First, some context: when I began investigating the works of John Dickson Carr/Carter Dickson, I read a review of And So to Murder (1940) — his tenth novel to feature Sir Henry ‘H.M.’ Merrivale — which lambasted it so roundly that I decided there and then never to read it. Obviously this was in my pre-The Case of the Constant Suicides (1940) and Death Watch (1934) days, two books which convinced me I’d read the transcript of an old shipping forecast had JDC been the one to deliver it, but I still came to this with a certain…apprehension. Merrivale is on a pretty blistering run up to now, so would this be the point where it all starts going wrong?
Clearly not — spoilers, I give this 4 stars out of 5 — but that also requires some qualification. This is very much a Minor Carr, closer to The Problem of the Wire Cage (1939) than The Problem of the Green Capsule (1939), and perhaps the least essential-feeling of the H.M. novels thus far in Carr’s career. However, for all its relative narrowness, and the apparent lack of urgency for anyone but the Carr completist in acquiring this one, it does virtually everything extremely well indeed. Allow me to expand…
Firstly, the writing, which utilises the film studio setting and the mercurial attitudes of the people found thereon note-perfectly, from proto-shyster film producer Thomas Hackett who employs the youthful Monica Stanton, whose bodice-ripper debut novel has proved something of a sensation, to write a screenplay despite her having no experience…:
“But the point is — now listen to this — you can write dialogue. Good, bright, snappy dialogue?”
“I don’t know. I’ll try.”
“Then you’re hired,” said Mr. Hackett handsomely. “Not too much dialogue, mind,” he warned. “Keep it visual. Keep it to the minimum. In fact” — he thrust out his hands, defining the situation — “practically no dialogue at all. But you’ll learn — I’m just thinking aloud, you understand. Miss Stanton, I make my decisions and I stick to ’em. You’re hired.”
…to the Rita Hayworth-alike starlet Frances ‘F.F.’ Fleur — after whom Monica Stanton styled the heroine of her novel, whose “appraising glance” upon meeting Monica “rang like a cash register,” though “[w]hat she thought was not apparent” — and the dynamo that is Hollywood script doctor Tilly Parsons, whose “lipstick always looked as though it had been put on in the dark” and who speaks in a “hoarse cigarette voice which swept the tables like the blare of a corn-cake”, Carr captures these people in a startling paucity of words and actions, and they stay with you.
Secondly, it’s legitimately funny — laugh-out-loud funny, starting with Monica’s prim and prudish aunt who is scandalised to learn her niece has written such a sexually frank book at the tender age of 22 and who can’t help but wish Monica had written “a nice detective story” in the manner of Mr. William Cartwright “whose name, with fiendish ingenuity, [she] managed to drag into the conversation on every subject from tapioca pudding to Adolf Hitler”. And the line about holidaying in Bournemouth had me hooting, I will not deny. But we also get Carr setting up long-game jokes, such as the contents of the lunch which is later blamed for putting the aforementioned Mr. Cartwright in a bad mood and so making such a terrible impression upon Miss Stanton when they first meet.
Thirdly, that mention of Adolf Hitler coupled with the publication date of this firmly fixes it as taking place during the second world war, and Carr for once does not shy away from contemporary elements part of his plot. Initially a vague reference is floated in towards “events that were to shatter Europe by the end of the month”, but we later get F.F.’s husband Kurt Gagern, who “the Nazis threw out of Germany” and is now overseeing the production of the movie Spies at Sea, described by Hackett as “very strongly — and I hope effectively — anti-Nazi” and around which some international sabotage is suspected. And a visit to H.M. at the War Office is bolstered by (you can’t help but feel) deliberate morale-boosting observations such as…:
Little had changed in war-time, except for the sand-bags buttressing some buildings, and the gas-mask containers which most of the crowd carried slung over their shoulders: but these were carried with rather the air of people carrying lunch boxes, and had a look more of festivity than of war.
…and Tilly Parsons remarking that the English are “a funny crowd: the more trouble they put you to, the more jokes you make about it”. Equally, there’s Bill Cartwright’s “fidgeting” as he eagerly waits to be called up by the Army, and the paragraph that closes chapter 5 is even a brief and grim relating of the moment when the war itself actually began, and beautifully effective for all its restraint.
Finally — and, yes, I’m going on, but I really did enjoy this hugely — the mystery of why anyone would wish to kill the inoffensive Monica when she’s an apparently unknown quantity at Pineham Studios is a very, very good one. There’s a fabulous mid-book reveal (Carr had virtually patented this sort of development at this stage in his career), and a wealth of little details along the way that add up to some very convincing misdirection. The final chapter wherein H.M. gets everyone to relate their earlier words and actions verbatim so he can overlay the correct interpretation on them is a real belter: good heavens, so much of this plays out right in front of you, despite one piece of withholding occluding the true motive. And H.M. emerges as a surprisingly realised and principled character, too, despite not being on a huge number of these pages…plus, the joke about Big Ben is utterly gorgeous.
So, a minor one, yes, but few would have Carr’s talent in turning such a minor footnote in their career into such a rich, rounded, enjoyable, and skilful deployment of the detective writers’ art. And if you’re yet to read any Carr at all, this might just be the perfect place to begin.