Sunday, June 10, 2012

Carr Talk: Four Capsule Carr Reviews

This fashionably surrealistic 1940s cover
captures some of the eerie nature
of the novel

 The Reader Is Warned (1939)

John Dickson Carr's The Reader Is Warned is graced by exceptional impossibility and the marvelously sinister idea of "teleforce."

A mysterious psychic named Herman Pennik pronounces that one of the people at a country house party gathering will die at a certain time; and, sure enough, this person dies at that time.  No indication of the man's cause of death can be found.  Pennik insists that he accomplished the death by means of a psychic power he calls teleforce.

The next day the dead man's widow denounces Pennik as a charlatan and he, nettled, tells her that she too will die, also by means of teleforce.  And, sure enough, she dies. How she came to die is yet another mystery.

Is teleforce for real?!!  Sir Henry Merrivale is on it!

Most of us, I imagine, can think of thrillers with outlandish premises like this one that ultimately disappoint, but amazingly John Dickson Carr, the old maestro, comes up with a plausible (well, by Golden Age standards, anyway) and fairly-clued explanation for all the outre events.

The resolution, which involves a rather melodramatic and implausible trap and a quite incredibly garrulous killer, is the main weakness of the tale, I think.  But the teleforce idea around which the novel is structured is a brilliant, bravura device and the last lines of the novel are unusually thoughtful for Carr (if perhaps a bit optimistic--one thinks of the advent of atomic weaponry).

As mentioned in my previous blog post, the murder method in Warned is quite similar to one that appears in a John Street novel from the same year, 1939.  Whether Carr discussed with Street this murder method, the exuberant narrative obviously is all John Dickson Carr.  The Reader Is Warned is one of Carr's most brilliantly constructed and engagingly told detective novels.

An attractive Hamish Hamilton reprint edition
illustrating the inadvisability of hanging weapons
over fireplaces in haunted country houses
The Man Who Could Not Shudder (1940)

I wrote first-rate! in my paperback copy of The Man Who Could Not Shudder back in 1993 (nearly twenty years ago!), when as a graduate student I was first buying Carr in all those nice IPL, Harper and Zebra editions that were still readily available in those days.  On re-reading Shudder I found nothing to make me change my original opinion.

This is the one involving the miracle problem at, yes, yet another country house party gathering of a guest who is shot in the study of the house by a gun that seemingly moves of its own volition.

Oh yes, the house is haunted.

There are strange stories of the ankle-grabbing ghost of a former owner of the house who died in 1820 and, from a hundred years later, of a chandelier-swinging, octogenarian butler who died when the chandelier crashed down on him.

Though Shudder is a haunted house tale, Carr does not lay on the Gothic trappings thickly this time.  The novel's house to the contrary is a very modern haunted house indeed, convincingly set in the late 1930s, and the characters act like real, normal, 1930s people (barring some jealous behavior on the part of the narrator's girlfriend).

A couple of the characters, including the egoistic current owner of the house and one of the female guests, the highly desired wife of the murder victim, are very well done (concerning the latter there is some discussion about sex that is pretty frank for the period).

Dr. Fell is on hand in this one, and though I sometimes find his mannerisms irritating I didn't here.  Inspector Elliot appears too--Shudder is a prequel to his later appearances in The Crooked Hinge and The Black Spectacles.

The house in Kent where John Street and John Carr
devised their Fatal Descent.
Originally the area around the house was wooded,
hence the name, The Orchards
Shudder is one of Carr's more John Streetish tales in its murder mechanics.  It also takes place on John Street's stamping ground--coastal, southern England--in a Tudor mansion that resembles John Street's Kentish house, The Orchards, where Carr and Street in the late 1930s collaborated in writing the detective  novel Fatal Descent. As with The Reader Is Warned, I could see Street and Carr discussing plot points of The Man Who Could Not Shudder over pints at the local pub in the little village where Street and his companion Eileen Waller lived.

It's also worth noting, perhaps, that the 1943 John Street novel (published under the pseudonym John Rhode) Men Die at Cyprus Lodge involves a haunted house and some other bits similar to those found in Shudder, though the plot turns out quite differently.

The murder method in Shudder is, as usual with Carr, deftly clued; and there is the bonus as well of a fantastic triple twist solution.  The readers who clears these successive hurdles in The Man Who Could Not Shudder is a clever reader indeed.  One action by Fell I thought utterly outrageous, but for me it was explained sufficiently by the end, when we learn how justice has been done.

He Wouldn't Kill Patience (1944)

This is the one involving mysterious gassing deaths in a locked and sealed room in the home of a London zoo director and, for good measure, a snake named Patience.  Could murder be involved?! Oh, come now, surely we don't have to ask.

Sir Henry Merrivale, who appears in the first few pages, is on hand to solve the crime, along with Inspector Masters, who does very little, and a pair of rival magicians, one male and one female, who provide us with the doubtful joy of observing their constant bickering over silly matters.

I found the obligatory bickering male-female couple easier to take here because they are, literally, theatrical people (and the man actually is not that bad).  There are no other memorable characters outside of a splendidly misanthropic zoo caretaker, but they are sufficiently portrayed and not irritating (except for a middle-aged woman who is meant to be irritating).

There is some first-rate slapstick humor at Merrivale's expense in the beginning of the tale, and H.M. is in superb form throughout it.  The zoo setting is nicely done, amusing and sinister by turns, and it is effectively melded with a menacing London Blitz.

Near the end something happens which seems absurd, but it is all beautifully explained a few pages later.

Ironically, the weakest part of the book may be the sealed room problem, the explanation of which might disappoint some by being...not quite so miraculous.  But it is fairly clued, as is the identity of the murderer.  Though not generally considered one of the great Carrs, He Wouldn't Kill Patience is one of my personal favorites.

He Who Whispers (1946)

Carr's splendidly-titled and much-celebrated eerie tale about the mysterious murder on the top of the ruined tower in prewar France that bedevils a group of people in postwar England is considered by many fans today to be his single best work.  A good case can be made for it.

As Douglas Greene has pointed out, Whispers effectively combines supernatural elements of his earlier work with the male-female sexual and emotional tension of his forties works.  The tale is both thrilling and moving, with greater character interest than is the norm with Carr.

Indeed, the character interest is arguably the strongest element of the book. Concerning the murder puzzle, I would think many readers might identify the culprit of the book's crimes (hey, I did), though the mechanics of the tower murder and the motivation behind it may well prove elusive.  They are quite deftly clued.

Character interest in fact is so strong in Whispers, that I felt the presence of Great Detective Dr. Fell obtruded somewhat, though thankfully he is pretty restrained here.  Still his huffing and puffing, ahemming and harrumphing presence takes me a bit out of an exceptionally serious story.

Other than that, there is nothing I can conceive of criticizing in Whispers.  It's a grand book. The opening section of the novel, where the visiting Professor Rigaud tells the tale of the murder on the tower, and the closing section, which takes place in a powerfully portrayed blitzed London, in particular are bravura narrative set-pieces.

From rooftops
or even murder-haunted tower tops
I would joyfully shout the praises of
He Who Whispers.


  1. I've read all but one and agree they are among his best. I found a cheap paperback copy of ...SHUDDER last year and have it in a bag. Somewhere. Guess I should go hunting for it and make it my next Carr read. I just read THE EIGHT OF SWORDS and would say it's one of those Dr. Fell books that is high on farce and oddball humor but not exactly the best of his detective plots. Has an interesting passage about Carr's feelings for critics who denigrate the kind of books he writes. The character of Henry Morgan, a mystery writer, seems to be a Carr stand in. I found my attention wavering as many of the puzzling elements in THE EIGHT OF SWORDS were solved bit by bit while many "digressions" (as Morgan refers to them) impeded the action. The final reveal was, I thought, underwhelming. One of the few of Carr's books that was easily guessed by me if not completely figured out.

  2. Also, the murder method in THE READER IS WARNED is exactly the same as one used in an earlier story "The Empty House" featuring Colonel March which was purposefully omitted from the original edition of THE DEPARTMENT OF QUEER COMPLAINTS. It was later added inteh reissued version put together by Doug Greene for IPL. I mentioned it last year in my review of the March story collection.

  3. Yeah, John, I'm not a big fan of Eight of Swords I'm afraid. I feel Carr didn't come quite together until about 1935 or so. Then from then until the mid-1940s it's an amazing run.

    When was The Empty House originally published? I suppose this is in Doug's bio, should check that, also your review.

  4. Taken me way to long to get to this post - apologies Curt. I loved reading your reviews of these books. I will most definitely have to re-read SHUDDER in light of your comments as I think my memory of it is just too nebulous. Agree whole-heartedly about the others. I also would have assumed that the March story was actually published later that READER IS WARNED but John is clearly right in that it predates it - fascinating stuff as always.


    1. Colonel March was based on Street, according to Doug Greene's bio.