Socialising is difficult, isn’t it? One minute you’re making polite dinner party conversation about jobs with someone you’ve only just met, the next a hypnotist performs a few mesmeric passes and goads a wife into stabbing her husband with a knife everyone knows is fake but which — awks — actually turns out to be real and, oh my god, she’s killed him. We’ve all been there, and we all know how tricky it can be to factor this sort of thing into one’s TripAdvisor rating. An unexpected, impossible murder can dampen the mood somewhat — especially when so many people seem to be operating at cross-purposes — but remember you did say the canapés were lovely…
Seeing is Believing, a.k.a. Cross of Murder (1941) — I much prefer the first title, which I believe was used in the U.S., but it’s pretty meaningless — is the twelfth novel to feature the Old Man, Sir Henry ‘H.M.’ Merrivale, and plunges us into this precise social vipers’ nest. In Cheltenham to recite his memoirs to the gifted ghost-writer Philip Courtney — “after matter libellous, scandalous, or in bad taste had been removed, he estimated that roughly a fifth would be publishable” — H.M. is drawn into matters when Victoria Fane stabs her husband Arthur while in such a hypnotic trance, part of the after-dinner entertainment provided by the improbably named Dr. Richard Rich. The only real problem is that everyone present — Rich, Victoria, Courtney’s friend Frank Sharpless, and the lovely Ann Browning — can guarantee two things: first that the knife used was made of harmless rubber at the time it was placed on a table in full view of everyone, and second that no-one went near it except for Victoria Fane…who, Rich maintains, would have been unable to use it knowing it was real even while hypnotised.
The question, then, is not so much howdunnit? as howswappedem?, and despite Courtney’s fears that it will distract H.M. from the task at hand, the Old Man won’t be swayed — “Napoleon could do five or six things at once. I can have a good shot and managin’ two”. This comes from an era in Carr’s career where he produced several tight ‘household’ problems — The Reader is Warned (1939), The Man Who Could Not Shudder (1940), The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941), The Seat of the Scornful (1941), The Emperor’s Snuff-Box (1942) — and, in all honesty, it feels like the least of these. He still has that masterful narrative voice that sets scene and mood in one effortless breath, see:
Courtney, it must be confessed, experienced something like a fit of the cold shivers. The commonplace well-to-do bedroom, like ten thousand other bedrooms in England, made a contrast for depths of violence: for ugly pictures under respectable paint.
The library, you felt, was seldom used. It has a correct air of weightiness: a claw-footed desk, a globe map, and an overmantel of heavy carved wood. The books, clearly bought by the yard and unread, occupied two walls: in their contrasts of brown, red, blue, and black leather or cloth among the sets, even in an occasional artistic gap along the shelves, the showed the hand of the decorator.