J is for … The Judas Window (1938) by Carter Dickson.
I began my last post for the Alphabet Crime meme by declaring my lack of enthusiasm for the modern Grisham-style legal thriller – and then proved it was all stuff and nonsense by praising Scott Turow’s latest example of the genre to the hills. And this week I’ve compounded my lack of credibility by picking another courtroom drama, but this time at least I’ve got some mitigating factors I can offer in my defence: not only is it from the golden age of detective stories, not only is it by my all time favourite mystery author John Dickson Carr, but it’s a stone cold classic of my favourite subcategory of the genre: the locked room mystery. In fact this is a book that ticks so many boxes for me that I am also offering it as the third of my eligible books as part of the 2011 Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge over at Bev’s Reader’s Block website (check it out, it’s amazing – I just don’t know where she finds the energy or the time to do all that reading and blogging – she’s a true demon and an inspiration that one).
Originally published in 1938 under the author’s ‘Carter Dickson’ byline, The Judas Window not only has one of the most evocative titles in detective fiction but also one of the great opening chapters, alluringly entitled ‘What Might Have Happened’. Answell is a very happy young man, clearly one of us (he enjoys mystery stories after all), a well-heeled gentleman liked by all for his affable manner and who, after a whirlwind romance, is now engaged to a girl he only just met and is visiting Mr Avery Hume, his prospective father-in-law – but things quickly go wrong. Met with unexpected hostility in Hume’s hermetically sealed study, he soon passes out after taking a sip of his drink. When he returns to consciousness a few minutes later, he finds himself in the midst of a waking nightmare – Hume has been stabbed to death with one of the arrows that were hanging on the wall but the windows were all barred and shuttered and the solid door firmly bolted from the inside and there is no other way in or out. All the evidence points to Answell and when he is examined at the scene no trace of drugs is found in his system and the glass from which he says he drank is missing. His finger prints, and only his, are found on the murder weapon.
… he was the only person who could have killed Hume. It was like his own favourite novels turned to a nightmare.
Answell is put on trial and is defended by the gloriously undignified Sir Henry Merrivale, Dickson’s main detective, who here appears without the help of his usual foil, Chief Inspector Masters. Merrivale, usually known as ‘The Old Man’ is forever behaving badly, addressing jurors as ‘Dear fatheads’ and frequently fulminating against the ‘sheer cussidness’ of things – indeed one of the highlights of this book is a long disquisition on the unfair ways that life can trip you up, neatly summing up Carr’s darkly comic world view:
Call it destiny, call it Mansoul or the flexibility of the unwritten Constitution: but it’s still cussedness.
The case progresses with several impressive twists and turns as Merrivale battles seemingly impossible odds to turn up one suggestive nugget after another so that the jury might actually give Answell the benefit of the doubt despite such strong circumstantial evidence. There are all kinds of surprises in this book and one courtroom gambit relies on a surprisingly sordid device for such a genteel genre – compromising photographs of a pornographic nature used for the purposes of blackmail. It’s the sort of thing you might expect in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (first published the following year) but which provides a truly unexpected frisson here. But the judge remind us that his is ‘not a court of morals’, which is very typical of Carr’s own beliefs about the law. Many of his books, even to a controversial extent, find that justice and abiding by the law are frequently not the same thing and Carr nearly always comes down in favour of the former if necessary - here Sir Henry claims to be quite happy about having someone locked up in an insane asylum on trumped-up charges just so as to teach them a lesson!
The plot is fiendishly clever but far from impossible to comprehend and indeed the solution is remarkably simple in its conception, though Douglas Greene is probably right to question some aspects of the mechanics and just as correct to dismiss them as not really relevant to one’s enjoyment. And even when everything impossible seems to have been explained satisfactorily, even to the extent of justifying Merrivale’s belief that every wall and every door in the land has its own ‘Judas Window’, there is still a trial to be won and a killer to be unmasked!
This is a beautifully constructed book and one that is given pride of place by many aficionado of the locked room mystery (it came fifth in Edward Hoch’s celebrated list of the best locked room mysteries). Robert Aidey described it as “probably the best locked-room mystery ever written” and further recalls in his monumental bibliography of the genre, Locked Room Murders, that it was this very book that turned him onto the genre in the first place. Puzzledoctor over at his In Search of the Classic Mystery blog has devoted several poists to Dickson Carr which are particularly good – just click here to read some of them. David Renwick, writer of the wonderful impossible crime TV show Jonathan Creek, included a sly homage to the book in his previous sitcom, One Foot in the Grave, in the episode in which the grumpy Victor Meldrew and his wife Margaret are stuck at home during a power cut. She is reading a mystery book by flashlight until Victor completely ruins it by giving away the ending, having misremembered that the explanation for the mechanics of the crime are not revealed until the climax – the book of course is The Judas Window and Margaret nearly kills her husband in frustration. A very natural reaction really because this book is just that good and you shouldn’t let anyone spoil the surprises for you – a classic.