And so we begin.
A Carter Dickson Celebration has been a long time coming. As I explained before, when I first began to embrace the works of John Dickson Carr, my youthful stubbornness caused me to opt for Gideon Fell and reject Sir Henry Merrivale. Was this foolish of me? Perhaps. Am I unhappy about it? Am I sad that, due to my own ignorance, I now find myself in possession of over twenty mysteries written by one of my favorite authors that I have not yet read?!?!? What do you think?
Don’t expect ACDC to be a rush job! I have every intention of savoring this part of the Carr canon, although I do promise not to pull a George R.R. Martin on you! I will cover every title in due course and rank them into favorites. It’s just that there are other authors, both great and unknown, to enjoy at the same time. Variety is the spice of life, you can’t hurry a good thing, and . . . oh shoot, I’ve run out of clichés!
To understand this creature known as Carter Dickson, you have to journey back with me to 1933 and to a young Philadelphia-born mystery fan turned author who had taken the literary world by storm – well, maybe it would be better to say that John Dickson Carr had stormed the mystery-reading public, with five books in three years. Four of them featured his first – and soon to be abandoned – sleuth, Henri Bencolin; the other was a stand-alone, Poison in Jest.
We fans know that Carr’s best days were ahead of him. Already he was well into the manuscript for Hag’s Nook, the debut of that Chestertonian masterpiece, Dr. Gideon Fell. He was also married to his beloved Clarice who had just told him she was pregnant. She was also pressuring him to move to England, where a Depression-era couple could take advantage of the relative strength of the American dollar and live high on the hog, and where JDC could soak up the atmosphere for what was shaping up to be a series starring the veddy British Dr. Fell.
Moving to England, raising a daughter, giving his wife a good life – all of this cost money. And so Carr went to Harper & Brothers, his publisher, and asked if he could make some ready cash by selling them more stories. Unfortunately, his contract only allowed for two books a year. However, Harpers was not unreasonable and told Carr he could sell other books to other publishers – just so long as he used a pen name. The last thing they wanted was for Carr to oversaturate the market and compete for sales with himself.
Quick as a flash, Carr put The Bowstring Murders together and sold it to William Morrow. He explained Harper’s request and even suggested a couple of pseudonyms: “Nicholas Wood” (for his father) or “Christopher Street.” Morrow, for some reason, rejected these and created the moniker “Carr Dickson” which Doug Greene, in his invaluable biography, John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles, from which I got most of this information, rightly calls “one of the most transparent noms de plume in literary history.” It rankled Carr who, although willing to continue selling books to Morrow, insisted it be changed forthwith. And that is how we got a whole new series of impossible crime stories written by one “Cartwright Dixon” . . . or we wouldhave, if Morrow had not lied to Carr, agreeing to his new suggestion for an alias and then changing it at the last moment to “Carter Dickson” without telling the author.
Why include The Bowstring Murders as part of this celebration? It is a stand-alone mystery, and as we shall see, it is very much a stepping stone from the Grand Guignol of the Bencolin tales to the madcap bewitchery of Sir Henry Merrivale. I include it because, as the story of the alias suggests, Bowstring is the beginning of a journey down a different fork in the road of Carr’s career.
This book will be our bible through our ACDC journey!
Bowstring also features two characters who will appear two years later in a genuine H.M. adventure. They are Dr. Michael Tairlaine, a mild-mannered, middle-aged American professor of English Lit, and Sir George Anstruther, the Director of the British Museum, who, at least physically, resembles Sir Henry Merrivale enough for us to imagine that Carr’s wheels were already spinning in that direction. As the novel opens, these two friends are speeding down in a train to Bowstring Castle in Suffolk, a medieval fortress that now belongs to Henry Steyne, Lord Rayle.
The castle is immense and arranged in a complex manner, so much so that it’s nearly impossible to get a true sense from Carr’s writing here of what it looks like. Fortunately, my buddy Santosh linked me to a map created on mystery list.com to help the helpless, like me, with the configuration of the setting. Frankly, the map itself is so complex that it gives me the giggles just to look at it. Plus, if you haven’t read the book yet, it does give away the identities of all three victims, so beware.
The purpose of the pair’s visit is that Dr. Tairlaine has grown bored with his life and has declared to his friend that he would very much like to experience an “adventure.” (We see this a lot amongst the second bananas – most of them younger men – who tag along with the detectives in Carr’s mysteries.) Sir George respond by dragging his friend to the castle, telling Tairlaine that he fears that “sooner or later something mad and ugly and dangerous is going to blow up in that place.” Anstruther bases his fears on the baron himself, who is a strutting little madman, prone to wearing nothing but dirty white robes, and spending most of his days wandering through his extensive collection of medieval armor and weaponry.
There’s also the matter of the maid, a pretty, superstitious lass named Doris, who just recently says she saw a suit of armor “standing in the middle of the staircase, where it had no business to be.” And then there are the thefts that have been occurring: first, a bowstring has gone missing and then, as they arrive, the two men see Lord Rayle in a fit at the entrance to the castle because a pair of gauntlets has been stolen
As you may or may not know – I did not – gauntlets are armored gloves worn by medieval soldiers. As for a bowstring, we get a mine of information here, about crossbows and crics and revolving nuts. You have to pay attention because, as Doug Greene explains: “A characteristic of Carr’s books during the 1930’s was the inclusion of antiquarian information that is usually obscure to most readers but that plays an important role in the plot.”
I must confess that, just as JJ is less than fond of those historical chapters in early Carr/Dickson books that mostly exist to establish a supernatural red herring, I’m not too keen for being lectured on and on about ancient nuts and bolts or any other “antiquarian information.” I found myself squirming here, thinking, “All right, all right, get on with it! Cut the info dump and get to the suspects.”
The group here is fairly typical of an early ‘30’s mystery closed circle. Lord Rayle is married to a much younger woman, Irene, who spends the entire novel hidden away in her bedroom, eating bonbons (seriously!). There are two grown children from a first marriage: the Honorable Francis Steyne, Lord Rayle’s heir, and Patricia, one of the most insipid pretty girls in all of Carr’s problematic gallery of women. She frets and faints a lot and spends much of her time recovering from these bouts of alarm. She also casts a horrific light on Dr. Tairlaine, an otherwise perfectly likable character:
“Tairlaine thought that she was even lovelier than last night. He liked fragility in women as much as he disliked strong-mindedness; that had been the tenor of whatever rusty bachelor dreams lay behind him. Looking at the pale beauty and the wide eyes of this girl, he felt a warmth of protective kindness. It was unimportant that few thoughts would ever mar the serenity of that forehead; thoughts would only frighten her.”
Honestly, the female representation here is pretty pathetic – the pale, weak maiden, the noirishly chilling second wife, the strumpet maid. The cover on your right is similar to many soft core porn novels published in the 50’s. So let’s turn to the men. In addition to Francis: Bruce Massey, his Lordship’s much put-upon secretary; Saunders, Francis’ ever-loyal and incongruously Cockney valet; Dr. Manning, whose entire career seems to consist of making house calls to the castle; and Larry Kestevan, ravishing film star, who is one of the brighter lights in this oddly flat mystery. Authors like Carr, Christie and Queen have all had their fun taking pot shots at the acting profession, and Larry is a fine example for the antipathy shown anyone who would choose to trade on his looks alone
“Larry Kestevan, now, he’s in the films. All the best people are doing it nowadays, you know. Larry’s got all the best points of G.B.S. and Mickey Mouse. Besides, he’s handsome as sin, the women tell me, because he can look surlier than any player at Elstree. That’s it, you see. You must be surly. In the old days, the hero showed his virility by punching the villain’s head. Nowadays he shows it by punching the heroine. Masculinity’s high peak. What ho.”
Larry is supposedly lurking about in order to do a deal with Lady Rayle, which involves making a film which I won’t describe here because it involves one of the better jokes in the novel. He, like Dr. Tairlaine, probably wishes he had picked a better weekend, for during this fateful night, murder rears its ugly head over and over and over, starting with the abominable Lord himself, killed in his armory museum by supposedly impossible means: he was witnessed entering the armory alone, and when others enter to find him, he has been brutally slain – and nobody else is present who could have killed him!
The matter is, of course, way over the head of the local investigator, Inspector Tape. Fortunately, there is a brilliant amateur sleuth staying at the local hotel on a golfing holiday. Bowstring marks the sole appearance of John Gaunt, a cross between Bencolin and Holmes in both appearance and sleuthing style, with the added backstory of a marital tragedy that plunged Gaunt into alcoholic despair. All this means is that he chugs brandy throughout the investigation, but it doesn’t stop him from seeing through the bizarre circumstances of three murders to the truth.
Speaking of truth, let’s be honest: this book was a slog for me. I felt like I had to work too hard just to understand the topography of the castle and the mechanics of the murders. Plus, given the high walls, the torchlit galleries, and the constant presence of death, the lugubrious atmosphere failed to spook me, not in the way it did during It Walks By Night. As it is, Bowstring suffers from Dickson’s rush to complete it, both in a middling narrative and a lack of originality or complexity. In a career just beginning to bloom, Dickson actually steals ideas from himself for this plot. Don’t worry, I won’t reveal them, but as I read the initial murder scene, the trick that Dickson was using one that hadn’t fooled me before. The denouement, where Gaunt regales the innocent with the crimes of the guilty, is shakier than usual: working off of instinct rather than real clues, Gaunt says, more often than not,, “X must have done this or that,” as a supposition rather than a fact. Gaunt provides a solution that fits the events of the past two nights, but that is not to say that he necessarily proves anything.
There’s also something forced about the eccentric details pervading plot, setting and characters. The waterfall outside the castle that exists merely because something has to block the noise; Lord Rayle’s bizarre and unexplained choice of costuming; the crazy placement of windows – the whole set-up made me homesick for something more sensible, like the house in Japan shaped like a figure eight. There’s nothing organic about these elements. They exist because they have to in order for the murder mystery to play out as it does. Yes, I know, that’s probably true of every classic mystery, but this time, the artificiality bugged rather than intrigued me.
Still, there are many glimmers of the wonderful future to come in the career of Carr/ Dickson. In addition to the parody of thespianism that is Larry Kestevan, the plot line involving Doris the maid serves as another reminder that the author was willing in these prudish times to deal openly with sexual issues. And John Gaunt proves to be an interesting, if unfinished, figure. Late in the novel, he gives a short lecture about lying. It isn’t perhaps as significant as Dr. Fell’s locked room dissertation will be, but it is intriguing and fun to read. I wish the rest of the novel had been as fun.
We will finish each ACDC with our rankings. Since we’ve started at the very beginning – a verygood place to start – we naturally place The Bowstring Murders at Number One. But I would advise you, little book, not to rest comfortably on your dubious laurels. You won’t remain on top for long. For our next stop on this journey,The Plague Court Murders, marks the debut of Sir Henry Merrivale. Having read it before, I can assure you it’s a most auspicious beginning to Carter Dickson Proper.
A very Happy New Year to you all!