In the orchestra of John Dickson Carr’s detective fiction, his early years from It Walks by Night (1930) up to arguably The Arabian Nights Murder (1936) are very much the accordion section. Events occur in concentrated bursts, with clues and characters squeezed together to make the notes of the plot emerge, only to then be drawn apart before inexorably squeezing together again for another dense exposit you must pore over in order to follow the necessary developments. From The Punch and Judy Murders (1936) until the 1940s he wrote in the fine, clean, overlapping lines of the harp, and then the violins took over… but enough of this analogy, back to this book and the wheeze of a bellows working overtime.
We have here the framing of The Blind Barber (1934), with events being relayed after the fact for Gideon Fell to pick out the bones and uncover the truth. The book is split into three sections, each related by a different policeman as they are brought into the case and manage to answer their predecessor’s questions but then introduce new complications of their own. And it is in this shift of narrators where Carr really shows himself spreading his wings in the genre — other books have relied on different points of view to help tell stories with added perspectives, but Carr manages to take each new section as an opportunity to ramp up the game.
The first part, told by Detective Inspector John Carruthers, is the squeeze. We have in eight chapters a policeman assaulted outside a museum, more false whiskers than seem necessary, a murder, a cookery book, and a lot of suspicious types engaged in suspicious temporising whenever Carruthers goes near them. It is, I will not deny, hard work. It leans heavily on the dazzling display of incongruities that would become the far more finely-realised trappings of later Sir Henry Merrivale books, and benefits from the knowledge that there will be some damn clever explanation behind it all, but the structure is less toothsomely imbricated than, say, the equally-dense Death-Watch (1934) and rather more cumbersome and portentous, even if it is very finely written:
[H]er face, brilliantly lovely under that moonlight glow, was as expressionless as the shuttered hood of the carriage from which the dead man had fallen. Expressionless, and for some reason subtly mature. Something changed and shifted there, as though at a sort of silent cry; something hardened, and yet for a moment I thought her eyes were filmed with tears.
But persevere, because the second part, told by Assistant Commissioner Sir Herbert Armstrong, is awesome. Not only does it throw acres of light upon the deliberate obfuscation of the opening section, it shows Carr’s plotting at peak invention for his career to date, outstripping even The Red Widow Murders (1935). The structuring means that you are in on a joke that a key character is not, and it works brilliantly. And at the exact halfway stage, as was Carr’s tendency in this part of his career, you have the problem neatly expressed and everyone involved clearly in their places performing the tasks that will nail them to the mast come the close. I’ve talked about Carr’s juggling of tones before, but the way he turns his Gothic opening into a sort of Wildean comedy without undoing any of the malice is helped again by superb turns of phrase and an eye for the obscure interpretation of simple actions. If you can find a better mood-straddling description of a man relating his witnessing of a murder than his pulling the relevant items out of his pockets “as though we had started playing strip poker,” I’d like to hear it.
Feel, then, for Superintendent David Hadley, to whom the responsibility falls to bring us home. Because, well, Hadley’s part of the narrative is the squeeze again — all people running up and down stairs, and when someone came out onto the balcony to ask a question and precisely what sightlines who had of which from where — and, man, doesn’t it ever get tiresome. Here, Carr reverts to his early-career trick of calling a chapter, say, ‘Who Really Made the Phone Call’ only for that to be revealed in the last line of 12 pages of text whose sole role has been to build to this point (in fairness to Carr, this was often a distraction technique, hiding other clues on the way to the final cliff-hanger…but, well, not so much here). Never before have I reached the end of a Carr novel and been so uninvested in what actually happened. Hell, there’s even one bit of this I’m not completely sure about because I think my eyes glazed over at the necessary moment, and I’m totally fine with that.
Calling this “A Dr. Fell Mystery” is more than a little misleading, then, since Fell only features in the opening five pages and the epilogue. It feels like a breath of cold air to have him reflect on what’s gone ahead and bring the truth to light, however, and I dropped gratefully into his embrace for the final flourish. This might be the first time I’ve not bought what he surmises — there are a lot of lucky guesses, it has to be said — but simply having that wheezing, scatterbrained magnificence on those final 12 pages elevates this from the trudge it would otherwise end as.
So The Arabian Nights Murder is a curate’s egg. The first two sections combine to great effect, but the third manages to kill all but the most avid and rabid curiosity. The first and third sections drag and lumber, but the second is fleet of foot and delightful to the brain, showing a reversal of expectations and a levity in up-ending what you’ve been clearly told and shown that absolutely seals Carr’s class. Perhaps an abridged Mercury Mystery edition, should one exist, would help trim the excess and make this a more propulsive and interesting experience. Taking the full text, as we should, it’s somewhat harder to swallow for the average reader, and a challenge even for the likes of me.