And So to Murder – John Dickson Carr (1940)

andsotomurderThis 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.

11 thoughts on “And So to Murder – John Dickson Carr (1940)”

    1. Yeah, if you enjoyed The Case of the Constant Suicides, I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy this one. It isn’t even in the same neighborhood of impossible crimes (which I know doesn’t matter too much to you), but all of the rest of the story elements are there.

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  1. Somewhere, somewhen, somehow I was given the impression years ago that I’d thoroughly hate this one, and then when I came to read it, I, like you loved it. It’s funny, surprising, swift, and very good in how it misdirects; it’s a great book, and seems to have an unusually poor reputation. Good to see someone else enjoying it, too, maybe there’s a tide turning…

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    1. Well, when I first read it in my callow youth, I didn’t like this one, as I was coming off the back of The Reader Is Warned and other such locked room extravaganzas, but when I re read it recently, I absolutely loved it. Definitely one of the most overlooked titles,

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      1. I can see how reading order might influence this. I came off of an absolute blaze of Carr’s best books and then ran into The Lost Gallows. This was the first time that one of his novels didn’t feature a confounding puzzle, plus I spotted the killer from a mile away. To this day I count it as one of Carr’s worst books, but in hindsight the writing was good and there were some tense passages. I can imagine And So to Murder being treated unfairly under similar circumstances.

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    2. Yeah, I had this rated second to last in my “middle ground” based on early research into opinions on Carr’s work. That placed it a step above works like The Cavalier’s Cup and Night at the Mocking Widow. How wrong could I have been?

      In my mind, And So to Murder is a blend of The Case of the Constant Suicides (for reasons mentioned above) and Death in Five Boxes. Death in Five Boxes has a much more impressive hook, but there are similarities:
      – a lack of impossible crime that Carr nonetheless plays off as one
      – a culprit that surprises yet draws criticism
      – a somewhat disappointing solution to one of the puzzles

      And yet, both books are great reads, although for very different reasons. It’s just a sign of how good Carr was in his career. That these two books are the “duds” of the early Merrivale era is proof of Carr’s quality. I mean, can you imagine if you hadn’t read anything by Carr, then read Death in Five Boxes and And So to Murder, and then were told “yeah, he wrote nine books in six years that were better”?

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      1. “yeah, he wrote nine books in six years that were better”

        Cue authorship controversy; in fact, I heard Carr didn’t write any of those books because he was busy writing Shakespeare’s plays…

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  2. This book was probably inspired by Carr’s short-lived career in the British film industry, which resulted only in one movie–an uncredited writing job on the poorly titled Ralph Richardson/Laurence Olivier thriller Q PLANES. There’s no real mystery element, but the three main characters (eccentric detective, younger sidekick/romantic hero, independent young woman with whom he has a love/hate relationship) appear to have stepped straight out of one of his books. I asked Doug Greene about it on Facebook a while back, and he thinks Carr worked only on the character concepts with no contribution to the story. This explains the jokes in AND SO TO MURDER about people getting the wrong writing assignments–imagine having Carr on a writing project and not letting him do any plotting!

    If you’re interested, you can check out the movie here:

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  3. It’s a relief that both you and JJ like this one so much because I was given to believe it’s not much. I tend to skim through the reviews of Carr books I haven’t read yet because someone ALWAYS gives something away. Like with Death in Five Boxes, it isn’t that a commenter in another review named the killer, but they mentioned a thing ABOUT the killer – I think it amounts to the criticism you allude to above – and since this is the one I’m about to read, I get nervous that it has been sort of spoiled. In other words . . . WATCH IT, PEOPLE!

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    1. Yeah, I definitely had the impression that this was one of the lesser Carr’s from his 30s / early 40s years. And maybe that’s kind of true if you look at it purely from a puzzle-mystery point of view. But for all of those other plot elements that matter, this one’s damn good. In fact, it really seems like one that you might like, Brad.

      And yep – the subtle spoilers are the worst. They click in your mind and it’s impossible to purge them. Book comparisons are especially dangerous. “Ooh, this one’s kind of like Crooked House…”

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