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.
But somehow the mystery never quite catches fire. There’s incident enough to keep you intrigued — I read it in four 50-page gulps — the characters all feel rounded enough and play their roles nicely, from the hangabout relative and secret lush Uncle Hubert down to Mrs. Propper the cook and three-scener Dr. Nithsdale with this “bedside manner which would have alarmed Methuselah”, and Carr is to be commended for keeping a tight rein on the events that occur, but when put against the devious brilliance of The Reader is Warned or the slap-you-in-the-face simplicity of The Emperor’s Snuff-Box the scheme here is…well, it’s a bit shit. The means by which the rubber dagger becomes steel feels like something out of a Morecambe and Wise sketch, and there’s a lot of alacrity as people walk around darkened houses or through rainstorms that starts to feel a little like padding when you get down to it. The essential deception by which the murderer’s motive is hidden is a good one and, you feel, where Carr got his idea for the book, because the hypnotism is honestly hard to believe (not that he’s alone in this in the annals of GAD…) and feels like thin soup amidst all the other flavours. Just a shame, then, that there’s so much riding on it.
From a continuity perspective, it’s worth mentioning if you have a good memory for names that some guilty parties from The Plague Court Murders (1934), The Ten Teacups, a.k.a. The Peacock Feather Murders (1937), and The Reader is Warned (1939) are named herein, and one aspect of The Red Widow Murders (1935) is alluded to in passing. We also get a canonical birth date for the irascible old gasbag — 6th February 1871, which seems to’ve been otherwise unnoticed by history. For contemporary details, we have a man backing away from expected action urged to not be a “weak sister”, Victoria Fane’s reflections on marriage in the opening chapter are eye-opening for just how much perspectives have changed, and it’s moderately amusing how surprised the men are that Ann Browning doesn’t scream or faint or do anything else womanly and embarrassing when presented with the murder…but, well, them’s the times for you, I suppose.
Outside of that, this is Carr offering very little that’s notable given how blisteringly brilliant so much of his output around this time was, but, well, you’ve got to allow him some opuscula even in the midst of his most brilliantly creative run. This remains one of a handful of Carr novels I still can’t find a copy of for myself — usual considerations of price and condition notwithstanding — so I’m very grateful (onceagain) to Puzzle Doctor for lending me his, as Carr remains compelling company even when not hitting the heights. It occurs to me that this is probably the first dud in the Merrivale series, which is a quite stellar accomplishment when you consider the risks these books took, and coming in dead last against The Punch and Judy Murders (1936) and others is no real shame, per se. It just so happens that this might also be the first non-essential book Carr wrote, and so you feel the dip a little more keenly that you otherwise might
Ben @ The Green Capsule: Our next potential weakness is a villain that I could spot a mile away – your mileage may vary. Although Carr is famous for his impossible crimes, it has always struck me that he’s a master at cleverly hiding the culprit. Out of nearly 30 of his works that I’ve read, the only time I haven’t been surprised by the reveal was The Lost Gallows. Well, that might just be luck of the draw that I finally got one right. Plus, just because you have a feeling you know who committed the crime doesn’t mean that you have any clue about how they did it.
Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel: But with the exception of the impossibility, there’s a nice straightforward mystery here. Not very taxing, mind you, but putting it all together takes a bit of thought. The characters are stronger than usual as well, with Merrivale on fairly restrained form – not much of the physical comedy here, apart from one pratfall, his humour coming instead from the contents of his unpublishable memoirs. Carr wisely introduces two potential romances between the younger characters, meaning that the reader, expecting a happy ending between two young lovers in these sorts of books, will have their suspicions drawn towards which one probably won’t work out. It’s a nice trick (if that’s what it was) which helps obscure the armchair sleuth’s focus.
Jon @ GADetection wiki: Fans will enjoy this, though others may wonder whether the whole thing couldn’t have been done more safely with a cudgel in a dark alley.