#557: The Gilded Man (1942) by Carter Dickson

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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.

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See also

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.

36 thoughts on “#557: The Gilded Man (1942) by Carter Dickson

    • Reading a falling apart paperback is always the worst. I have a great copy of The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey and the first forty some pages are practically separated from the binding. I’ve read a few books where I pretty much just have to stack each page as I read them. I found a few videos on how to repair a vintage paperback but have been too lazy to buy the right glue.

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    • Yeah, this is one of the last times I believe Carr is said to be as funny as he thinks he’s being. And H.M. on the stage is even more fun than H.M. in court as far as I’m concerned.

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      • The Gilded Man is the last Carr book where his humor matches my taste, although I personally thought Seeing is Believing a year earlier was funnier. It’s interesting that The Case of the Constant Suicides (which has some extremely funny moments) came out in 1941 and then there is such a steep dive in the quality of the humor.

        I’ve only recently had the chance to fully appreciate Carr’s humor. I read The Punch and Judy Murders, The Arabian Nights Murder, and The Blind Barber late in my journey through Carr. Other than The Case of the Constant Suicides, those are the books that I’d consider to be Carr’s funny ones, although there are definitely moments scattered throughout his pre-1943 work that had me laughing.

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        • It’s easy to forget, I feel, that Carr was just like every other author: he had to learn how to write this stuff, and how to balance tone and plot and hiding clues, and sometimes some of it has to go overboard or not come off especially successfully.

          In the same way that we’d love every book to be The Problem of the Green Capsule, we’d love every book to be pacy and funny and shocking and original and fairly clued and about sixteen other things…but, c’mon, we alos know that ain’t possible. It’s lovely when most of it lands — like here, where the humour is not only funny but actually used in a relevant way — and I think I’m getting more and more appreciation for these “minor” works as a result of them not being masterpieces. it’s a salutary lesson to be having this late in life, let me tell you 🙂

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    • Carr was so influential, and so damn good, when it came to growing the genre, there’s a tendency to view anything that isn’t She Died a Lady or The Hollow Man as a misfire because it brings nothing innovative to an already crowded house. But, for me, an author’s worth is found in the works that don’t get that praise or attention — how good are they when not at their best? And this is why Carr deserves better in both reputation and reprint terms, because his second- and third-tier stuff is still better than many other who trod the same boards.

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  1. Nice observation with the comparison of The Emperor’s Snuff Box – that would have never occurred to me. Both turn seemingly straight forward crimes into breakneck speed reads. I obviously think The Emperor’s Snuff Box was the better of the two since the ending completely blindsided me.

    The Gilded Man may ultimately be one of the more forgettable Carr novels, primarily because it doesn’t have an audacious hook or a shocking solution. A year or two after reading this, I recall the start of the book, the snowball scene, and aspects of the conclusion. Perhaps that’s because it just moves so quickly that there isn’t that much else there.

    But man, what a refreshing read this was for me at the time. A great book to zip through and I enjoyed every page. As you say, it’s an excellent indicator of Carr’s work in that it is both so forgettable and yet so good.

    Unfortunately it is also a turning point for Merrivale. Both Seeing is Believing and The Gilded Man show a repositioning of both the detective and the plotting from what came before. The Gilded Man obviously being the better of the two, although Seeing is Believing has a much better hook. From here, Carr charges forward on that new course, and I think most of us would agree it was the wrong direction. That’s not to say there aren’t sparks left along the way. She Died a Lady is quite strong sans attempted comedy, I’ve yet to read the well regarded He Wouldn’t Kill Patience, and The Skeleton in the Clock is nearly a return to form.

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    • Hmmm, an interesting point. What is Carr’s most forgettable — or perhaps least essential — book? Seeing is Believing is unforgettable for how badly the impossibility resolves itself, hence the change of terminology, but what in this earlier half of his career could one skip and not miss out? |I’m going to suggest:

      The Four False Weapons (1938) — being the largely pointless return of Bencolin, who has morphed now into just about every other aloof genius detective; a great plot, and a clever scheme, but in neutering his most abrasive detective it feels like he’s backing down on those books.

      Death Watch (1935) — which I personally love, but the overweening coincidences show Carr at his most organ-grindery, with very little space for breath. It’s majestic from a construction perspective, but the same principle is used less oppressively elsewhere.

      Drop to His Death (1939) — which should be a novella that stops that the first, eventually false, solution. Everything after that is tedious, and pointlessly so.

      Seeing is Believing (1941) — because, as discussed, the thing he’s working towards is not worth it. Should be a short story, where we could then draw parallels with Innes’ ‘The Sands of Thyme’ for the Biggest Gap Between Setup and Solution.

      Incidentally, I wouldn’t include the likes of The Blinf Barber, The Bowstring Murders, The Arabian Nights Murder because they show Carr’s growth: his use of comedy, his use of architecture, and the multi-perspective narrative to shift the reader’s expectations. None of them are in the top three tiers of Carr, but I wouldn’t render them non-essential as a result.

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      • Oh man, what a question…

        The Mad Hatter Mystery – I enjoy Dr Fell in this of course, and the pea soup thick fog is a nice touch. Then I guess there is the bit with the missing Poe manuscript. Aside from that not much stands out. Some good misdirection.

        Drop to His Death/Fatal Descent – This is one of those that I occasionally forget about, although probably because it is a non-series. The detective pair is enjoyable enough, but forgettable.

        The Eight of Swords – Should have been a novella. The set up itself isn’t that memorable, but the first half of the book is still amazing. Then it just kind of meanders. I’ll be surprised if I remember anything from the second half a year from now.

        This is of course by no means a list of bad Carr books, it’s just that they are mostly forgettable. Other contenders that come to mind are The Lost Gallows (not fair because it’s his second book), My Late Wives (intriguing setup though), Poison in Jest, The Sleeping Sphinx, and maybe To Wake the Dead.

        I personally find The Four False Weapons to be extremely memorable. Talk about a crazy setup and an even crazier explanation for it all. Seeing is Believing is disqualified because of the amazing hook, even if it doesn’t deliver on it. I can understand your comment about Death Watch (it kind of falls into the Mad Hatter-ish books in my mind), but I love it so much.

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        • My personal feelings for The Eight od Swords preclude it from any such list, but I must admit that it’s not exactly an essential piece of Carr’s lore. I do so love it, and I think my judgement on it — as with Death-Watch — may be slightly skewed as a result.

          Drop to His Death/Fatal Descent, though…man, it’s such a disappointment. To have those two collaborate on an impossible crime novel and for it to reduce to such mechanical, dull terms is a crime in itself…

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        • Interesting question! For me, the most forgettable Carrs are:

          Most forgettable Fell novel: The House at Satan’s Elbow. I have issues with the impossible crime and its solution that I’m not going to spoil here; it has one of Carr’s unfunniest “funny” characters; and there are some unlikely plot contrivances necessary to make the story not stop on page 50.

          Most forgettable H.M. novel: The Cavalier’s Cup. A classic case of “there’s a good short story in there; let me know if it gets out from under all the bumf.”

          Most forgettable historical: The Demoniacs. Do you know the Eight Deadly Words that tell you when you can stop reading something? They are: “I don’t care what happens to these people!” And I did not.

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            • Hmm, okay then, most forgettable early Fell? Eight of Swords… starts off fine, then kind of trails away… Most forgettable early H.M? I don’t think there are any really forgettable ones in the “…Murders” period, maybe Seeing is Believing is the first, although the cheating might make it “memorable” for the wrong reasons. Historicals, well, those don’t start until later in Carr’s career, so I’ll stick with Demoniacs.

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            • This is why I tend to think of it as “least essential”, since forgettable means something that’s memorable for negative reasons wouldn’t be excluded…and should be!

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          • The Cavalier’s Cup is far too bad to ever be forgotten. I did enjoy the three or four pages describing the historical battle, but that was about it.

            I personally liked The Demoniacs. It doesn’t feature a mystery as strong as Fire, Burn, although I think with a few adjustments it could have been presented as a great puzzle. The action is amped up a peg, similar to Fear is the Same. And as the historical aspects go, I think this is one of the more interesting ones.

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      • I see that you added “earlier half of his career”, but calling any of those novels “most forgettable” is a crime, considering the other half of his career. 🙂

        Still, if we only consider those books written before, say, 1945, I’d probably choose Death-Watch, Death in Five Boxes, And So To Murder or one of the first three Fell mysteries. I don’t remember much of them – here a set-up, there a murderer, and so on – which I’d argue is the definition of “forgettable”…

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        • I considered Death in Five Boxes, too, since it’s actually quite forgettable while also a lot of fun (and, alas, s little bit of a cheat…). The opening few chapters are amazing, and then it gets a little gummed up come the end.

          AStM is, I feel, much-maligned, and it shows perhaps some of the best genre-blending Carr did in that era, but, sure, I can’t disagree that anyone would be missing out on much if they skipped over it. For my tastes, however, I would argue there are several others to eradicate first!

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        • I thought through the second half of the career angle as well. I suppose some of those books would be forgettable if they were the only Carrs you read and then you moved on to other authors. But, if you’re taking into account reading a wide range of Carr’s work, then those bad late career books are simply too awful to forget. I will never forget how frustrating Papa La Bas was. I’d be tempted to say Scandal at High Chimneys is forgettable, but again, it stands out just because it is the rotten apple in an otherwise good run of historical mysteries.

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  2. Have you noticed these new publications of JDC?

    Looks like The Case of the Constant Suicides must have done okay for that publisher!

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    • The stickler in me wants to rally against She Died a Lady being published as “by John Dickson Carr”…but, well, we should consider ourselves lucky to get anything at all, I suppose. It’d be a shame if “Carter Dickson” were eradicated in reprints, though.

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      • Have to let people know it’s the same #brand nowadays!
        I do honestly think that helps if people are new to the author and want more, they won’t know to look out for this other name…
        Might be nice to squeeze in an “as Carter Dickson” on that very snazzy cover though.
        Anyway put me down for “just happy they’re available!”
        Especially She Died a Lady, as it’s one of the best. Be nice to get a lending copy that’s not in danger of falling apart…

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        • And, in fairness to Polygon, the last reprint of this — by the Langtail Press — also had “John Dickson Carr” on the cover…so there’s precedent. It’s wonderful to have someone bringing him back into print, let’s ignore my griping and enjoy the fact of being able to buy a copy for someone else for a reasonable amount of money! More power to them, here’s hoping they sell well and a few more, perhaps less-recently-available, titles get put out as a result.

          And, hey, the cover art is fabulous — clearly some great efforts going in there.

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    • Very cool these are available! I’m excited to see Hag’s Nook getting selected this early as I think it deserve’s more limelight. The cover does look awfully similar to the Zebra edition of The Problem of the Wire Cage.

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      • How wonderful to see a publisher going to such efforts with the cover art, though, right? These are unmistakably commissioned, original, plot-relevant covers, and certainly Constant Suicides has a new, original, commissioned introduction…it’s good stuff, and we can cling to the hope that more will be on the way. Right?

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  3. It has been many years since I last read “The Gilded Man.” I do remember that I reacted with some shock when I read “The Incautious Burglar” and realized that, hey, didn’t I just see that in a novel? But, as you and your readers have said here, the more Carr/Dickson books that get reprinted, the happier I’ll be.

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  4. I thought ‘Gilded Man’ was frothy, slightly frivolous – but nonetheless good fun, with one or two sneaky clues. I’d have pegged it down at 3 (at most 3.5) stars – but glad you enjoyed it. 😊

    Looking forward to next week’s review! 🧐🤓

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    • And noooooooooo…!! How can ‘Death-Watch’ feature in your list of ‘what in this earlier half of his career could one skip and not miss out’?? 😨😱

      From my humble perspective it’s Carr’s second-best work, second to ‘Till Death Do Us Part’. And I managed to get two friends who are not GA mystery readers hooked onto Carr through ‘Death-Watch’. 🤩 One of them proceeded to read ‘Emperor’s Snuff Box’, ‘Man Who Could Not Shudder’, ‘Blind Barber’ and ‘Judas Window’ in a span of 1.5 weeks – and has ‘She Died a Lady’ and ‘Constant Suicides’ on order. 😁

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      • Did I not say that I loved Death-Watch? I do, it;s the book that properly committed me to reading everything Carr wrote, rather than just the highlights or the ones I saw praised in the fullest terms. The more I read about DW after reading it, and the more I saw people disdaining it, the more aware I became of how the popular opinion wouldn’t necessarily be a good guide for me.

        It’s Death-Watch, in fact, that first got me thinking about blogging — given that I had an opinion no-one else seemed to be putting forward, and that I was quite happy to defend it against all-comers, that’s where the first real spark of inspiration came for TIE.

        But…I do also acknowledge that others don’t enjoy it, and I can’t really claim there’s anything in it the neophyte or incurious Carr reader absolutely should experience.

        Man, I’m going to be defending this for years yet, aren’t I?

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    • Yeah, the fact that Carr keeps such a tight rein on what he’s doing, rather than giving into to a chapter or two of plotless sprawl as he has a tendency to do t times, is what elevates this for me. I’m more than happy for it not to be a complex masterwork, and to see him move a cast around in a controlled manner that retains some mystery, works in good jokes, and manages to up-end some expectations without being epoch-defining…well, I’ll more than take that from anyone else, so I should accept it from Carr, too!

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  5. I read “The Incautious Burglar”/”A Guest in the House” without any idea this book existed, so when I got a copy and started to read it… well, let’s say for once I had no trouble anticipating the solution of a Carr book! I still considered it well worth reading, though, especially for the magic-act sequence. And the murderer is one of his better villains once the mask has been dropped in the final chapter.

    I do wonder what Carr had in mind when he talked about Miss Clutterbuck as the kind of pest who was “rottin’ England”. My first thought would be socialists, knowing Carr, but I didn’t see anything that suggested what her politics were. And I don’t recall ever reading that there was an epidemic in the Forties of people giving away the secrets of magic tricks…

    I also wonder if any real-life criminal has ever worn the kind of “Lone Ranger” mask shown on the cover of the Pan edition!

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    • Even the criminal in the book doesn’t wear that style of mask… 😂

      As to Madam Clutterbuck, I took it to be a reference to the sort of know-it-all, needs-everyone-to-know-they-know-it-all socially obsessed person who has no notion of the enjoyment or the feelings of others. The sort of person who has to prove how good or how knowledgeable or how connected or highly-regarded they are, someone with absolutely no modesty and no ability to keep quiet about what or who they know. I think we all know at least one person like that, and if you don’t…well I have some bad news 😬

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