The result of a challenge between John Dickson Carr and magician-turned-author Clayton Rawson to write a murder in a room whose inaccessibility is assured by paper taped across the inner door jamb, He Wouldn’t Kill Patience (1944) also has GAD brethren in Freeman Wills Crofts’ zoo-set, poisonous-snake-centric Antidote to Venom (1938). Carr and Rawson take more puzzle-oriented routes, of course, and both happen to feature magicians, but the Reptile House subgenre is off to a good start with these two novels in it. And since you’re going to ask, in the head-to-head of this and Rawson’s ‘From Another World’ (1948), Carr wins. Boy, does Carr ever win.
This just might be the most borderline 5-star 4-star book I’ve ever read, so let’s get the criticisms out of the way first. The opening two chapters are important but awful, evincing the broad slapstick that would envelop Sir Henry ‘H.M.’ Merrivale as his travails progressed — the is the fifteenth of an eventual twenty-two novels to feature the Old Man, so we’re now in the final third of his adventures and 9 years from his terminal case despite Carr continuing to write for nearly three decades. There’s also a late-on introduction of one of my least favourite GAD clues: The Photograph the Reader Cannot Possibly See Which Shows Someone Vaguely Recognisable Who Turns Out to Be Important. Wipe these two things away, however, and it’s nearly perfect.
Carr is deep into his home territory here, and every page — even the ill-judged comedy — drips with self-assurance. The characters are distinct and not all necessarily likeable, Carr managing to hold back just enough doubt in your mind about (among other things) Dr. Jack Rivers’ friendly manner, Louise Benton’s nervous disposition, Horace Benton’s hale heartiness, and zookeeper Mike Parsons’ misanthropy. Some of this is used to faultless effect — the most successful moment of comedy springs from something that becomes vital later on, and is born from pure characterisation beautifully deployed. Even the central Inevitable Bickering Couple — filially-bound magicians Carey Quint and Madge Palliser — aren’t as annoying as they first seem, and their relationship doesn’t derail things as it might.
And then you have the central problem: a man gassed in a room where the windows and gaps around the door are taped up, with only the eponymous squamatacide (possibly my favourite origin of a title in Carr’s works, given that this could easily be called something achingly bland like Murder at the Zoo or The Sealed Room Murder) indicating foul play. Demiurge of the impossible crime that he is, this almost feels a little too simple, but at the same time it’s infuriatingly within reach and yet eludes immediate solving. The balance is perfect, and the mix of other events complex enough to keep the mind working to find a pattern. And we avoid Problem of the Wire Cage issues with sudden, needless late crimes that serve no purpose beyond word-count and extenuate an otherwise-neat setup, too.
Tonally it may not be as rich as Carr’s best works — the sense of oppression and threat threat seemed to dilute as he went on, starting at its most gothic in It Walks by Night (1930) only to be phased out and replaced by era-rich milieu by the time he started writing historical mysteries — but he can still make you shiver:
On the walls of that narrow stair-well, rising one above the other like steps, hung small pictures in which an eighteenth-century engraver had depicted his notion of ‘the question’ — that is, of torture — as applied by the Spanish Inquisition. The speckled light trembled on them dimly. They breathed of smoke and darkness and an evil soul. The limbs of the victims were fluid, their white faces like little skulls.
…and yet wring a laugh from you with gorgeous understatement:
Profanity, though soundless, wrote a fine legible hand across Carey’s brain.
Set against the background of the Blitz — this occurs across three days in 1940 — you also get a sense of the threat and fear stirred up by bombing raids, of East London burning while others wait and hope and pray. Carr never displayed the interest in this slice of contemporary history that subsequent works did in the centuries prior, but minor points creep through and leave you with a small slice of life at the time (A female magician?! Good grief!!).
But, well, you’re not here for a history lecture, you’re here to be baffled and entertained. And he does that in…well, not quite spades as I spotted the killer and the motive pretty cleanly, but there’s the frisson of malice and menace in a final-chapter confrontation of sleuth and killer which hums with a brinksmanship that is sometimes neglected in the fitting of so many puzzle pieces into their appropriate array. And, on a purely personal note, the book also contains — I’ll not say at what point, but somewhere in these 20 chapters — what is probably my new favourite moment of audacity in Carr’s catalogue: overtaking a certain revelation in The Man Who Could Not Shudder (1940), it made me laugh with a delight that I’ll not forget in a long, long time.
So rest assured, people: Patience died in a very good cause indeed.