When I look back at my early days of reading John Dickson Carr’s work, it’s almost obscene. Hit after hit after hit after hit. This wasn’t exactly an accident – I had done my research on the author. At the same time, I wasn’t exactly being greedy. My goal was to mix up the consensus classics with some well regarded books that flew a bit below the radar. It just so happened that a lot of those below the radar books are astoundingly good.
My early days were also constrained by the books that I owned at the time. One particular bulk purchase that I made towards the beginning was a package of early Merrivale titles in 1960’s Berkley Medallion editions. Not only did these prove to be solid selections, but they had some great cover art as well.
The Judas Window, The White Priory Murders, The Red Widow Murders, The Reader is Warned, She Died a Lady, The Ten Teacups, The Unicorn Murders… That’s an actual run of books that I went through, albeit with several classic Dr Fell and non-series books mixed in. It’s an absolute glut. Not only will the astute Carr reader recognize that these are pretty much the best of the best Sir Henry Merrivale books published under the guise of Carter Dickson, but they’ll also recognize that all but She Died a Lady fall under the true classic early run of the series (1934-1940). If there’s anything closer to an impossible crime bender, I’d like to know about it.
Well, that was a fun jaunt, but my Merrivale reading has dried up since then. Since that time, I’ve been chugging my way through the good (The Gilded Man, Seeing is Believing), the decent (My Late Wives, The Curse of the Bronze Lamp), and the flat out bad (Night at the Mocking Widow, The Cavalier’s Cup). My only shining stars in the past 18 months have been The Plague Court Murders (1934) and Nine — and Death Makes Ten (1940). This has emphasized in my mind that the Merrivale titles were best up until 1940, and then took a gradual decline until the end. The early H.M. works consistently provided some of Carr’s tightest impossible scenarios and nearly always delivered when it came to the solution. More importantly, they were tight engaging reads with little filler.
The point of this rambling review of the Carter Dickson library is that it’s been a long time since I really basked in the light of a classic-era Merrivale title. Death in Five Boxes has been slowly bubbling its way up my dwindling Carr reading list and I’ve been looking forward to it the whole time. I had big expectations for this book. Carr was pretty much peaking in 1938 – delivering The Ten Teacups (1937), The Judas Window (1938), The Crooked Hinge (1938), The Problem of the Green Capsule (1939), The Problem of the Wire Cage (1939), and The Reader is Warned (1938) all in the surrounding years. If you were to ask anyone to make a Top Ten JDC list, at the very minimum three of those titles would make a showing. If you were to list all of them, I wouldn’t be one to argue.
Death in Five Boxes is a sprint right out of the gate Forensic doctor John Sanders leaves his office late one night and immediately gets pulled into a murder on his way home. The crime scene is utterly bizarre. A bloody sword cane lays on a staircase and upstairs are three incapacitated individuals and one dead body. The three survivors have been poisoned, but will live. What’s really mysterious is the evidence found on them. One victim’s pockets house four watches. Another has the mechanism of an alarm clock. On the third are two different bottles of poison – different than what the party was drugged with.
Shades of The Four False Weapons? I think so. Similar to Carr’s final Bencolin novel, published a year earlier in 1937, the investigators in Death in Five Boxes are thrust into a spiraling nightmare of a crime scene. Simply nothing makes sense. Why was this seemingly unrelated group of people together in the first place? What’s up with all of this weird evidence – watches, poison, alarm clock bits? How were the victims poisoned in the first place? I won’t even get into the mysterious five boxes referenced in the book’s title – that aspect unfolds somewhat late in the story.
Carr fashions the question of how the party was poisoned into somewhat of an impossible crime, although I won’t fully count it. Over multiple chapters, the reader is provided mounting evidence that none of the participants at the crime scene could have had an opportunity to poison the others. In a sense, this is an impossible poisoning – we know that the poison was administered via cocktails, but the testimony of the witnesses suggests that there is no way that could have happened.
Murk things up a bit by the fact that there is one apparent witness at the crime scene – an elderly gentleman who was in the building at the time. The man makes the astonishing claim that everyone involved has gotten away with murder in the past. Before the police can question him further, he vanishes under seemingly impossible circumstances. That impossible aspect doesn’t quite pan out, but the witness’s testimony provides a striking similarity to Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table – published two years earlier in 1936. Similar to Christie’s novel, the plot of Death in Five Boxes shifts to follow the investigators attempting to unravel the background of the three survivors and examining why they may have been accused of murder.
Carr provides another interesting parallel to Cards on the Table. Just as Christie’s book follows four detectives digging into the past of suspected murderers, Carr expands the detecting beyond the normal confines of his staple Carter Dickson infallible detective – Henry Merrivale. Sure, H.M. seems to have most of this solved from the get go, but the narrative splits between John Sanders, sergeant Pollard (the main character in 1937’s The Ten Teacups), and Chief Inspector Masters. Although the various side characters typically play the role of chasing bad leads and postulating dead end theories, in this book Carr allows them multiple moments of core discovery. Several of these key moments happen in parallel, making for an engrossing read where each chapter toggles between a detective glomming onto a story-changing revelation – often unaware of the progress made by his peers.
It was refreshing to see Masters getting a chance to shine for a change. In most of the Merrivale stories he’s always on the wrong track, and in the later era books his relationship with H.M. turns downright sour. I’m more of a fan of when Carr’s detective foils (Hadley/Master) are working with the lead, rather than being crushed under their heel.
Death in Five Boxes feels a bit more like an early Dr Fell story than an early Merrivale. The mystery isn’t so much focused on an air tight impossibility as it is about unravelling a perplexing set of circumstances surrounding a crime, reminding me more of The Mad Hatter Mystery, Death Watch, The Arabian Nights Murder, or To Wake the Dead. Carr keeps things engaging from start to finish, packing the story with moments of discovery and some fairly tense scenes.
Where the story falls short is the ending – kind of. We’re treated to 30 pages worth of solution, with much of the quality of reveals and misdirection that you expect of a Carr book from this era. However, the two key questions – how the group was impossibly poisoned and the identity of the killer – are well below the author’s standards at this point in his career. Perhaps the solution to the impossibility was revolutionary in 1938, but it packed the modern day freshness of a secret passage. The identity of the killer definitely caught me by surprise, but not exactly in a good way. Overall, this was probably Carr’s weakest set of solutions since his second book – The Lost Gallows.
Overall I’d rate Death in Five Boxes as a strong Carr, although I think it just misses the bar of a book that I’d lend to a friend. Understand that I only lend books that I think are going to be a sure fire hit. With this one, the story is excellent throughout, but it doesn’t quite deliver in the end. I’m curious to see how I look back on this one six months from now.
Alas, I only have one of these early Merrivale stories left – The Punch and Judy Murders (1936). I really think that the Merivale stories between The Plague Court Murders (1934) and Nine — and Death Makes Ten (1940) represent what is quite possibly the best run of Carr’s career. I’m personally more of a Dr Fell fan, but these early HM works really pack the excellent puzzles.
Chapter nine makes a reference to Ken Blake, who was the point of view character in The Plague Court Murders and The Unicorn Murders. Another character from The Unicorn Murders is referenced, but I won’t mention them by name as I believe they may have been a potential suspect in the book.