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 Capsuleand 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…
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.