Lord of the Sorcerers
A recent thread of conversation over at The Invisible Event had me thinking about what I desire from a Merrivale story as opposed to a Fell. Well, ok, it wasn’t that this post exactly inspired that line of though – it’s always kicking around somewhere in the back of my mind. For a John Dickson Carr fan like me, it’s a natural question. Having read somewhere in the vicinity of 40 JDC novels, my mind starts to dissect and categorize what I’ve read. With only five Bencolin novels, and the historicals being such a separate category, the Fell/Merrivale split is a natural point to fixate on.
My current thesis is this – the early Merrivale novels are decidedly heavy on the “how done it” dimension, laying out some of the most mind-spinning impossible set ups in the genre. The early Fell novels, on the other hand, tend to forego the impossibility in favor of mysteries that are of apparently plainer sorts. “Apparently” being the key word, as the plots often pull themselves inside-out by the end, leaving the reader wondering how they ended up so far astray.
Eventually this changed though. At some point, the Fell novels swerved in the direction of the impossible, probably most notably with The Problem of the Wire Cage, in which a murder on a clay tennis court presents no lesser of a footprints mystery than The White Priory Murders.
Around the same time, we see the Merrivale stories drift slightly. The impossibilities become a bit less vexing, while the character of the detective takes on a much more lampooned personality. The mysteries at the heart of each novel continue to focus on the impossible, although the strength of the puzzles wane, as do the ultimate solutions.
Oh, wait, sorry, you were under the impression that I was going to review The Curse of the Bronze Lamp? Well, this is all relevant. The novel, published in 1945, is a perfect example of second-phase Carter Dickson. Although we’re bestowed with a variation of the locked room mystery, the puzzle is decidedly weaker in its set up, and although specters of horror line the edges, the core of the novel is relatively light on atmosphere compared to earlier efforts.
The story begins in Egypt. The tomb of a pharaoh has been discovered and one of the explorers has already died – supposedly of a scorpion bite. Helen Loring, daughter of the head of the dig, is headed back to England in possession of a reportedly cursed antiquity from the tomb – a bronze lamp. As she boards a train for the voyage home, she’s confronted by a mystic who declares that she’ll succumb to the curse and be blown to dust upon her return.
Days later, Helen walks into her family’s mansion in full view of multiple witnesses and vanishes, leaving only the bronze lamp sitting on the floor of the entry. The police complete a thorough search of the estate but her body is nowhere to be found. Could she have slipped out undetected? No – the grounds were being prepped for her return and a variety of workers were positioned by all possible exits. Could her corpse be stuffed into some hidden room or a piece of furniture? No, those details are thoroughly investigated Her disappearance appears thoroughly impossible.
The story unfolds from the point of view of Kit Farrell, a man hopelessly in love with Helen Loring, and one of the witnesses to her disappearance. His character is notable for sharing his name with the protagonist from Carr’s final novel – The Hungry Goblin. There’s another tie between these novels – heavy reference to Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho. In the case of The Curse of the Bronze Lamp, that influence manifests itself in the gothic trappings of the mansion in which the story is set.
Henry Merrivale finds his way into the plot, having followed Helen home from Egypt, and soon becomes swept up in the investigation. This time, even the great detective seems completely befuddled and we don’t get the typical hints that he may suspect what really happened. The story focuses heavily on attempting to resolve what could have happened to Helen and several other plot threads, such as the disappearance of a portrait from a gallery. Before the book’s end, another character will fall victim to the curse of the lamp, again vanishing as if blown to dust.
The Curse of the Bronze Lamp was a fast and fun read – quite comparable to The Gilded Man, an earlier Merrivale title from 1942. Yet although it was an enjoyable ride, it lacked in the area of two key pillars of earlier Carter Dickson works – strength of puzzle and atmosphere.
Let’s tackle the “impossibility” first. It’s one thing to disappear from a locked room, but from a sprawling mansion? Carr, via the police and Chief Inspector Masters, assures us that all hiding places were examined and that all exits were guarded. As a reader of enough of Carr’s work, I know to accept that the author is ruling out conventional hiding of a body or slipping out of the mansion. Still, I pretty much have to take Carr’s word on it. Ok, I can kind of live with that…but positioning disappearing from a mansion as an impossible crime? I mean, the killer could simply be continually moving the body from room to room while the investigation spills through the house. There are just too many apparent easy outs left open for the reader to imagine.
On to atmosphere – whereas earlier works like The Plague Court Murders, The Red Widow Murders, and The Reader is Warned bristle with brooding horror, The Curse of the Bronze Lamp just didn’t paint that picture for me. It certainly has all of the trappings – Egyptian curses, a gothic-inspired mansion, a thunderstorm or two. Yet, it just kind of feels like everything plays out in the light of day. Perhaps Carr had stopped trying to create a sense of foreboding, or maybe I just read these later-year Carr books wrong. I had a similar experience with 1940’s The Man Who Could Not Shudder, where Carr provided a haunted house that felt anything but spooky. In my limited reading experience, the last novel by the author that really shook my nerves was 1939’s The Problem of the Green Capsule – after that he seemed to stop trying.
That isn’t to say that this isn’t a fun read – it just doesn’t hang it’s hat on the same rack as those earlier Merrivale books. Instead, it gathers strength from the fact that Carr was a writer in his prime and could still write a fast engaging novel. There’s little fluff in The Curse of the Bronze Lamp, and I breezed through it without ever wishing the story would just get on with it.
Now, I have to say that I came into this title with pre-conceived notions. This is one of the books that I recently identified in my Top Five Books to Read Before They’re Spoiled for You – John Dickson Carr Edition list. The reason is that there is an element of the solution that some bloggers have discussed a bit too openly. I’m happy to declare that although I had that one aspect spoiled for me, I still couldn’t figure out the how of it. Well, not until I was about 3/4 of the way through the book and it suddenly clicked. That I could come in knowing one element of the trick and yet still not piece things together speaks to Carr’s talent for crafting a puzzle.
Now, I have to say, the solution wasn’t Carr’s strongest. Or perhaps to put it better, the way that the puzzle unravels isn’t up to the author’s normal standards. Rather than Merrivale exposing a number of clever misdirections, I felt like the detective simply told me the solution – a bit similar to the much less satisfying conclusion of Night at the Mocking Widow.
If you’re coming off a bad read by another author and you’re looking for something to brighten your day, pick up The Curse of the Bronze Lamp. It’s a fast read and quite enjoyable, although definitely not a classic Carr.
I do have a few more comments, but I’m going to have to save them for spoilers. If you haven’t read the book, now’s your time to stop. If you have read this one, please be sensitive to others with any comments that you post.
I came in with the awareness that Helen made herself disappear, but I couldn’t figure out how. At one point though, it struck me that a certain “thing” had been mentioned by Carr several times, which was out of the ordinary for his writing. That’s what finally let me know how she had done it.
The weak element in the solution is the notion that a particular character can’t be recognized in photographs. That just seemed a bit silly, and had an element of The Invisible Man to it. I think Carr could have simply played off of the expectations of class and gotten away with it.
The resolution to the father’s disappearance wasn’t very strong – it felt as though it was just explained to the reader, rather than being something that you had the opportunity to figure out on your own.