The Blind Barber seems to be a title that divides fans of John Dickson Carr. Some will list it as one of his all time best titles, while others dismiss it as a drunken farce worthy of a worst of list. Without question it’s an unusual novel for the author – leaning so heavily in the direction of comedy that it is probably only eclipsed by The Punch and Judy Murders.
Now, Carr and comedy itself is a bit of a divided topic for me. The Case of the Constant Suicides and The Arabian Nights Murder have some extremely funny moments built respectively on uncomfortable predicaments and over the top characters.. The aforementioned Punch and Judy Murders is an excellent read specifically for the situational comedy that never stops placing the main character in increasingly horrific jams. When Carr gets it wrong though, boy does he get it wrong. Post 1940s Merrivale books always have to feature some dreadful bit of slapstick that is anything but funny. It reaches an absolute low with The Cavalier’s Cup, a novel where Carr clearly went all in on the comedy and didn’t even draw a smirk.
But, come on, we’re not reading this type of mystery for the comedy. It’s an added bonus that can add a spark to the story and keep an investigation from growing dull. In the case of The Blind Barber, Carr uses comedy in a different way – as a tool of misdirection. Strip away all of the farce and you might have a much more straightforward mystery. But distract the reader with an endless series of zany escapades and they may not even realize that there are clues lurking in the punchlines.
Let’s start by talking about where we are in Carr’s career. Having completed his run of Bencolin books, the author introduced Dr Gideon Fell, and we find ourselves focused on the fourth of the detective’s novels. With the exception of Hag’s Nook, these early Fell titles are different from the types of impossible crime stories that you might associate the author with – Till Death Do Us Part, He Who Whispers, The Hollow Man, etc, etc. Carr’s about to go full bore on the impossible crime in this same year (1934) with The Plague Court Murders and The White Priory Murders – but those are Henry Merrivale mysteries published under the name of Carter Dickson.
The Mad Hatter Mystery (1933), The Eight of Swords (1934), and The Blind Barber (1934) are part of a string of Carr novels that will continue with Death Watch (1935), The Arabian Nights Murder (1936), and To Wake the Dead (1938) in which the stories focus on somewhat conventional crimes warped by bizarre circumstances of the murder scene.
With The Blind Barber, we don’t even really know if we have a murder scene. The story unfolds on an ocean liner sailing from New York to Southhampton. A young diplomat is knocked out in his cabin by a thief who snags a roll of film that could have international consequences. His alcohol soaked group of friends undertake a series of bumbling misadventures in an attempt to recover the film and stumble into the theft of a valuable jade necklace and what could possibly be the murder of a young woman. The problem is that the woman’s body vanishes as quickly as it is discovered, and a search of the ship reveals that no passengers are injured or missing.
There are shades of a ship bound mystery that Carr would produce later in his career – Nine, and Death Makes Ten (1940). Both stories provide a captivating picture of an Atlantic crossing from an era gone by. Both involve the semi-impossibility of a passenger on the ship that can’t be proved to exist. Although there are a number of differences between the stories, the starkest is the level of farce played out in The Blind Barber.
I personally found the comedy to be funny and laughed out loud multiple times. I understand the criticism of the comedy – it’s basically born out of a drunk cast drinking non-stop and leaving chaos in their wake. There’s nothing funny about alcoholism and one character towards the end of the story is clearly in that category, but the rest of it struck me as a bit of comedic fun by a rowdy band who happened to be imbibing a bit more than they should be. Yes, they flat out assault the captain of the vessel multiple times in brutal fashion, but it just reads so funny. There’s a particular scene where the captain is sprayed with poison that had me wheezing for several minutes. Yeah, they practically killed the guy, but it was hilarious.
If there’s a weakness, I’d instead point to the mystery. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad mystery – the puzzle of who has stolen the film and may have murdered an unidentified lady is front and center the entire time, but Carr somewhat captures my one criticism in his own words:
“If it’s going to be really a murder story, in spite of all entangled nonsense, I want to know that so that I can be prepared, and not have the whole thing sprung on me as a hoax. I like to see the body on the floor. When somebody disappears in a story, you’ve nothing solid to go on. It might be – and generally is – a dastardly trick to prove that there’s been no murder, or that the wrong person’s been murdered, or something that only annoys you…”
Of course, if Carr states this himself midway through the book, you know there’s going to be something more to it. Dr Fell assures us as much. He plays the role of arm-chair detective (a first for Carr at this point but later repeated in The Arabian Nights Murder), having the events recounted to him in brief scenes during the first, middle, and final chapters. Midway through the book, Fell ensures the narrator that there has indeed been a murder, and he lays out eight cryptic clues – The Clue of Seven Razors, The Clue of Terse Style, The Clue of Invisibility amongst the lot – and promises a further eight clues before the retelling has completed.
It’s not Carr’s finest puzzle, but similar to its early-years brethren (Hag’s Nook and The Mad Hatter Mystery in particular), there’s an avalanche of revelation come the denouement. This is one of those fine examples of misdirection where an entirely different story is playing out in front of the readers eyes than what is being observed by the mind.
So, is it really amongst Carr’s best? No, that would be a gross over-statement. I’ll rate it middle of the pack, which of course still means a great read considering the author in question. I mean, look at the competition. The Blind Barber does have an element of liveliness though that transcends his typical work. There’s a feisty spark in several of the characters that I wish we got more glimpses of.
On the flip side, is this one of Carr’s worst? Not by a mile. Your mileage may vary on whether you find the tale to be amusing (I’d never suggest it to be a comic masterpiece) but I have to think you’ll find it to be a worthwhile story. Well, the internet has proved me to be wrong on that point already, but I stand by it.
I was surprised to find how many Collier Books editions of Carr novels I have, but they seem to be from a different year. My copy of The Blind Barber is part of a visually distinct run of covers (which featured other titles such as Hag’s Nook and The Mad Hatter Mystery), and at least this edition features a forward by Anthony Boucher (but my editions of The Arabian Nights Murder and The Four False Weapons don’t). He provides about two pages worth of material, mainly discussing what he considers to be the under appreciated interplay between comedy and murder. The most interesting passage may be the following aside: “I realize with a sudden shock that it’s almost ten years since H. M. has appeared in a new book.”
I recall mentioning it in a past Collier Books review, but it bears repeating – the opening pages of this 1967 edition provides a list of other John Dickson Carr novels available by the publisher and erroneously lists Anthony Boucher’s The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars (listed merely as “Baker Street Irregulars”) and Herbert Brean’s Traces of Brillhart.
The point of view character in The Blind Barber is a hold over from the previous Dr Fell mystery – The Eight of Swords. What’s interesting in this case is that the lead wasn’t the point of view character in the previous book (and hence I’ll withhold the character’s name as it would rule out a suspect). I don’t recall Carr doing a shift from suspect to lead in other books.