Some books just don’t jump out at you. When I first started collecting John Dickson Carr, The Arabian Nights Murder was one of those titles that made its way into my collection and promptly found itself nestled towards the bottom of my To Be Read pile. Why? Who knows. Some novels just don’t have that hook that grabs you until you start reading them. Across his immense catalogue, Carr has victims encased in locked rooms, corpses surrounded by untouched sand/mud/snow, and murders that defy explanation despite being committed in full view of a captivated audience. What does The Arabian Nights Murder have to offer in comparison?
Going in, all that I really knew was that it featured a murder of the non-impossible kind – a body found stashed in a carriage in a museum. Nothing especially compelling. What was compelling though was that The Arabian Nights Murder was published in 1936. As I recently detailed in a post on Carr’s publishing timeline, the author’s most inspired peak output appears to have taken place between the years of 1935 and 1939. During that time, he was cranking out 2-4 books a year, and all of them were fairly high quality.
I haven’t read any 1936 Carr books yet (The Punch and Judy Murders being the only other title published that year), but still, the date held promise. Just look at the books that came out the year before – 1935. Death Watch, The Hollow Man, The Red Widow Murders, The Unicorn Murders. Look at the year that followed (1937) – The Ten Teacups and The Burning Court. If you wrote a list of top 20 Carr novels, a quarter of the list could be built by those two years alone.
And so, there was excitement as The Arabian Nights Murder slowly crept to the top of my To Be Read pile. With only 20 or so Carr books left to read, this was meant to be one of the last great ones; one of the dwindling few from the glory years.
Of course, then JJ at the Invisible Event blasted the book and listed it as his least favorite of the first ten Dr Fell novels. That gave me pause. I had invested a lot of hope in this little book’s pages and now I was growing nervous. Finally The Arabian Nights Murder ascended to the top of the pile… and sat there while I read other authors. January is the first time in two years that I haven’t read at least one Carr novel, and I think part of that wait was the nervousness that it might not live up to expectations.
Having been through so many emotional ups and downs, I figured I might as well marry the damn book. Instead, I decided to read it.
To focus on the murder in The Arabian Nights Murder is almost a mistake. Yes, there is a man found stabbed to death in a carriage on display in the Wade Museum of Arabian arts. However, it’s the truly bizarre set of circumstances that surround that death that the book is really about.
The story is told in retrospect. Several members of the police force have gathered together to review the facts of a strange case with Dr Fell; a case that despite being solved has hit an impasse.
“Carruthers here had the first blast of the lunacy, the murder and the situation which nobody on earth seemed able to explain. The I took over, and we got an explanation of the situation – which still made howling nonsense of the murder. Then Hadley took over, and we got an explanation of the murder – which still made howling nonsense of everything else.”
The book is broken into three sections, each told from the perspective of a different detective involved in the investigation. In the end, Dr Fell will naturally tie up all of the loose ends.
“Each one of us is going to tell his story in turn and supply the explanation to the previous man’s problem.”
That set up alone is intriguing enough – almost a promise of four separate stories in one. The potential of the premise is amplified by how Carr decides to approach the writing, providing each narrator with a distinct voice, and each corresponding section with a very different feel.
We start with Detective John Carruthers, who is called to the Wade Museum on account of a bizarre story of a man in a false beard accosting a police officer and then promptly vanishing into thin air. What Carruthers encounters at the museum is far stranger than the tale that led him there. I won’t really go into detail, but we’re borderlining on a Four False Weapons set up – the reader is spun about by such an assortment of oddball clues and circumstances that it can be difficult to keep things straight. Something chaotic has clearly happened at the museum, and murder is mixed up in it, but all involved parties are keeping things to themselves. There’s a definite sense of Carr’s 1935 work, Death Watch, where you have a strong sense that all witnesses are lying, but there’s no clear insight into their various motives.
I’ll admit, this first section is fairly overwhelming. We have clues, floor maps, and suspects unleashed at a torrential rate, and it seems daunting to even hope to keep track of it all. At times I missed the presence of a character like Dr Fell, who could at least provide a knowing ‘harrumph’ to indicate that it at least made sense to someone.
As dizzying of a whirlwind the first section is, it all comes into focus in the second section, narrated by Assistant Commissioner Herbert Armstrong (a character later briefly mentioned in the Merrivale story The Cavalier’s Cup). Armstrong recounts the testimony of a surprising witness to the events that unfolded at the museum, and bit by bit, everything starts to make sense.
Well, that’s one way to summarize the second section. The other is to say that it’s comic genius. To put it politely, Armstrong as a narrator is a less intelligent version of Merrivale at his most blustery, and within two pages had quickly established himself as one of the author’s most memorable characters. The entire section is an absolute delight to read due to Armstrong’s meandering narration, complete with side-ramblings about the most random subjects.
“…what gets under my skin as much as anything else was the way the fellow wouldn’t come to the point. If there’s anything I like to see, it’s somebody who goes straight to the heart of things. There’s nothing in the world that ought to be dawdled over, except perhaps a good dinner with the right kind of Burgundy -haa! Don’t let ‘em tell you it’s not good for the waistline; what’s wrong with girth, if it’s solid flesh? Look at mine. Hard as iron. What the hell was I saying?”
Amplify this with the presence of a key character in Armstrong’s story – pastor William Augustus Illingworth. The name should say it all, but suffice to say we have one complete stick in the mud. Couple that with the narration being from Armstrong’s point of view, and the entire second section is a dream that I just wished wouldn’t end.
I’ll not tread far into the third section, as we’re getting late in the story, but now’s the time we get down to brass tacks. Inspector Hadley takes over the investigation and we see a line of reasoning typically reserved for the Fell’s and Merrivale’s of the world.
As for the solution, I’m happy to report that I was fooled. Even from the very introductory chapter, I thought that I had seen directly through to answers to some of the puzzles, and pleasantly I was wrong on all accounts. With that said, I did clue into the general type of misdirection that was being pulled by Carr, even if I looked in the wrong direction.
My summary up to now probably sounds extremely positive about The Arabian Nights Murder, but I wouldn’t place the book among the ranks of Carr legend. It’s an amusing read, but the hook of the mystery isn’t quite at the level of what you may expect from Carr. There’s an element of it that I’m only now learning is “early Fell” that just doesn’t place it on the same field as the more classic Fell works that came between 1938 and 1946 (a stretch including stellar titles such as The Crooked Hinge, The Problem of The Wire Cage, The Problem of the Green Capsule, The Case of the Constant Suicides, Till Death Do Us Part, and He Who Whispers).
The Arabian Nights Murder feels much more like Death Watch and The Mad Hatter Mystery – books that on the surface feature straight forward mysteries clouded by seemingly nonsensical clues, eventually giving way to a massive unforeseen misdirection. Compare that to the Merivale titles that Carr was publishing under the Carter Dickson name at the same time – fantastical impossible crimes like The Plague Court Murders, The White Priory Murders, The Red Widow Murders. There’s a different vibe to those early Merrivale novels compared to the early Fells that I’ve experienced so far, with the one exception being Hag’s Nook. I have three more Fell books published before 1936 left to read, and I’m interested to see if this pattern plays out.
While not catering to my love of impossible crimes, The Arabian Nights Murder was a fun read throughout, although I’ll remember it mostly for that wonderful middle section. There’s definitely a nice under current of misdirection, although I’d compare it more to misdirection in The Mad Hatter Mystery as opposed to the more shocking twist in Death Watch.
I have a few more comments that I’d like to make, but I’ll have to save those for a spoilers section. I’m not going to directly mention the solution to the book, but I will be discussing elements of the plot that could taint your experience with the story if you haven’t read it yet. If you have read it and leave comments below, please be discreet in respect of those who haven’t read this yet.
The core misdirection involving what was observed when the victim entered the museum is a trick that Carr seemed to use quite a bit in his early days. It still caught me by surprise and I enjoyed coming to the conclusion at roughly the same time as Hadley. I’d love to reference a number of other books that rely on a similar trick, but, well, I’m not spoiling them.
I didn’t feel that the additional solution that Dr Fell provided at the end was really necessary. It felt like a case of the reader simply being told the answer rather than having tight clues to put it all together. I would have been just as happy with Hadley’s core solution, but I suppose I won’t complain about a bonus.
Again, we’re given a frequent early-Carr trick of the least likely murderer. In this case it just didn’t feel necessary and wasn’t pulled of nearly as convincingly as in some of the author’s other works.