Captain Cut-Throat – John Dickson Carr (1955)

CaptainCutThroat3Avast ye swabs!  Batten down the hatches!  Tonight we set sail on the high seas with John Dickson Carr’s Captain Cut-Throat!

Oh….er…you say there aren’t any pirates?  Well, forgive me for thinking so.  I’ve collected a number of copies of this book (as evidenced by my cover shots) completely by accident.  With 70+ books, the most economical means for collecting Carr’s works has been to buy in bulk.  My very first parcel of Carr included a copy of Captain Cut-Throat, and down to the very bottom of the pile it went.  I simply wasn’t interested.

I came into the works of the author with a singular focus – I wanted impossible crimes and his most famous titles provided the perfect blend of what I was looking for.  Why read a novel that trades impossibilities for a historical action romp?  I might as well read some random swashbuckler books from authors I’ve never heard of.  Sorry, but not my thing.

Of course, I didn’t understand at that point how much I’d enjoy this type of novel.  It wasn’t until I mistook Fire, Burn for The Burning Court that I grasped that Carr could provide me with something that I didn’t even know that I wanted.  In the historical, I encountered swashbuckling romps that while thin on mystery, more than made up for it in intrigue.  Repeat that last sentence to me before I had read one and I’d say “no thanks, not interested”.

Perhaps that’s what’s so hard to explain about Carr’s historical novels – just how fun they are.  You have the author’s heavy focus on historical minutia, mixed with an action element that he somehow never made work in his traditional “modern” impossible crime novels (see The Unicorn Murders).  It all comes together in these late career books to create a compelling page-turner incomparable to any of his standard affair.

captaincutthroat2For a Carr historical, Captain Cut Throat hits the nail on the head.  In terms of action and intrigue, this may be his finest outing.  I’ll deduct a few points because the customary impossible crime is fairly thin, but then again, Carr doesn’t even try to make it a major element of the story.  The puzzle takes the backseat to a rich plot that just begs to be made into a movie.

We find ourselves in the Boulogne, France of 1805.  Napoleon’s forces are heaped upon the coast with a hungry eye towards England.  As the troops prepare for the inevitable invasion, a streak of terror runs through the camp.  Someone is murdering sentries under inexplicable circumstance.  A guard, standing in a fully illuminated fence-enclosed field, is stabbed in clear view of his companions despite no attacker coming near.

Well, at least that is the story as recounted to us, and we never really get closer to the impossibility than that.  Rather than allow us to experience the impossibility as it occurs, or even to hear a second hand account, we’re merely provided a report from the head of the police.  This is unfortunate, as the puzzle had potential, although the eventual solution hardly raises an eyebrow.

The thing is, it doesn’t really matter.  Carr treats us to what is quite possibly his tightest historical swashbuckler.  Alan Hepburn, a British spy masquerading as a French aristocrat, has been unmasked and is being held captured in “The Room of Mirrors” (which is exactly what it sounds like – a room constructed with mirrors).  Threatened with the execution of his estranged wife, Hepburn is tasked with tracking down the murderous Captain Cut-Throat.  He’s accompanied on his voyage from Paris to Boulogne by a mysterious female assassin, a seemingly kind captain, and a vengeful soldier.  Carr introduces each character with enough dash of intrigue that by the time the carriage set off from Paris I was practically rubbing my hands with glee at the anticipation of drama to come.

In this sense, the story really begs to be put to film.  The strong air of adventure combined with a motley crew exchanging witty barbs would be enough, but Carr layers on the dramatic twists that you expect from his historicals.  Top it all of with a jaw dropping battle played out in a field of hot air balloons, and you have Hollywood fodder for days.  Of course, we all know they would ruin it…

Perhaps Carr’s action heavy books are compelling because the heroes aren’t supermen.  They are completely mortal and small wounds are realistically devastating.  While this may not match the expectations of the big screen, it provides a true sense of drama where you just don’t understand how the hero can make it out alive.  Time and again, the author turns up the heat and introduces insurmountable odds.  Think Fear is the Same, but with the dial turned to ten.

CaptainCutThroatUnderstand though, you’re not getting an impossible crime.  Yeah, the whole “Captain Cut-Throat killing people in impossible circumstances” certainly sounds like it fits the bill, but the puzzle is under-played and the solution is revealed with a casual yawn.  In terms of impossibilities, the feeble trick of the otherwise enjoyable The Demoniacs has this bested.  The historical nuances feel downplayed as well, although one could argue they are just more naturally woven into the story.  Still, we get no “Notes for the Curious” chapter, lathering us with trivia of eras gone by, as provided by other titles such as Fire, Burn.

Despite these seeming downgrades, Captain Cut-Throat is the most solid action oriented Carr historical that I’ve read to date, and it’s definitely the page-turner of the bunch.  I don’t know that it quite “delivers” at the end, although we still get a breathless sprint to the finish.  The resolution of the plot unfurls in grand fashion, but despite a fulfilling ending, there is no grand unveiling of secrets that we expect from Carr; no forever moment that triggers an inevitable chain reaction of reverse revelations.  There is no ultimate punch – whether the rapid fire reveals of The Ten Teacups or The Burning Court, or the high tension thriller conclusion of The Lost Gallows.

It’s hard to say where I’ll rank this in terms of Carr’s historicals when all is said and done.  I could easily argue this is the best, although there will always be a place in my heart for Fire, Burn, with it’s fine balance of impossibility, action, and romance.  I still have a respectable few to go – The Devil in Velvet and The Bride of Newgate being obvious contenders, along with a slew of later career historicals.

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11 thoughts on “Captain Cut-Throat – John Dickson Carr (1955)”

  1. This is one of still to be read titles so I’ve kind of skimmed through what you say here. Generally, I think I’ve heard quite positive things about this book, and you seem fairly pleased with it all too. As someone else who initially avoided (or at least postponed) Carr’s historicals thus leaving me with a number to catch up on, I’m encouraged by how well you’ve been reacting to them.

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  2. Breathless is certainly the best way to explain this novel. I think it’s a massively underrated Carr and I was so surprised how much I loved it. Talk about a page turner! I like what you brought out in terms of the hero not being super human, and how that feeds into the heart racing finish. It feels that Carr could have had a whole other career under another name as a writer of these types of works.

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    1. Yes, although if he had done them under another name, perhaps we wouldn’t have read them. It is an interesting point though – using a different name would set a different expectation of what to expect out of the novels. With the historicals, I often find myself searching for that impossible angle, even though I enjoy the books just as much without it.

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      1. That’s true, you need the context of his other work to give a road into reading and possibly enjoying these historical works. It would be interesting to see if anyone had read this Carr first what they would think.

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  3. A lot of people seem to rate this one, which is encouraging; myself, I’ve not read it yet, and it’s a little way off if I intend to keep scything through Carr broadly chronologically (in yet another barrier to that, I now wish to reread Castle Skull because…blog reasons). Nevertheless, I’m very pleased to see that this Carr journey of yours continues to bring about new surprises and a slightly different perspective on the man’s work. Always lovely when that happens!

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    1. It will be interesting to see you take on Castle Skull. It is such a different book than the rest of Carr’s work. Well, of the surface, it seems like a normal Carr story, although lacking an impossibility. Then, wham, the ending comes out of nowhere, and it practically makes me reclassify the book.

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      1. Oh, yeah, I’ve read it before, it’s more just checking some details for a post idea I have that I wish to cite this book in particular on. And, y’know, its an excuse to reread a book I really enjoyed by my favourite author of all time. But I doubt I’ll write a full, distinct review of it any time soon — to much else to write about….!

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  4. Glad to read people are finally discovering this long-neglected, unjustly overlooked masterpiece of Carr’s historical work. Sure, the plot is more action-oriented than any of his other historical novels, but the plot still fitted nicely together and how can you not love the final revelation?

    I think the explanation for the impossible stabbings was better than you suggested. As you said, the impossibility was (surprisingly) under-played and therefore had to be simplistic in nature, but Carr made the trick both believable and workable enough that it could be used under different circumstances. A lesser writer would have had the murderer throw a knife, with a wire attached to it, from a blind spot (or something) and pulled it out again as the victims were doubling down or falling over. And hoping nobody would notice it.

    On a side note, is the scene at the Field of Balloons one of the best (action) scenes Carr ever wrote? Because I think it was. Literally burned in my memory.

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    1. The impossible stabbing is not only believable, it is something that you can imagine has really been done.

      Yes, the Field of Balloons is hands down the best action scene that Carr wrote. Second place doesn’t even come close, but I would have to go with the fight in the burning temple in Below Suspicion. I can imagine people voting for the battle at the end of Fear is the Same, but the inclusion of so many historical figures kind of took it over the top for me.

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