Four people are discovered sitting around a table as if at a dinner party, each with only a glass in front of them. Three of the four have been poisoned into a catatonic state and the fourth has been murdered by being run through with a narrow blade. Of the three who remain alive, one has two bottles of poison in their bag, one has the workings of an alarm clock in their pocket, and the third is carrying four pocket watches in various pockets about their person. At this point you are three chapters into the eighth Sir Henry Merrivale novel written by John Dickson Carr under his Carter Dickson byline and we haven’t even touched upon the revelation that greets you at the end of that chapter…suffice to say, boy are you in for a ride!
Death in Five Boxes is, if anything, probably the book that best exemplifies Carr for me and helps clarify why he is so beloved and disdained in equal measure (of course, it could just be that I’ve had long enough to see it clearly, and so many of his books would have sufficed…). It is, bluntly, an absolute masterstroke of construction: at the point where other detective novelists would have settled happily upon their clever explanation, Carr has already dismissed that and come up with a second one, only to then dismiss that and finally offer you a third. Those four watches, for instance, are explained, and then explained again, and then turned into something which is both perfectly logical and makes that first false explanation sensible and then turned into another facet of the character involved that opens up all kinds of new possibilities. For hooks, twists, developments, reversals – for sheer plot – you can’t beat Carr at his best, even at his most middling, and for plot-hounds like me he’s rarely a disappointment.
For character, well. Typically you get your totemic amateur genius – check – your professional policeman – check – a few police underlings – check – and a young couple destined to fall for each other – check – and then some Suspects who fill a variety of roles as either patsy or herring. Things really kick into gear when H.M. appears on the scene – we’re at the stage in Carter Dickson’s career where elements of broad comedy are introduced with regards H.M., perhaps to help separate him in Carr’s mind from that other gargantuan reprobate Gideon Fell – and, of course, you just know that things are ticking over enough to grind to a halt for him to sweep in, fruit wagon and all, and kick everyone in the right direction. He’s a wonderfully bracing creation, still well-served by Dickson at this point, who will happily gripe about not wanting to be involved in crime because he has a reputation to uphold, and then throw a flowerpot at a policeman ten pages later.
But this isn’t just H.M.’s show, everyone gets a chance to shine – Supt. Masters believes that he is ahead of the old man for once in understanding some of the esoterica of the setup, Sergeant Bob Pollard gets to map out the timeline of the crime from information received and is privy to additional revelations in the course of his investigating, even Carr’s Generic Young Man – this time around it’s research scientist Dr. John Sanders – has his moment in the sun. Indeed, there’s an air of collaboration here that’s notably absent in a lot of Carr’s other books, and if it’s undercut somewhat by Merrivale being aware of everything already you at least feel that these are people more than cyphers. Not people you know well, but recognisable and doing their bit nonetheless.
And then the end is…not quite as brilliant. The impossible poisoning is now a fairly old idea, and has been rehashed in many different forms, but it is at least a nice take on the idea and the fact that it’s not strictly fair-play is helped by its familiarity. My main problem is the killer, and how the killer comes by the key details they need in order to kill, and especially how the already-shown-untrustworthy testimony of a criminal then takes on cast iron validity when it supports Merrivale’s reasoning. In this regard it reminds me of the Gideon Fell book To Wake the Dead from the same year and equally hamstrung by a dizzyingly creative setup that falls apart in one key regard come the conclusion. And this is where Carr stumbles – not that the mechanics don’t make sense, but that the people don’t; he’s deliberately vague on certain aspects of how things would be known…and there’s nothing there for you to fill in yourself.
Accept this going in – accept this as an occasional occupational hazard with Carr – and you’ll be fine and have a very great many happy reading hours ahead of you (provided you can track down his books, mumble mumble gripe grumble). We’d love everything to be The Problem of the Green Capsule, of course, but at least those dazzling beauties have a few stars like this to keep them company.