Ever since I started reading John Dickson Carr, one thing was clear – Papa La Bas was a title to steer clear of. Across a career of over 70 novels, it’s inevitable that a writer is going to have a few duds. What’s amazing is that out of the 50-some Carr titles that I’ve read, I’d only say that two are flat out bad and a handful have problems. Papa La Bas appeared to be a consensus bad one, although I’ve oddly never stumbled upon a full blown blog review.
As I’ve detailed a few times by now, I’ve grown leery of the bad reputation that some Carr books have. The Problem of the Wire Cage is a near classic. Below Suspicion is an under appreciated gem. I wouldn’t phone home about Patrick Butler for the Defense, but it was a decent read. Even Carr’s supposedly dreadful final novel, The Hungry Goblin, was merely a mediocre read.
Well, make no mistake, there’s nothing that makes Papa La Bas worth your time unless you’re a Carr completist. It isn’t infuriatingly bad like the final Merrivale novel, The Cavalier’s Cup, yet there’s nothing redeeming about it. Papa La Bas embodies the weaknesses that you see creeping into the final decade of Carr’s work. In that regard, it’s somewhat interesting to look at what those weaknesses are.
First, you have a bunch of characters wailing on and on about conspiracies for chapters without ever really explaining what they’re concerned about. Our main character is Dick Macrae, the head of the British consulate in New Orleans. The diplomat waxes on about his paranoia that someone is constantly lurking in the shadows watching him. Seems like a mystery that we should get to the bottom of, right? Well, the second that another character comments that they see a mysterious figure watching from the shadows, Macrae blows off the very possibility as ridiculous and doesn’t even bother to look.
“At the far side of the courtyard, the garden part of it. Isn’t somebody sulking there, watching us through these windows?”
Again evil forces seemed to gather and press close. But Macrae would not acknowledge it.
“You are mistaken… There’s nobody there; nobody at all”
“Oh, very well. You ought to know , I suppose.”
You ought to know?
Let’s one up that. Macrae is visited by Madame de Sancerre, a wealthy socialite, who desperately needs his help investigating her daughter. It seems that the debutante is… well… after three chapters of reading, I have no clue what the concern is. The younger Sancerre has apparently asked a few questions about a local voodoo queen (real historical figure Marie Laveau) and infamous slave torturer Delphine Lalaurie. And… that’s about the extent of it. After chapters of Madame de Sancerre beating around the bush about the scandal, some brilliant character finally thinks to actually ask her to explain why there is so much drama surrounding the daughter’s line of inquiry.
“Then what questions? Try to be specific.”
“How well did I know Delphine? Was Delphine really beautiful or only charming? Did all the men truly run after her, even as a woman past her prime? Did I think that she, Margot, would have so many beaux or be so sought after if she were not Jules’s daughter and endowed with almost a surfeit of worldly goods?”
Seriously. You’ve just read twenty pages alluding to doom and gloom, and that is the cause of it all.
You’ll see this sort of “concern about nothing” in several of Carr’s later books – notably Scandal at High Chimneys and Dark of the Moon. I get the sense that in Carr’s mind, the reader is sucked into the mystery of whatever could be going on, but really it comes across as characters rambling about nothing.
About midway through the book (and my Carroll and Graff edition runs roughly 270 pages), we’ve made it this far – Macrae suspects he’s being watched and Madame de Sancerre’s daughter asked some questions about whether someone was pretty. Gzzzzz.
Now come the impossibilities. Yes – there are two…but don’t get excited. As Carr moved into historical novels, the impossibilities became less and less of a focus. In fact, most of the historical novels only feature a quasi-impossibility, with some element of the setup neutering the puzzle, such as a window left open in an otherwise locked room. Interestingly, Carr actually picked back up on true impossibilities in his later novels – although in the case of Papa La Bas they may be his worst put to paper.
First, we get an awfully telegraphed disappearance of a woman from a carriage under constant observation. The fact that the carriage is under constant observation in the first place is so contrived that you can anticipate what’s going to happen pages in advance. It gets to the point where you can only think that any character stressing the fact that all entrances to the carriage must be watched simply has to be in on the trick.
“Stay on your side and watch that door; lean out if you must, but don’t ever lose sight of it!”
The carriage disappearance is followed by what may be the most surprising impossible crime I’ve ever read. Surprising as in: “I was lulled to sleep by the aimless meandering of the plot, and when a character was suddenly killed, I awakened from the malaise wondering who the character was and what had even transpired during the chapter leading up to the death.” I flipped back frantically, rereading the entire chapter, only to be left still wondering who the murdered character was and what was even going on.
The murder in question involves a character being pushed down a flight of stairs even though no one was near him at the time. This sounds deliciously similar to the death in Paul Halter’s The Demon of Dartmoor, except it rings completely hollow. Similar to many of Carr’s historical mysteries, there isn’t much meat on the bones of the so called impossibility. The other novels make up for it in depth of story and spirit of adventure. Papa La Bas possesses neither.
In fact, this impossible fall may be among the worst of Carr’s solutions, not even deserving of an inclusion in a ten page short story. A “clue” of such obvious relevance is dropped late in the story and the only reason that I can think of that a reader wouldn’t immediately suspect it of being the solution to the puzzle is because they couldn’t possibly believe it would be something so dumb.
Other weaknesses? At this stage in his career, Carr no longer inserts a drop of atmosphere into his novels – unfortunate given the stories focus on voodoo. In Carr’s early career, he could imbue a street or room with a sense of dread. Read The Crooked Hinge, The Reader is Warned, The Red Widow Murders, or The Problem of the Green Capsule in a lonely dark house and I guarantee you’ll be checking over your shoulder.
Carr mostly gave up the horror trappings around 1940 starting with The Man Who Could Not Shudder (a haunted house story that feels like anything but). In the case of Papa La Bas, it’s a pity, as I can just imagine what 1930’s Carr could have done with a voodoo priestess. Instead, it’s as if the story has been written for a Victorian audience where the mere mention of voodoo imagery would cause the reader to faint.
Carr’s also weakened in his ability to breathe life into a story through the sense of history. Whereas his previous historical (The Demoniacs) had me scouring wikipedia to read up on powdered wigs, here the historical trivia feels forced down your throat and boring. It’s somewhat similar to Panic in Box C or Dark of the Moon, in which Carr started to inject trivia into contemporary novels with the result feeling out of place.
And of course Papa La Bas is brimming with Carr’s most annoying late-career tic – relying on dialog to describe a scene. The characters constantly do things like describe the room they’re in and what they’re doing as if the people they’re talking to can’t see. It’s completely unnatural and jars you out of the reading experience.
Well, Papa La Bas really wasn’t for me, and I have my doubts that it’s for anyone. It took me three weeks to make it through the book and I can’t say that there are any highlights looking back. None at all. Time to binge on some Paul Halter…