Whenever anyone makes a comment about the worst of John Dickson Carr’s books featuring detective Henry Merrivale, you’re pretty much guaranteed that Behind the Crimson Blind is going to get a mention. At this stage in Carr’s career, he was just breaking ground on an excellent run of historical mysteries, but he’d already abandoned series detective Dr Fell, and his novels featuring Merrivale were in a nose dive. Bookended by Night at the Mocking Widow (1950) and The Cavalier’s Cup (1953), I had a good idea of what to expect: a severe drop in the quality of the mystery, with the stories instead focusing on slapstick antics of a once great detective.
While my suspicions were semi-correct, Behind the Crimson Blind is a much better book than I anticipated it would be – although I’m going to have to qualify that statement. Lop off a 60 page section roughly midway through the book, and this would be a good read by most authors standards. It still would only be a shadow of Carr’s best – my closest comparison being maybe The Curse of the Bronze Lamp – but he’s also doing something significantly different.
Behind the Crimson Blind finds us in Tangier, where Carr spent some time around the writing of the book. The main plot line has a sniff of The Unicorn Murders, focusing on the police attempting to track down an international diamond thief known as Iron Chest (so named because he carries around an iron chest on all of his jobs – yeah, I’m not a big fan of the super-villain angle…). Iron Chest has come close to being apprehended several times, but he always manages to vanish in uncanny circumstances.
The first third of the story is a sight seeing tour of Tangier while Carr constructs the main strands of the plot. There’s nothing here to outright grab you – contrast with say the strong openings of The Sleeping Sphinx or My Late Wives from roughly five years earlier – but it’s a comfortable start
Midway through, the book really hits its stride with an exciting scene that constitutes the core puzzle of the book. A man who may or may not be Iron Chest is spotted in his apartment with said iron chest and a pile of diamonds. With the building surrounded, the police undertake an exhaustive search of the rooms – tearing apart the furniture, ripping up the floor and walls, etc – but both the chest and the diamonds have vanished into thin air. It’s a bit reminiscent of a short story Carr published two years earlier, The Gentleman from Paris, although the tension of the scene in Behind the Crimson Blind is amped up significantly.
Unfortunately this is the highpoint, and the book takes a rather steep dive in the pages that follow. For one, Merrivale has it all figured out immediately – note that this book runs 280 pages, so we have roughly 140 to go – and yet we won’t hear a peep of the solution until the end. For two, well… this book was written in 1952 and set in a foreign land. While Carr managed to keep things fairly even keeled for the first half, he eventually rips off the bandage and lets loose with those jokes. We find Merrivale “up to his antics”, impersonating a Muslim holy man, dying his skin with walnut juice, and I’m sitting here wondering why I’m still reading the book. Toss in the most annoying caricature of a Russian countess (hey, let’s just stick random v’s and z’s in every bit of dialog), and you’ll have to wade through 60-some pages of awful.
Exorcise those chapters and Behind the Crimson Blind isn’t half bad. It isn’t exactly good by Carr’s standards though. Just as Night at the Mocking Widow finds Carr stepping out of his comfort zone to fumble a take on the poison pen village mystery, Behind the Crimson Blind is a semi-hollow attempt at an exotic set mystery a la Death on the Nile. He’s past his pure mystery days, and this is more of a contemporary adventure variation of the historical novels that were clearly his passion at this point – the most apt comparison would be Patrick Butler for the Defense or shades of The Nine Wrong Answers without the clever hook.
The end is pure high tension action, although it verges on the ridiculous. For one (zero spoilers somehow, I promise) HM straight up slits some guy’s throat. I’ll avoid other details other than characters make extremely foolish decisions that you don’t encounter in Carr’s other action-forward books.
The solution though caught me completely by surprise (more on this below). It’s by no means one of Carr’s better solution, and while it’s fair play, it’s somewhat irrelevantly fair play. You’ll enjoy the explanation of it all, although it’s definitely one of his five weakest solutions up to this point in his career. Competition? Maybe Death in Five Boxes, And So to Murder, Seeing is Believing, The Punch and Judy Murders, and The Sleeping Sphinx; although all those beat this one out (note that all of those books are actually really good for the most part, it’s just that the solutions aren’t among Carr’s best).
As a story, this is miles ahead of the final Merrivale novel, The Cavalier’s Cup. Miles. I struggle to rate it against Night at the Mocking Widow, since I read that semi-mid-run (I despised it at the time, but maybe it would be a breath of fresh air with just six Carr novels remaining?). It strikes me as a better read overall, but Night at the Mocking Widow wins for Carr’s zaniest solution.
As a strange aside…
I came into Behind the Crimson Blind thinking that I knew the solution (a product of accidentally reading the web a bit too deeply in my early days of exploring Carr). You can imagine how that dampens the excitement for a book. It turns out that solution I expected was miles off, but I’m puzzled as to how that false solution entered my mind in the first place. It’s almost like someone on some board wrote a total troll false ending for the set up, because it fit the mystery to a T. Perhaps there’s a short story by Carr or someone else that duplicates the whole thief carrying an iron chest bit.
Tell me that Dell cover isn’t nearly as good as it gets for a vintage paperback (the prize though belongs to There is a Tide). This isn’t a map back unfortunately, and I would have loved a map of Tangier or a floor plan of the apartment that gets searched.
Although this is a Dell, the edition cheerfully announces that it’s “complete and unabridged”. That’s unfortunate in this case, because if you reduced the 280 pages to about 180, this could be a really tight story and you’d lose the offensive bits.