This was the final novel that I had left in what I regard to be Sir Henry Merrivale’s classic run from The Plague Court Murders (1934) through Nine – And Death Makes Ten (1940). Many would argue that Merrivale’s best two stories were yet to come, with She Died a Lady (1943) and He Wouldn’t Kill Patience (1944), but for me, the first 11 novels are an unbroken run of quality, puzzle, and atmosphere that would go unmatched in Carr’s career. Rooms that kill (The Red Widow Murders), invisible assassins (The Unicorn Murders), murder via teleforce (The Reader is Warned) – these plots provide some of the author’s gnarliest puzzles, to say nothing of the quintessential locked room murder (The Judas Window) and equally definitive footprints in the snow mystery (The White Priory Murders).
It’s funny then that I close this chapter with And So to Murder – a book that has none of those snazzy hooks and brain teasers. It’s a surprisingly straight forward mystery involving some deadly antics on the grounds of a film studio – something that I could imagine any number of GAD authors putting forth as a plot. But this is John Dickson Carr, and as vanilla as the story may sound, it still dazzles.
The story unfolds in the opening days of the second World War, and it’s fascinating to get a peek into what at the time would have been an uncertain future. Black out conditions are in effect, although the characters can’t believe that Germany would dare to actual bomb England – Berlin would quickly be reduced to rubble in return.
Young author Monica Stanton has hit pay dirt with her first novel, and has been invited to Albion Films under the impression that she’s preparing the dialogue for the film adaptation. Instead, she’s tasked with reworking a different story into a script – a novel written by William Cartwright; the man who (unbeknownst to him) she despises more than anyone on earth. Even worse, the task of working her own novel into a script has been handed to her mortal adversary. Cartwright is clueless to any animosity and can’t figure out why he keeps getting the door slammed in his face. You can, of course, see the inevitable romance coming from a mile away.
If you’ve read The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941) – and if you haven’t, do so immediately – there’s this gorgeous piece of situational comedy at the beginning of the story that you’ll recognize as awfully similar to what I’ve described above. It’s curious that Carr trotted out this plot device in books published just a year apart, but I don’t care – it just works.
When it comes to Carr, there are a handful of books that are nearly guaranteed to make you laugh out loud – The Punch and Judy Murders, The Arabian Nights Murder, The Case of the Constant Suicides, and, as it turns out, And So to Murder. His comedy is at its best when it focuses on the embarrassing situations that the characters find themselves in, and the contortions that they undertake to get themselves out. Contrast that with the ham-handed slapstick that worked it’s way into the Merrivale books around the time of She Died a Lady, and it’s a wonder that they came from the same mind.
The actual mystery of And So to Murder involves a plot to kill Monica Stanton. The writer nearly catches a face full of acid while checking out the set pieces in one of the studio’s warehouses. Carr positions this as a closed circle of suspects, since only six people were in the warehouse at the time of the murder attempt. That aspect seems kind of weak, since the warehouse is massive and could easily have concealed someone else.
Merrivale doesn’t show up until the end (along with a subtle cameo by Ken Blake of The Unicorn Murders, etc) and plays armchair detective to unravel a bit of misdirection that was quite a bit more complex than I anticipated. As usual with Carr, I was caught off guard by the reveal of the villain, having been certain I had glommed onto the culprit early on.
“In his books he always practiced the doctrine of the criminal being the ‘least likely person.’ To him has the savor of the game was the appalled shock with which – he hoped – the reader would be greeted at the revelation.”
Although you don’t get that signature hook of a Carr mystery, the story is fast paced and engaging enough that this is easily one of the best books that I’ve read this year. It’s helped by a steady flow of twists and minor mysteries, including a near impossible crime involving poisoned cigarettes that takes place towards the end of the novel (the solution to which is annoyingly weak). This isn’t Carr’s best – in fact it may well be his least relevant Merrivale story of the 1930s – but it’s better than most anything that I’m reading by other authors.