#370: The Reader is Warned (1939) by Carter Dickson

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I will admit the chance that I am overrating this book slightly, but, dude, I loved it.  The central premise — that Herman Pennik can both read the minds of others and kill people just by thinking about them, using a hitherto-unexplored scientific principle he calls Teleforce — has the absurdity of overwroughtness that distinguishes the Henry Merrivale books under John Dickson Carr’s Carter Dickson nom de plume (see: The Unicorn Murders (1935), The Punch and Judy Murders (1936), etc).  But Carr plays it remarkably straight, keeping his phantasmagorical flourishes to a minimum and concentrating on plot and glorious atmosphere.

For sheer commitment to the thimblerigging of the impossible crime, this surely ranks alongside The Burning Court (1937) as amongst the most vanward books Carr ever wrote.  What especially helps is that for once he doesn’t seem to be in a rush to race through all his ideas; he always had a talent for the imbrications of unease and menace with simple dropped adjectives and ringing juxtaposition, but here he’s more than happy to dwell over the light fittings if it’ll make his case more tangible:

Under each corner of the glass dome, a cluster of electric globes bloomed like luminous fruit,  They had the garish and snaky appearance of such fixtures popular at the end of the nineteenth century; they brought out the garishness of gilt and palms and coloured glass.

Carr here works with the sort of tiny cast that was such a speciality of Christianna Brand’s — Dr John Sanders recurs from Death in Five Boxes (1938), and aside from Sam and Mina Constable (in whose house two impossible deaths occur), the lawyer Laurence Chase, the comely, compelling Carr heroine Hilary Keen, and the aforementioned Pennik, very few people really get a look in.  Two of these people will die, a third will admit to their murders, and yet how in the blue blazes can someone simply think another person to death?  “You got to remember that it’s not every day a coroner has to hold an inquest on the victim of a telepathic conk over the onion,” H.M. succinctly sums it up at one point, but, man, doesn’t Carr ever make you believe it could be done…

This feels longer than the average Carr novel from this stage in his career, and that’s no bad thing.  His setting is enriched with snippets from newspapers, snatches of context-free conversations, radio reports…the escalation of incredulity and panic is felt superbly, and he wants to let it linger and stew (and this is no mere bravado at his own ingenuity — H.M.’s explanation for this in the closing stages is actually pretty friggin’ heroic).  And you feel Carr’s assurance at every turn — unknown poisons get a bashing, the falsity of the ideas in detective fiction are side-swiped, and with one murder taking place behind a locked door the notion of a hermetically sealed room is cut down…Carr is ready for you, he’s wise to all the tricks and wants you to know it: the title even comes from footnotes outlining key facts that can be taken as given, so flush with confidence is he that you’ll not twig to the tune before the reveal.

Some of this will work better for some people than for others: Pennik’s remarkable ability to read minds is explained in a manner that many people won’t like (I didn’t object to it), and the astral projection and Purloined Letter elements also won’t thrill everyone (I very much did object to these — begone with your “We’ve looked absolutely everywhere and it’s definitely not in the house” nonsense).  Equally, I think the effectiveness of some of it will catch many people delightedly off guard: Pennik is a near-flawless creation, all threat and savagery tied up in a quiet, unassuming, gleefully restrained homicidal mania, easily the most effective villain in Carr’s long career (and he’s captured wonderfully by a reflection of Sanders’ that begins “The mango tree was growing.”…).

The explanations for the impossible deaths are not only kick-yourself clever, they’re also footnoted with a reference if anyone wishes to check up on Carr’s research.   As to clues…they are there, but it’s fair to say that — one moment of bravura boldness waved right under your nose aside — the average person is going to have to work bloody hard to fit them together.  Certain elements of the second death, for one thing, are definitely there only by heavy implication, but I’m more than happy for that to be the case, since the implications don’t stretch beyond what we’ve already been told.  I’d’ve liked to have H.M. piece it all together for us without relying on a verbose murderer come the closing stages, but he gets his moment in the sun come the final chapter summation, and I was reeling around a bit too much with the reveal to worry too greatly at the time.

And this was published the same year that also saw Carr gift us The Problem of the Green Capsule and Christie put out And Then There Were None.  Man, anyone who couldn’t get excited about detective fiction by the end of 1939 must have had some pretty big things on their mind…

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See also

John @ Pretty Sinister: Little did I expect how Dickson would exploit the mind reading claim and turn Pennik into the most fascinating character in the book. I was waiting for him to trip himself up and for Merrivale, Dr. Sanders and the irascible Inspector Masters to expose him, but Dickson took the story into another realm. As the story progresses Pennik goes through a metamorphosis of sorts from a mildly amusing charlatan to creepy cocktail party entertainer and finally megalomaniacal avenger. 

Noah @ Noah’s Archives: This is not first-class Dickson; that honour belongs to the earliest books from 1934 and 1935. It is, however, a good example of second-class Dickson. There is a nearly impossible puzzle, interesting characterization, significant misdirection (although here not with the overtones of supernatural occurrences, a hallmark of JDC) and, as happens a handful of times in the novels, a sexual frankness which is extremely unusual for detective fiction of the period. … And it avoids the twin errors of the later Dickson books, poorly-written farce that breaks the action and characterization which is at the level of gossamer and cardboard.

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For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to The Double Alibi from last week because — and this is kind of amazing — Mina Constable has in the universe of this book published a novel with that title.  What are the chances?!

And on my Just the Facts Golden Age Bingo card, this fulfils the category It’s by an author you’ve read and loved before.

34 thoughts on “#370: The Reader is Warned (1939) by Carter Dickson

  1. Okay, picking up on the name of a book that was published by a fictional character — that links to the actual title of the last book you read. That, sir, is freaking awesome.
    And honestly, given the kind of person that the murderer turned out to be, I actually can accept the fact that that person rattles on and on about how clever they’d been while the detectives listen in. While playing with matches, as it were. That was actually quite chilling.

    • You could be right about the monologuing…but, man, do I hate monologuing. I’m willing to admit that I may ave overlooked the character-appropriateness fo this at least in part because my brain was going “Uh-oh, I shure hope they don’t start monolog-godammit!”.

    • A wonderful place to start, not least because it was probably one of the less-heralded and so came as more of a surprise than, say, The Hollow Man. And — best of all — look at all the other stuff he wrote that was equally as good!

  2. Like me, this as an early read and I loved it. When I read it for the second time, the flaws stood out a bit more… Still, like Sergio, this was one of the books that really switched me on to Carr

    • I wonder if any books get better on a second reading — not because tjhe reader’s attitude/perspective has change, but because you just realise how clever or careful something was that you didn’t pick up on first time. Hmmm, now you’ve got me thinking…

      • Isn’t it always a matter of perspective though? Books don’t change, no matter how often we read them nor how long it has been but we do.
        Most books I read a second time please me – that’s either a lucky coincidence (doubtful) or a result of the perspective or expectations, or whatever, I bring to the experience. If I’m honest, there is no way I could recall enough of a book’s plot second time round to say whether I’d caught onto something new.

        • Sure, but I’ve certainly reread books with a distinct memory of something I didn’t like in mind…only to discover that memory is false. Maybe that’s more my experience, though, since I tend to remember books as being amazing and then being lighly disappointed when I come back to them.

          I guess you’re more likely to enjoy something you remember as so-so, whereas something you tell yourself is great becomes even greater over time and so will always disappoint when re-experienced (true of more than just books, too…).

          Man, that’s a depressing thought.

          • That isn’t true at all! You remember something as being terrific: the pie crust treats my neighbor’s mom made for us, splashing in the rain with friends in Chinatown on Thanksgiving, my first read of Murder on the Orient Express and The Greek Coffin Mystery . . . That’s where the word “halcyon” is applied . . . So no reason to feel sad! 🙂 🙂 🙂

  3. Thanks for the review, and your top rating assures that I still have a great – not just good, but great – Carter Dickson novel left as my final outing with HM! 😀

  4. I am so so glad you loved this. I would easily rate this 5 stars too, and my first read of this blew me away. I agree that Pennik is possibly Carr’s best villainous characters, and for me there are connections to the villian in Rawson’s Of The Face of the Earth, I wonder if there was a homage in either way?

    This book stays forever burned in my mind, I can remember every room, the balcony (those light fittings!!), its just superb.

    • I don’t remember the villain from ‘Off the Face of the Earth’ clearly enough to comment. But it’s from 1949, so I’d consider it unlikely that Rawson was deliberately harking back to something Carr did a decade earlier…especially as Carr published about 20 books in that time. I could be wrong, but it seems unlikely to me.

  5. Maybe the third or fourth Carr I read? It’s been a few years and I’ve read several books since. I’ve thought about going back and reading it again now that I have a few notches on my belt. Outstanding review as always and it makes me excited to read it again!

    • Well, that is sort of my aim, I think. Actually, what is the aim of this blog? Oh, man, now I have to debate my existence all over again…

  6. It’s been maybe 15 years since I read this and, naturally, I remember nothing aside from the basis setup.
    I know I liked it but perhaps not quite as much as you did, although I’d really have to read it again, which I’m now quite keen on doing, to make any kind of solid claim.

    • There are distinctly elements of this that I can see people looking at and not going for, so I completely get that this will divide opinion quite sharply as novels go (mind reading is always difficult to do well, and I sort of have a soft spot for anyone who takes it on and make a semi-decent fist of it purely for that reason).

      Plus, it’s quite nice to have one of these H.M. novels where the comedy asides of H.M. are actually funny. I’d almost forgotten what that was like… 🙂

  7. Of course I’m happy anytime you’re happy . . .

    Maybe someday, when the TBR pile is completed and I find myself with (literary) time to spare, I will give this one another chance. I have to say that, as sometimes happens with Carr, the small cast defeated me. The best part of this one was the villainous Pennik, I agree. And the second murder came as a bit of a surprise to me. But really, there were so few people involved that it was hard not to pick the killer out, especially after a certain early “cute” action that made me suspicious. That’s not to say I figured anything else out – I rarely do with Carr – but it killed the suspense for me.

    • Of course I’m happy anytime you’re happy . . .

      Says the man who has spent hours of his life gnashing his teeth and smashing his keyboard over the novels of Paul Halter…

      I think the cast caught me out here because, well, I didn’t look at the thing I should have looked for. I was more concerned with the how than the who. But I know what you mean, it’s disappointing when you suddenly glance the wrong way at the right time and have it all undone for you (I had that same experience with Brand and Tour de Force, you may remember…though that didn’t stop me snapping up a beautiful green Penguin edition of the book last week). I think I got a bit caught up in the sweep of it all, and just let it wash over me. Plus, I read like the first 70% while standing up on a long train journey, so it was such a relief to finally sit down and finish it that the extra comfort would have dulled my otherwise scalpel-like ratiocination. Obvs.

  8. Your review brings back just how much I loved this novel. There are certain scenes, such as the first victim ‘dancing’ in death, that have never left me. In a sense The Reader is Warned is one of Carr’s most frustrating impossibilities because you know that Pennik couldn’t possibly be psychic, but there’s no possible way to explain how the killings are occurring. I loved that. Plus, for such a small cast of characters, I was completely shocked by the ending.

    With that said… I have never lent this book out because:
    1. It has a rather uncomfortable racial element to it that steps somewhat beyond the passing racism that you occasionally get in books of the period.
    2. The reveal scene at the end is a bit over the top. I’m reminded of the “yes, it is I who am the killer!” conclusion of Below Suspicion.

    • See, now, I disagree when you say it “steps somewhat beyond the passing racism that you occasionally get in books of the period”. it does in one regard, but equally — and I’ll be as vague as possible here to avoid spoilers — the fact that some of the racist elements are then reflected on later in the narrative actually shows a greater consideration of those attutides than one would normally expect from something in this era.

      I mean, sure, the language used isn’t entirely agreeable, but surely Carr has his reasons for doing so, as hinted at above. Just because something employs a casual approach to elements of race, it doesn’t necessariyl mean it’s doing so callously. I think that distinction bears examination.

      • I do appreciate that point, now that you raise it. It wasn’t common for Carr to do the former, and so it does click better when he does the later. With that being said, the fact that the later was probably meant to be a shock at the time kind of makes me grimace.

        • I suppose the fact of it triggering someone off in that way would be an acknowledgement of how hurtful and ignorant those attitudes were; that’s pretty progressive stuff, considering this is the same year a middle-aged white lady published a book called Ten Little N*ggers…

  9. TRIW is a very enjoyable book to read and reread, if not a flawless performance.

    One of Carr’s most impossible impossibilities – no fooling around with locks or mistaken identities or footprints, just someone dying when there was no reason for it to happen. And then a second death of the same kind. I was satisfied with the explanation of how the killings happened, but I couldn’t buy what you call the “astral projection” aspect of the plot. The actual method behind Pennik’s mind-reading? I guess it could work, but he would have to be awfully lucky a lot of the time.

    The identity of the murderer (even if it’s not someone you anticipated) can’t come as a stunning jaw-dropper when you have such a tiny cast of characters, but that doesn’t bother me – I look on a surprise of that kind as a delightful bonus when the author can pull it off, but not necessary for a satisfying mystery by any means. See also: The Lamp of God, Cards on the Table, Five Little Pigs.

    The murderer does become awfully garrulous once their identity is revealed, but as Noah Stewart notes, it’s consistent with what we find out about their true personality, and the chapter featuring the monologue is very suspenseful even if we do know a certain thing the murderer doesn’t. It’s way ahead of the similar scene in My Late Wives, which in turn is still way ahead of the one in Below Suspicion.

    I find the last few lines of the book ironic when I think about what was going to happen six years later. I can’t bring myself to say that H.M. was wrong in handling the case the way he did, though. If these events were to somehow happen in 2018, I wonder how many people would listen to H.M.’s explanation and then shrug and say, “Nah, it was Teleforce that killed them.”?

    • In all fairness, let’s look at the examples you set forth: “The Lamp of God” is hardly a whodunit. It’s a miracle story, and the crux of the matter is how; the who is never really in doubt. “Five Little Pigs” contains a perfect number of suspects in terms of focusing more on character, and none of these people is exonerated before the fact or one of those likely Christie “surprise” killers. Really, I think she handles this one perfectly.

      Cards on the Table is probably the best comparison to TRIW: four suspects and two of them die. When I first read this one, I lumped in the three co-detectives as suspects – I didn’t know who they were and thought this would be a typical Christie twist. As a grown-up, I now know that the four are the four and that’s all there was to it. But it worked just fine for me!

    • “Small cast syndrome” doesn’t always kick in, though: I defy anyone to reason out the guilty party in Death of Jezebel, for one, and I think Five Little Pigs — and I say this as someone who is not a fan of that book’s structure — does an amazing job of reversing a seemingly-watertight case against one person to really throw a surprise culprit at you come the end.

      Here I think I was too hung up on the brazeness of the “how” to give the “who” too much consideration; but then that always happens when I’m enjoying myself; my critical faculties become much more acute as my enjoyment decreases…!

  10. I just finished re-reading this one–the first time was many years ago–and I still it’s one of CD’s best books. Unlike some of you, I was surprised by the identity of the identity of the murderer, in part because of a piece of misdirection by Carr that is based on knowing his earlier writing well. Without giving this away, I’ll just say that he seems to set a trap he has used before, only this time the trick is that it is not a trap. Did anyone else notice and/or fall for this?

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