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 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: