THE EMPEROR’S SNUFFBOX (1942) by John Dickson Carr

Singled out by Carr himself as one of his best efforts, this is quite an anomalous title from the great writer’s oeuvre, though it displays many of his greatest virtues. Constructed with his trademark cunning, the story does not feature an impossible crime and is also one of the author’s comparatively few books set in contemporary times not feature either of his popular detectives Dr Gideon Fell or Sir Henry Merrivale. Indeed it is the only one of his novels from the 1940s not to feature them. Which is to say that this book is indeed a bit special – not least because it may be the closest Carr ever came to writing a murder mystery in the style of Agatha Christie, the entire plot based on a superbly clever psychological device rather than locked room pyrotechnics.

I offer the following review as part of Bev’s 2012 Vintage Mystery Readers Challenge for which I have selected to read and review at least eight mystery novels on the theme of amnesia published pre-1960.

“I detest this affair,” he groaned. “I abominate this affair. No sooner are you right-side-up then along comes somebody and turns you down-side-up again.”

Eve Neill, the daughter of a Lancashire mill owner, is rich and financially independent – and yet strangely susceptible to strong personalities around her. In fact she is even intimidated by her stern maid, Yvette. Which is why it is such an achievement that she has finally managed to finally divorce Ned Atwood, her smooth cad of a husband who also, it is intimated, has a violent temper. She makes friends with the Lawes family, British expatriates that live in the villa directly opposite hers. Sir Maurice Lawes  is now in retirement and collects exquisite and valuable objets d’art, including the eponymous snuff box which it is said once belonged to Napoleon. Living with Sir Maurice and his wife are the harmless old duffer Uncle Ben and the Lawes’ two children: their pushy young daughter Janice and their son Horace, who is known to everyone however as Toby. Despite the fact that he is very conventional young man and really a bit of a stuffed short, Eve starts a romance with him and soon there is talk of a wedding. And this is when Ned re-enters the story, threatening to create a scandal.

“Is Mrs Neill guilty of infidelity, or is she guilty of murder? She can’t be guilty of both, you know.”

One night, using his old key, he gets into the house and goes into Eve’s bedroom to talk her out of marrying Toby. Knowing how conservative the Lawes are, he says that he will throw open the curtains and parade the fact that he is back in her bedroom if she won’t call off the engagement. This opens the book’s major set-piece and is highly extended and effective as Ned cajoles and threatens (even sexually) his ex-wife. But just as the entreaties are becoming more violent, Toby telephones out of the blue even though it is very late at night – Eve is thus literally saved by the bell! Then something really odd happens – while looking peeking through the window the dead body of Sir Maurice can be seen with his head bashed in. Ned sees a pair of hands in brown gloves pulling the door shut on the other side. Knowing that the police must be about to arrive Eve tries to shush Ned out of the house and inadvertently makes him fall down the stairs. He gets up, bleeding but apparently unhurt. As he finally leaves, Eve gets herself mysteriously locked out of her own house and becomes terrified that she will become involved in the murder. This is another long. suspenseful sequence as she attempts to evade detection and get herself back in her own house before the police start asking too many questions.

“… which one of them did it?”
Dermot looked her in the eyes.
“I am, quite deliberately, not going to tell you.”

Eve is desperately worried about alienating the Lawes family after Ned’s late-night visit, but ultimately they turn on her as she trips herself up. Yvette tells the police that she saw her mistress wash blood out of her nightdress and even worse, a fragment of the snuffbox, smashed to pieces on the desk in front of Maurice’s body, is eventually recovered from the item of clothing. As Maurice was bashed repeatedly on the head with a poker, the evidence of blood spatter on Eve’s nightdress and the fragment of the snuffbox seem conclusive – in addition the ribbon from he dress has been found outside, suggesting she was not home at the time of the murder. Eve is inevitably charged with the murder and yet she is at a complete loss as to how best explain events and extricate herself from them.

At the point that the police are about ready to start sharpening their guillotine (well, figuratively, the Inspector reassures us that she’ll probably only get 15 years at La Cayenne) enters Dr  Dermot Kinross. He is introduced as ‘perhaps the foremost mental specialist in England on the subject of criminal psychology’ and right away he becomes convinced that Eve must be innocent. Eventually they prise from her the story about Ned’s visit but unfortunately he can’t substantiate her alibi as the fall down the stairs caused concussion and has left him completely unconscious since that night. he does regain consciousness but he has suffered memory loss unsurprisingly so is little help. But then it also turns out that Maurice may have been hiding a secret, another item from his collection is now registered as having been inexplicably moved, ans despite his apparently bland exterior Toby also proves to have a few skeletons in his closet as well. And why does Yvette have it in for Eve? The solution to the crime is based on a wonderfully simple gambit and is beautifully handled by Carr – I certainly fell right into the author’s trap and pointed the finger at the wrong surprise ending before he springs his at a highly atmospheric showdown lit by the intermittent flare of a lighthouse. Carr’s handling of the various suspects is masterful and his best clues are well and truly hidden in plain sight. On top of this there is a highly compelling emphasis on providing a credible point of view for the embattled and damaged Eve.

So why not give this fabulous mystery a full five stars? Well, maybe because of the ‘spatter’ issue identified by TomCat in his excellent review over at Beneath the Stains of Time, though Carr does go out of his way to make it clear that the murderer attacked from behind. And maybe because Kinross, while potentially intriguing as a detective suffering from shell-shock who has had half of his face reconstructed with plastic surgery, is not as well-rounded a figure (no pun intended) as Carr’s heavyweight regular detectives. But these are minor issues in one of the great novels by a master of the Golden Age, one that abounds in clever conceits, smoothly handled twists and a great surprise ending – you shouldn’t pass this up.

Filmed with reasonable fidelity as The Woman Opposite (US title: City After Midnight), which will be the subject of a separate post next week. Until then, au revoir.

***** (4.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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25 Responses to THE EMPEROR’S SNUFFBOX (1942) by John Dickson Carr

  1. Sergio – A thorough and well-written review, for which thanks. In my humble opinion this shows Carr’s ability to innovate as well as to explore relationships. Little wonder he liked it himself as well as he did and you chose to highlight it.

    • Thanks very much Margot for the very kind comments. I probably didn’t make enough of this in my review but one of its strengths, for me at least, is that he both does something new and dazzles you with it but also really does play to his own strengths. To often people get so impressed with the spectacular effects of the ‘miracle’ problems that his deft way with planting a clue or with misdirecting the readers gets forgotten. Here this is brought into great relief. it’s a great big fabulous GAD book, isn’t it?

  2. Colin says:

    A very good review of this interesting Carr story Sergio. It is quite suspenseful and it certainly wrong footed me when I read it.
    I think Kinross was a pretty good detective and wouldn’t have minded seeing him featured again – he may not have had the quirks of Fell, Merrivale or Bencolin but he did show promise and was vastly superior to the likes of Gaunt.

    • Cheers Colin (and welcome back from the hols mate). I do like him as a character per se but he has just never really stayed in my memory much (certainly better than Gaunt thought, you’re right there). Not much of a surprise when I saw how much the character was changed for the film version (review coming shortly) though obviously you couldn’t have the same ending with any of his usual regulars..

      • Colin says:

        Quite, the ending suited the character in this case. Looking forward to hearing what you made of the film.

        • And I do really like the way that Kinross’ own motivation for dealing with the case is handled in such a way – make you realise how uncommon that is in Golden Age fiction. That the character was changed for the movie didn’t really surprise mt and I think Dan O’Herlihy is great casting (and would have been even if they kept the characterisation from the book I think).
          Dan O'Herlihy

  3. TracyK says:

    This does sound like an interesting book. I looked on ABEBOOKs and there are some nice old paperback editions, including those you show here. I look forward to the film review.

  4. Absolutely must get round to giving this a re-read. Thanks for the reminder, Sergio.

    • It’s such a classic Steve, I can’t believe you’d need much encouragement – love to read your review. I actually found it better than I remembered on re-reading, which was a very, very nice experience.

  5. TomCat says:

    I’m afraid I have very little to add to this review, except that you did an excellent job in beating the drum for one of favorite mystery writers.

  6. Skywatcher says:

    It’s very cleverly done on a technical level, but one of the reasons that it really sticks in my mind is the way that Eve comes across as a real person. There is a tendency amongst some people to praise Carr for his skills in plotting, but claim that he couldn’t do ‘character’. In fact he was very good at creating believable people, but the sort of books that he enjoyed writing didn’t always really require that detailed level of characterisation.

    • Cheers Skywatcher, I agree with you completely. He could often create complex, even maddening characters (especially women) and this is one of the best examples of that – Eve is certainly one of the triumphs of the book.

  7. Mike says:

    Great review of a great book. TESB truly counts as a neglected little gem of a novel. I’m not sure why it’s been so underrated; perhaps, as you suggest, the lack of a strong series protagonist largely accounts for that fact. In any event, your linkage of this book to Christie’s style of plotting is very apt and very shrewd.

    • Cheers Mike, very kind. Its comparactive neglect is a bit odd, isn’t it? Apart from anything else, it’s central idea is fiendishly clever and once read it is likely to be never forgotten. We’ll just have to kjeep banging on about it I guess … Next up, review of the movie adaptation!

  8. neer says:

    This seems like a very interesting book. Would love to find a copy of it.

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  10. Yvette says:

    Don’t remember reading this one, Sergio. I might have remembered the maid named Yvette. Ha! Boy, would I make a bad maid….

    Anyway, great review that does what a great review should do: makes me want to read the book and gives me a good idea of what I’ll find when I get there. Thanks.

  11. Jeff Flugel says:

    Another fine (and non-spoilery, for those of us who have yet to read it) review, Sergio! I was unaware that this novel featured a one-off detective…Kinross sounds like an interesting character. I sadly was only able to find two new-to-me Carr paperbacks on my recent holiday in the States, THE PEACOCK FEATHER MURDERS and THE DEAD MAN’S KNOCK. (Merrivale novels seem to be unfortunately light on the ground, at least in the Pacific NW.) Will definitely seek out THE EMPEROR’S SNUFF BOX asap.

    • Hiya Jeff, welcome back (sic) to Nippon! Peacock Feather is a personal favourite though not everyone agrees on that one (it presents a wonderful impossible mystery but not all are as convinced about the viability of the solution as I am – for a dissenting view, see Steve the PuzzleDoctor’s view here) – Dead Man’s Knock has a great locked room gimmick and heralded the return after a decade of Gideon Fell, who like Carr was transplanted, in his later years, away from the UK and back to the US.

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