ACDC, PART FIVE/FIRST LET’S TALK ABOUT WATSONS: The Unicorn Murders

That GAD staple, the eccentric genius detective, has the potential to be obnoxious. His eccentricities can quickly grow tiresome, and his brilliance at sleuthing is too often accompanied by unmitigated ego or a reticence for explanation that can annoy readers as much as it infuriates the fictional policeman. This is why many classic authors took their cue from the master, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and supplied their hero with a Watson.

Perhaps the greatest example of a Watson was . . . well, it was Dr. John H. Watson. (What did you expect me to say?) Watson Number One was brave, resourceful, and intelligent in his own right. He was also loyal: incensed at Scotland Yard’s determination to keep the public in the dark over how much they owed their success to Holmes, Watson decided to record Holmes’ adventures in the Strand.

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Watson serves as a conduit to the reader of secrets heretofore unknown, as well as a stand-in for the reader: a typical Victorian gentleman (but one of the best of the lot!) who asks the right questions and responds with the correct amount of awe to Holmes’ feats of legerdemain. Most of all, Watson humanizes Holmes by calling the man his friend; nearly every example of Holmes expressing human feeling revolves around his relationship with Watson. And while Holmes often speaks scathingly of Watson’s dependence on the melodrama and emotional impact of their cases instead of on the cold, steel logic the detective employs, even he has to acknowledge that the success of Watson’s chronicles comes from his understanding that reading audiences crave the human aspects of crime. It is something Holmes appreciates about his pal: “I would be lost without my Boswell.”

For me, the next best Watson figure is Archie Goodwin, the private secretary for Nero Wolfe. Archie is as protective and admiring as they come, but he also undercuts the more obnoxious tendencies of the gargantuan, orchid-fancying sleuth by engaging him in some of the most entertaining banter ever written. Their relationship is the best thing about Rex Stout’s work, surpassing the mysteries themselves most of the time.

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Agatha Christie’s main contribution to the stockpile of Watsons (like a parliament of owls) is Captain Arthur Hastings. I lay no claim to Hastings being the best example of a Watson, but he was certainly inspired by the original. Christie had read the canon, and in Hastings and Inspector Japp, she was duplicating the perceived success of the Holmes/Watson/Lestrade triumvirate. We can complain to our heart’s content that Captain overly imaginative than dumb, tending toward absurd theories that defied any sort of logic; remember, too, that it was often some innocent utterance by Hastings that supplied Poirot with the impetus to solve the case.

At his best, Hastings, a former soldier of distinction, had courage and a deep, abiding loyalty to Poirot. There was nothing he wouldn’t do for the man, including saving Poirot’s life on a few occasions. Despite this, Christie came to believe that operating in the third person served her writing much better. From 1920 to 1936, Hastings appeared in only six out of eleven Poirot novels (and a couple dozen short stories) before booking passage back to South America. Still, when Christie wrote Curtain, her final Poirot adventure meant for posthumous publication, she must have felt sentimental toward her most famous Watson, allowing him one last narrative, and setting it in the place where his partnership with Poirot began.

I digress – but you already know that about me. My experience of the Watson figure was that he served as a chronicler, an acolyte, a device through which a detective could both enlighten the reader and tease him (“Ah, my friend, if you do not understand the significance of the salad oil stain on the underbelly of the French poodle – and it is mostsignificant – then you will simply have to wait until I am ready to reveal it to you!”), and the sleuth’s greatest champion. For John Dickson Carr/Carter Dickson, however, the Watson serves primarily as a point of view character, somebody sent in advance by the author (and, on rare occasions) the detective, to scout out the situation and serve as a reporter before and during the commission of murder.

According to Doug Greene, these nominal Watsons were, by and large, extensions of the author’s own personality, imbued with a selection of Carr’s own qualities and interests. All were male (at least, so far in my experience); some were young and adventurous, others middle-aged and scholarly. They weren’t necessarily stupid; they just didn’t do enough to merit discussion of their intellectual capacity. To a great extent, they were not fully realized characters, largely interchangeable from one to another.

I put forth as evidence of this Ken Blake, who features in, I believe, four or five novels. (I think he’s only mentioned in passing in one of these.) Blake appeared in the first Carter Dickson novel I read, The Judas Window, and yet I couldn’t tell you anything about him except that he is married – because his wife accompanies him to observe Sir Henry Merrivale acting as a defense attorney. I remember they have a number of dinners together, but I found the food they ate more descriptive than anything I read about Ken Blake, and I promptly forgot about him.

Granted I am reading my Carter Dickson in a helter-skelter fashion, but I think my impression is valid. Ken is the point of view character in H.M.’s very first appearance, The Plague Court Murders– and I remember virtually nothing about him there. He contributes nothing to the investigation of the murder that I can recall, except to watch and observe. Much is made of his being bored at the start of the novel, a quality shared by many point of view characters – Michael Tairlaine complains of the same malady at the top of The Red Widow Murders– but unlike all those wonderful Alfred Hitchcock protagonists, whose tedium at the ordinariness of life plunges them into life-changing adventures, the most that Dickson’s young/middle-aged chroniclers can hope for is a spot of romance and a dash of intrigue in the company of Sir Henry.

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This lack of promise in Blake’s character seems about to change in The Unicorn Murders (1935), H.M.’s fourth adventure. In fact, a lot of things seem about to change: the situation where Merrivale (and Blake) have worked for British Intelligence but done nothing to show for it might be over as Blake begins this novel up to his ears in intrigue. Moreover, there is about this opening situation much that parallels the travails of those lighthearted heroes of Hitchcock to which I just alluded:

“Let me state a case to you, and ask you what you would do under the circumstances. You are on a holiday in Paris, in the green month when spring has almost become summer. There is nothing on your mind, and you are actually at peace with all the world. One evening towards twilight you are sitting on the terrace at Lemoine’s on the Rue Royale, having an aperitif. Then you see walking towards you a girl you have previously known in England. This girl – who has always struck you as rather a starched proposition, by the way – walks straight up to your table and very gravely begins to repeat a nursery rhyme. She then sits down at the table, and proceeds to tell you what sounds like the most bewildering gibberish you have ever heard in your life. Well?”

The man could be Robert Donat or Derrick De Marnay, and the girl could be Madeleine Carroll or Margaret Lockwood – except this is Evelyn Cheyne, a fellow member of Intelligence and, if you have read The Judas Window, Blake’s future wife. Here, in fact, is a rare example in Carr of story development in a recurring character.  Ken meets up with Evelyn here, marries her in the next novel (The Punch and Judy Murders) and appears once more, in wedded bliss, in Window. What’s more, the opening here leads us to believe we are in the throes of something unusual for Dickson – not another gloomy mansion murder with all the Gothic trappings, but a whimsical, “Spy vs. Spy” sort of spree through France.

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At least, that’s how it feels for three chapters until a tense situation on the storm-tossed road to Marseilles brings Ken and Evelyn face to face with His Majesty himself, H.M.. One chapter later, we find ourselves at the door of the Chateau de l’Ile, a gloomy mansion thick with all the Gothic trappings . . . and then we’re in the familiar world of Carter Dickson.

Still, the premise of this fourth adventure is unlike any that went before. There are no seances, no cursed rooms, and no odd architectural sites with dead bodies and no footprints. Here we have the epitome of artifice – and I say this in a good way – in the form of a long-standing feud between Flamande, known as “France’s greatest criminal,” and Gasquet, the country’s best cop. The trick here is that both men are masters of disguise – andthey have basically announced the time and place of their latest showdown. See? Nothing bizarre, just cops and robbers business as usual. Oh yes, I forgot to mention that a few days before this, some Secret Service guy seems to have been murdered in a park by a unicorn . . .

In the chateau, a sardonic count plays host to H.M., Ken and Evelyn, as well as the passengers of a small plane that has made an emergency landing on the grounds. The Loire river is rising in the midst of a storm, the bridge goes out, and our heroes are trapped with an assortment of strangers – amongst them, evidently, both Gasquet and Flamande in disguise.

There’s much to enjoy when you read five Carter Dickson novels in chronological order over the space of three month. Sir Henry Merrivale has come into full bloom and, in these early days, is at his most attractive. Certain references mean more to the reader who has followed along from the start. When the policeman in charge of the inevitable murder investigation behaves with pigheaded superiority, Sir Henry remarks fondly about his friend, Superintendent Masters, who has served the same purpose in the three previous novels. Casual reference is made to early H.M. adventures, and all in all one gets the sense that they’re hanging out with old friends.

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Still, there are points here that made me feel a little . . . less than satisfied. One of them is perhaps a personal preference: given that this circle of suspects are all unknown to each other and that more than one of them is operating under a false identity, we get to know even less than usual about them. Mr. Middleton, Mr. Hayward, and Mr. Fowler all blurred confusedly before me. Everyone is hardly settled when revelations occur, followed quickly by an impossible crime. Then come the reversals, but to tell you the truth, I wasn’t buying it.

We expect in a 1930’s mystery to be handed a lot of outlandish situations and to be asked to suspend disbelief. So it bothered me when Sir Henry unmasked one half of our disguised duo by “proving” that the prior circumstances were simply too outlandish to believe! This is followed by more surprises which are also completely unrealistic – but H.M. lets those go. Even though a lot happens here, I began to feel like I was trapped in a sort of lull.

That changes for the better once Gasquet is exposed and takes over the investigation. He offers a solution to the case that is downright entertaining and leads to some great confrontations and complications. Then comes the solution – the book is thankfully much briefer than either Plague Court  or White Priory– and once again I felt a bit . . . disappointed. Not that Dickson doesn’t explain things perfectly fine (although why H.M. discounts one set of circumstances as “outrageous” and then presents a final solution brimming over with artifice beats me), but I couldn’t help but feel like I’d been cheated out of a solid traditional mystery, partly because of the killer’s identity and partly because, like Judas Window, we have to enter into some technical business to explain away the murder.

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I think I had high hopes for Unicorn, partly because of what I had read about it (here and here) and partly because the copy I finally found was rather costly. I appreciate that Dickson has changed up the pattern somewhat (and I know he will go even further astray in the next book, The Punch and Judy Murders, which functions as a sequel of sorts to this one). And I did like the interplay between Ken and Evelyn and H.M.. I don’t remember a Carr novel where a Watson got to play such a striking role. Unfortunately, I found most of the characters here interchangeable and superfluous (I did like the butler Auguste very much), and as cleverly as Dickson plays out the unmasking of a French superhero and supervillain, as well as the mechanics of the crime, it’s not like I was ever going to have a chance to play along here

So here are my rankings:

  1. The Red Widow Murders
  2. The Plague Court Murders
  3. The White Priory Murders
  4. The Unicorn Murders
  5. The Bowstring Murders

 

I want to put you on notice that I’m going to take a little break from A Carter Dickson Celebration in order to prepare myself for a GREAT SUMMER ADVENTURE! I will post more about this later this week. As of now, I plan to return to ACDC with The Punch and Judy Murders sometime in the late summer.

 

 

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24 thoughts on “ACDC, PART FIVE/FIRST LET’S TALK ABOUT WATSONS: The Unicorn Murders

  1. I regard this as one of the most convoluted of Carr novels. In fact, the question of who is who is more perplexing than how the murder was committed !
    There are just too many coincidences, some unbelievable.
    There is a discrepancy regarding the depth of the wound in the man murdered at Marseilles. In chapter 2, it is mentioned as 4 inches , but in chapter 6, it is mentioned as 6 inches. Also, according to chapter 2, the wound is “the exact shape and size inflicted by a shot from a revolver of high caliber”; whereas according to chapter 6, the ” orifice was much bigger than any largest caliber of firearm”.
    One of the clues requires one to know a peculiarity of French matches !
    The method of killing of a previous book is revealed in chapter 10 of this book.
    An average novel from Carr !

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    1. I thought the French matches clue was particularly unfair. I wonder how many 1930’s Americans knew about that! I don’t remember the Chapter 10 reference, although I think it had to do with Plague Court??? Yes, I agree, this was convoluted, and yet if felt like a much smaller case than the three that had preceded it.

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  2. Brian Skupin has informed me that the supplement to Robert Adey’s Locked Room Murders (second edition revised) will be ready in about 3 months.

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  3. This one is silly and convoluted but I still enjoyed it very much. There are lots of twists and turns, the false solution is entertaining and the solution to the impossibility is beautifully simple and clever. My main problem with it is…….

    MINOR SPOILER FOLLOWS

    The murderer barely appears in a half a chapter before the reveal. That’s just not fair!

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    1. Bingo, Neil! I hate when that happens! That’s exactly why I felt cheated out of a “traditional” murder mystery. I would venture to say, however, that this was my favorite false solution in Dickson so far! Great fun!!

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  4. Sorry to see that you didn’t enjoy this one as much as the others. I agree with you in finding the killer’s identity a bit of a letdown – it’s one of my main problems with Carr, and I’d argue that we have the same problem in “Plague Court” and “White Priory” as well!

    But all the other things about this book just makes me like it more, its topsy-turviness, its convolutedness. In fact, I might even say that this is the most Ellery Queen of Carr’s novels. It’s just so very out there, yet still manages to be a fair play mystery..

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    1. It IS fair play – but very much of its time. Half of Merrivale’s deductions were based on things I have never heard of or couldn’t have known about without being there. (Those matches!) Suddenly, based on your comment, Christian, I am aware that only one of the Merrivale mysteries so far has had a traditional murderer; that is, one of a closed circle of suspects. And while that one is the ONLY one I have figured out, it’s also the most satisfying to me. Raised on Christie, I have these expectations. However, writing as Carr, he seems to satisfy this request of mine. Was he being more experimental as CD? More flippant with the “rules”??

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  5. Am I the only one who enjoys Carr’s point of view characters? Yes, Ken Blake is no different than Jeff Marle or any of the others. Still, there’s this kind of comfort in reading these characters for me. And oddly, I was a bit sad when I wrapped up my final novel with Jeff Marle. Granted, I couldn’t really tell you anything about him. The one interesting romantic plot thread was dropped after the first two Bencolin books.

    Carr continued on with this sort of “nameless” point of view character until Below Suspicion (or one could argue The Skeleton in the Clock). After that point, the main character becomes more of the central detective/adventurer, even if he is at times helped out by an omniscient sleuth.

    As for The Unicorn Murders – I didn’t care so much for the spy caper part in the beginning, but once the story moved to the chateau, it was on classic Carr ground. I personally love the impossibility in this one and I can’t believe your review doesn’t fawn all over it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. First and foremost, I will probably never fawn over the “how” of a mystery. My brain isn’t wired that way. Given how much I depend on a good “who” and “why,” it’s a wonder I like Carter Dickson as much as I do. I think Carr is more observant of these two other major questions in his other stream of novels.

      Secondly, was Jeff Marle the one who hung out with the nymphomaniac? Do you mean that they didn’t get together in the end? As for Ken, once the false solution put him back in the spotlight, I raced through the book. That scene in his bedroom between Ken, Evelyn and Auguste was the highlight of the novel for me. I know Ken will be the featured player in Punch and Judy, right?

      Finally, I read your review and was a bit surprised that you caught onto the method as you did. Even with the tormented memories of a certain Coen Brothers movie in my brain, I had no idea that this thing even existed!

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    2. I like (most of) his early viewpoint characters (Marle and Blake are good examples), but I’m much less enamoured of the later ones, especially the ones from the historical novels, who are more all-around belligerent he-men with a healthy amount of cocksureness and a soupcon of misogyny.

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      1. Plus, the later-era viewpoint characters start to withhold information from the reader. I suppose this is required since they become the focal detective, but it’s a bit annoying. With that said, I still enjoy the historicals for different reasons.

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      2. It’s quite good fun when Ken Blake pops up in a very small cameo in a later book, mainly because there’s a moment where your brain goes “Blake, Blake, Blake….I know that name…” before it hits you.

        And, yeah, the historical protagonists are, er, of their time, aren’t they? Apart from all those baths in The Devil in Velvet, of course…

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    3. Ben, you and I are inverting each other here: goddamn, I love the spy shenanigans, and all the crazy identity shifting, and the impossibility falls flay for me because, well, when it comes down to it there’s only really one thing that could cause that wound. The how is…meh, it’s okay, and I have no problem with the who — the misdirection is well-played on the part of the mis-directee — but this is one ofthose Carrs — like Judas Window — where the non-impossibe part is wildly more entertaining than the impossibility.

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      1. I have to side with JJ here! I fear that we lose much of the grandiloquence of the Gasquet/Flamande feud once we enter the chateau, and this closed circle just doesn’t gel for me. Ken has a great opening and a terrific third act, but in the middle he becomes just another Carr-ian observer. I agree that the technicalities method in The Judas Window Rob that novel of perfection. But that book on the whole is loads better than this in every other way! It’s four stars compared to three.

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      2. It’s not the cause of the wound that I love, it is how the killer was able to strike a man in the hallway with multiple witnesses and all escape routes guarded. One of Carr’s better tricks in my opinion (and somewhat comical when you think about it).

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  6. One thing about this book has always bothered me. If a spy agency gave one of its agents the first line of a nursery rhyme as a recognition sign, the last thing they’d give the other agent as the countersign would be the next line! Anyone who happened to know how the rhyme went might answer with it. Still, if Ken didn’t do that, there wouldn’t be a story…

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    1. I think there are moments like that throughout the book! Yes, it’s a cute way for them to connect, but as you say it makes absolutely no sense in the business of spies! My other major problem is more of a spoiler, so those who haven’t read the book shouldn’t read any further: the whole premise is that a master criminal and a master cop are hidden among the passengers of a plane, but they aren’t! In fact, nobody on the plane turns out to be very important at all.

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  7. There are several cheats in this book including the one about French matches. I will list them after rereading the book.

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  8. I agree with your picks of Watsons. And that the interplay between Wolfe and Archie is the best part of the books.
    So this raises the question, what books would have been improved by a good Watson? Who are the Sadly Missing Watsons?
    Ellery Queen seems the most obvious case of the sadly missing Watson.
    Wimsey too, but it’s rather an unfair comparison since almost any change would improve those books.

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    1. I can’t read Sayers . . . but didn’t Wimsey have a manservant? Who’s Bunter? There could’ve been more of a Jeeves/Bertie vibe going on; as you say, anything would’ve helped.

      I did enjoy Miss Marple when she had a female companion to bounce things off of: Dolly Bantry, Lucy Eyelesbarrow, Cherry, the maid . . . these women brought out a different sort of warmth and down-to-earth reality that the male cops didn’t.

      In the radio show, Ellery had Nikki Porter, and it didn’t really do much for him. I think of his dad as a sort of Watson/Lestrade combination. It’s original and it works.

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      1. Oh jeez. I had managed to forget Bunter. That was some of the worst stuff dontcha know old pip, where Sayers went whole hog with the snobbery and the accents. Oy sigh, that war offal koind of you sar.
        Or maybe that was Maggersfontaine Lugg in Allingham? No, it was both!

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