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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- The Red Widow Murders
- The Plague Court Murders
- The White Priory Murders
- The Unicorn Murders
- 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.