It had been my intention to review a book by a new-to-me author this week, but thankfully I was able to get to it a little ahead of time and watch disconsolately as, after a bright start, it fizzled out to nothing (man, some Silver Age stuff has a lot to answer for…). Instead, here’s another from John Dickson Carr’s era of tight, house-set puzzles which range from masterpieces (The Reader is Warned (1939), The Seat of the Scornful (1941)) to very good (The Crooked Hinge (1938), The Emperor’s Snuff-Box (1942)) to, er, Seeing is Believing (1941). And with The Gilded Man (1942) being somewhat overlooked, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to get…
It’s essentially a simple puzzle with no rococo Carrian adornments, making it feel like a slightly experimental minor work which, while not for those who want to see Carr at his effulgent best, is a pleasant enough time for the completist. To my mind the simplicity of the mystery here — essentially that of a man captured and attacked in the process of stealing his own painting, though Carr naturally adds a couple of flourishes — most closely resembles The Emperor’s Snuff-Box with its sleek plotting and effortless transitions. Also, like Snuff-Box, the essential misdirection completely failed to, er, misdirect me because, well, it’s Carr and so you really should know what you’re getting if you’ve read a handful of his better plots before this.
It is, however, a bunch of fun. In young Nicholas Wood we get a viewpoint character who’s actually able to keep pace with the cantankerous glory that is Sir Henry ‘H.M.’ Merrivale, and who comes to the solution of the thing by his own methods, showing the reader how solvable this is (and, really, the clues that Carr throws back at you come the extended summation are among the most blatant he’s ever laid). If you’re in any doubt over the outcome of his sparring with Betty Stanhope, I have a famous bridge you may may be interested in buying, but the romance feels…if not exactly organic then certainly less rote than usual. And the relationships that compel the others — Betty’s step-sister Eleanor, awkward stick Commander ‘Pinkey’ Dawson, and the rakish man-of-all-games Vincent James locked in their Eternal Triangle; the business venture concerning the ‘Gilded Man’ that wealthy neighbour Buller Naseby is keen to engage Edwin Stanhope in amidst rumours of Stanhope’s own financial misfortune — are keyed and timed perfectly throughout.
Even the comedy’s good, concerning snowballs, a magic performance, the wonderful moment someone expostulates “God damn it to hell!” in a theatre “noted for its fine acoustics” and filled with eager eight-to-thirteen year olds, and the off-page comeuppance delivered to “a pest…of the sort that rottin’ England”. It barely warrants mention that this is balanced on the other side by the sort of gloomy effortlessness Carr brings to the threat and press of his scenes when needed: such as “the marble mausoleum of a fireplace [containing] a log-fire big enough to have burnt a Renaissance heretic” or the scene of the attack where…
[A] draught from the open windows caused the thick crimson-velvet curtains, under their gold-edged valences and tassels, to bell out with the weight and massiveness of sails.
The house in which we find ourselves most of the time, owned in the past by actress Flavia Venner, is an improbable construction which could only exist in the mind of an author, with a seemingly random helter-skelter of floors and roofs topped by that small theatre, surrounded itself by yet more slanting roofs…the layout ends up being important in a minor way and you’ll never be able to figure out where anything is, and as such the atmosphere slackens a little. Additionally, the mid-book shock that had become something of a stock-in-trade with Carr by this point is, alas, both 20 pages late and immediately undone at the head of the very next chapter, and consequently feels a little cheap. Still, the stirring in of various ingredients is undeniably done with a masterful touch, and to work in that magic show as a piece of necessity and make it feel like a fun time is far harder than Carr makes it seem.
This could have been overlong and slightly meandering, like Seeing is Believing before it, but for how closely Carr guards everything it’s on par with his finest work. No, at the end there’s not quite the thundering surprise of some of his other tales, but to be spun up from a short story — ‘A Guest in the House’, a.k.a. ‘The Incautious Burglar’ (1940), collected in The Men Who Explain Miracles (1963) — and not to feel padded is an achievement in itself, and sometimes you have to allow Carr to indulge in these fancies and dash off a non-essential book every so often (though, if it’s not clear from the above, this couldn’t feel less “dashed off” if it tried). In putting together these lovely little packages he clears space in his brain for those masterpieces for which we tend to over-remember him, and acknowledgement of what else he did so well is what makes him the master he is. Overlooked this may well be, but that’s more a reflection of people’s expectations than the book itself. If you can grab yourself a copy, do check this out — the Carrian epicure in you will be very grateful.
Ben @ The Green Capsule: The Gilded Man is short and to the point. My copy runs 160 pages and it wastes no time drawing you into the story. In fact, Carr doesn’t waste much time with anything. He lays out an intriguing crime with multiple layers of mystery and then layers it with an enjoyable romance, well stitched comedy, and even a section on how magic tricks are performed. Yes, those later elements sound like filler, but Carr works them into the story with such deft hands that it all moves so tightly and everything fits.
Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel: [I]t’s great fun. The central character of Nick Wood is a typical Carr-ian leading man and Betty, his love interest, will also be familiar. H.M. is on fine form as well, in one of his genuinely funny appearances. The mystery, apart from the footprints, is fairly clued and while the murderer is pretty guessable, the way the clues are put together is really well done – so many that, when you spot them, point to what happened, but would be overlooked on first reading.