THE BLACK SPECTACLES (1939) by John Dickson Carr


I was always predisposed to love this book: first off, it’s an impossible crime mystery, second it’s by John Dickson Carr and third it involves movie-making equipment – perfect! It sees the titanic powers of lexicographer detective Gideon Fell at their peak (Carr, in the dramatis personae, bills him as: ‘The expert – there are no words to describe him.’) This novel takes the Holmesian maxim that people ‘see but do not observe’ to pull off a seemingly impossible poisoning despite a camera filming every moment of the murder. We begin in Pompeii …

I submit this review for Bev’s Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge; and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.

“Every single one of them saw him poisoned under their eyes; and yet not one single person can tell what happened”

Also known in the US as The Problem of the Green Capsule, this is a story all about perception, point of view, and misdirection, showing off the author’s love of stage magic but also his fascination with true crime. The Chesney clan is on holiday in Italy – Marcus is the head of the family, followed by his GP brother, Joe, their niece Marjorie, her new fiancée George, as well as Marcus’ assistant Wilbur Emmet and Professor Ingram, a psychologist and sounding board for Marcus’ theories on how to commit the perfect murder. They are there partly to escape from the shadow of a crime in their village near Bath. Chocolates in a shop were laced with poison, leading to a child being killed and several others falling dangerously ill. Marjorie has become implicated since she asked the boy who later died to buy her some sweets and then after looking at them asked him to change them that fatal day. Could she have planned this and given him a substitute bag, one laced with pison?

“Poor old Marcus Chesney actually planned the way in which another person could kill him —“


Marcus Chesney has made himself rich growing peaches all year round thanks to a secret method. Used to always having everything his own way, he can also be generous and caring, but only on his own terms. He is obsessed by the idea that people wear unconscious blinkers or ‘black spectacles,’ not really taking into account what they really see. Back home in Sodbury Cross he becomes determined to make his point and perhaps prove how the chocolates in the shop were poisoned too. He invites the same group from the Italian trip to be the audience for a dramatic scene after which he will ask them ten questions, to prove that they are in fact very poor witnesses, easily tricked by sleight of hand. Everything is planned for a midnight start, with Wilbur assisting off-stage.

“It’s all a question of atmospheres” – Gideon Fell

Marjorie and Ingram sit in their designated seats inside the unlit music room (Uncle Joe is delayed delivering a baby), while Harding films the event with his home movie camera. They watch Marcus through a pair of double doors into his study, which is harshly illuminated by a single, ultra bright photoflood light-bulb in his desk lamp. This is to facilitate filming. They see him at his desk apparently write with two implements, then a man wearing a bizarre disguise to mask his


identity brings in a medical bag and feeds Marcus a green capsule, then leaves. Marcus pretends to keel over, then gets up and tells the audience that he will quiz them on what they think they saw and prove them all wrong. But a minute later Wilbur is found bashed in the head out in the garden and Marcus dies shortly afterwards, his dummy pill replaced with a poisoned capsule. Enter Scotland Yard Inspector Andrew Elliot, who has never been introduced to Marjorie, but is already madly in love with her. But is she the guilty party? Time to call on Gideon Fell to sort out the mess as Elliot is too personally involved to be reliable while the other local police officers all have different ideas about who is guilty.

“I am here to see that no harm comes to the lame, the halt and the blind, or I am not worth a Birmingham groat in the cosmos. Kindly place that in your pipe and light it.” – Gideon Fell

Carr has created a very symmetrical puzzle, in which the three witnesses to the ‘crime’ give very different responses (they can’t even agree on the height of the poisoner or what the time was despite a clock being clearly visible in Marcus’ room), all of which are paired against three policemen with equally different ideas of who did it, some of whom had featured in previous Carr stories. Elliot had just appeared in The Crooked Hinge while


Major Crow was previously part of Eight of Swords and Death-Watch. After poor Wilbur, recovering from his coshing, is poisoned to death with a hypodermic, later found hidden in Marjorie’s room, evidence starts to point to her, echoing the 1871 case of Christiana Edmunds. After Uncle Joe ‘accidentally’ points a gun at Harding and nearly kills him (he swears he thought the gun unloaded), the time comes to watch the film with the original witnesses and uncover a truly diabolical scheme. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, from its eerie murder to its even more ethereal recreation on film and for the wonderful clues that Carr gives us: what is the importance of Marcus’ original 10 questions? Why didn’t the murderer destroy the film, despite being left unguarded for a lengthy period? How is it that Marjorie seems to be able to literally read Elliot’s mind? What is the significance of the clock with hands that cannot be reset? On top of all this mystification, Carr pulls off a wonderful coup with the screening of the murder film and breaks an alibi that seemed truly unbreakable in a surprising and deliciously clever way.

John F. Norris more than gave this novel its due over at his Pretty Sinister Books blog, where he points out that the book is also worth cherishing for Fell’s fine lecture on real-life poisoners. Neeru has recently blogged about this one, feeling a bit dissatisfied, over at her A Hot Cup of Pleasure blog. She felt annoyed by Elliot falling in love with Marjorie as a subplot, finding it too distracting, though I must admit I had no problem with this as Elliot doesn’t do anything too stupid despite his strong feelings. As for the ‘shotgun wedding’ sequence, in which Uncle Joe almost shoots Harding in the back of the head, it serves a purpose in terms of the development of the relationship between Marjorie and Elliot – and is a red herring too. Carr once again hoodwinked me as I fell into all his traps and never looked in the right direction until he pointed it out to me – a masterful performance. If not quite up to the standard of Carr’s own masterpieces, The Hollow Man or The Judas Window, well, what is?

I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘colour’ category:


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

This entry was posted in 2014 Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo, England, Gideon Fell, Italy, John Dickson Carr, Locked Room Mystery. Bookmark the permalink.

80 Responses to THE BLACK SPECTACLES (1939) by John Dickson Carr

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – I’d have to agree; The Hollow Man is, I think, Carr’s best. Still, it’s hard to resist the combination of ‘impossible’ crime, a film context and that psychological moment when people don’t see what’s right there. Thanks as ever for a fine review.

  2. Yvette says:

    I am convinced that I need to reread John Dickson Carr. Doesn anyone remember NIGHT AT THE MOCKING WIDOW? For some reason that’s one of the titles that rings a loud bell with me. At any rate, I like THE PROBLEM OF THE GREEN CAPSULE title better than the black spectacles and like your review very much, Sergio. I will definitely look for this once I’m free of my current ‘must-reads’.

  3. One of my very favourites, partly because no one really mentions it much so it was a pleasant surprise. Unlike some JDC, the set up required actually makes sense, and it’s a truly clever trick. One of his best, up there with Judas Window, She Died A Lady, He Who Whispers and Til Death Do Us Part.

  4. Colin says:

    Very nice. I thoroughly enjoyed this book when I read it last year, and find myself nodding in agreement with your analysis here. Despite having read lots of Carr over the years, I was completely suckered and lead up the garden path. There’s something very enjoyable about sitting back when everything becomes clear and realizing how deftly it’s all been concealed. Easily one of Carr’s best and most consistently entertaining novels. The mystery and atmosphere work well, and the romantic and comedic bits are kept to a minimum. Oh, and I think I prefer the US title too in this case.

    • It is a great feeling when you realise you have been well and truly suckered – I kept worrying that with such a small cast of characters I couldn;t be surprised about whudunit – and bam! Knocked me for six, as always – genius, that’s what he was!

      • Colin says:

        Yes, and the way he did it time and again, is something else. During the summer I read Mad Hatter again, after a gap of maybe ten years, and had forgotten everything apart from the basic setup and location. Now that’s a very different book yet, despite having read it before, I was still gulled – that’s either a powerful testament to Carr’s skills, or clear proof of my own stupidity!

        • I read that one ages ago, probably 20 years ago, so I do need to re-read that as, like you, I can remember very little. I love, love being suckred when it’s done so well. But then I’m a magic fiend, so … Have you read SHE DIED A LADY? Not enough people sing its praises but that is an absolute cracker!

          • Colin says:

            I certainly have, and fully agree. Aside from being a fine mystery and a top piece of misdirection, the book has some of the best (maybe the best) characterization Carr ever achieved. It doesn’t get mentioned among the better books anywhere near as often as it should.
            Speaking of which, He Who Whispers is always highly rated, yet I found it a little flat when I last read it. I assume the fault lies with me, and it’s one title I intend to revisit in the hope it will “work” better for me.

          • Actually, that is one of 4 carr books that I have not read yet and, as it were, ‘kept in reserve’ for an exceptionally rainy day – I’ve done this with several of my favourite authors (well, the ones who published a lot – doing that with Chandler would be really stupid). I now really want to re-read BURNING COURT as it has been a really long time (plus I read it originally in Italian translation). TILL DEATH DO US PART is another fantastic book that I always think should be better known … but I could go on, and on in this vein …

          • Colin says:

            I do something similar – nice to have things to look forward to. I have a number of Merrivale stories sitting on the shelf for future reading, and a handful of mid-later period Fell books.

          • Witht Fells I started with the penultimate, Panic on Box C (which I liked a lot at the time) and then worked my way back to Hag’s Nook so my approach has always been a bit messy!

          • Colin says:

            In all fairness, the order you read his books doesn’t make much difference – although reading The Lost Gallows before It Walks By Night would be inadvisable.

          • I really need to re-read LOST GALLOWS! I remember HE WALKS BY NIGHT fairly well at least 🙂

          • Colin says:

            High melodrama in both of course, but they’re fun books.

          • And for Carr the cardinal sin really was dullness!

          • Colin says:

            Indeed. Even the weaker, later, books aren’t what I’d call dull. Convoluted and, at times, irritating but never dull.

          • You’re a good man Colin, and with such good taste 🙂

  5. I read this years ago, and am pretty sure I still have my copy, and now you’ve made me just want to go straightaway and find it and read it…. Great review thanks Sergio, love your enthusiasm.

  6. Excellent review of a really good Carr novel. I did like the links with real life crimes – something Carr did often and well.

    • Thanks very much Martin – yes, Carr’s fascination with history come through in so many ways – and John is right, his lecture on poisoners just doesn’t get referenced often enough!

  7. John Dickson Carr’s early work is great. I’ve read a couple dozen of Carr’s mysteries (including some of the Carter Dicksons) and enjoyed the puzzles. Your fine review makes want to drop everything and read a John Dickson Carr RIGHT NOW!

  8. Richard says:

    I find myself among those few (for surely I can’t be completely singular in this) who don’t care much for Carr’s books. After hearing praise such as in this review and comments, and so many, including Doug Green, insisting reading the man’s books is a Must, I tried one. I didn’t much care for it, neither the writing nor the characters. But people said I must have chosen a rare poor one, and I really must…etc.etc. So I read – struggled through – another one, and a third after that. At which point I decided Carr isn’t for me. No, I don’t have titles for you, they were paperbacks I came across, read, and got rid of, knowing I’d never want to reread them. I don’t think this was among them, but no matter, none of the titles you or commenters name sound familiar. I may have shut them out of mind. This is an excellent review, just not of a book I’ll try.

    • A shame Richard – If you enjoy Christie. Edmund Crispin or Ellery Queen then Carr should fit right in – how do you feel about those authors? He is a traditional Golden Age mystery writer – tried to play fair with the reader (well, said he did – the point being he thought it important that he should), lots of misdirection and some red herrings, good on creepy atmosphere and some humour (both occasionally overdone) and of course best known for plots involving locked room mysteries and other crimes committed under other seemingly impossible circumstances. On the other hand, he also wrote historical mysteries that involve fantastical elements like time travel and pacts with the devil that not everybody likes – and admittedly anything of his from the 1960s might be a bit verbose at times. The only critic to be really hostile to him, I have found, is Bruce F. Murphy, author of the Encyclopedia of Murder and Mystery, an often very good work – I consider it a bit of a blind spot and have forgiven him. Sorry Carr / Dickson doesn’t do it for you chum – but I am way past being partisan – let’s put it this way though, you should at least try The Judas Window or She Died A Lady – if you don’t like that, fair enough, give up!

      • Richard says:

        In answer, Christie I love, have read all the Poirot, all the Marple, most of the rest. Crispin I find uneven, but the good ones are very good. Queen, however, is a mixed bag. I like some of the early books, SPANISH CAPE, CHINESE ORANGE, but after that… how many “endings” does any one novel need? I’ve read six or seven Queen books, I think CAT OF MANY TAILS would be the favorite.

        • Well, in that case dude, Carr should be right up you Parva! Do yourself a favour and try She Died a Lady and maybe The Emperor’s Snuffbox – I really don’t think you’ll regret it 🙂

  9. tracybham says:

    I don’t know why I keep putting off books by Carr. In 2015 I must make up for this. Your enthusiasm is contagious.

  10. Todd Mason says:

    I don’t think I’ve read Carr’s Gideon, as opposed to Creasey’s…though I’ve certainly enjoyed Carr’s work I have read, and it awaits us…meanwhile, on Prashant’s blog, you conflated Keith Laumer and Keith Roberts, both of whom could be brilliant at their best, and almost always are worth reading…though Roberts was also an impressive visual artist…

  11. neer says:

    Thanks for the fine review and the link to my review, Sergio. But no, the book simply didn’t work for me. It might be that I read it right after reading the superlative BURNING COURT and this just fell flat in comparison.

    Thanks also for that ‘shotgun wedding’ explanation. Too overdone to be effective.

  12. Santosh Iyer says:

    I regard it as a brilliant novel, One of Carr’s best.
    A person is murdered in presence of several witnesses and a movie camera, yet no one is able to tell who did it!
    The plot is really ingenious. Though elaborate, it is fully comprehensible. Also well clued.
    I would definitely put it in my top 5 Gideon Fell, the other 4 being He Who Whispers, The Hollow Man, Till Death Do Us Part, and The Mad Hatter Mystery.

    • So glad you like this too – I have no qualms at all with your other selection but have to re-read Mad Hatter as it’s been too long and I simply can’t remember it very well (it has been about 25 years I think …)

  13. Sergio, thanks for a splendid review of another Carr novel as well as the engaging comments your review elicited. While I haven’t read any of his books yet, I get the feeling there’s a lot going on in his stories by way of characters and subplots with a twist or two just round the corner. That’s just my reading from the reviews of his novels that I have read so far.

  14. Bev Hankins says:

    Sergio: I read this one last year. It is one of my favorites as well. Carr, as per usual, managed to hoodwink me nicely. I thoroughly enjoyed being hoodwinked….

  15. Colin says:

    Something about these posts on Carr draws me back endlessly. It’s great to see everyone’s comments and see so many have their interest in the author stimulated.
    All the talk of his best mysteries makes me think it might be an idea to run a poll to see how his books are ranked by the fans here,

    • Good point Colin – would be good to see what people really go for – I did a top 10 here but there were so many I would have liked to squeeze in – a separate post shall have to be done I think – thanks chum!

  16. richmcd says:

    I agree it’s top tier Carr. It’s a good setup, and I enjoyed the different answers to the victim’s survey, which I thought were quite plausible psychology on Carr’s part. Really nasty murderer, which Carr always did well (I think probably because he used really evil murderers quite sparingly). And it’s a good solution considering the very small cast of characters, although I’m a bit surprised how many people were fooled by it. By three quarters of the way through, who else could it be?

    I just think, as so often, Carr loses it just before the solution. The shotgun wedding scene is surely among the most bonkers he’s ever written, so bonkers that I had to read it three times before I could even begin to understand what Carr was claiming had happened. It’s baffling how he put so much thought into his characters’ behaviour during the impossible crime and then had them behave so weirdly for the conclusion.

    • Thanks Rich – Neeru singled that out for opprobrium, and you both have a point – it’s like he felt the need to gild the lily, and pretty unnecessarily in this case. But it’s a small thing – mind you, as you say, there were not too many options on who it could be, but i was completely foxed! Can’t tell you how impressive I find that – or maybe I just did … 🙂

  17. neer says:

    Oh God that Shotgun Wedding scene!

    I think that years later when I look back at this book, I’d have forgotten that fine lecture on real life poisoners but perhaps will still remember Uncle Joe with his gun. 🙂

  18. I didn’t know Carr had a thing for stage magic. Fascinating! I must read more of him.

    • He was a massive devotee of Maskelyne and Houdini in particular, Kelly – The Hollow Man (aka The Three Coffins) and The Gilden Man are also very closely patterned on stage illusion, but you can see it in much of his best worlk of the 30s and 40s

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