I’m envious whenever I read another mystery fan describe how much they love the ten Agatha Christie novels they’ve read . . . or the fifteen, or the three, and so on. The lucky devils! What pleasures they still have in store. I often wish that someone would unearth previously unpublished titles by my favorite author. Now that would be an excavation worth discovering, Mrs. Mallowan!
When I was but a lad, I went through Christie like a starving man. It tended to be my modus operandi with any author I liked. After Christie came Ellery Queen. Read and done! Ngaio Marsh? All gone. Christianna Brand . . . depleted! Rex Stout? Check! John Dickson Carr?
Whoa, Nellie! I am thrilled to report that I have not read all of Carr’s novels, not by a long shot. And that is really odd, for I have always considered Carr second only to Christie as my favorite author. Indeed, many mystery lovers tend to place these two at the top, and it’s almost a toss of the dice as to who occupies the #1 spot. And yet, Carr and Christie differ in many ways. My pal JJ – for whom Carr will always be Numero Uno – and I will be discussing the differences in a special series of posts in a couple of months. You have a few more days to vote on which books we will grapple with over at JJ’s place, The Invisible Event. Vote here.
Anyway, back to my life with JDC: I set my early sights on the cases of Dr. Gideon Fell and ignored the Sir Henry Merrivale mysteries ( published under the pseudonym Carter Dickson), the Bencolins, the historical novels and most of the stand alones. By my calculations, out of seventy novels, that leaves a whopping forty-two books still to be savored. Excellent sources that some of this writing is dross, but there is much gold (and some gold plate as well) still to be savored: The Emperor’s Snuffbox, The Four False Weapons, She Died a Lady, He Wouldn’t Kill Patience, and so on. In fact, I just finished ordering nine Merrivale titles off eBay, so I’m looking forward to some catching up and, hopefully, much enjoyment to share with you.
Another thing JJ and I have in common is a deeply nerdish love for over-analyzing mystery titles, and when we let loose, spoilers be damned! Last month, JJ announced that he and another fine blogger, The Puzzle Doctor, would be holding forth in a no-holds-barred fashion on an early Merrivale case, 1937’s The Ten Teacups, aka The Peacock Feather Murders. We were advised to read said novel and be prepared to chime in our thoughts. And that indeed was my intent. But January 21 came, JJ published his and PD’s findings, and my participation was nowhere to be seen.
I blame it on Harold Hill and Donald Trump.
Harold Hill, as you all well know, is the master con man who crossed the boundary into River City Iowa around July 4, 1912, representing himself as a renowned bandleader. His plan to bilk the River Citizians (not my spelling, theirs) of their hard earned loot was dashed by the warm and wise maiden librarian, Marian Paroo. All of this is chronicled in Meredith Willson’s Tony-Award winning 1957 musical, The Music Man, which happens to be this year’s winter musical at San Mateo High School, which yours truly has been directing since mid-November. And it – has – been – a – bear!
Donald Trump, as some of you may realize, is Harold Hill without the charm, the wit, the intelligence and true understanding of human nature, or seemingly the chance for redemption. Is it any wonder that every decision he has made in the first two weeks of his presidency has distracted this writer from writing?
Okay, that’s it, I promised I would keep the political talk to a minimum in here. My existential state has been laid out for you, so let’s talk Carr. I finally finished The Ten Teacups, and I’m prepared to render my thoughts.
Teacups is only my second Carter Dickson novel. I was lucky to begin with The Judas Window (1938), which, in terms of publication, immediately followed Teacups, at least so far as Sir Henry Merrivale’s adventures are concerned. (Carr also published two Fells, the return of Bencolin and the remarkable stand-alone The Burning Court during these two years.) As I examined the novel in preparation for participating in JJ and PD’s discussion, I found myself comparing Carr to Christie over and over again. How would Agatha Christie have approached The Ten Teacups? She would probably have introduced the characters through their preparation and participation in an ill-fated Murder party, segued into the crime from the point of view of either the victim or another suspect, and then switched to the investigation.
Here’s how Carr does it: the focus is on the specifics of an impossible crime seen through the eyes and ears of a team of policemen, primarily a likable sergeant named Bob Pollard. A message is sent to Scotland Yard that sends the police team scurrying to a particular house in a cul-de-sac that has been purchased recently by a caddish man about town named Vance Keating. The note is reminiscent of one received two years earlier that led to the discovery of a murdered antiques dealer. In both notes is mention of “Ten Teacups,” so naturally Pollard’s boss, Inspector Humphrey Masters, is afraid that another violent death is imminent. The police surround the house and keep watch, thus ensuring to themselves (and to the reader) that nobody but Keating has gone inside. Yet two shots ring out, and Keating’s body is found, shot twice at close range as evidenced by the extensive powder burns. But there is no sign of a murderer and no place for a killer to hide, since the only furniture present is a table laid with a gold tablecloth and ten pristine teacups, two of them cracked. It’s the same tableau that was found at the murder scene two years ago, and coincidentally, a couple named Janet and Jeremy Derwent, had previously resided in both houses. The gun, an antique, is identified as belonging to a man who had evidently argued with Keating over a woman, and all the clues lead to that house party given by the Derwents where the Murder game had been played – and from where the gun appears to have been stolen.
The middle of the novel consists of a lot of interviews with the host and his guests, all of them suspects in this impossible crime. Nearly all of the events that happened to the suspects are related in retrospect here – scenes of action described, not action itself. Most of these characters have seemingly cast iron alibis, but then you come to expect in a convoluted murder plot that people will have alibis. Sir Henry himself comments on this at the end of his investigation, providing one of my favorite moments in the book as he offers an answer to the obvious question: Why would anyone in their right mind choose to kill a person in this ridiculous way?
“Look here! (says Merrivale) An ordinary criminal sets out to commit a murder and cover his tracks – how? Usually with an alibi . . . But suppose, on the other hand, he can kill his victim in such a way that the police can’t tell how it was done? – a locked room, a body alone in snow, whatever you like? The police may be certain he did it. He may be found with blood on his hands and blood-money in his pocket. If they dare to bring him to court, judge and jury may be certain he did it. Yet if the Crown can’t show how he did it, he must be acquitted.”
The beginning of the novel was my favorite part, first because Carr is in his element setting up an impossible situation, and also because I really liked Bob Pollard, one of the more sensitive cops in detective fiction. Yes, there is a wealth of detail about the size and shape of neighborhoods and rooms, the contents therein, the state of Keating’s corpse, a thousand items that become choice catnip to those readers who like to try and solve these things. With me and how-dunits, this amount of information makes my brain feel as if I have just binge-watched an entire season of something on Netflix without drinking any water. I admite that I prefer looking for character, motive, the interplay between people, the state of everyone’s feelings. My bias is always for the “who” and “why.” Fortunately, Pollard is a great witness to certain aspects of the people involved in the case. I liked this early passage in which Pollard observes the corpse:
“No damage had been done to the face which was now exposed, except a spiritual damage. But mind, as well as life, had gone out of it; and the reason for its witless look was fear. Pollard had read much of faces supposed to be distorted with the fear of something seen. During his term as a uniformed constable he had seen a man fall to death out of a high window, and a man get the charge of a shotgun full in the face. The feelings such sights inspired were of physical things like pulp and angles; yet they were of the same cold quality as those inspired by this undamaged face, whose pale blue eyes were wide open and whose straw-colored hair was neatly plastered down. Quite plainly, he did not care to look at it. Keating, who wanted thrill, had evidently seen something more horrible than that which comes into the homes of harmless men.”
Later, Pollard meets Janet Derwent, who emerges as a fully formed femme fatale over the course of the novel:
“She had, like that which has been vulgarly attributed to a certain danseuse, a glance that could open an oyster at sixty paces. Yet, even while this over powering bundle was turned loose in a Suburban street., Sergeant Pollard felt certain doubts. It is all very well to be mysterious, and yearning, and even soulful; but, carried too far, a male observer sees in this the deceptive coyness of those ladies who talk about their souls on sofas. The far-away heat of that eye must have been shrewdly controlled, or she would have bumped smack into the lamp-post.”
It’s the best description of a character here, and, even better, the passage made me laugh. I had laughed a lot while reading The Judas Window. The scenes in court with Sir Henry acting as a barrister are hilarious. Unfortunately for Teacups, the above passage is about as funny as it gets. The middle section dragged terribly for me, and I found little to differentiate the half dozen or so suspects, most of whom we only get to meet in one or two scenes. The only other female character, Keating’s fiancée, virtually disappears halfway through the proceedings. To make matters worse, I became seriously confused over matters of who liked who and how people treated each other. Janet appeared to be seducing everybody, including Inspector Masters, to the point that I found it hard to take her seriously. Worse still, I couldn’t keep track over some issues that proved to be important as far as motivation went. Keating’s attitude toward, and treatment of, both women stretched believability. A third character is murdered in a wholly different impossible scenario, and I could barely remember who the character was.
And while the beginning and ending of the novel are action-packed, the substitution of conversation for action in the long middle section was stultifying. If Christie had written this, the Murder party would have been front and center, opening the novel, introducing the characters, and setting us up for the “big” crime. We would have seen people wandering in the dark and arguing in hidden rooms. And the relationships between these characters would have been more clearly delineated, even the ones that prove to be misleading by the end. But then, if Christie had written this one, we would have had a different victim entirely. Carr focuses on the “how” throughout, and we never leave the side of the police to get a sense of how the suspects behave when they are not being grilled; as a result, most of the suspects, even the victim, feel undeveloped here.
In the end, Sir Henry announces that it’s time to reveal the killer – GET READY SPOILERS – and he lays a trap for Janet to bring the culprit – who also happens to be her lover . . . I think! – out into the open for capture and explanation.
And the explanation of how it all got done is so damn infuriating that I just felt mad. It doesn’t jibe well, depending way too much on chance, and several members of JJ and PD’s discussion group outlined some of the more problematical issues, like just how premeditated was this crazy scheme? The major issue is that the killer’s invisibility is based on two facts that prove the victim was shot at close range: one, the scorching on the back of his neck suggests being shot at close range. And two, there is a deep trace of freshly shot gunpowder in the air of the murder room. Carr explains the first by revealing a plot by the killer to place scorch marks on Keating well before he arrives at his death scene – several days before, in fact. Was this arranged or just a lucky break? Based on another character’s arrangement of an alibi, we should opt for the former, but Merrivale/Carr never confirms this.
Next, we’re supposed to believe that the killer shot Vance from another building across the courtyard and then successfully lobbed the gun into Keating’s window. Not only that, but upon striking the floor, the gun went off again, and the bullet snapped Keating’s spine. This adds more weight to the close proximity theory because now the room is full of gunpowder fumes. Except how could the killer have relied on the iffy possibility that the gun would go off when it fell to the floor? Without that happening, there are no gunpowder traces, and the concept of an invisible killer . . . er, goes up in smoke!
Finally, I simply can’t buy the suggested motivations of most of the characters. We are supposed to believe:
- that Keating got engaged to Frances but openly romanced another married woman, even going so far as to make her his beneficiary, then married Frances to nullify the will but arranged to join an imaginary cult in order to lure the married woman into sex! (whew!);
- that Frances, who is presented as a sharp young lady, would find herself the object of interest from three young men, two of which were not sincere, and would ignore the sincere one and enter into a romantic triangle with a cad and a killer;
- that Jeremy Derwent would either be unaware or not care that his wife has been romancing two or three different guys, even going so far as to constantly change residences at her whim;
- that all these men would be attracted to Janet Derwent, who seemed crass and obvious to me;
- that the killer would imagine that all of this plotting and planning – which only succeeded because of one lucky break after another – would actually end with his running off with Janet, who seems incapable of settling with one man, and a pile of Keating’s loot.
If I want to read a great procedural where the focus is also on the police and the detective, rather than the suspects, as they investigate a series of murders, I will go for Christie’s The A.B.C. Murders. There, the motivation for the killings is clever and clear and the half-dozen suspects well-delineated. What The Ten Teacups has going for it is the enjoyable interplay between Masters, Pollard and Merrivale (although in this case Sir Henry is remarkably circumspect throughout most of the proceedings) and a fine set-up to the crime. Much of Carr’s prose is light and enjoyable, although the dialogue is pretty wretched. You should definitely read JJ’s post, which contains a lively conversation between folks who know their Carter Dickson much better than I. Meanwhile, I’m about to have a wealth of Sir Henry Merrivale mysteries dropped in my lap, and I intend to have a fine time exploring them.