hits that remain in my pile, why not take a chance on a “lesser” work that falls in this sweet spot.
I didn’t know much about The Gilded Man when I cracked it open – something about a burglary and a weird house. My ignorance was rewarding – the beginning of this book is so much fun if you don’t know what’s coming. With that in mind, let me do a bit of an upfront review for those who have yet to read the title, and then I’ll dive a bit deeper in.
The Gilded Man is short and to the point. My copy runs 160 pages and it wastes no time drawing you into the story. In fact, Carr doesn’t waste much time with anything. He lays out an intriguing crime with multiple layers of mystery and then layers it with an enjoyable romance, well stitched comedy, and even a section on how magic tricks are performed. Yes, those later elements sound like filler, but Carr works them into the story with such deft hands that it all moves so tightly and everything fits.
Well, wait, let me pause and provide a little perspective, because I may be getting carried away. I just finished slogging through 600 pages of heavy police investigation in Ellery Queen’s first two books – The Roman Hat Mystery and The French Powder Mystery. I was dying for an added dimension to a story. Two chapters into The Gilded Man and I was in love – this is what draws me to Carr’s work time and time again, aside from the impossibilities. The wit, the comedy of manners, the atmosphere, and those weird hooks of plot that capture the imagination.
Don’t let me oversell the book. The mystery isn’t Carr’s strongest, not by a mile. What you do get though is the author in peak form of story telling, midway through the heights of his writing that stretched from 1935 (Death Watch and The Hollow Man) to 1946 (He Who Whispers). He didn’t hit it out of the park with every title during that period (as much as I enjoyed The Man Who Could Not Shudder, it dragged for the first half), but for the most part his plotting was at its best.
In short, if this title is sitting on the shelf, wasting away in obscurity, make sure to give it a try. It was a nice little find and a fun quick read.
Ok, now into the details – spoiler free of course, but exposing details that are surprising in early chapters if you go in blind.
Despite the title, The Gilded Man involves no victim encased in gold. Instead it follows the events of a bungled burglary in strange mansion surrounded by snow. The dwelling, once owned by a famed actress, is a Frankenstein of unique housing styles cobbled together, complete with a secluded theatre on the entire top floor. A number of house guests are gathered for the week in anticipation of a New Year’s house party, and we realize early on that not everyone is who they appear to be.
The current owner of the dwelling, Dwight Stanhope, has a collection of expensive paintings, one of which depicts El Dorado – Spanish for “The Gilded Man”. This painting is the target of a burglary late one cold night. The theft is interrupted, and when the house guests rush to investigate the clamor, they find the thief stabbed and unconscious. Pulling back the mask provides a shock – the burglar is none other than Dwight Stanhope.
Of course Dwight will lay unconscious for the foreseeable future, leaving us with two key questions. First, why was he robbing his own house? Insurance seems like an obvious answer, but as the story progresses, we learn that it is less and less likely. The second question is who stabbed Dwight? The house is surrounded by untouched snow (save for the burglar’s own footprints), which implies that the attacker came from within.
This isn’t an impossible crime by any means, but we do have plenty of intrigue and a closed circle of suspects. The point of view character on hand (Nicholas Wood) is a detective working for Chief Inspector Masters, and he slaps together an initial investigation until help can arrive. That help comes in the form of Carter Dickson’s stalwart investigator Henry Merrivale, who arrives under somewhat contrived circumstances.
The Merrivale of The Gilded Man is starting to show a glimmer of the lampooned caricature of the detective that would firmly take hold with the following title, She Died a Lady. His introduction to the story is via a snowball to the face, and a later scene has him performing as a magician in front of a captivated audience of children. Still, these swerves into comedy are on respectable grounds and don’t detract from the story as they would in later years. In fact, the magician scene plays tightly into the ultimate solution of the story and doesn’t feel like needlessly tacked on comedy filler.
Let me be clear, it isn’t all roses. Despite it seeming to be completely obvious that the stabbing was committed by a member of the household, no one really seems to be disturbed by this notion. The mystery of who in the closed circle committed the crime is interesting, but doesn’t even touch on the heights of impossibilities dreamed up in other Carr works.
The ending definitely leaves a bit to be desired. There is a trick to the whole puzzle, which is often the case when Carr gives you a seemingly conventional mystery (Death Watch, Castle Skull, The Mad Hatter Mystery,…). In this case, the trick is the first thing that popped into my mind when the crime occurred, and I dismissed it on the grounds of being too obvious. The solution is still worthy of a smile, and the villain is respectably hidden.
Overall, The Gilded Man may fall towards the bottom half of Carr’s work, but I think that just speaks to how good he is. The story was an absolute joy to read and I’ll happily recommend it. While it may have fallen short by Carr’s standards in the mystery/solution department, the plotting more than makes up for it.