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 featuring 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.