BACK TO BEFORE: Carr’s The Emperor’s Snuff-Box

Summer vacation goal #2: Read a lot and get some blogging in.

Ah, the best laid plans . . . yada yada . . . gang aft a-gley.” With a TBR pile fairly bursting with juicy titles by authors both familiar and new, you’d think this goal would be a cinch. But I’ve had an admittedly rough start. After plodding for two weeks through an overlong and unsatisfying Modern Mystery without complaining (okay, maybe I complained a little), I turned with relief to a classic novel by one of my favorite classic authors. I can’t believe I have never read The Emperor’s Snuffbox (1942) before. First, it is one of the few novels by John Dickson Carr that contains not a whiff of an impossible crime, and I am not a locked room fanatic like some, er, fanatics I could mention. Furthermore, I had heard that TES is the Carr title that Christie fans will particularly enjoy. I took this to mean that the author’s use of misdirection was particularly fine here.

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Finally, there was the sheer brevity of the book! In discussing Elizabeth George last week, I broached the question of just how long is too long when it comes to a murder mystery. A Banquet of Consequences was a gaping maw of a book, nearly six hundred pages in length and jam-packed with enough psychological insight to fill fifty crime novels; sadly, all it lacked was a good crime story to tell.

Some folks who read my post on George offered their suggestions about how long a mystery should be, and my buddy JJ of The Invisible Event provided the most specific answer:

“The ideal length of a mystery novel is 100,000 words. This is enough pace to make things interesting and complex and then tie it all up, without having to introduce too many additional threads which then bloat the narrative.”

In response to JJ, my friend John, the noted noir expert, replied that most classic mysteries were way shorter than 100,000 words. John Dickson Carr’s books, specifically, “as a random example, are usually around the 70,000 to 80,000 mark.” To which JJ responded, to my surprise, “And they often come up a bit hasty-feeling, don’t you think? I always feel that I could do with a little more . . . “ (I was surprised because I know how much JJ reveres Carr.)

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And boy! After finishing The Emperor’s Snuffbox, which all my unscientific word-counting puts at a little under 65,000 words, do I share JJ’s sentiment! The book feels like a novella at best, and Carr’s usual cleverness, stripped of his sheer joy at inventing outrageous murder plots, seems pale as milk this time around. And there’s something else that really bothered me reading this book, but I’ll save that for the end.

The basic set-up is this: in the French seaside resort of La Bandelette, beautiful Eve Neill has recently divorced her attractive cad of a husband, Ned Atwood and has been swept into a romance with Toby Lawes, the boy from the villa across the street. One night, Ned bursts into his old house and confronts Eve, swearing that he is not ready to let her go. As they argue in her bedroom, Ned looks out into the window of old Sir Maurice Lawes’ study and sees someone standing in the shadows as the old man examines his beautiful new possession, an antique snuffbox that once belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte. Moments later, Eve and Ned see a gloved figure leaving the room, and the bloody body of Sir Maurice lies sprawled at his desk, the snuffbox smashed to pieces.

The opening is fun to read, as the slowly unfolding facts of the crime are juxtaposed into an ugly argument between Eve and Ned. From there, matters become complicated, as they are expected to do in any Carr mystery, and an innocent woman finds herself accused of murder. Two other elements of the novel distinguish themselves. First, there’s the detective, noted criminal psychologist Dermot Kinross. This, to my knowledge, is his only appearance in the canon, and he is refreshingly lacking in the comic eccentricities of a Merrivale or a Fell. After reading pages of description for each character in Elizabeth George’s novel, it was nice to watch a character’s backstory and personality be etched in with such remarkable brevity:

“It would have been difficult to say wherein lay Dr. Kinross’ air of distinction, so that you singled him out in a crowd and thought he might be an interesting person to know. It was perhaps the essential tolerance of the face, the suggestion that he was the same sort of person you were yourself, and would understand you.

“It was a weather-beaten face, kindly and thoughtful, a little lined by study, with absent-minded dark eyes. There was still no grey in the thick dark hair. You would not have guessed – except at certain angles – that one side of his face had been rebuilt by plastic surgery after a shell-burst at Arras. Humor you saw there, and wisdom without flippancy: but strength you never saw until it was needed.

“He smoked a cigarette, and had a whisky-and-soda at his elbow. Though he seemed in a holiday mood, he had never in his life known what a holiday meant.”

We get all the information we need here: war hero, workaholic, kind and intelligent, old beyond his years. Carr gives us very little else, except an occasional glimpse at how Kinross’ past injuries – which we never learn any more details of – has affected his sense of self. He is a quiet detective and a true hero by novel’s end.

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The other really fine thing about the book is the snuffbox itself. After all, this book ain’t called The Bride Dripped Blood or The Murder at La Bandelette. Yet the presence of the snuffbox is not merely decorative or symbolic: its importance to the plot is both significant and very clever.

Would I could stop now and say I had a great time reading this! But alas! There were problems, not least of which was, ironically, the very brevity of the book. Aside from Eve and Kinross, every other character was reduced to a type: the roué, the stuffed shirt, the kindly uncle, the vicious French maid, and so on. And although Eve is the heroine of the show, the thing that really stuck in my craw about this book was having to become immersed once again into the sheer chauvinism of the 1940’s. I understand that, historically, the taint of divorce once cast a pall on any woman’s reputation. And, to his credit, Carr does weave the unfair double standard regarding men, women and sex into the plot with some sympathy. And traditionally, Carr has the propensity of many American classic mystery writers to reduce women to the noir stereotypes of femme fatale and the good wife/secretary. (Often his subterfuge centers around amisreading of which “type” a character falls into.) Yes, his women here all come across as stereotypes, but aside from Eve, Carr can’t slow down to provide much more than brush strokes about each character.

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Here’s the first description of Eve:

“She had meant no harm. It never occurred to her that a good-looking, good-natured woman, who combines gentle manners with more sex-appeal than is good for her, can be suspected of sinister motives no matter what she does. She knew, of course, that she lived in dread of scandal. But she never went on to analyze why the brush of scandal never kept very far from her skirts. It just seemed to happen to her.”

“More sex-appeal than is good for her?” How tiresome it gets to watch men cast beauty as a savage force that turns a woman into a wanton or a weapon. I wanted to feel sorry for the girl for this characterization alone, but it doesn’t help that nothing that happens to Eve in the first five chapters of the novel strikes one as realistic in any way: her predicament reeks of authorial manipulation, and the reactions of the characters simply follow what Carr needs them to do to further the plot against Eve. It’s especially hard to sympathize with her because the people Eve is trying to impress – the members of the Lawes family – are either unpleasant or so thinly drawn as to be little more than stick figures. Carr needed to take more time to develop characters, backstory and motivations. We never understand what makes Eve tick (why, for example, is she drawn to abusive men?) or get a sense of any of the Lawes family as people or even as suspects.

Being set in France, there are, of course, some French characters. The prefect of police, M. Goron, is a charming sort who I would swear is a sort of lampoon of Hercule Poirot: dressed to the nines, he tends to resort to malapropisms whenever he is forced to conduct business in English. And, like any police figure in a typical mystery involving an amateur sleuth, he is unstintingly wrong in his assumptions of the case, to the point of bullheadedness. (Unfortunately, it is also implied that he resorts to strong-arm methods to get confessions from those in his custody.) As for the Frenchwomen, the cliched Normandy peasant woman and the money-hungry coquette are not people but plot devices, pure and simple.

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To make matters worse for this reader, I didn’t fall for Carr’s misdirection in the least and glommed onto the identity of the murderer immediately. (Fortunately, I didn’t figure out the significance of the snuffbox; that, at least, afforded me a bit of a surprise.) As anyone who knows me can tell you: “Fool me, mystery writer, and I’m a fan for life.” Carr usually accomplishes that feat quite well, (She Died a Lady comes to mind), and even when I guess the murderer’s name, as in He Who Whispers, this is only one of many surprises that unfold in a book that has everything to recommend it. Unfortunately, as a both mystery and as a novel, with The Emperor’s Snuff-box Carr seems not to be operating on all cylinders.

 

I have to confess to great disappointment that I did not enjoy this more, for it seems to enjoy a generally fine reputation amongst Carr fans. It seemed to me much more of a trifle, and the inherent sexism – which I grant is something of a given for the time the book was written – grated even more given the simplicity of the plot. Still, Dr. Kinross is an attractive figure that I would have enjoyed revisiting, and the snuffbox itself turns out to be worth the price of admission.

And it’s short. Oh man, it’s very very short!

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34 thoughts on “BACK TO BEFORE: Carr’s The Emperor’s Snuff-Box

  1. Interesting, isn’t it, Brad, how brevity can be taken too far. Sometimes, you want just a little more ‘fleshing out.’ At least I do. I can see what you mean about wanting characters that are more than ‘types;’ that’s a risk that the author takes if the story is too short. It’s a tricky balance, isn’t it?

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    1. I think an author can get away with it, Margot, if the plot is suitably complex, and everyone has a part to play in it. Christie’s Orient Express comes to mind. But here everything feels abbreviated rather than concise. It may be a subtle distinction, but it’s what I feel.

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  2. Well… If something’s not as good as it could be, then it’s greatness lies in its brevity. 😛 I quite liked ‘Emperor’s Snuff-Box’, and found it to be a relatively engaging and clever tale, with a rather hilarious opening scene in the bedroom. But yes, my triple use of congruous qualifiers – quite, relatively, rather – signifies what I think about the novel as a whole. Then again, I thought it was a tale well-told, and that other readers might enjoy it more than I did. Whatever the case is, I liked it alot more than ‘Plague Court Murders’ (fighting words directed at JJ). 😛

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    1. TPCM is on my TBR pile. Your disparaging comments bring it down a peg each time, while JJ’s praise correspondingly raises it up. In that way, the book floats continuously somewhere in the middle . . .

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  3. Interesting review, Brad. I must confess that it is one of my favorite Carrs, but then I didn’t guess the murderer’s identity at all. I see what you mean about the brevity, but I found it a mixture a combination of some of JDC’s strongest characterization and one heckuva daring misdirection technique, whether it succeeded or not. Still, de gustibus, eh? 🙂

    By the way, as for a Carrian lampoon of Hercule Poirot, wasn’t Gasquet (in The Unicorn Murders) intended to be one?

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    1. Could be, Karl, but I have not read The Unicorn Murders. I don’t think Goron is intended as such; he just reminded me a bit of Poirot, only Goron is a mediocre sleuth. It’s more the humor Carr tries to engender with his bad English.

      Frankly, the characterization really bothered me here. We never meet the victim. Lady Lawes and her brother are blank presences with no motives. Janice at least has some spirit . . . but no motive and little to do with the plot. Toby is such a loser that it only speaks ill of Eve that she “fell in love with him.” Ned is frankly abusive, and I would have worried that she would end up with him if it had not been for the Doctor. The French ladies are mere cliches. And Eve goes through a long period in the first half where she’s so spineless that I was ready to give up on her until she stood up to Toby at the flower shop. If I had been Dr. Kinross, I would have flown off to London and not returned.

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  4. Sacrilege!!!!!!! Ahem… let me try to regather my senses and attempt a civil conversation….

    First of all, I like that you call out the significance of the snuff box. That it graces the cover of the book is the best irony that I can think of. Definitely an in joke for the cool kids.

    How you clued into the actual suspect, I’ll never comprehend. Yes, you could explain what tipped you off, but that would risk spoilers and I know several bloggers who have yet to read this title. All that I can say is my hat is off to you. I’d consider this one of the better misdirections by Carr and even when I reread the relevant passages a second time I still think it would be hard to catch on to. The fact that you guessed the killer suggests that you caught onto the misdirection. Did you really see through the trick, or was it more of a gut instinct? I have to think it is the former because it seems to go hand in hand. In that case, All Hail Brad, King of the Golden Age!

    The misogyny is brutal, although I perhaps naively take it as a sign of the times. That a woman would face such jeopardy for a situation forced upon her is beyond words, but I’m inclined to think that may have been true for the period.

    As for brevity – I recently had a jubilant experience with The Gilded Man specifically because of the brevity. It is probably one of Carr’s weaker mysteries, but because the plotting was good and it was so to the point, it felt like a great success. I would think that the same would apply to The Emperor’s Snuff Box. Yes, the characters are types, and Carr could have elevated them to something more. At the same time, the book struck me as runaway train simply due to that brevity and I was left breathless for it. Given that you clued into the trick, would a more drawn out story have satisfied you? That’s always the trick to these mysteries isn’t it? Once you’ve clued onto the solution, can it maintain your enthusiasm?

    I did love Dr. Kinross. Some have suggested that he is a thin character but I would have been more than happy to read five more mysteries featuring him. Of course, I said the same thing about John Gaunt from The Bowstring Murders.

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    1. NOBODY READ THIS RESPONSE EXCEPT BEN!!! NO, SERIOUSLY, I’M WARNING YOU! IT WILL SPOIL EVERYTHING FOR YOU IF YOU READ THIS!! STOP READING IT!!!!

      Are they gone? Okay, Ben, here’s the deal: When Ned looked across the street into Sir Maurice’s study, HE TOLD EVE WHAT HE SAW. He never said, “Hey, look at what I see: ol’ Maurice is looking at a new purchase.” I immediately knew that there was no corroboration for what he said he had seen. Then, when he fell, I figured that Carr was engaging in a trick of making the murderer look like a victim, putting him out of the action until he could “save the day,” and then turning the tables on him. I did NOT get the clue of the snuff-box, so you could say that reaching the conclusion was more instinctive than deductive. Or maybe half and half.

      MAYBE the book would have been better if I had gotten to know the Lawes family more and there had been some reason to suspect them. Only Toby had any sort of motive, one which got tagged onto the end. The whole motive aspect was the weakest part of the story, yet it seemed to me that if we were being led to Maurice recognizing someone, that this crossed off his whole family and basically left us with Ned, the maid, or her sister. The two women barely appeared in the novel, and I took a chance that Carr wouldn’t enrage all of us by making a murderer out of a small servant role. So we’re back to Ned again.

      I don’t expect anyone to follow my opinion because of the whole misogyny element because we’ve all had this conversation before: the times being what they are . . . etc., etc., etc. But female characters have never been Carr’s strong suit (except the evil ones and Fay Seton), while Christie and most of the top female mystery authors were creating full blown women long before 1942. Hey!! I think I just figured out why the Queens of Crime outshone the kings and continue to do so to this day!

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  5. I can’t remember for sure if I’ve read this one (if I did it was decades ago), so I can’t really comment. However, if you get a chance to watch the screen adaptation, That Woman Opposite (1957; vt City After Midnight), you might find it well worth your 80 minutes. It’s by no means a movie for the ages, but I found it quite a lot of fun.

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    1. It is? (A serious question–I’m not being sarcastic! 🙂 ) I’ve been looking for a single good Carr film adaptation. (Dangerous Crossing was OK, but it made a mess of plot and character.) I haven’t seen The Man with a Cloak or La chambre ardente, but I’ve heard both are awful.

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      1. I’d say it’s certainly worth a watch. I found The Man with a Cloak okay — I got the impression it was doing its best with a short story I can remember being unimpressed by — and here’s what I think at some length of La Chambre Ardente: https://noirencyclopedia.wordpress.com/2016/01/30/chambre-ardente-la-1962/ In short, if people have been telling you they’re “awful,” people have been hyperbolizing, as people do: Cloak is, I’d say, a bit on the mediocre side, especially considering the caliber of its cast; but Chambre is, to me, enticingly quirky, and is directed by Julien Duvivier with both Édith Scob and Nadja Tiller among the cast.

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      2. Many thanks. La chambre ardente in particular does look interesting from the atmospheric pictures you posted there–it rather reminds me of another ’60s French picture, Vadim’s …Et mourir de plaisir, a definite favorite of mine. I’ve always heard that Man with a Cloak is simply dull, but then I suppose I really ought to see for myself rather than rely on what you rightfully call the hyperbole of “awful”!

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      3. By the way, have you seen the second adaptation of “Cabin B-13,” Treacherous Crossing (a TV movie, I believe, with Angie Dickinson?). Doug Greene called it the best of all Carr adaptations in the biography, if I’m not mistaken.

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    2. John, I JUST uncovered this while researching for the post! Is it readily available to watch? I would love to see it! Petula Clark on screen as Janice!!

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      1. Is it readily available to watch?

        I don’t think it’s that hard to find, although I can’t now remember where I did so myself. I’ve just had a quick look on YouTube on the offchance but it’s not there (just a couple of listings with links only a fool would click). I think I got it from TCM, but I’d not like to swear to that.

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  6. I could construct my reply by picking out sentences from your other commenters! This is one of my favouites, I will include link to my blogpost on it. http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.co.uk/2016/03/tuesday-night-club-john-dickson-carrs_29.html

    I had a strong suspicion who did it, but couldn’t work it out. I thought Carr reflected the ways of the times rather than approving of them, and for me he did brief descriptions that made the characters real – I found them more memorable than those from many other of his books. I still remember the lady in the flower shop. The main problem I had was to do with keys…

    So – we all opt for a different Carr as our favourite – nothing wrong with that.
    And fascinated by this news of a film…

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    1. “I thought Carr reflected the ways of the times rather than approving of them . . . ” That’s a brilliant way of putting it, Moira, and I basically agree with you. Eve is presented as so beautiful she reduces men to behaving like boys, and Kinross evaluation of Toby’s personality feels incredibly modern. It’s interesting that the psychologist her both excuses Toby’s reprehensible behavior and believes in Eve despite her ludicrous story. I do think most of the Lawes family are useless as suspects, (and in that sense I think it’s too brief), but you’ve made me rethink this one a bit.

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  7. Make no mistake, I do revere Carr — he’s the best puzzle plotter going and had a mind like a steel trap — but I’ve never claimed he was faultless. Just of everyone I’ve yet read in the grand old GAD tradition he’s the one with the fewest faults (or, perhaps more accurately, whose fault irritate me the least!).

    Fine, I was being a little facetious with my 100,00 words, but I don’t think much less than that is required to flesh out everything appropriately and provide a decently-paced mystery with plenty of misdirection and invention. I’m more than happy for people to pack in extra misdirection in less space, but the problems come when there’s less that’s relevant and/or clever in even more words!

    Anyway, I am yet to read TES, but I always appreciate a contrary viewpoint; all n good time…

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    1. I didn’t hate it, JJ – it’s no Invisible Circle. Maybe anything would feel short after the overstuffed Banquet I had just consumed. And as I said to Moira, I might have been too hasty about the misogyny. But after you’ve read it, let me know if you didn’t find it a trifle . . . sparse.

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  8. What???? Seriously?? I expect this sort of sort of controversial-ness from JJ! All we need now is for JJ to write a post about how much he loves Gaudy Night and then we’ll all be truly down the rabbit hole. But I am also very impressed with your armchair sleuthing as the ending definitely caught me by surprise.

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  9. I’m actually in the middle of a reread of this just now, having forgotten a fair bit of it, so I’ll have to bow out for the moment and return when I’ve got through with the book.

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  10. Brad, I hope you have some Agatha Christie to read and review in your TBR pile, particularly Christie’s later book , a Miss Marple book. What did think of the characterization, how it stands in Christie’s whole body of work and in the Miss Marple canon, how was the mystery, how could it have been better or improved if need be, etc. These are the more general questions I would ask. It’s a book I don’t read many in-depth discussion about and I think you would definitely be the man to churn out an interesting, insightful and in-depth review on it.

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    1. Darn . . . . the book I was talking about in my earlier post was “Nemesis”. I was italicizing the title but strangely neither the title or the italics didn’t show up.

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      1. I promise to tackle Nemesis at some point, Brian. Someday I’d like to do something more general on Marple, but I’d need to re-read the dozen. It may not happen this summer though; I am trying to make a dent in the dozens of books sitting here that inhaven’t read!!! (I’m getting pretty good at this italics thing!! It’s time to work on the bold feature — and I need to go back and remember how to cross a word out!!!)

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  11. I said I’d be back when I finished my reread, so here I am!
    I remembered liking the book well enough when i first went through it some years ago and, if anything, I had an even better time when I returned to it. Personally, I think the culprit is concealed fine, the identity can be worked out (it is a fair play book after all) if you’re paying close attention at the right time but I don’t think it’s going to be blindingly obvious to most.

    In some ways the book is atypical Carr, but there is plenty of his characteristic trickiness. However, it is a character piece more than one of his traditional impossibilities. And I do think it works as a character piece eve n though some of the players are only lightly sketched. What matters for me is the way the principal characters, and that of Eve in particular,are handled. We learn enough about them to to get a feel for how and why they are acting as they do – of course we could learn more but that would be redundant in terms of plotting and would end up as little more than padding.

    Also, I don’t get the feeling that the story is misogynistic, and I rarely feel that anyway with Carr – that’s most certainly not the case with other GAD writers. I would have said Eve is treated with great sympathy by Carr – some of the characters behave dreadfully but that’s the author’s way of underlining his own quite different sentiments. Carr was innately conservative yet his writing tends to be paradoxically full of relatively progressive attitudes. He sticks up for women regularly, especially those he sees as falling victim to the intolerance and hypocrisy of society, and he (again, unlike plenty of other GAD authors) avoided casual racism.

    Anyway, I had a good time with this story – it’s a lean enough affair but slimmed down sleuthing isn’t necessarily a bad thing in my view.

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    1. I didn’t hate the story either, Colin. I just thought it was slight. Carr uses the same “oh, look over there!” trick here that he did in his first novel, It Walks by Night: just because one person says they saw something, everyone else agrees. And even so, mention is made more than once over how susceptible Eve is so that Carr can explain why she fell for the trick. (This struck me as cluing overkill!)

      As for Eve – She seems incapable of standing on her own or of being an equal partner. She annoyed me. And her taste in men? An abusive ex, a loathsome man-child, or the psychologist who “cures” her.

      I agree that Carr could be modern in his outlook. For example, his female characters do have sex lives. It was a different time, and Eve is battling archaic principles about what it means to be a “good” woman. Carr sides with her here, and he lets her tell Toby off. But there is never any doubt in my mind that she will end up with the doctor, and while we can pass that off as a romantic ending typical of early 20th century novels, he never stops diagnosing her. She’s always weak.

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      1. Yes, the misdirection bit was nothing new, but that’s probably the case with most writers and it usually does come down to variations on a handful of themes. I don’t know, it worked fine for me.

        On Eve and her weakness, yes. And no. OK, she is weak and makes poor choices but I’d argue every character, even the subsidiary ones, is weak in one way or another. Even Kinross is far from perfect. For me, crime and detective storeies must necessarily feature human weakness as that’s the basis of all crime. And I think that may be a fair bit of its attraction for readers. It’s also why don’t buy the more recent trend to present us with ass-kicking men and women who not only stand firmly on their own feet at all times but tend to tramp all over everyone else’s in their zealous assertion of their… assertiveness. I don’t see any of that as any more authentic or believable. Anyway, horses for courses I suppose. 🙂

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  12. Not at all! I have no interest in superheroes – okay, I like superheroes, but not in my mysteries. It feels silly to keep harping on this one book, but I don’t think the mother, uncle or little sister have any particular strengths or weaknesses. It’s inferred that Toby is the way he is because he was a spoiled mama’s boy, but we barely see Mama in action to figure that out. We know Janice is spunky; that’s about it. The maid and her sister have more to do with the plot than these family members! I’m reading an earlier Carr right now where he does a much better job of spreading the wealth.

    And the recent trend that I’m seeing is of the emotionally damaged “unreliable” narrator where everyone is a mean drunk, sexually voracious, and seemingly sociopathic . . . but that’s because they didn’t get enough love as a child or they married the wrong guy. I’m fed up with all of them!

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