You may view the above rating of this book as too harsh, and you may be right. Honestly, I’ve struggled with how good The Curse of the Bronze Lamp, a.k.a. Lord of the Sorcerers (1945) may or may not be, and it certainly has its fans — at one point John Dickson Carr apparently considered it among the four of his own books that he enjoyed the most. But the key thing I keep coming back to is how this novel, rooted as it is in Egyptian curses and an apparent vanishing in a ghostly old family pile, written by a man who could stir up sulfur and brimstone with a well-place adjective and could summon the most wonderful patterns from the most perplexing of mysteries, is so very forgettable.
Based on a 1944 radio script of the same name — you can expect a lot more of this kind of thing now that I have Douglas G. Greene’s excellent Carr biography The Man Who Explained Miracles (1995) to make me appear well-versed — this sees Lady Helen Loring returning to England from an archaeological dig in Egypt, having been part of the team that discovered the long-long tomb of the high priest Herihor. As a token of thanks, the Egyptian government has gifted her a bronze lamp from Herihor’s tomb and, as she is boarding the train in Cairo, the soothsayer Alim Bey apparently puts a curse on her in front of the newspaper men gathered there, warning her that if she removes the lamp from Egypt any attempt to reach her home in England will result in her being “blown to dust as though she had never existed”.
And so, two weeks later, when Lady Helen comes to Severn Hall with friends Kit Farrell and Audrey Vane, it will be a surprise to everyone except the reader when she walks through the front door of the mansion…and is never seen again on the other side. A pile of clothes and the eponymous lamp are all that remain to show her presence — a workman upstairs, and servants belowstairs, will be able to assert that Lady Helen made no appearance in either location, and so it seems that Alim Bey spoke the truth. But how? Enter Sir Henry Merrivale, with his “reputation, not undeserved, for knowing more tricks and dodges and hocus-pocus than the late P.T. Barnum”, to try to bring sanity to events…
It shouldn’t fail. John Dickson Carr Does Egyptian Curses is a novel that only the hardest heart couldn’t get a bit excited about, rich as it would be in opportunities for the ambidextrous prestidigitation at which he so excels. Looming old country piles, a nearby village to be invested with a sniff of underhanded and shady goings-on, the various Types who surround the idle rich and can be made into angels or sinners at a moment’s notice…the stage is set. And this is as well written as you’d expect from Carr at this stage in his career, with various lines sleekly moulded together to make a plot that just about works, but somehow it just never catches fire. Between Lady Helen’s vanishing and the frankly Scooby-Doo nonsense of the final chapter I’m not sure I can remember a single interesting or meaningful event. Sure, people gripe about H.M. on a wheelchair being chased by dogs in She Died a Lady (1943), but at least you remember it.
Part of the issue no doubt lies in that impossible vanishing, and how impossible it really is to vanish while unobserved in a 30+ room mansion with countless backstairs and servants corridors. There’s surely no mystery there. Had it occurred at the turn in a grand stairwell, say, with witnesses at either end, fine — but the apparent Insoluble Mystery of The Vanishing of Lady Helen Loring never took off for me because there is no mystery. A later vanishing apparently also strikes everyone as equally inexplicable, when again all is found is a pile of clothes and the bronze lamp, but again there’s surely nothing vexing about this. To be certain someone vanishes, you have to be certain they were there to begin with, right? Is that a spoiler? If so, how? I just…I don’t see the…anything.
Also, the Types that fill out this menage are really just Types — there are Two Young Men and Two Young Women, and A Butler, and A Matron-in-Chief, and sometimes they’re in rooms together and sometimes they’re not. Boy, I don’t think I’ve ever been less invested in what was happening in a Carr novel before. The writing is lovely in evoking a sense of playful madness — H.M.’s appearance following the first vamoosement sees the household gratefully “set on him like dogs on an arctic explorer”, a journalist tries to wheedle information out of Kit Farrell by “whispering at his ear like the devil out of darkness” — and I can see what Carr would have enjoyed about that, but when the mystery is resolved by two separate incidents of ‘people in picture that are not declared for the reader’, all the lovely prose in the world only gets you so far.
The solution to the vanishing of her ladyship is, too, something I can understand Carr being rightly pleased about. It breaks rules with the same demented gleefulness of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), and possibly does so with even more panache because of how the subgenre of GAD had developed to this point. It’s a gorgeous idea, not least for how it makes the reader complicit in their own misdirection, and it falls hideously flat because…well, that would be a spoiler, but those of you who got to the reveal and said “Oh, yeah, I remember…” are distinctly, I feel, in a tiny, tiny minority. H.M. claims to know the answer to the disappearance at just past the halfway point, and I feel that this revelation then would have made a far stronger impact; waiting and waiting and waiting, with very little more to show at the end as a result, robs it of all the cleverness it possesses and renders your showstopping dessert rather flavourless. The motive is good, and there’s one jaw-droppingly subtle clue which would stick out like a sore thumb as H.M. notes, but these do not save it.
Ben @ The Green Capsule: Let’s tackle the “impossibility” first. It’s one thing to disappear from a locked room, but from a sprawling mansion? Carr, via the police and Chief Inspector Masters, assures us that all hiding places were examined and that all exits were guarded. As a reader of enough of Carr’s work, I know to accept that the author is ruling out conventional hiding of a body or slipping out of the mansion. Still, I pretty much have to take Carr’s word on it. Ok, I can kind of live with that…but positioning disappearing from a mansion as an impossible crime? I mean, the killer could simply be continually moving the body from room to room while the investigation spills through the house. There are just too many apparent easy outs left open for the reader to imagine.
Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel: The central character of Kit Farrell provides an enjoyable point of view but one or two others seem to make some rather dubious decisions – one in particular. I can’t really say much more about the plot without incurring spoilers, but I enjoyed this a lot more second time around. I still think that Carr makes a couple of odd choices with the ending, but the overall plot is pretty clever.