He Wouldn’t Kill Patience – John Dickson Carr (1944)

It was back in 2018 when I last read a John Dickson Carr novel that really featured the author in his prime.  The last four years still featured some good reads, but they weren’t the books that drew me to Carr – the kind you press upon others to read with a religious fervor.  I front loaded my Carr reading with the very best of his work (of which there’s a lot), and since then I’ve been slowly hen pecking through the mid to low range material put out mostly during the second half of his career (of which there’s also a lot).  For the most part they’re fine books that would stand out in any other author’s library, but there’s also some stuff that’s grating to read – 50s/60s Fell novels and his last four historicals – due to his writing being influenced by years of writing dialogue heavy radio plays.

With that in mind, He Wouldn’t Kill Patience was a true “coming home” moment for me.  What a breath of fresh air to once again experience the competent prose and artful plotting that first drew me to one of the best mystery writers of the Golden Age.  How enthralling to once more take in a (literally) air-tight locked room murder, after years of stories with impossible crimes that felt loose in their construction or minor to the plot.  To experience one more time what I felt in those first 40 books.

Now, don’t let me give you the sense that He Wouldn’t Kill Patience is a top ten Carr novel, although I have seen it on a number of people’s lists.  It’s Carr doing what he does best, and he executes it well.  This book came out in 1944: the same year as Till Death Do Us Part (popular choice for Carr’s best novel), and the follow up Merrivale novel to She Died a Lady (1943).  Carr probably is at his very peak at this point, and the slow slide starts from here.  He Wouldn’t Kill Patience isn’t quite as good as the two books that I just mentioned, but it solidly represents what you’d expect from the author at this point in his career.

The story unfolds in 1940, during the start of the London bombing campaign, and is one of the few Carr novels to prominently feature the war as it unfolds.  Against that backdrop, two magicians with a lineage of family feuding get swept up in a perplexing murder at a zoo.  A man has seemingly committed suicide by inhalation of coal gas after sealing himself in his office.  “Sealing” is the key word, as all of the cracks on the windows and doors have been covered from the inside with tape.  Suicide is the only possible explanation, but murder is suspected because the victim not only gassed himself, but also a prized snake named Patience (hence the book’s title).

It’s fairly well known that the plot for this book comes from a contest between John Dickson Carr and the magician / mystery writer Clayton Rawson, in which they challenged each other to write a mystery featuring a murder in a room sealed from within by tape.  Rawson’s entry was the short story From Another World, and the trick is accomplished in a near punchline manner that is suiting for the brevity of the piece.  Carr has more of a wow to his solution, and it feels appropriate for a novel length impossible crime.

Carr’s use of a pair of magicians to fill in the requisite romance roles is a nice touch given the Rawson connection.  That the magicians have a family feud going back centuries also provides the vicious romance that Carr does so well in books like The Case of the Constant Suicides.  The background in magic also arms our “observer” characters with insights into how the trick to the impossibility could have been pulled off, although I would have liked to see more theories thrown around, and Carr didn’t capitalize on the potential for false solutions.

“Beware of things which apparently make a trick harder to do… because those are the things that actually make the trick easier.”

Unfortunately I can’t fully judge the effectiveness of the solution to He Wouldn’t Kill Patience, because I went into the book knowing how the trick was pulled off.  Many years ago, when I was first getting into impossible crimes, I skimmed some online forums that gave away some of the solutions to Carr’s novels.  Not having a knowledge of Carr’s library at the time, I forgot all about it, but while reading a review a few years ago things clicked in place when I read the setup to the impossibility.  Sadly these are things that you can’t completely forget.

Luckily though, I did get some payoff.  I was under the impression that I knew who the killer was, and I’m happy to say that I was way off base.  So while I went through the book thinking I knew the full solution, I still got some surprise in the end.

Having known the solution to the impossibility, I can’t quite form a full impression of the novel, but I think He Wouldn’t Kill Patience was likely the last great Merrivale novel.  The Skeleton in the Clock (1948) is an excellent read, but the solution is a bit of a let down.  A Graveyard to Let (1949) is pretty solid all around, but not quite of the same heights.

Fittingly, perhaps, this is also my final Merrivale novel.  A run of 22 books, half of which are absolute classics.  I still have the novella All in a Maze to look forward to.  Published in 1963, it’s a return to the detective after a ten year gap, and comes out at the time that Carr was putting out some really bad Fell novels.  However, I’ve read good things, and perhaps the shorter form will do the story favors.

12 thoughts on “He Wouldn’t Kill Patience – John Dickson Carr (1944)”

  1. Congrats on ticking off your last full-length Merrivale! This was an early one for me and I thought it was great, though the solution was a bit of a letdown – I actually prefer Rawson’s solution. I don’t remember any of the characters except possibly the magicians being at all compelling, which might be its biggest flaw in my mind.
    But it has some great Carr atmospherics and tension, particularly the scenes in the old theater.

    There’s a parody of Carr called “Hocus-Pocus at Drumis Tree” by “Handon C. Jorricks” (Norma Schier) which is quite fun; I’m sure it’s inspired by the first part of All In A Maze in particular. Oh and while I’m on this tangent, “The House of Shrill Whispers” by Jon L. Breen is a great parody.

    Will you review/have you reviewed any of Carr’s short stories?

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    1. I think the only Carr short story that I’ve reviewed is The Gentleman From Paris, although I’ve read maybe a dozen of his shorts overall. I’ve tended to avoid the short stories until I finish up the novels because I’m aware that a few ideas get reused now and then. An obvious favorite is The House in Goblin Wood, but I also really enjoyed The Door to Doom and The Blind Man’s Hood. I’ll probably be posting reviews of the collections over the coming years.

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  2. I think this is one of the Carr titles that must surely be in contention for a reprint in the coming years — the setting is great, the use of wartime concepts neatly handled, and the final showdown between Merrivale and the killer positively ripples with menace. A superb little book, and one which deserve to be better known.

    Congrats on completing Merrivale, too. I have two left — Crimson Blind and Cavalier’s Cup, since I’ve read Carr (broadly…) chronologically — and I’m slightly hesitant to pick either of them up going by their reputations. But time will tell how deserved I feel those reputations to be…

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    1. Crimson Blind wasn’t nearly as bad as I assumed it would be and is a really unique entry in the Merrivale library given the setting in Tunisia and the spy thriller vibes. Cavalier’s Cup though – yeah, I have no clue how that got published.

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  3. Ah, yes a true classic this one. Difficult for modern people to judge the technical plausibility of the one part of the solution perhaps, it would be interesting if someone knew how plausible it really is to confuse X and Y.

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  4. Having just finished reading The Green Capsule last night (and only finding out you had a blog today), I thought it was time I was following you! (I’m sure you’re thrilled 😉 )

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      1. I liked it very much. I’ve only read 6 or 7 Carr but it’s right up there near the top. I am, oddly amongst GAD readers, more interested in character than plot but this hit both of those aspects without leaving me blinking in confusion or disappointment (unlike the last chapter of The Master Key, which I also read recently).

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        1. If you enjoy character, I recommend Christianna Brand: Green For Danger, Fog of Doubt, Suddenly at His Residence, and Death of Jezebel are all good choices. Henry Wade and Anthony Berkeley did some good character work as well.

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          1. Yes! I’ve just read Jezebel and Green for Danger and wondered why it took me so long to find Brand. And she ticks both my boxes: character and language. Both of which are reasons I love Crispin and—also apparently an outlier here—much of Innes.

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