Bear with me: I’ve got a fantastic book to talk about today – John Dickson Carr’s classic The Problem of the Green Capsule (aka The Black Spectacles, 1939) – but I’m going to take my own sweet time getting to it.
Like so many in this vast blogosphere, I follow a lot of other bloggers who share my passion for that slim sub-genre of fiction, the Golden Age mystery. Let’s be honest with ourselves: we’re like fans of the Beatles who refuse to accept the fact that the band broke up forty-seven years ago! Not only do we keep on listening, we engage in mammoth discussions over tiny points of interest, and our obsession relegates us to the level of geekdom.
And yet, like Beatles enthusiasts, we are a varied lot. They have their favorite albums; we have our favorite authors. They prefer this or that recording of a song; we favor Grand Guignol over farce, savvy spinsters or monocled fops, locked rooms before train timetables.
Real enthusiasts take it even further, bantering about our favorite tricks, the importance (or lack thereof) of characterization or social context, and, of course, structure, structure, structure!!! How many times has Kate at Cross Examining Crime lowered the score of a book when a lousy set-up fouled up a brilliant solution? Who doesn’t recall the fierce argument over John Dickson Carr’s insertion of historical events in The Plague Court Murders and The Red Widow Murders: some reveled in the atmosphere while others found certain chapters so irrelevant that they advised skipping them! How often has JJ at The Invisible Event blasted Paul Halter for surrounding a clever locked room set-up with cardboard characters, stilted dialogue and indigestible meta-literary tricks? (Oh, wait . . . that was me.)
There are some things on which most of us agree. First, the solution should satisfy. (I prefer that it dazzle, but you can’t pull the rug out from under the reader every time.) You know it works when you’ve traveled down the road of an intelligent and fairly laid out investigation and at the ultimate signpost you breathe a sigh of satisfaction – everything feels so right. Second, we tend to berate a mystery that bogs down in the middle, usually due to a reliance on lengthy interviews with the suspects. Many of us call this “dragging the Marsh.” Come on, is there anyone out there who revela in a hundred-plus pages of, “Send the next one in, Sergeant Smithers?” Some authors try to alleviate the tedium by tossing in a second or third murder, yet, if it is totally out of character for Dolly the maid to turn to blackmail, these desperate bones provide scant relief.
I’m a tough reader: I need my mysteries to snag me right away, cruise along at a jolly pace and finish with a bang. I admit that I’m not nearly as prolific a reader as some of my fellow bloggers. JJ recently stated that he likes to get one or two reviews out a week, and Kate reviewed seventeen books last month!!! I hate to disappoint my revered followers, but I’m a slow reader, and I’m easily diverted. In July, I struggled with several books, all of them highly recommended by people that I respect. One was a classic-style mystery written by a modern author. The prose was very pleasant, and no one can accuse it of delaying the crime aspect, as it opened with the autopsy of a woman who had been cut into three sections. But after fifty pages of watching the story meander through exposition and mild character development, I found the book easier to put down than to pick up.
More problematic is an actual Golden-Age rediscovery that I’ve already picked up and put down three times at the Chapter Three mark. It has a unique setting and the craziest assortment of characters. Almost too crazy, perhaps . . . and oh, the casual racism on every page is driving me up a wall! I will finish this one (I will!), but the lazy sunbeams of summertime beckon, and I find myself turning back to the tried and true.
John Dickson Carr is one of my go-to authors, and unlike Agatha Christie, there are many titles that I have either not read or read too long ago to remember them. Carr doesn’t hit it out of the ballpark every time, but he has mastered several criteria for excellence that I require: he knows how to serve up a solution to the point where, more often than not, he pulls the rug right out from under you in the end, and he almost never “drags the Marsh,” getting there. Instead, he propels us through a volume with fabulous plotting tricks, cliffhanger chapter endings, and brilliant false solutions. I will venture to say that he does all of these better than Christie; in addition, he tends to make a second or third murder count much better than she does. My preference for Christie is a more organic thing, something to do with how her books make me feel as a whole. That, plus her ability to misdirect is at least as brilliant as Carr’s, if not more so.
Carr and Christie really know, like all the best writers do, how to begin a book in a way that’s slam-bang enticing and never formulaic. Christianna Brand, another of my favorites, tends to start all her mysteries in the same way, introducing a group of charming folks in Chapter One and then announcing at chapter’s end that 1) yes, these characters are as endearing as you imagined them to be, and 2) by novel’s end, two of them will be dead, and one of them will be convicted as a killer. Christie tends to ease you into the criminal proceedings through the prosaic details of ordinary life. Sure, there are books that jump right in: Carla Lemarchant hiring Poirot to prove her mother innocent of her long-dead father’s murder in Five Little Pigs; Elinor Carlisle standing trial for the murder of her aunt in Sad Cypress; Luke Fitzwilliam meeting a little old lady who tells him about a serial killer loose in her village . . . right before she gets run down in the street. But think about Mr. Morley and his patients getting ready for a day at the dentist’s office at the top of One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, or the residents of Chipping Cleghorn perusing the local paper at breakfast in A Murder Is Announced, or the bustle attending the local fete hosted by a big movie star who has just moved to St. Mary Mead in The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side. The world spinning on its regular axis, all of that seeming normalcy about to be disrupted by murder most foul!
Carr’s openings are often more fantastical, setting an immediate tone of apprehension. No long scenes of the aristocracy planning a birthday party, like you find in Ngaio Marsh. No bouncing back and forth between eight or ten potential suspects (Carr’s list usually numbers three to five anyway) as they travel by train or sit down to dinner. His people plunge right into the thick of it. Think of Miles Hammond attending a dinner at the Murder Club, only to find the restaurant deserted, in He Who Whispers. Or James Answell, in The Judas Window, meeting his future father-in-law in the man’s study for a drink, then waking up from a drugged stupor to find the man dead and the study door locked on the inside. The Duc de Saligny gets beheaded at the start of It Walks by Night. That marvelous scene in the fortune teller’s tent at the top of Till Death Do Us Part drives us mad wondering if Lesley Grant is good or evil.
The Problem of the Green Capsule begins on a seemingly ordinary note for Carr with a man observing a British family on holiday in Pompeii. True, the man turns out to be a Scotland Yard Inspector, but I felt I was in Christie territory reading as Andrew Elliot watches a young man taking home movies of a beautiful posing self-consciously in front of an ancient palazzo – just like so many people in the early Kodak era have done. An older man – her uncle, it turns out – bemoans the necessity of his family members behaving like mere tourists. (“Trippers,” he calls them.) Everyone seems crabby, as if the vacation has been going on a bit too long and it’s time to go home. It all seems typical – until the man with the camera reads from his guidebook about this palazzo, a house where a poisoner once lived, and it produces a sense of tension in the rest of the party that is not lost on the eavesdropping Inspector.
From there, the story takes off and never stops. Back in England, Eliot is summoned to the village of Sodbury Cross to consult with the local police on a case. As they are talking, the station phone rings, and Eliot is invited to join the cops at a murder scene. And wouldn’t you know it: the victim is none other than Marcus Chesney, peach grower extraordinaire and the patriarch of the touring group that Eliot observed in Italy. The Inspector is invited to take over the murder case, and he has several good reasons to do so: first, Marcus Chesney’s death might be directly connected to the horrific goings-on that summoned Eliot to the village in the first place: some maniac seems to be targeting children by poisoning a bin of chocolates in the local sundries shop; at least one child has died. Secondly, the main suspect in the poisoning case, at least according to the villagers, is Chesney’s beautiful but off-putting niece, Marjorie. Eliot has good reason to be concerned with Marjorie’s fate, for, despite his better judgment, he finds that he has fallen head over heels in love with her.
This whole set-up is done with such economy. In fact, the novel’s structure is the epitome of tight plotting, a tight web of action and information. The fantastical events surrounding Chesney’s murder – which was not only observed by three witnesses but was filmed – unspools at a breathless pace. Carr dispenses with the dreaded series of boring interviews by having the suspects interviewed en masse using and the questions devised by the victim himself, who had been conducting an experiment at the time of his death on the fallibility of witnesses. Who knew that suspect interviews could be so dramatically compelling?
As usual with Carr, the cast is small: there are five suspects, one of whom becomes a second victim, and assorted servants and townspeople. The males and the smaller characters are sketched in nicely (I especially liked the maids, who are not your usual adenoidal types, and Mr. Stevenson, the eager-to-please owner of the local photography store.) Carr has a tendency to falter in his depiction of women, but then so do most male mystery authors. (And isn’t this one of the many reasons the Queens of Crime stay in print while the guys fade into obscurity?) Marjorie suffers from Carr’s tendency to reduce his leading ladies to a cipher: they are always lovely, either attractively headstrong or charmingly domestic (Marjorie is of the headstrong type), yet everything about them boils down to whether they are saints or sinners. I liked her and was invested in her fate, but this was largely due to the author’s employment of that old plot twist of the detective in charge being in love with his main suspect. It helps here that Eliot, a truly likable figure, suffers so staunchly, willing himself to remain professional even as he struggles to interview Marjorie’s fiancé without punching the fellow in the nose.
Halfway through the case, Eliot consults that gargantuan sleuth, Dr. Gideon Fell, who happens to be taking the waters at Bath. Fell performs with such flair here, solving one tiny mystery after another, only to confront even more mystifying questions. I love detectives who don’t leave everything to the end and writers who know that dangling a bit of the solution here and there can drive a happy reader up the wall! This isn’t one of those cases where a bizarre surprise ending is pulled out of someone’s posterior: every suspect comes under suspicion at each point, and false solutions abound. And in the end, the solution satisfies, like the best impossible crime endings do, for being both deliciously complex and satisfyingly simple.
This is a sublime book, one to be read in a burst of pleasure and then revisited to savor its brilliant structure and subtle interweaving of clues. The only flaw I can find here is that the book is over and, I must now turn to something that is less good. But these are the problems we GAD mystery fans – even the slow readers – face every day.