I spent most of November in China, which is not a particularly relaxing place! So it seemed the perfect opportunity to do so untaxing reading. I finally took the opportunity to read some of John Dickson Carr’s later H.M. mysteries: Seeing is Believing (1941), The Gilded Man (1942) and My Late Wives (1946) (all written, of course, under his pseudonym of Carter Dickson). I was pleasantly surprised, to be honest. Almost all prolific authors show signs of decline as they get older, but Carr’s seemed to be particularly pronounced. I’d been expecting extremely poor mysteries, but instead I found interesting ideas marred by imperfect execution. But there’s still plenty for the Carr fan to appreciate, at least in the latter two.
[No spoilers here. As I mentioned in my reboot post, Monday’s reviews will be spoiler free. But please come back tomorrow for an in-depth analysis.]
Seeing is Believing
Vicky Vane is torn: she doesn’t love her husband, Arthur, but puts great stock in the vows she made with him. Unfortunately, she’s fallen for Frank Sharpless, a young army captain. Worse, she’s learned that Arthur killed a teenager named Polly Allen, with whom he was having an affair. The final sick in the soup: Arthur’s unscrupulous brother Hubert has settled himself in her pleasant Cheltenham home for a spot of blackmail. Things come to a head when Vicky is offered a sure-fire way to kill her husband and get off scot-free. Sure enough, Arthur dies, but was Vicky responsible?
That’s not quite the plot, but it is if you turn your head and squint a bit. It’s obviously what Carr was going for, and it’s where the main interest lies. Unfortunately he bungles things quite spectacularly. Vicky’s opportunity for murder comes in the form of a disgraced hypnotist, Dr Rich. Rich is cajoled into performing an after-dinner experiment to demonstrate the limitations of the power of suggestion. When presented with a gun and a knife she knows to be fake, Vicky is unable to shoot her husband, but happy to pretend to stab him. Unfortunately the knife has been switched with a real one, even though no-one except Vicky went near it.
Things get even sillier when Dr Rich gives Vicky an injection to help her sleep and she promptly starts showing the symptoms of acute tetanus. Further revelations don’t do much to help what at its heart ought to have been a serious and thoughtful mystery centering on a tricky moral dilemma.
Luckily, that bulbous old rascal H.M. is on hand, having come to Cheltenham to have his memoirs ghosted. He’s on pretty good form, although his powers aren’t really taxed to fullest. Still, he manages to catch the (obvious) murderer, and manages to refer to the female characters as “wench” far less than usual. (He only says it five times; perhaps there were compulsory sensitivity classes at the War Office?)
This is a deeply unsatisfying book. There are two impossible crimes, but neither is especially plausible or interesting, in set-up or resolution. This is made worse by the fact that the interesting parts of the plot are swept aside for endless chewing over the mechanics and implications of the impossibilities.
Even the core of the book, which could have had a real Chestertonian elegance to it, relies on an infamously clunky bit of misdirection. Discussion of whether or not this is actually cheating will have to wait until tomorrow, but this certainly isn’t a book for someone who takes being swindled by an author personally.
In short: An intriguing idea wasted on implausible murder methods, and with an arguable cheat to add insult to injury. In fact, with the usual laboured dialogue, flimsy characterisation and interruptions and delaying tactics masquerading as genuine suspense, I can’t really recommend this to anyone.
The Gilded Man
Dwight Stanhope seems like a thoroughly sensible man, so why has he moved his collection of valuable paintings (including the El Greco of the title) out from their secure gallery and hung them in the dining room? Why has he cancelled the large insurance policy that covers them in event of theft? Most of all, why did he attempt to steal them in the middle of the night, and who put a stop to the theft by stabbing him?
This is a slight but competent mystery, with a clever solution. The identity of the murderer isn’t especially interesting, mainly because no-one really stands out, but the explanation for the strange situation is plausible, fair and well-hidden. The clues are fair, but slightly undermined because they require not only a great attention to detail but a trust that Carr himself is accurate in what he describes. Unfortunately, my trust in this aspect of his writing is pretty thoroughly eroded, so I just skimmed over the relevant sections. (Whether that’s my fault or his will have to wait until tomorrow.)
Unfortunately there’s no real atmosphere, especially if you read Carr for his mounting tension. There’s not even a murder to investigate, at least not by normal standards. The unusual set up is beguiling, but not especially sinister. Dwight’s daughter Eleanor’s drunken behaviour is an attempt to add a frisson of something, but Carr was never that great at wringing tension solely from embarrassment and frayed nerves. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? it ain’t.
It’s the “haunted house” stuff he’s good at, and there’s none on display here. A dozen or so references to the Victorian actress who owned the house don’t amount to anything.
H.M. is reasonably reserved here, and largely succeeds in sticking to his sensitivity regime, with a “wench” count of just seven. His turn as a stand-in for the travelling magician The Great Kafoozalum isn’t particularly funny (but then I don’t share Carr’s sense of humour at all, so YMMV), but it’s nice to see some explanations of simple magic tricks presented in a less clunky format than the fact-dump in the more famous The Hollow Man. Inspector Masters gets a mention and a phone call, but he isn’t present.
Apparently this is based on a short story featuring Colonel March, but I’ve never been able to get hold of it, so I can’t tell how similar they are. I suspect the central strange situation would be the same, but everything else would be different. Despite being an extension of an earlier idea, this doesn’t really feel padded.
In short: An enjoyable read, but not an edge-of-the-seat job. Best saved until you’re in the mood for something insubstantial.
My Late Wives
Roger Bewlay preys on lonely women. He seduces them, marries them, then kills them. Unfortunately the police, even under the usually capable hands of Inspector Masters, could never find the bodies, so there was no conviction. And now they can’t even find Bewlay, who hasn’t committed a murder for over ten years.
But now the mystery has resurfaced.
Accomplished actor Bruce Ransom has received a script about the Bewlay story. Ransom’s producer, Beryl West, is keen for him to play the part, but they disagree strongly over the ending. To put the argument to rest, Beryl suggest that Bruce act out the scenario in real life: to go to a seaside village, pretend to be Bewlay and see what happens. Bruce, who had already booked a holiday under an assumed name to escape the limelight, agrees.
Naturally everything quickly becomes more sinister. The play turns out to contain details about Bewlay’s life that have never been made public. Ransom stops writing to Beryl and she becomes worried. A mutual friend, Dennis Foster, happens to know Henry Merrivale and brings him in to consult, but to everyone’s surprise he condones Ransom’s masquerade. Despite H.M.’s assurances, Beryl becomes increasingly suspicious. She becomes convinced that Bruce isn’t just playing Roger Bewlay; he really is Roger Bewlay! And when Beryl and Dennis finally travel to visit Bruce, they find a dead woman in his wardrobe…
I was ill when I read this, so I may have lost all sense of perspective, but I think this could have been a minor masterpiece, if only Carr had written it at the height of his powers.
The setup is complex but engaging, and has an elegant simplicity at its heart. Is Bruce Ransom Roger Bewlay or not? If he isn’t, then who is? If he is, then why is he behaving this way? The solution is clever and plausible, and features a rarity in Carr’s work: a genuinely surprising murderer. This is the only time reading a Carr that I not only suspected the wrong person, but I didn’t even consider the right one for a second. The few impossible situations aren’t particularly complicated, but they make excellent sense and are well integrated into the plot, rather than being an afterthought.
Unfortunately all of Carr’s worst habits are in full force here. Characters often have interesting information to impart, but they’ll keep it secret or be conveniently interrupted, so the reader won’t find out until several chapters have passed. The three main characters don’t deliver on their initial promise, with Dennis in particular remaining a cypher. Beryl West initially seems like she’ll be an engaging character: she’s highly competent, very assertive and quite ingenious. After all, it’s her idea to have Bruce pretend to be Bewlay in the first place. But it isn’t long before she’s become borderline hysterical, and all that promise of originality drains away (my complaint isn’t that hysteria is an unreasonable or unlikely reaction to events, it’s just that this is the kind of woman that Carr always seems determined to present us with and it’s dull. Also he’s TERRIBLE at writing them).
The mystery also takes a long time to get going. There’s a lot of faffing about in London before we’re introduced to the village characters, with the result that a lot of them are severely underdeveloped. This is especially problematic in a mystery where the killer is definitely a man, eliminating half of the cast immediately. (I know that I’ve said that having the killer obviously telegraphed as a man is a sure-fire sign that it isn’t, but here a surprise female killer wouldn’t make any sense at all. We really are just looking for Roger Bewlay, and it’s a credit to Carr that he manages to hide him so well.)
The ending in an abandoned military training facility seems tacked on, and any tension to be got from it is squandered by clunky exposition. Carr is usually quite good at handling settings like this, but his usual skill has deserted him here.
H.M. is on reasonable form, although he plays his cards infuriatingly close to his chest. He’s also learning to play golf, and there’s one of Carr’s infuriating Scotsmen, but luckily the bad comedy doesn’t intrude too much. Unfortunately the sea air seems to have awakened some of H.M.’s youthful spirit and he’s fallen off the wagon – the “wench” count is up to 20!
In short: Recommended, but with caveats. This isn’t going to make anyone a Carr lover, but existing fans should be pleasantly surprised. A much more unpleasant mystery than usual though, so not one to read if you’re after a chuckle.
So that’s it! A recommendation rate of two to one, which is much higher than I was expecting when these three were staring at me from the shelf. Join me tomorrow when I’ll be going back over some elements of the clues and mysteries with the spoiler gloves well and truly off!