“No, no, they do but jest. Poison in jest. No offense i’ th’ world.”
I nearly started reading Poison in Jest this past summer, but a reliable source advised me to stash it for a cold winter’s day. Well, it’s holding steady with a high of 12 degrees Fahrenheit this week, so I figured it was time to break the ice.
Released in 1932 – the same year as The Corpse in the Waxworks – Poison in Jest is set in the winter mountains of rural Pennsylvania. The story has a tie to Carr’s previous four books in that it’s told from the point of view of Jeff Marle. Henri Bencolin, the great French detective that Marle accompanied in earlier mysteries, is mentioned several times, but doesn’t make an appearance. Instead, we find Marle on his own, called to the home of Judge Quayle to review a manuscript.
As soon as Marle arrives, it becomes clear that something is wrong in the house. The judge hints that everyone is conspiring against him, and the members of his family all seem to be afraid of something. The judge’s paranoia appears to be well founded when he succumbs to a poisoned glass of brandy, despite the bottle having been unopened and marked with a seal.
This isn’t an impossible poisoning though – the solution to how the poison was delivered is quickly discovered – in fact, the name of an early chapter plainly describes the mechanism. The novel doesn’t feature an impossible crime as you might expect from Carr, instead focusing on a country house spiraling towards madness. Jeff Marle finds himself in a large estate populated by a family silently at war with each other. Each of the judge’s children seem to have reason to want him dead and it’s clear that there are a number of closely guarded secrets in the house. By the stories end, there will be several additional poisonings along with a brutal act of physical violence.
Poison in Jest is definitely a novel of transition for Carr as he reaches out beyond his staple detective of Bencolin to explore other directions. Feel-wise, I’d place it somewhere between Castle Skull and The Bowstring Murders, but with a heavy dose of Agatha Christie’s Crooked House thrown in. Jeff Marle finds himself declared the detective on scene due to his reputation of solving cases in Europe with Henri Bencolin. He spends the book attempting to establish and confirm alibis for various household members and investigating additional mysteries as they crop up.
Where Carr falls short of Christie is that the characters aren’t nearly as well fleshed out as those in Crooked House. There are more on hand than Carr typically deals with, and I found myself struggling to distinguish between the three daughters beyond the fact that one was pretty. In terms of the toxic nature of the household, Carr wins out though. This is one messed up family – they truly delight in the pain they inflict upon each other.
An interesting meta-mystery presented to the reader is who among the characters will actually play the role of the detective who solves the crime. Will Marle finally solve a case, or will it be the family doctor who specializes in poison? Or will it be the county detective, the inquisitive coroner, or the clumsy boyfriend of one of the daughters? In all there are five characters that you can legitimately imagine solving the case, and one of the more interesting parts of the read was trying to figure out who would ultimately get to the truth. My intrigue was fueled by the prologue of the book, which opens in Vienna with two unknown people reviewing the facts of the case in retrospect.
“We were both thinking of the vast jigsaw house where the murders were committed; of gas-lights, and a brandy bottle, and cellar stairs stained with blood.”
Poison is an unusual murder method for Carr, although it’s not completely unfamiliar – his most famous poisonings taking place in The Problem of the Green Capsule and The Burning Court. In those mysteries, the crime is wrapped in somewhat of an impossibility – a poisoned pill clearly delivered to the victim in front of a captive audience, but no witness provides the same summary of events; a poisoned drink handed to a victim by a killer who then walks through a wall. In the case of Poison in Jest, we’re dealt a more straight forward mystery of identity and motive – who is poisoning the members of the household and why? The answer appears to come down to timetables and alibis, although we know Carr always has something up his sleeve. I’ll admit that I was suckered by the false solution offered towards the end of the book and was thoroughly surprised by the true answer.
With that said, I wouldn’t rank Poison in Jest in the upper half of Carr books in terms of cleverness of solution. I doubt many readers will catch on to the truth, but we don’t quite have that high level of misdirection that you come to expect from the author. Here’s where a I see a bit of a comparison with Carr’s earlier effort, Castle Skull, or perhaps The Mad Hatter Mystery, published a year later.
Poison in Jest features a passing mention of Madame de Brinvilliers, the famous poisoner who takes a more prominent role in The Burning Court. There’s another similarity with The Burning Court – the rural Pennsylvania setting where John Dickson Carr was raised.
My Collier edition features an interesting mistake. The early pages features an advertisement for other Collier editions of John Dickson Carr’s books. Among the titles lists is Traces of Brillhart and Baker Street Irregulars. The first title is obviously a Herbert Brean novel. I’m guessing that the second title is meant to refer to a book by Anthony Boucher with the name The Case of The Baker Street Irregulars.