In what I’m hoping will be the first of a semi-occasional series — look, I’ve made a special header image for it and everything — we are here today to discuss the 1937 impossible crime novel The Ten Teacups, published in the U.S.A. as The Peacock Feather Murders, from John Dickson Carr under his Carter Dickson nom de plume. Puzzle Doctor, wrangler of In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, kindly agreed to reread this one and then exchange some thoughts on aspects of the precise details and workings of the book, and the results of our efforts are below. Suffice to say, if you click to read more of this, there are guaranteed massive spoilers from this point on; don’t say I didn’t warn you…
In terms of who raised what points, well, that’s become somewhat muddied as I didn’t want this to go back and forth endlessly (we have jobs); essentially, if it sounds insightful then that’s the Doc’s work, unless it’s not, in which case it’s mine. The use of the first-person pronoun below could be him or me, who knows? It’s not clear, and I’m sorry if you find that confusing. And by “I”, I mean Puzzle Doctor.
We might as well start with the first impossible murder, which has Vance Keating in an attic room of a house in a cul-de-sac and policeman Bob Pollard across the hallway in another room, unknown to Keating. Pollard hears Keating scream, two gunshots ring out, the first slightly muffled, and Pollard bursts into the room to find Keating shot in the back of the head and the spine, gunsmoke in the air and everything, the gun on the floor…but no sign of the killer, who could not have escaped.
Taking the various points in order, then…
1. Vance Keating is an idiot.
There’s no getting away from this, so let’s address it up front. We later discover that his instructions specifically include standing with his back to an open window in full view of the houses on the opposite side of the cul-de-sac. Admittedly, the first thought it not that you’ll be shot, but there would be some suspicion in your mind, at least. Nevertheless, the fact that he goes to the effort he does — buying a whole house, ensuring he attends despite being shot in the back of the head a day or so previously — does push the accepted bounds of how much you need someone to adhere unknowingly to your evil plan.
However, as we later learn that the Ten Teacups is a fictional society whose women are effectively picked by the men to have affairs with, and Keating is here purely to ‘have’ the comely Janet Derwent, there’s the argument that he’s willing to accept and do anything he’s asked purely to that end. He’s so focussed on that woman that it blinds him to the foolishness of what he’s doing. Certainly the letters that Keating’s fiancée — in fact, it later turns out, his wife (hey, I said there would be spoilers) — Frances Gale discovers at Janet Derwent’s design imply this infatuation has been going on for a very long time, so possibly he is so desperate that anything goes.
2. Pollard clearly states that while the first shot is muffled, it still came from inside the room. He was on the other side of the door — if the shot was from across the street, then there is no way that he should have been mistaken.
Towards the end, H.M. says [to Masters, who was across the street and downstairs] “Of course it didn’t sound any louder to you because four of these solid thick-built floors were between you and a bullet fired into the open air … When you heard a shot, you all naturally assumed it came from here. There was a brief silence, and then a second explosion that actually and beyond any doubt did come from in here.” The idea of being fooled on the precise point of origin is covered in part in that explanation (and a fair number of books — Helen McCloy’s Mr. Splitfoot, for one — make a point about how difficult a sound is to locate without a precise visual fix on the location).
In terms of it coming from outside, more could be made of the interpretation that it must have been both shots fired with the room because of the gunsmoke, and that Pollard, in his eagerness and confusion, failed to recall it correctly. The explanation of the muffledness works better for Masters than Pollard, arguably, but it’s difficult to ignore that this is a very liberal interpretation. I do like how the presence of the gunsmoke in the room is subtly taken as absolute proof that both shots were fired in there — it’s a suitably underhand piece of misleading (and, though doubtlessly unintentional, an interesting reversal of the Sherlock Holmes story that Carr wrote, ‘The Adventure of the Sealed Room’).
But, yes, this could be fixed easily to make it more fair. All it would have taken from Carr is to change Pollard’s statement a little… It’s funny, given Carr’s skill at not quite saying what you think he’s saying, this comes across a little as cheating, especially since it is never really addressed (and proves to be crucial).
3. No matter how good a cricketer Ronald Gardner is, throwing the gun twenty yards through an open window is ridiculous, let alone being lucky enough to hit the body when the gun lands. Bowling a ball and throwing a revolver, which I presume is much heavier and I know does not have the aerodynamics of a ball, are two very different things. And how exactly do you practise this? It would have amused me if the thing that caught the killer out was a witness who the previous week had been hit on the head by an empty gun while crossing the street.
The distance is unlikely, but I’ll let it slide — it’s a big window, after all. In fact, I [JJ] mocked up the setup myself purely out of curiosity — that was me on Clapham Common this weekend — and struggled to make it accurately 3 times out of 5, and I’m still happy to let Carr have it. I do love the idea of someone being hit by a falling gun if he missed the window, though. There’s something Chestertonian about a man being killed by a gun that fired no bullets…
As for the second shot hitting him in the spine — yeah, I don’t deny this is as unlikely as hell, but I’m prepared to accept it because it’s simply necessary that the gun be fired in the room rather than being intended that the bullet also hit him. Had the bullet missed him (which, let’s face it, is far more likely) there’s equally a case that the gap between the shots could be put down to him wrestling with this attacker and managing to avoid the first bullet, only to be killed by the second, so Carr is covered either way here, I’d say. The setup requires much more that the first shot hit him in the back of the head — and where the burn on the skull is, too, no less — than that the second shot snap his spine. That’s just Carr’s theatricality. Possibly getting the better of him.
And on the subject of that burn to the back of the head…
4. Was the blank shot deliberate or was the murder plot designed after it happened?
H.M. says that Janet Derwent had the alibi of the visit to her elderly aunts fixed two weeks in advance with the booking of the limousine; since she’s implied as a key player, surely it must have been planned long in advance. I don’t know how this works with Gardner shooting Keating in advance, though. Would Gardner know he’d have the chance to shoot a blank cartridge at Vance’s head beforehand? And how? Maybe he could have fixed things and suggested coming up with a ploy for the murder game in order to get Vance into that situation…seems a bit fishy, though, eh?
By implication, Gardner has to murder Keating when he does so that Janet Derwent — who is set to benefit from his will, as far as she’s concerned — has an alibi. The impossibility is concocted so that the case against her will struggle on the grounds of how the murder was done, as H.M. says. But I guess we don’t really now how or when the decision was made. Because linking it in with the earlier murder of Dartley would surely take some planning. On which note…
5. It is necessary to tie this into the murder of William Dartley?
We know that it’s because of the similarities between the two that Benjamin Soar acts as he does, adding that extra layer of sinister implication to things, but why send a note and everything else to match those circumstances exactly? Why not just set up the teacups, invite Vance Keating, kill him, and then allow the police to discover it? Gardner has no knowledge of Soar, Sr’s guilt, so from his point of view there’s no additional benefit to tying the two things together.
But, arguably, as the intention is to create an impossible crime simply for a “nobody could have done it so it certainly wasn’t me”, it’s just more obfuscation. If people look for a link to the past, then they end up barking up the wrong tree. And the resolution of the various aspects of that Dartley murder is very, very clever, and almost a short story in its own right.
6. On the subject of Soar, his behaviour towards the end is designed solely to pad the plot out…
Soar is obviously suspicious of Jeremy Derwent, and says that he figured Derwent was setting him up. The deliberate similarity of the Vance Keating murder to the murder that Derwent and Soar know that Soar’s father committed already has him on edge — and since he and Derwent are supposed to be the only people in the house, the sudden appearance of the body was bound to make him edgy and see a further finger of suspicion pointed his way. The hiding place of Bartlett’s body is genius, but Soar’s reason for doing it probably doesn’t quite hold up…
7. In fact, why is Bartlett at Soar’s new house in the first place?
Was he finally going to give the game away, which is why he was killed? And how he knew to go there in the first place remains a mystery. But it does provide one of Carr’s most chilling moments — not quite the ending to The House In Goblin Wood but pretty close. Though it’s not clear why he lies about what he saw prior to the murder — he describes the mis-fire to HM without mentioning the victim reacting to being shot in the back of the head but I can’t put my finger on why he is keeping quiet.
It’s possible that Vance Keating tells him to say nothing about it — if he admits what happened, there will be the loss of face that comes from the implicit admission that he was trying to cook the murder game. So they cook up a story, Bartlett sticks to it, buys the hat, etc, and lies because his employer asks him too. There’s a bit where H.M. implies that he might get a less favourable reference from Keating if he refuses to lie, but whether that’s strong enough to allow his actions is debatable…
So, it looks like we basically have a crucial statement being a lie (or at least missing several pertinent facts) for no particularly good reason. I call “cheat” again!
8. The motive for Bartlett’s murder is a bit confusing, too…
We know how and why Soar interprets it as he does, but how does Gardner know to kill him so that Derwent’s knowledge can be used against Soar? Does Gardner know? It’s never explicitly stated, and difficult to two would be close enough to share this sort of information. Maybe that’s tied into what Bartlett is doing at Soar’s house Let’s face it, Gardner hasn’t been a model of sanity up to this point with his plan. Maybe he just realises that Bartlett isn’t going to keep quiet indefinitely. But why he does it when Bartlett is at Soar’s house? Goodness only knows.
9. Which title is better?
Definitely The Ten Teacups. The peacock feathers have even less to do with the case than the teacups; could it not have been altered to The Ten Teacup Murders if they were just desperate to mention murder in the title?
10. What do you guys think?
Let’s throw it open — do you agree, disagree, have an alternative perspective? What’s your biggest bugbear about this? Puzzle Doctor says “the burn on the back of Vance’s head is essential for the impossibility (which was intended) to work but there is no convincing reason for it to be achievable. What if Vance ends up in hospital? What if he decides that as Gardner had just shot him in the head, maybe he wouldn’t play along? Why doesn’t he go to the doctor anyway? And while we’re at it, I’m no ballistics expert but surely there is a difference between a shot from 22+ yards and a shot from extremely close range apart from just the powder burn…” Anyone got an answer or want to add anything to this? He makes a good case…
As for me, I’ve come away with a bit less dazzle in my eyes over this one — I think I was so amazed at the solution when I first read it that I allowed the various flaws to just be shouted down (at what point do they decide that someone has to shoot Vance Keating in the back of the head with blank cartridge? This is a very specific event to rely on enabling in advance…). In terms of opinion, I think the Doc and I have both moved a little closer towards each other: he likes it slightly more, I like it slightly less, but we’re each able to appreciate what it does well in spite of its problems becoming much more apparent on rereading.
My thanks to Puzzle Doctor for his time — you can check out his original thoughts on this in his review, listed here with all his Carr reviews to date — and now over to you lot…