Having worked through the Bencolin books in order, I’ve now reached the final destination – The Four False Weapons. Carr’s final outing with the detective comes not in a continuous run with his first four books, but after a six year hiatus. During this time, the author introduced us to Fell and Merrivale – the series detectives that would provide countless classics over the decades to come. More importantly, he had significantly refined his story telling. His deftness for atmosphere, with works like Hag’s Nook and The Red Widow Murders. His ability to deliver head spinning impossibilities, with The Hollow Man, The White Priory Murders, and The Unicorn Murders. Perhaps most important, his ability to build layer upon layer of story, with narratives like Death Watch and The Burning Court.
The Four False Weapons always jumped out at me. How could it not? The title alone invokes the what I love most about Carr – the suggestion that the author is going to directly challenge the reader with a series of clues that he openly admits are red herrings. The title harkens back to The Nine Wrong Answers and The Reader is Warned, although it’s worth noting that The Four False Weapons came first.
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For some reason, I’ve never felt drawn to The Corpse in the Waxworks. In part, it was my knowledge that it doesn’t feature an impossible crime. Couple that with the back of the book jacket description basically amounting to “a woman is found dead in the arms of a satyr in a waxworks”. Sounds…. conventional. It seems unfair of me though. Being an overall fan of Carr’s style of writing, and knowing that he can deliver the goods without even a whiff of an impossibility (The Emperor’s Snuff Box, Death Watch), why not give it a try? I suspect I was held back by my experience with The Lost Gallows, another early Bencolin work that lacks a strong puzzle. Despite featuring a heart pounding finale, Carr’s overall narrative skills weren’t quite yet to the level of holding a full novel without the lure of an impossibility.
The Corpse in the Waxworks finds us back in Paris with Jeff Marle, the point of view narrator from all previous Bencolin books. Marle is accompanying Bencolin on an investigation into the death of a young woman whose body was found in the Seine river. The victim was last seen entering a waxwork museum several days prior, but never leaving. As Marle and Bencolin explore the waxworks, they make a gruesome discovery – the body of another young woman is slumped across the arms of a wax satyr.
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The definitive locked room mystery novel. For an author whose name is so entwined with the locked room genre, The Judas Window showcases Carr at the top of his game. Too often, the label “locked room” is applied loosely, covering a range of impossible crimes in which a murder occurs in an inaccessible location. Not so here – this is text book locked room. Steel shuttered windows. A door thoroughly bolted from the inside. No conceivable way in or out of the room. And, yet, as Henry Merrivale repeatedly states, every room has a Judas window.
Carr wastes no time, presenting us with the impossibility immediately. A man is found dead in a comprehensively locked room, stabbed through the heart with an arrow that had been mounted on a trophy display. There’s a twist though – the victim is not alone. Young Jim Answell is found passed out on the floor, a gun in his pocket and his fingerprints on the murder weapon. Upon coming to, he swears to his innocence, claiming that he had been drugged and that the victim was still alive when he slipped out of consciousness. Yet no trace can be found of the whiskey tumblers and decanter that he swears delivered the dose that put him under.
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Whenever I finish reading a Carr book and hit “Publish” on my latest post, the hunt begins. I pull up a browser window and comb through some of my regular haunts, seeing if I can track down other reviews of the same book. I love seeing how others’ experience compare to mine – did they enjoy the same aspects? Did they hate it? Do they have some interesting insights that I hadn’t thought of? Well, the answer to that last question is always ‘yes’.
My post-read ritual has been fairly clumsy up to now – pull up Google and type in “John Dickson Carr”, the title of the book, and “wordpress” or “blogspot”. Sure, there are other review sites out there, but I tend to find the best material on these platforms. As you may expect, my searches lead me down some well tread paths – Beneath the Stains of Time, The Invisible Event, In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, and several others.
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The Cross of Murder
Published in 1941, the same year as The Case of the Constant Suicides, Seeing is Believing falls in the middle of an amazing eleven year stretch for Carr. Starting with Death Watch and The Hollow Man in 1935, and finishing with He Who Whispers in 1946, the author churned out 31 novels, many of them considered to be his best work. Consult a Top 10 Carr list and they’re almost all guaranteed to come from this era.
One could question if Carr experienced a brief dip in quality around the time Seeing is Believing was published. Although the period from 1939-1941 features some of his best work (The Problem of the Green Capsule, Nine – and Death Makes Ten, and the previously mentioned Suicides), it also features a string of titles that were less well received (The Problem of the Wire Cage, The Man Who Could Not Shudder, Death Turns the Tables, And So to Murder,….and Seeing is Believing). In fact, pretty much all of the “weak” titles from the 10 year period came out during these three years.
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“In a detective story, no person is above suspicion. But there are several types who are below it.”
I did it. I finally did it. I knew that if I explored some of Carr’s less popular works, I’d find a gem worth savoring. A book that for some reason has fallen out of favor, leaving it a neglected treasure to be stumbled upon. Below Suspicion is that book. Let me explain how I got here.
Several months back, I took a chance on The Man Who Could Not Shudder, based on a comment from JJ at The Invisible Event that it had an audacious ending. The book definitely had a few weaknesses, such as a plodding first half and a surprising lack of atmosphere for a plot that revolves around a haunted house. Still, I enjoyed it. The pace picked up in the second half and the finale was truly enjoyable. To be clear, it wasn’t top tier Carr, but it didn’t strike me as deserving of the derision it receives.
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When it comes to evaluating impossible crimes, there are two super obvious criteria.
- How gripping the puzzle is
- How clever the solution is
It isn’t surprising to note that the two aren’t always the same. The best solutions aren’t alway preceded by the most bewildering impossibility, and the most rapturing puzzle doesn’t alway leave you satisfied in the end. I’ve previously covered some astonishing solutions, and now I’ll be looking at five beguiling puzzles (hint: where the two lists intersect, you’ll find some killer impossible crimes).
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