#294: The Arabian Nights Murder (1936) by John Dickson Carr

Arabian NightsIn 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.

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For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to last week’s Evidence in Blue because both revolve around murder victims who are found stabbed in the chest.

34 thoughts on “#294: The Arabian Nights Murder (1936) by John Dickson Carr

  1. Glad to hear that the ending was somewhat good, albeit all the snorting and wheezing and scatterbrained magnificence. I have this sitting on the shelf, awaiting to be read… 🙂 I suspect TomCat liked this alot more than you did.

    “Never before have I reached the end of a Carr novel and been so uninvested in what actually happened.” – not even ‘Bride of Newgate’?

    • …not even ‘Bride of Newgate’?

      At least in BoN there was that romantic tangle he had to sort himself out of which (I hoped) might turn out to be interesting (fine, it wasn’t). And I was also able to appreciate, with that book in particular, that he’d very much not written the book I thought it was going to be. Thus, a certain endurance cam from recognition that my expectation were at fault!

      Here he’s written the exact book I thought it would be, and it gets so dull come the end. It also becomes increasingly apparent who the killer is going to be, and you want to know how that’s going to be resolved…but then you just no longer care. It’s clever in a way, but does not feel worth the effort to get there.

    • I may like it more in a few years, who knows? Right now it feels like the transition work at the end of this phase of his career, so that’s fine — he’s clearly learning, and we tend to forget that novelists need to do this and often have to do it in public, one page at a time…but, well, lessons were definitely learned, and that’s what I’ll take away from this.

  2. That seems like a very fair review. I suppose I liked the book a bit more than you did, even though I’m broadly in agreement as to its relative weaknesses. It does become insanely detailed, and consequently a bit of an endurance test in places, but I thought that middle section, the bookending by Fell, the atmosphere of the limited setting, and the cleverness of it all more than balanced it out.

    • Yeah, we’re broadly in agreement. The plotting over those first two sections is about the best you’ll find in this era, no doubt — the reversal in the second narrative in genius. The dullness of the final third really needed a Fell stomping around unbendingly to keep things alive, because, yeesh, a lot of work goes in to very little effect.

  3. Brilliantly written, even if you’re wrong! 😉 For me, it’s (to borrow your musical metaphor) a Mahler symphony: massive in scale, complex, with dazzling changes in tone and mood, but with complete control over every detail. It could also be a symphony by Strauss; it’s the tops!

    Mike Grost once compared Carr’s complex plotting to Mozart.

    • Haha, nice. I don’t deny that he’s in complete control at every stage — you’re right, I should probably give more credit for that — but what he controls doesn’t feel worth the work come the end. You’ll find few stauncher defenders of the glory of Carr’s plotting than me, but Hadley is given a bum steer here with the cleaning up. There’s no fun left to be had, and given the sheer gleeful insanity that precedes his section I really felt the drag kick in.

  4. JFW was correct in assuming I liked this one more than you did, JJ, but a re-read is probably in order, because it has been a while. However, I do remember enjoying the Baghdad-on-the-Thames atmosphere of the story.

    So, until I get around to re-reading it, my memory has to side with Nick Fuller and tell you that you’re wrong.

  5. Either this or The Mad Hatter Mystery was my first Carr – I bought them together – and I don’t remember either one very well, except that I enjoyed them enough to keep reading. And number three WAS Constant Suicides, so that was the charm. I remember thinking the three points of view was a clever concept. They’re on my shelf, and I’ll re-read them as soon as – yeah, that’s about as likely as your getting back to Cards on the Table anytime soon! Places to go, people to see . . . we are busy gentlemen indeed!

    My other first car was a Toyota Corolla, if anybody cares.

    • Constant Suicides is, I’m guessing, a book that has convinced a lot of people to persevere with Carr. I almost wonder if it will become the Till Death Do Us Part of modern Carr reading — the previous lovely surprise that everyone now bangs on about and so doesn’t get to be a lovely surprise to anyone any more…

  6. I think your accordion metaphor is excellent and a really good way of thinking of JDC’s writing style — I hadn’t noticed it associated with a particular period either. So, thank you for that insight, I’m going to appropriate it! LOL
    This is one of the Carr titles I usually haven’t felt the need to re-read … “cumbersome and portentous” is an accurate description, I think. After huge amounts of “guess what’s coming! you’ll be so astonished!” nobody, not even the great JDC, could pay off with a solution that accomplished all that astonishment. It’s a decent story and a good read, just not one of his best.

    • Very kind of you to say, I quite like it as a concept. One of the things I pick up a lot in Early Carr is the difference in the prose between when he’s having fun and when he’s working. I can’t describe it any better than that, it just becomes clear to me that This Bit Really Matters and then suddenly No You’re Fine This Is An Amusing Aside. Which is not to say that I pick up the pertinent information, far from it, but it’s clear when clues are being dropped and when he’s just enjoying himself.

      He got better at hiding this sort of thing as he grew in confidence — there’s about 15 or 20 years where I can barely if ever spot the join — and that’s when he wrote the real classics, but these opening 6 or 7 years are full of sudden squeezes of information.

      I have a theory, upon which I shall expand at some point, that it was the creation of H.M. that really freed him up to write in the way he wanted…and The Punch and Judy Murders (the very next book after this one) is where a switch suddenly clicked in his head and he was off into greatness.

  7. I enjoyed reading your review but I’m a bit surprised by your (and other’s) relative “not too positive” comments about this book. Personally, I’d place it in a list of his 10 best, and certainly higher than Death Watch which you also mention and which – as far as I’m concerned – contains not one but two cheats (although admittedly the “poultry farming” speech redeems the novel somewhat). It’s true that Hadley’s part is less crazy than the rest (but it has to be, right), but there are still surprises here, and it’s still impressive to see how Carr saves the last twist till the end (I can’t go more particular than that without spoilers). Even on a second or third read (because I have read it a number of times), it keeps on impressing me how many layers the final solution has. The only weak point – to me – in the novel is in the first part, with the supposedly funny witness-testimony by the vicar. Carr always fails when he tries to be too funny, which is a pity because there’s enough fun in the craziness of the crime itself.

    • This is what I love about finding like-minded people through this blogging — we’re actually not that like-minded after all! The very idea of this being among Carr’s ten best novels brings me out in a rash, but then I do rate Death-Watch and I know many others (indeed, seemingly everyone else) find that to be something of an abomination.

      But then it’s also clear that we’re reading this very differently: the vicar’s testimony is — with full context being denied to him — bloody hilarious and one of the finest plotting coups I think I’ve encountered in GAD and indeed most other reading. We can’t both be right…and yet we are!!

      In a way this is sort of an anti-The Hollow; where Christie ruined that by putting Poirot in, Carr spoiled this byt giving us so little Fell (because, let’s be honest, he would have livened up the Hadley section no end). It’s genius-level clever it what it proves and disproves, but, ugh, gets so horribly dull towards the end. And Fell’s summation is pure surmise! But, well, I’ve already had may say on this above…

      • I think spoiled takes an overly dramatic view of Poirot’s presence in that book. He didn’t help The Hollow, but he didn’t really hoit it either!

        • Oh, sure, sorry — I should have made it clearer that I meant that from Christie’s persepctive (she said she wished she hadn’t put him in there, didn’t she? Or was that a conversation just between us that I was supposed to keep secret?). Possibly some quote marks may have helped; no slandering of Poirot’s role in The Hollow intneded 🙂

      • I can agree with you on one thing: the more Fell, the better. But I didn’t think Fell was overly lacking in this one either (unlike the very mediocre Blind Barber (don’t tell me you find that hilarious too?)). And “pure surmise”, you’re right but well, Dickson Carr very often seems to base his solution rather more on “the only possible solution that fits everything” than on pure court-presentable proofs. I don’t mind so much, but I agree it makes his books less “realistic” (we all know what Carr thought about “realistic” anyway).

        • But surely there’s more Fell in TBB than in this? However, the varying tones might account for that disparity, I guess. I appreciate that a less agreeable tone might call for more of the stabilising presence one likes in order to make it more bearable.

          And I have no trouble with realism so long as it’s good…the way he goes “Well, X was clearly the case” without ever setting foot in the building — and the way X is the key thing in his solution — is pushing that a little too far. The brilliance of Fell is the ability to look at what everyone else looks at and see what no-one else sees. Seeing it without even looking is a step too far…!

  8. I’ve been banking on this title being one of the really strong Fell books that I have remaining and it currently sits 6 books down in the stack (of course we’ll see how that ultimately plays out…).

    It’s interesting to hear your takes on the three sections of the book. I have to say, the notion of a strong 2nd section really appeals to me. Many stories do well with establishing a mystery and drawing the reader in, and of course the final section is what we all look forward to. However, many falter in the crucial middle section.

    The Ten Teacups may be a perfect example of this. Absolutely bewildering introduction to the impossibility. A satisfying end with rapid fire revelations (even if we don’t all agree on the quality of said revelations…). And yet the middle….is ok. I’d exaggerate if I said that it drags, but it certainly isn’t a strong middle.

    Of course, don’t get me started on the early Ellery Queen books we’ve read. The Roman Hat Mystery – excellent beginning to the story, and then it drags and drags (ok, bad example because the conclusion is a dud). The French Powder Mystery may be a better example – decent (although not great) intro, and a fairly thrilling final 20 pages. But the middle. God, the middle.

    Now, let’s take a look at some books with strong middle sections (I’ll concentrate on Carr for this) – Till Death Do Us Part, The Red Widow Murders, The Reader is Warned, The Judas Window, The Four False Weapons, The Unicorn Murders, The Witch of the Low Tide…ok, I’ll stop there…

    These are the books that stick with you. As much as I was disappointed by the end of The Red Widow Murders, I’ll never forget it because of that middle section.

    My point being that it may be the middle section that truly counts. Yes, at the end we always want a strong…er…ending. But for some reason, what really separates a title is that middle section.

    • As I imply above, I think the middle part of Red Widow is among the best plotting Carr did at this stage in his career — the pages scream past as you get answers to things like “But how can a dead man call out that he’s still aive every fifteen minutes?” in a pure whirligig of brilliance and reversals.

      Your point about the middle sections is true, and something he did less successfully earlier: It Walks by Night, The Waxworks Murder, White Priory Murders, even parts of The Hollow Man drag and wander at times…I guess the consolation there being that they all pay off in more satisfying ways to my tastes.

      I forget, have you read The Punch and Judy Murders? Having now cleared everything published before that, I’m convinced that this is the book that woke Carr up to how to achieve exactly what he wanted. The next Carr for me is The Burning Court — that oft-discueesed apparent brilliance — and I’m hoping to find my thesis confirmed, otherwise I’m in trouble.

      Of course, I have also been meaning to reread Castlle Skull for a while now…

  9. This one sounds like it illustrates Carr’s qualities of being sometimes a great writer and sometimes a slog. (I’ve not recovered from Fire, Burn and the awfulness that is Flora). But it sounds worth reading for the good bits. And I like the way you put this (which put me weirdly in mind of Vonnegut’s short story Harrison Bergeron):

    “The first and third sections drag and lumber, but the second is fleet of foot and delightful to the brain”

    As for more false whiskers than seem necessary – why, you can never have too many false whiskers! Ask Monty Python. Ask PG Wodehouse. Ask a thousand Santa Clauses who are continually losing theirs to curious children, hungry reindeer and incidents with dried-in mincemeat. 🙂

    • Well, it seems to be splitting people into the “Uh-huh, yup” and “Actually, no, this is awesome” camps…so looks like you’ll be picking one or the other in due course.

      Also, FYI, I love Fire, Burn. The historical aspects of the book are sublime. The impossibility less so, fine, but as a piece of sheer historical crime fiction it’s wonderful. So that might give you an idea of where you’ll come in on this one 😉

  10. I haven’t read The Punch and Judy Murders, but you certainly have me looking forward to it. Given the reported runaway nature of the plot, I’ve always assumed that the book would be similar to the first half of The Unicorn Murders.

    Understand that The Burning Court isn’t going to solve world hunger, so don’t go in with that expectation. I still don’t know if I would include it in my Carr Top 10, but it is definitely a contender. I still have a vivid memory of being one or two chapters in and thinking, “ok, this is going to be good.” It stands apart from the rest of Carr’s catalogue in being a very….different book, kind of like The Nine Wrong Answers. You end up getting all of the things that you’re looking for from Carr, but in a very different way than the standard Fell/Merrivale structure.

    Castle Skull is…unique – in a good way. There is something about having Bencolin in the Rhine-castle/mansion setting that makes the book feel different. And then of course, there is the end. For the first 90% of the book you think you’re getting one thing, and then Carr pulls one of the most brazen reversals on you with an ending that I just wouldn’t anticipate him writing.

    The one point in your comment above that I’m tempted to argue is The Waxworks Murder having a tedious middle section. Bencolin actually almost completely solves the crime at about the midway mark, and I felt like the story significantly picked up from there.

  11. Pingback: The Arabian Nights Murder – John Dickson Carr (1936) – The Green Capsule

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