#343: He Wouldn’t Kill Patience (1944) by Carter Dickson

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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.

~

For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to The Owner Lies Dead from last week as both feature animals attacking a main character early on.

And on my Just the Facts Golden Age Bingo card, this more than fulfils the category In a locked room.

37 thoughts on “#343: He Wouldn’t Kill Patience (1944) by Carter Dickson

  1. Yes, great book. I couldn’t criticize much about it, to be honest, the whole thing hangs together well and leaves you feeling very satisfied in the end. I’m OK with the humor too – I think most of the HM books handled that aspect fine. It’s only the last one or two where the problems arise for me, where the character becomes too clownish. Then again, I reckon the bigger issue there is the fact those books are just rather poor overall.

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    • What I find interesting about the humour in those opening chapters here is how poorly it sits tonally against the rest of the book. Carr developed an astonishing ability to juggle tone from Hag’s Nook onwards, but this is just…broad, lazy farce. You expect Frankie Howerd to pop up and go “Ooo, errr, ‘e didn’t like that, now, did ‘e?!”

      And then it becomes this wonderfully spry and subtle story full of quirks and marvellous sides, nuanced and intelligent and slyly witty…what the hell happened?! Broad humour has proven to be Carr’s undoing before (c.f. The Blind Barber), but equally he did it perfectly in Constant Suicides…it’s like his one blind spot, where he hits the mark half the time (well, over half the time) and then randomly skews off into awfulness on all other occasions, the perfect binary output.

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      • The humor in Blind Barber, from memory, just annoyed me and I wasn’t crazy about how it appeared in Eight of Swords either. The funny thing (:D) is, despite the near universal praise it receives, I’ve never been as big a fan of Constant Suicides as most seem to be, and the humor there is just passable for me. I’m of the opinion that I simply don’t especially go for humor in the Fell books (it doesn’t gel or fit for me) while similarly broad stuff feels just fine in the HM stories. Odd, but there you go.

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        • I wonder if this is why and how Carr opted to make H.M. distinct — I’ve not read the later Fells or H.M.s, but it does seem that the old man gets more slapstick as he goes and Fell…doesn’t. Whatever happens, humour (like book reviewing!) is such a personal thing that I can completely understand how someone wouldn’t love the ‘funny’ parts of TCotCS, or just wouldn’t love the book overall. Hell, someone somewhere has written a one star review of The Problem of the Green Capsule, so anything’s possible…!

          You’ve also reminded me that I have a theory about how Carr chose whether something was an H.M. plot or a Fell one. Man, I really must get round to writing that one of these days, but there’s always so much to discuss…

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  2. “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.”

    You know I’m gonna take issue with this. 🙂

    No, you’re wrong. Well, okay, it depends. Carr’s story is better. Which perhaps is not that surprising since it’s a novel and has the room to become a more rounded story.

    But Rawson’s solution to the impossible situation is better. The way he solves the “paper sealing off all exits” bit is something I can see happen in real life. Carr’s solution is to be honest a bit silly. It’s also disguised in a much worse way than Rawson’s (though Rawson’s solution doesn’t really need a disguise, so there’s that).

    And finally, the killer here is unfortunately an example of one of Carr’s worst problems – a person who’s on the sidelines throughout the entire novel suddenly turns out to be the killer. Carr did that several times over his writing career, and it’s always terribly annoying.

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    • I dunno, Christian, I have one huge issue with Rawson’s solution that I’ll have to resort to mild spoilers below to explain AVOID THE NEXT PARAGRAPH IF YOU HAVE NOT READ ‘FROM ANOTHER WORLD’ BY CLAYTON RAWSON

      Rawson’s solution of how to get out of a room and still leave it sealed behind you doesn’t actually address the problem: the room isn’t sealed with paper. It’s a variation on the old “the killer pretends the door is locked when it isn’t really” and, honestly, used in isolation I just don’t like that. It’s easy to commit a murder in a locked room when you don’t need to lock the room. Carr, at least, adhered to the terms!

      OKAY, YOU CAN START REASDING AGAIN NOW

      The killer here stood out to me purely on account of motive; if you put that person more central in the book I think they’d stick out even further and everyone would complain about that. I liked the choice, and had no problem with who the finger ends up pointing at, but the motive stuck out like a sore thumb to my eye…

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      • Exactly. “The door was not really locked” solution doesn’t appeal to me either. Hence I didn’t much like the Rawson story.

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        • I hate to do this to you, JJ, but I have to side with Christian on the solution. Carr wrote the better story of the two, no question there, but Rawson’s explanation came up with a better, or more interesting, explanation to the problem of the tape-sealed room.

          Rawson was a magician and approached the premise of a taped room as a stage illusion, which resulted in one of the best pieces of misdirection in a (short) locked room mystery. Such as the sound of tearing paper as the door was battered down. Carr’s explanation is rather gimmicky and could have only worked during the war, because it provided the cover needed to carry out the trick.

          So, yes, He Wouldn’t Kill Patience is great detective novel, but Rawson’s short story has the better locked room trick.

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        • “Carr’s explanation…could have only worked during the war, because it provided the cover needed to carry out the trick”

          That, for me, is the genius of it — that aspect of obfuscation in the trick is unplanned, because the killer didn’t know there would be other people in the house and would have had to do what they do anyway. It’s the witnesses who happen — entirely independent of the killer’s original intentions — to come to the conclusion they do, leading to the mystery.

          I think this is why I like Carr’s solution more: Rawson’s misdirection is planned and goes off exactly as planned; Carr’s is not, and achieves its confusion because of the unintentional faults in the witness testimony. It’s an inspired piece of puzzle plot layering, it really is.

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      • Meh. I think it’s your comment that Rawson technically didn’t actually follow the terms of the challenge is the real technicality here…

        Firstly, do we even know exactly how that challenge was formulated? And secondly, it really doesn’t matter anyway, because the salient bit here is not whether or not they followed a challenge, but whether they created an impossible situation AND a solution of that impossibility that actually works.

        And as for that bit, TomCat said more or less exactly what I too think. There’s nothing wrong per se with Carr’s solution. It might have worked – though I doubt it. I don’t really know what bomber planes during the blitz sounded like so that’s why I can’t dismiss it outright.

        Rawson’s solution however would always work. Sure, the killer could always have been found out while working his trick, but those are sometimes the chances you have to take when you’re going to trick your audience.

        And I see now, reading your comment further down, that we’re simply on either side of the fence here, because to you it obviously doesn’t matter that the impossibility was a clever setup instead of a matter of coincidence. 😉

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        • I doubt whether Rawson’s solution would have worked. What if the woman had regained consciousness earlier…? Also, to do the thing with the book at the precise moment the door was forced open without detection would be very difficult.
          Regarding one sound being confused with another sound in Carr’s solution , I refer to Bradstreet’s comments in Curt Evans post on the same book (comment no. 8). He states that he made the reverse mistake once. http://mysteryfile.com/blog/?p=2163

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        • Oh, sure — no I mean the terms of the challenge in that the room isn’t actually sealed with paper in Rawson’s solution. It’s an unlocked locked room, so doesn’t meet the criteria.

          And, man, we may be on different sides of the fence…but what a lovely fence it is 🙂

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  3. I started this one a few months ago and got distracted. I’m glad that you liked it so much and will come back to it in the future. Still, never has a thread of commentary threatened to ruin the surprise for me more! I’m afraid I have to stop reading, having learned that 1) the killer is on the fringe of the story, and 2) something about the time period affects the solution. I’m going back to AhSweetMystery to spoil another Christie classic for the unwary reader!!!

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    • I personally wouldn’t say…well, anything, actually. This is why I stay away from Carr-themed posts of books I haven’t read (and, indeed, most books I haven’t read — I want to read Aidan’s thoughts on Heir Presumptive, but I daren’t). A lesson I learned the hard way in the face of much temptation!

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  4. I sometimes wonder if it would be best to do two posts for any given book review – one with a rough outline and a general opinion and then another one where you properly get the guts out and give ’em a shaking. But then there’s the problem of time (I swear that hours just aren’t as long as they used to be) and those books whose guts just don’t bear detailed examination.

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    • Yeah, it can be a difficult line to walk — too generic and you might as well not even bother writing about it (“I liked this book, it was good”), too specific and anyone not in on it will have it fairly roundly ruined for them. On the whole, I tend to be spoiler-free in my reviews and alow spoiler-courting in the comments…seems the best midway, even though it is far from perfect (sorry, Brad).

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      • Oh, I’m not mad! Nobody is as guilty of including spoilers as me, especially with Christie. I never became a blogger so that I could be a reviewer- there are far better literary critics than me in every corner of the globe. I wanted to analyze, and I’m drawn to those like you who who are in the same boat: who in earth cares as much as we do about the way these things work???

        That said, I should have refrained from reading this – not your review per se, which spoiled nothing, but the comments. My bad!

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    • That’s actually one of my big regrets with the blog posts that I made in my first 2-3 months. They are fairly short high level reviews that focus mostly on the fact that I liked the book and then call out a few interesting aspects. I later moved to an approach of doing a bit deeper analysis on books, which is now my preferred style (your mileage may vary as to whether or not you actually think I do deep analysis).

      Where my regret comes in is that my earliest reviews were the heavy hitter titles. Classics like The Burning Court, She Died a Lady, He Who Whispers, Till Death Do Us Part, etc. Those reviews naturally draw quite a few hits still on a daily basis as they are big name books. Yet I can’t help but squirm that it’s those earlier reviews that people are reading.

      I’ve questioned whether I want to go back and modify the posts or do a second pass post focused on deeper analysis. Yet:
      1. I’m lazy.
      2. I’d rather write about the new stuff I’m reading.
      3. I’d rather spend my time reading.

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  5. I read Clayton Rawson’s From Another World a few months ago and really enjoyed it as a short story. Yet, that’s what it is, a short story, and the solution to the puzzle is short story appropriate. I’ve elected to stay out of the fray above as it is swerving in a direction I don’t want to debate, but I have to say that I wouldn’t have been satisfied with Rawson’s solution in a full length novel unless it was bolstered by tons of additional misdirection.

    To a degree that’s my gripe with Carr’s The Red Widow Murders. The solution is acceptable, but when it comes at the end of such an engaging story and spectacular impossibility, it falls a little flat against expectations.

    As for He Wouldn’t Kill Patience – unfortunately this is one of the Carr books that I spoiled for myself back before my Carr reading days when I skimmed through Don Dammassa’s site (http://www.dondammassa.com/Zcarr1.htm) naively thinking that merely reading the solution to a locked room mystery would provide me with enjoyment. Only read the reviews on this site once you have already read each book. It is the very definition of spoilers.

    I actually read quite a bit of the site, but fortunately my brain forgot everything it read. Everything, that is, except He Wouldn’t Kill Patience. The moment that I read the set up of the locked room once I got more into collecting Carr, I immediately remembered the key trick to the impossibility. As such, I’m holding off on this for one of my final Carr reads. Knowing Carr, I’ll still be pleasantly surprised by much of it, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy the ride.

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    • Wow! The Dammassa article looks like something I would deeply relish . . . later! As for returning to novels, you’ve already written about – I do it all the time, maybe not as the main topic but in reference to another. However, if I thought that I could never write again on Rear Window or After the Funeral, I’d have to seriously ask myself what I’m doing this for!

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      • Whenever I read a Carr book, I follow it by reading through the Dammassa review. I tend to disagree with his assessment quite a bit, but it’s always fun to see what someone says in a full spoiler review.

        Btw – you can manipulate the number (1) at the end of the URL to read reviews of the 1940s (2), and beyond (3). Just never read a review of a book that you haven’t read yet and you’ll be safe. I’ve never seen him do a cross-spoiler.

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      • Given my well-documented problems with recall, the only difficulty I have in returning to novels I’ve already read is remembering that I’ve already read them!

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    • Thaat Dammassa rundown is amazing — what a trove of detail! Hats off, and thanks for bringing it to my attention.

      I’m fortunate that, in trying to even understand the essence of an impossible crime novel, I only encountered the soutions to the two impossibilities in The Burning Court (possibly on Wikipedia…) and broadly remembered the “walking through an impossible door” but not the other or any further details.

      Of course, someone has told me the killer in Christie’s Curtain, so I still have that to read with gritted teeth…

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  6. “The opening two chapters are important but awful, evincing the broad slapstick that would envelop Sir Henry ‘H.M.’ Merrivale as his travails progressed…”

    I think that’s almost sufficient for me to feel cautious about reading ‘Patience’. As long as it doesn’t veer into the territory of ‘Plague Court Murders’, I’d be relieved! Anyway, thanks for the review. Maybe I should pick up ‘Lost Gallows’ as my next Carr. Need to keep some good ones till the end!

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