I wouldn’t normally write about a single short story. At least, I think I wouldn’t. As much as I love a short mystery, I’ve mostly avoided the form since I started reading through John Dickson Carr’s library. I know that a few of his shorts share elements with a novel or two, and I’d rather ruin the abbreviated form if it comes to that. Of course, that shouldn’t keep me from digging into other author’s short stories, but somehow I’ve formed a bit of a habit.
Well, here I am, talking about a short story… by John Dickson Carr no less. I’ve been making my way slowly through The Quintessence of Queen #2 (#1 is reviewed here), and figured I might as well read the one Carr story contained within. Suffice to say, it was good enough that I’m actually writing more than a blurb about it.
That’s because it’s kind of interesting to understand where The Gentleman From Paris fits into Carr’s catalogue. Published in 1950, this was Carr’s second historical work in the run that lasted through the end of his career (yes, you have The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey and Devil Kinsmere in 1934/36 respectively, but I don’t think anyone includes those when referring to Carr’s core historical work). His first historical, The Bride of Newgate, had been published earlier the same year and wove together a swashbuckling adventure with his trademark impossible crime form. The action/romp element would go on to be perfected in later historicals ranging from Captain Cut-Throat (1955) through The Demoniacs (1962). The impossible crime element, however, all but evaporated from his historicals up until The Witch of the Low Tide (1961).
That may be why The Gentleman From Paris caught my interest. This is very much a puzzle. We can debate the extent to which the problem is actually an impossibility, but seeing a historical short of this nature come out right at this point in Carr’s career jumped out at me. The author has pretty much packed his bags on Gideon Fell – the detective won’t appear again until The Dead Man’s Knock in 1958. His other core detective, Henry Merrivale, is being wrapped up as we speak with a dreadful showing in Night At the Mocking Widow (also 1950) through The Cavalier’s Cup (1953). The historicals are pretty much the only spark at this point in his career, other than The Nine Wrong Answers (1952) and (I’ll get hate mail for this) Patrick Butler for the Defense (1956).
The Gentleman From Paris finds the titular character, Armand de Lafayette, stepping off a boat from Liverpool onto the docks of New York City in 1849. He’s on a mission to find Madame Thevenet, an aged french transplant near her deathbed, in hopes of convincing her to repair her relationship with her poverty stricken estranged daughter in Paris. Lafayette arrives a few hours too late. A stroke has left Madame Thevenet paralyzed, unable to speak, and slipping towards death.
The timing is critical. Madame Thevenet’s will leaves all her possessions to an unscrupulous woman referred to as Jezebel. The night before her stroke, Madame Thevenet had a change of heart and crafted a new will leaving everything to her daughter in Paris. The problem is, the new will can’t be found.
We kind of have the impossibility of a missing object on our hands. We know that Madame Thevenet never left her room during the night (her lawyer was posted outside the door), but an exhaustive search of the room turns up no new will. Carr also graces us with a form of bizarre dying message. Although Madame Thevenet is paralyzed, she repeatedly keeps signaling with her eyes towards a pink stuffed rabbit and a barometer.
It’s a fun puzzle that I think will have the gears turning in any reader’s mind. It’s not just the puzzle though that makes this story so remarkable. There’s a whole ordeal at a bar when Lafayette first arrives in town that’s a miniaturized version of the best of Carr’s historical elements. The way that he creates a sense of time and place is one of the aspects of the story that stands out most vividly after reading it.
The solution to the puzzle isn’t one for the ages, but I think everyone reading this will find a delightful little surprise in the end. This is no The House in Goblin Woods masterpiece of short form, but it really highlighted what these brief stories should inspire to be. And after reading enough throw away short stories, this was a breath of fresh air.
The version of The Gentleman From Paris that I read was included in The Quintessence of Queen #2 – an anthology of short stories. It’s notable in that it includes a two page essay following the story that points out a number of subtle clues that should have directed the reader to the final twist. There is no statement as to who wrote the essay (I assume one of the Queen cousins or Anthony Boucher), but it refers to John Dickson Carr in the third person.
I bring up this short essay not only because it’s filled with interesting bits, but also because it is not featured in my Bantam edition of The Third Bullet – the Carr short story collection that is probably the most widely available way to get The Gentleman From Paris. Douglas Greene’s biography of Carr contains a note that a version of the story published in Random House’s 1970 Anthony Boucher memorial anthology Crimes and Misfortunes contains a preface written by Carr. I suspect this is different from the essay given that the frank discussion of the solution wouldn’t make sense as a preface.