#423: And So to Murder (1940) by Carter Dickson

And So to Murderstar filledstar filledstar filledstar filledstars
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.

~

For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to Death Lights a Candle from last week since both the authors of both published novels under two noms de plume, one being their own name, and one consisting of three names (JDC/PAT) and the other of two (CD/AT).

And, due to Puzzle Doctor bestowing upon this his ‘Puzzly’ Book of the Month for September, on my Just the Facts Golden Age Bingo card, this fulfils the category It won an award of any sort.

26 thoughts on “#423: And So to Murder (1940) by Carter Dickson

  1. Awesome – thanks JJ. I will say though, as a diehard Carr fan it would be good to know just why this seems like a minor work after all the great things yiu say about it. I certainly want to dash off and re-read it ASAP!

    • I suppose to me, the major Carrs — and I think of these as Plague Court, Hollow Man, She Died a Lady, Green Capsule, etc — are the ones that intoduce a new way of thinking about or exploring the central mystery. A bunch of Carrs are still hugely enjoyable — Punch and Judy, Eight of Swords, etc — but feel a little more conventional, a little more rooted in the sort of way other authors would have applied themselves to the same situation: great, huge fun, but not innovating or challenging in any meaningful way.

      You then have the ones that fall between these two — Death Watch, Unicorn Murders, Till Death, etc — which are just Carr being in a class by himself above all-comers when writing that kind of plot, but slightly below his very best.

      This one, then, falls into that second category: I can see someone loving Christie and picking this up and equally loving it straight off the bat without having to adapt to Carr’s peculiarities as with, say, The Ten Teacups.

      Does that make sense?

  2. Ditto. I need to re read this, as I can certainly write off part of my disappointment with this is the lack of a locked room or equivalent. Also, it clearly fits well with my Do Mention The War series. Cheers for the prompt

    • I loved the slightness of the sentral scheme in this — it marks a very different style of approach for Carr, and he has a lot of fun with the ability to suddenly shift setting (and so mood) by having people happen upon a piece of movie scenery that fulfils his requirements. It’s far from the most complex or the most devisou, but the core idea is very good, the humour is a delight, and while I wouldn’t defend it to my last breath I’m also pleased to have just enjouyed it as much as I did.

      And, yeah, WW2 is all over this one, in a way that feels very, very deliberate.

      • OK, just re-read this. Yes, the war is all over this as it actually breaks out halfway through.

        More importantly, I don’t recall a book that I’ve changed my mind on so much on re-reading. I think it’s rather marvellous – review soon.

        • Delighted to hear it! I found it immensely charming and a very enjoyable puzzle — sure, not the most labyrinthine Carr ever put on paper, but still a great demonstration of his skills in several different areas. Shall look forward to your updated thoughts.

  3. Thanks for the review. 😊 I was interested by your very positive evaluation of a title that has otherwise been panned. Thankfully, I managed to find an economically-priced copy. 🧐

    • Here’s hoping you enjoyit much as I did — and even if you don’t, isn’t it always better to have read something so you know your own feelings on it? 🙂

  4. My fandom of JDC is somewhere between hero worship and cultism. I’ve defended Night at the Mocking Widow, Behind the Crimson Blind, The Ghosts’ High Noon and The Cavaliers Cup, but And So to Murder was as awful a detective story as Seeing is Believing and Patrick Butler for the Defense. And remember Carr withhold some vital information from the reader.

    Even if you take movie background and humor into consideration, it’s undeserving of a four-star rating. I would even consider someone giving it two-stars to be overly generous. So, no, I don’t agree with you at all.

    • …and, lo, the internets were in balance again 😛

      Seriously, though, I can see why people don’t love it, but even with the piece of information withheld — as I say above — there’s still a pretty good chance you can work this out. That final chapter with H.M. explaining how what everyone said was interpreted by the guilty party is frickin’ genius.

      But, yeah, I can see this not matching the expectations of Carr fans who wanted something a bit meatier. I really had fun with it, others won’t.

  5. I recently bought it on the cheap too, despite all the warnings. At least now I know that when I get to it, I’ll enjoy myself.

    This is what you do on your vacation?!?

    • Well, technically, when you get to it you’ll know that I enjoyed myself…though I think there’s a lot for people to enjoy here, if you don’t expect an all-time classic and are prepared for Carr to’ve been, like, having some fun with his writing.

      And, no, this is not what I do on my vacation. I’ve cloned myself and left him at home to read and review books and reply to all comments. Or I read them in advance and scheduled the reviews and the like to go up as normal even though I’m not in the country. One or the other, I forget which…

  6. I’m skipping the comments on this one as I’ve yet to read it and the less I know the better. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed this one, as it is one of the last two “early” Merrivale’s I have left. I’d heard suggestions that it was a throw away, but timeline-wise that didn’t make sense.

    • It’s undoubtedly a little throwaway — don’t expect a Plague Court Murders — but that doesn’t by any means make it bad. Indeed, seeing Carr apply himself to what was a more normal idiom for the era is just lots of fun. Hell, even the vanguards of detective fiction need novels they can enjoy without feeling the need to innovate.

      • It’s not that I minded it being a simpler tale, it’s just that I didn’t find much that was interesting— plotwise— about this simpler tale. It’s the same way I feel about Christie’s Murder is Easy… there doesn’t seem to be much there.

        • It’s interesting you make that comparison, because I can see what you mean and yet I also think the qualities of both books are the same: they’re different from the usual fare of their authors, and give a great milieu in which a small mystery plays out. It’s not so much about the grand, genre-conscious plot as it is the way the events unsettle and play on the rich and diverse cast in a well-realised setting.

  7. While I’m on record as considering one key piece of misdirection to cross the line into outright cheating, it would be a mistake to write off ASTM because of it – there are so many good things about this one! The WW2 background is all the more gripping when you consider the novel was written when nobody knew how the war would end, and a lot of intelligent people thought Britain was doomed. The way one particular running gag actually has a part in the solution is wonderful – Carr once said that a writer can get away with a lot if he disguises his clues as jokes. And as you point out, the humour is funny! (What happened to Carr over the next ten years to make him so unamusing by the time he wrote Mocking Widow?)

    Also, the impossible crime is pretty good. It’s very unusual for a Carr novel to have the “howdunit” element happen practically at the end of the book, but he makes it work. I still have to mark ASTM down because of you-know-what, but it’s far from pan-worthy.

    I think the early forties Carter Dicksons (this one, Nine and Death Makes Ten, Seeing is Believing and The Gilded Man) all fit into the category of “minor Carr, but well worth reading once you’ve gone through the classics” – after that, he has a few more major works like She Died a Lady and He Wouldn’t Kill Patience. He wrote fewer books under his own name during the war years, but I wouldn’t call any of the ones he did as Carr “minor”.

    • I agree with what you’re saying, but I feel the need to clarify for anyone reading these that there is no impossible crime in And So to Murder.

      You make a great point about the JDC vs. CD books in this era — I wonder how deliberate that was. Perhaps JDC became where he did his “proper” work and the CD novels were a chance to have some fun and blow off a little steam. That’s pure surmise, but i’m intrigued by the idea of one nom de plume producing the more enduring works; surely that didn’t happen accidentally.

      • Dang, you’re right about the (non-) impossible crime. I remembered that it appeared impossible for [SPOILER] to have happened – and highly improbable for [OTHER SPOILER] to have happened – and my memory extrapolated those wrongly into an overall impossibility.

        I think you might be onto something about Carr having some fun when he was being Carter Dickson – certainly the JDC books of the early forties deserve a higher place of honour in the overall canon than the CD ones.

    • I agree with you completely here. It’s a very enjoyable book but for that one instant.

      In fact, I enjoy reading it much more than “Plague Court”. *gasp*

      • I can understand that, to be honest. I enjoyed reading it much more than The White Priory Murders and some of Carr’s denser, perhaps better books (Crooked Hinge, Four False Weapons, and yes, possibly even Plague Court).

        AStM is beautifully written, and barrels past with nary a hitch or flaw from a prose perspective. I’ll say it again: we were phenomenally lucky to have Carr, who excelled in so many of the areas that it’s so easy to take for granted, when many of his contemporares only managed one very well and the othetrs at-best competently.

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