Patrick Butler appeared in two novels and somehow managed to become the most divisive topic of John Dickson Carr’s 70+ book career. Why? Well, he’s a bit of a pompous ass, perhaps known best for declaring that he’s never wrong. He’s somewhat of a pig too, with the misguided perception that every woman in the world wants him – and he’s wont to act on that assumption.
Although Butler’s character is despised, what about the two Carr novels featuring him? I’ve seen a number of comments declaring both to be utter garbage, yet the scarce full reviews that I’ve been able to find weren’t overly critical.
Butler first appeared in the Dr Fell novel Below Suspicion (1949), and I have to admit that I loved it. The novel features two semi-impossible poisonings with a clever solution that I never saw coming. On top of that, it introduces touches of the adventure elements that would come to define Carr’s historical novels, starting with The Bride of Newgate, published the following year.
The character of Patrick Butler is definitely not your typical hero. He’s full of himself to a fault and exactly the type of character you’d like to see get knocked down a peg. That makes it all the more fun to watch the cocky lawyer get beat up by street ruffians, blunder through a court case, and have to rely on Gideon Fell to actually come out on top. Indeed, Carr puts Butler through the wringer, but you’ll still find yourself cheering for him in the end.
Following Below Suspicion, John Dickson Carr waited nine years before publishing another Gideon Fell novel with 1958’s The Dead Man’s Knock. Patrick Butler for the Defense (1956) fills that gap, acting very much as a sequel to Below Suspicion, even though it doesn’t actually feature Dr Fell.
We’re treated with a semi-impossible crime right off the bat. Hugh Prentice, a solicitor, receives a strange visitor to his office. A frightened man rambles out a confused accusation that someone is trying to kill him and cryptically states that all of his troubles have been caused by Hugh’s gloves. Hugh is in a rush to deliver some papers to Patrick Butler, and persuades his visitor to wait for his return. On his way out the door, he hears a shriek of agony and returns to find the man dying with a dagger plunged through his chest. The victim’s final strangled words are “Your gloves”…
I’ll admit it, I was fairly intrigued when Kate reviewed this over at Cross Examining Crime several months back. It sounded like a pretty convincing impossible crime – a man stabbed to death in a room with only one exit that was under near constant observation. It is a decent puzzle. And yet… I think that most experienced mystery readers are going to see a few potential solutions to how this could have been accomplished. Mind you, all of the ones I thought of turned out to be dead ends, but an impossible crime is really only as good as its promise.
The puzzle isn’t really the core focus of the book though. Yes, there is constant attention paid to the mystery of who the victim was and why he was killed, yet the story is more of a caper packed with action and romance. It’s a natural sequel to Below Suspicion, which introduced the showdown brawl that became a staple of Carr’s historical works. In fact, Patrick Butler for the Defense reads much more like one of the author’s historicals than his Fell/Merrivale mysteries. Fire, Burn, The Demoniacs, Fear is the Same, The Bride of Newgate – turn forward the clock to the 1950s and you have Patrick Butler for the Defense.
Immediately following the crime, Hugh Prentice ends up on the run from the law, fearing that the circumstances of the murder make him a prime suspect. His only hope is to solve the crime, and for that he turns to Patrick Butler. Butler and Prentice undertake an adventure to investigate the murdered man’s past which lasts for the majority of the story. They brawl with hired thugs, evade the police, learn magician’s tricks, and carouse with a whole slew of women. The truth to the mystery is always the object, but the story is much more focused on a series of escapades. Similar to the historical novels released in the surrounding years, this is an engrossing adventure that’s pulled forward by a core puzzle.
The novel could be considered Carr’s take on the dying message. It isn’t really pushed to the forefront of the story, but there’s a definite question about what the victim meant with his dying words. Carr’s having some fun here, which he alludes to in the text.
“A victim, murdered and dying, is just able to speak a few words. He would, of course, speak the name of his murderer. Instead, in some of these stories, he blurts out some weird gibberish which nobody would ever say, and which has been designed by the author merely to baffle detection.”
Again, mystery isn’t the strong suit of this book, although the puzzle is interesting enough to linger throughout the read. There isn’t really any investigation – the characters are always in the process of investigating, but instead get swept up in some sort of ruckus or romance – if you want to call it romance. There’s really only a single interview in the traditional investigatory sense, but that doesn’t really matter because the plot flows well and the story is fun – plus, who really reads mysteries for the interviews?
The impossible crime would be better suited for a short story. It’s thrust upon the reader within the first chapter of the book, and then doesn’t get that much attention until the very end. Don’t expect some monumental payout. The solution is clever, and I was focused on several false threads, but it was better suited for a 20 page read than a novel. Again, the story is fun enough in spite of that, providing a story arch reminiscent of The Bride of Newgate or Fire, Burn.
So, why all the hate? Well, I can see a few reasons. The obvious one is that Patrick Butler is positioned as a god amongst men, whereas he’s really somewhat of an ass. Interestingly enough though, this is done in a different vein than Below Suspicion. In the previous novel, Butler was a larger than life jerk, but was repeatedly beat down. In Patrick Butler for the Defense, the lawyer plays more of the role of the enigmatic detective, a la Fell or Merrivale, who sees clearly through the mystery the entire time, but just needs that one last clue to make the accusation stick.
Of course, there’s some rampant sexism – comparible to a Bond novel of the time. Women are treated with the occasional pinch and the threat of the hand – and this being a male-written novel of the 50’s, they of course secretly enjoy it. Patrick Butler is portrayed as an irresistible monument to all that is manly, despite never really exhibiting any traits to justify the reputation.
If there’s any character that truly fawns over Butler, it’s oddly Hugh Prentice. The solicitor dotes after Butler, hanging on his every word and action. Butler has his female admirers as well, although it’s Prentice who gets swept up in a romantic sub-plot. I’m not quite sure where Carr was going with the romance in this book, but it’s just plain odd. Butler and Prentice seemingly trade women midway through the book (despite Prentice being engaged) and the eventual outcome of the sub-plot is flat out ridiculous. If there’s a valid complaint about this book, the zaniness of the romantic angle is where it lies.
And yet, it’s still fun. I was swept up in the plight of Hugh Prentice as he avoids the law, scraps with thugs, and struggles to clear his name. Patrick Butler for the Defense is by no means a perfect book. In fact, plenty of it seems odd as the story comes to a conclusion and you look back at the events. But, man, it was a fun ride.
I haven’t done a spoilers section for a while, but I do have a few comments that are worthy of one. If you haven’t read the book, skip this – it isn’t going to give you any satisfaction, and it only risks ruining the story. If you have read this book, please be sensitive to those who haven’t if you choose to comment below.
I could tell pretty much off the bat the general nature of the dying message – I just didn’t know what it meant, nor did I want to try to find out. It is funny that something like this could be easily solved today using google translate, but I abstained from doing so. The nature of Carr’s misdirection makes the quote from the book that I point out above all the more comical.