J is for … THE JUDAS WINDOW (1938) by Carter Dickson

The Alphabet of Crime community meme over at the Mysteries in Paradise blog this week reaches the letter J, and my nomination is …

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.

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

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18 Responses to J is for … THE JUDAS WINDOW (1938) by Carter Dickson

  1. puzzledoctor says:

    Glad you did this one – I was an inch away from doing the same book, I love it so much. Went for the Bride of Newgate by the same author instead – a very different kettle of fish. A great review.

  2. It was an easy choice I must admit – I wanted to contrast a legal thriller setting with my Turow review and it was the most obvious J I could think of – as a result K has got really out of hand, but that’s for next week to worry about (should I manage it). Glad you liked it – but then Carr in the 30s and 40s is just so brilliant you can’t really go wrong!

  3. An excellent choice for “J!” I’ve always liked Carr’s work very, very much, too, and you’ve given me another reason.

    • That’s really very kind Margot, thanks very much – I’ve been attempting to post a comment on your blog about your excellent intro to Jakobsen but I think I need to set up a Google account first as I don’t seem to be getting anywhere – almost getting the hang of this blogging thing …

  4. Bev says:

    Awesome review! I love Carr and this is one of his very best. I’ve got you posted on the progress site! (Thanks also for your mention above….)

    • Thanks very much for the encouragement Bev and for the posting (I’ve set up a Gmail account now, so let’s see if things improve at all on that front) – who knew there were this many card-carrying Carrians out there in the blogospehere!

  5. Kerrie says:

    I love the covers too – thanks for this contribution to this week’s CFA

  6. Mrs P. says:

    Great review, thanks. I love the first cover that you show – the skeleton’s hand holding the bloody arrow – that must have flown off the shelves! (It wouldn’t be giving a clue to the perpetrator too? Will have to read it and see…)

    • It’s a truly bizarre image isn’t it? Admittedly a bit more appropriate to one of Carr’s earlier books as this has none of the shuddery atmosphere of the Bencolin or early Fell and Merrivale adventures.

  7. Bill Selnes says:

    I am going to look for a copy. I just finished Innocent and really enjoyed the book.

    • Thanks very much for reading Bill – I’m glad you liked INNOCENT too! I am hoping to track down a couple of the Quant mysteries soon but may skip the first of the series given what you say about it on your blog!

  8. Yvette says:

    Speaking of ‘tracking down’, that’s exactly what I’m going to be doing this year when it comes to John Dickson Carr. I remember reading his books when I was in high school and later when I was in my twenties. But damn if I can remember any of them except CASTLE SKULL. So there’s no help for it – I am going to have to begin re-reading. : )

    Thanks for this great review. I love the skeletal hand!

  9. I know what you mean – I first read Carr in Italian in my teens but now that I’m in my sober forties I am re-buying several of his books in their original editions but which is just not as easy as it should be. It seems that there is still a lot more respect for golden age mystery authors on the continent than in the UK! Whenever I go home it’s much easier to pick up those books in translation. However, presumably more and more titles will first appear in Kindle/e-reader versions than in print which is annoying personally as I haven’t made that technological leap yet – but this is how things change of course!

  10. Pingback: C is for … John Dickson Carr | Tipping My Fedora

  11. dado says:

    Best mistery writer ever,i adore carr,l read every book from carr,pure master

  12. Pingback: CARTER DICKSON. The Judas Window (1938). | Only Detect

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