Death in Five Boxes!
You probably guessed that one was coming, but I also genuinely believe that Death in Five Boxes is an underrated Carr, deserving of more attention.
And, just in case you were wondering, Vox tells us that the twelve days of Christmas run from the birth of Christ (December 25) through the coming of the Magi, aka the three wise men (January 6, the Epiphany). So I'm on track actually to get this done on time, praise the Lord and all the saints!
However, the girl--or young woman as we would say today--is no hooker but rather respectable Marcia Blystone, daughter of eminent doctor Sir Dennis Blystone.
Marcia is worried about Sir Dennis, who went out to keep an assignation at the flat of businessman Felix Haye. Marcia, who followed Sir Dennis to this building, gets John to go up with her to Felix Haye's fourth-floor flat, where, after encountering a surly clerk named Ferguson on the third floor at the Anglo-Egyptian Importing Company [AEIC], they find Sir Dennis and the two other guests of Felix Haye--Bernard Schumann, heard of the AEIC, and art dealer Bonita Sinclair--drugged and insensible in Haye's flat. Haye himself is dead, stabbed with an umbrella sword-stick. (See the illustration of the 1991IPL edition, the one I read, at the above right.)
Each of Haye's guests has queer objects in their pockets: four wristwatches, the ringing mechanism of an alarm clock, and bottles of quick lime and phosphorous. Now there's a fine Chestertonian situation for you! Carr by his own admission was an adept of Chesterton in everything but religion--admittedly a rather large exception.
It turns out that all four individuals were poisoned with atropine in their drinks (white lady cocktails and a whiskey highball)--under circumstances which seem to have been impossible! Also, Ferguson soon disappears from the building--under circumstances which seem to have been impossible!
Aside from the impossibilities, however, Boxes offers an intricate and well-plotted, fairly clued mystery problem (along with five mysterious boxes, which are broken into, their contents stolen, at the offices of Hayes' firm of lawyers). I found it all quite satisfying. On my second reading of Boxes, I found had forgotten about everything about it after two decades except the poisoning method and I enjoyed it all immensely.
John Norris has called Boxes one of his favorite Carter Dicksons. To be sure, those Carr-hating curmudgeons Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor carrped that the novel depends on"false excitement" and "gimmicks" that are "barely plausible," but we know what wet blankets those two could be about anything they didn't (rather arbitrarily) deem "realistic." Also people sometimes complain about the identity of the murderer, but I have no real problem with what Carr did here, aide from one niggling doubt about something the murderer did.
|1940s Dell mapback edition|
after which the back of the 1991
IPL edition was modeled over
Marcia Blystone seems very much a standard Carr leading lady, in both her youthful attractiveness and willfulness and her underlying sympathy with naughtiness, but she doesn't cross the line into irritating, for me anyway, in contrast with some Carr leads I could mention. (I'm looking at you, Miss Audrey Page.)
Sir Henry Merrivale doesn't come into the story until it's a third over, but he's in splendid form throughout (aside from his pratfall introduction), humorous yet withal a figure of some real character. (It wasn't for some more years yet that Carr would turn poor HM him into a buffoonish performing monkey.)
It's Sir Henry who here expresses an important credo of Carr's (it's important in the book too): "There's a lot of stuffin' that needs to be removed from shirts, and a good spring-cleaning wanted in the home of the humbugs." Carr loathed the canting pious hypocrite, who committed sins in private which he sanctimoniously denounced in public; and if that isn't a timeless message I don't know what is. Bravo, JDC, I shall raise a white lady to you!
|recipe at Basco Fine Foods (recommended to readers of the book)|
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