#649: The Curse of the Bronze Lamp, a.k.a. Lord of the Sorcerers (1945) by Carter Dickson

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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.

Lord of the SorcerersAlso, 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.

You’ll not convince me that this is a patch on the other works Carr was producing at this stage of his career: The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941), Death Turns the Tables/Seat of the Scornful (1941), The Emperor’s Snuff-Box (1942), The Gilded Man/Death and the Gilded Man (1942), She Died a Lady (1943), Till Death Do Us Part (1944), He Wouldn’t Kill Patience (1944), and He Who Whispers (1946) is a run of books most authors would rip your arms off for.  It’s to be expected that every so often Carr produce this or a Seeing is Believing/Cross of Murder (1941) just to allow everyone else to feel like they were keeping pace with him.  Maybe the radio script is more compact and so uses this idea more effectively; as a novel, though, I can’t help but feel it’s a bit of a duff — however, there’s a good chance you’ll disagree, so let’s talk…

~

See also

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.

63 thoughts on “#649: The Curse of the Bronze Lamp, a.k.a. Lord of the Sorcerers (1945) by Carter Dickson

  1. I only read the first paragraph and will return after I’ve read the book (so give me 3-4 years.) But this is a shame: I had heard this one wasn’t half bad.

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    • Well, this is only my opinion, and I can understand why the nature of the solution has its fans — it’s a very clever bit of meta-appreciation of the genre. But, lordy, I’m not going to rush back to fill in the blanks on this one anytime soon.

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      • But this is a shame: I had heard this one wasn’t half bad.

        As far as I can remember the story, it really wasn’t all that bad. The H.M. novels published after He Wouldn’t Kill Patience do suffer from a noticeable decline in quality, often lack a serious crime to get invested about and tend to lean on H.M.’s personal brand of humor, which is not to everyone’s taste. And the impossibilities that replaced the murders aren’t Carr’s best. But I take them over the last three abysmal Dr. Fell mysteries without a second of hesitation.

        So, yeah, I disagree with JJ.

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  2. I only skimmed the beginning and the end of this. It’s one of perhaps a half dozen Merrivale books I still have to read. Incidentally, I just made a start on The Peacock Feather Murders/Ten Teacups.

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    • I wonder if you’ll raise the one issue people don’t seem to realise makes no difference in The Ten Teacups. It’s an enjoyable book, best taken as fast as possible and not examined too closely afterwards. I can believe the entire thing was cooked up in a gin-soaked evening of plotting and counter-plotting with John Rhode — not because it bears any similarity to Rhode’s books, but because it just feels like Carr was goaded into more and more giddy heights of improbability, and then had to write it all down in a rush before he forgot it. A really good fun book, that one.

      This one…well, it’s never turgid, but it’s also never really anything. Take away the revelation of the vanishing and the Scooby-Doo nonsense that caps it off and I don’t really know what’s left besides a lot of unfulfilled potential.

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      • I left more a slightly more detailed comment on the original spoiler warning post on the book. I’ll admit there were some doubts surrounding the third “issue” raised there, but not enough to matter all that much.

        As I finished my comment there – Overall then? I give it a thumbs up and I think the positive points cast a strong enough spell to wave aside the more far-fetched elements.

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  3. This was, I believe, the second H.M. novel I read. Like you, I was disappointed. I wanted Egyptian curses! A country house party stalked by mummies! Guests dropping like flies! Madness and screams in the night! Egyptian artefacts! A cross, I suppose, between The Scarab Murder Case, Pyramids of Mars, and The Seven Crystal Balls. Light comedy naq ab zheqre wasn’t quite what I expected.

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  4. Well JJ, you know what? I can’t remember it either but there may be another reason as I did decide, some 30 years ago, to set aside a few unread Carrs and so bank some book-reading goodnessfir the future. So will treat this as one of the Carrs I have been saving for a very rainy day (or the plague/zombie aoicalypse, whichever came first). Shall dig out my Hogarth Press edition (as LORD OF THE SORCERERS) and get you some feedback! 😉

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        • Thank, Sergio — reading, writing about that reading, and then talking about that writing about that reading is helping me to maintain some sort of routine or normality or…something in the middle of all this upheaval. I’m not pretending it’s anything close to a public service, everyone has a lot to deal with at present, but if it provides even a brief respite for anyone then I’m delighted.

          Hope you and yours are keeping well, too.

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    • I did wonder how many comments might be in the style of “Well, sure, but second time around it’s much better…” which was in part why I linked to your review. I mean, I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book a second time and found my opinion ramped up an appreciable degree — usually I find I like it just as much as I did the first time — but I can well believe there are books out there, and moods in which to encounter them, where this can happen. Who knows? Maybe in 25 years I’ll put up a 3,000 word post praising this to the high heavens. For the time being, I’m merely a little disappointed…!

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      • I imagine that the second time around, you know the solution to the mystery, and so you aren’t so focused on how much it satisfies. Rather, you’d be focused on whether you spotted the clues that gave it away.

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        • Certainly this has been my experience with rereading books in this genre. Which is why I maintain that Death on the Nile is about half as good as everyone else on the planet seems to think, and why Castle Skull actually went up in my estimations when I read it at the end of last year. The reread value on these sorts of mysteries just seems to be endless…

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  5. This was my very first JDC so it will always have a special place in my readers heart. I will admit that if I read it today I would be much more critical (being soooo much more knowledgeable after a grand total of 14 Carr reads). I don’t agree that it’s a ⭐️⭐️ read…but then I’m also more easily entertained than some I know 😜.

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    • Oh god, I know, right? Some people are so difficult to please 🙂

      I got lucky — or possibly unlucky — with my first Carr being The Hollow Man, but my second was The Man Who Could Not Shudder and I retain a huge fondness for it despite its doubtless many flaws; the first one I really felt I was taking a punt on was The Bowstring Murders, and I am equally uncritical about that for pretty much the same reason, so I can understand how you feel here.

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      • I don’t know that TMWCNS is really flawed, although that does seem to be the sentiment. I probably contribute to that sentiment, in that I read it during a 30 book Carr binge and found the first third dragged, it lacked atmosphere for a haunted house theme, and the characters were “more of the same”: relative to all of the Carr masterpieces I was reading at the time. I suspect that if I read it now I’d be gushing.

        To this day it’s the one solution to an impossible crime that I can think of that made me laugh out loud.

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        • I still chuckle over that solution, it’s making me grin even as I type this. For a mind not yet used to Carr’s ways, it was a salutary moment in my detective fiction education.

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  6. It always blows my mind when I see The Curse of the Bronze Lamp trotted out as a top Carr. I’m not going to bother to do the math on this, but I suspect I’d be placing it somewhere in the 40s or 50s out of his 70 or so novels.

    You pretty much nailed the review as far as I’m concerned and your first paragraph sums it up nicely. It is odd that Carr would do such a lackluster take on Egyptian curses, although I actually felt the same about The Lost Gallows. My initial assumption was that at this stage in his career, Carr was done with the dark atmosphere that haunted his first decade. Then I turned around and read The Skeleton in the Clock (1948), and stood corrected.

    To be clear though, this isn’t a bad book, and I think it’s more deserving of three stars than two. Released under any other author’s name, I would probably be enthusiastically recommending it. The overall writing is as solid as you would expect from Carr in this era, but he just fumbles on the impossibility and the atmosphere. There’s nothing bad, it’s just, as you say, forgettable.

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    • I’m pretty sure this another instance I’ve seen of The Lost Gallows coming in for some kicking of late — thankfully the BL continue their brilliant work and are republishing it later this year, so it will warrant a revisit. But if the atmosphere of Carr’s 40-somethingth book is to be compared to his second, surely he’s going backwards. And he is here, because there’s not a sniff of the palpable histrionics of the Bencolin Cycle. Hell, there’s not even a sniff of the fraught air of Seeing is Believing.

      And yet there are some great ideas in here — I’ll say again that the answer to the “how” of the vanishing is a clever take on a mystery trope, and Carr would be rightly chuffed for coming up with it. But drop it at the 50% mark and give us something with some meat in it for the home straight, John. Gleeps, man, you of all people should know that you can’t write GAD with only one good idea…

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    • The other one that I’m surprised to find so highly praised is The Emperor’s Snuff Box. Mind you, I like the book a lot— much more than I like Bronze lamp— but it seems very slight, more of a novella, with a novella’s richness (or lack of richness) of plotting (especially clueing). The key deception is clever, but I’m rather astounded that rather than the “ladder of clues” which Carr almost insists is required in The Greatest Game, this all hinges on a single clue— and at that, a variation of the most common clue of the genre (the clue that is the basis of probably 75% of all Murder She Wrote episodes).

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      • I think part of Snuff-Box’s appeal is its accessibility; Carr can be hard yards for the uninitiated, and I think it’s a quite soft introduction yet one with a great deal of deviousness behind it. Yeah, there’s padding in Kinross taking our leading lady out on a carriage ride that seemingly lasts forever, and I agree that the depth of clewing and plotting isn’t quite there, but for readers new to Carr I think it works because it doesn’t make demands of you in the way Death-Watch or Green Capsule or The Hollow Man do — it’s a very un-Carrian novel with a typically Carrian piece of brilliance at its core.

        And if you’re one of the lucky few not to see through that central trick — and, again, I think it’s beautifully handeled and worked into every element of the book — I can see how you could really love it. As I’ve said above, I have the same experience with The Man Who Could Not Shudder; was not looking for that solution, and however many years later I still love it.

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        • I think my comment here vanished via something less enchanting than a bronze lamp.

          At any rate, do you really think those who do not see through the central trick of The Emperor’s Snuff Box are only a lucky few? It fooled me, and while I know some people it hasn’t fooled, I think it’s a pretty clever and deceptive ploy. Again, I really like the book, and a transparent deception is enough to ruin a book for me. It’s just that I’m surprised that it’s held in such high regard by Carr enthusiasts because— for the very same reasons that make it more accessible— I think it comes off as something of Carr-lite (not a car light).

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          • Oh, I in no way meant to imply that those who are misled by TESB are in the minority — sorry, “lucky few” just sort of danced off my fingers without any thought. I can believe a large proportion of its readers falls for its trick — though I wouldn’t want to be drawn on how much of a majority or otherwise. Apologies for the unclear language, this is what too much time at home does to my brain!

            And, yeah, it is Carr Lite, but I wonder if the success of that change of focus and tone is precisely what makes it so popular with Carrites — there’s wild disagreement about Bencolin, or The Hollow Man or He Who Whispers, but the simplicity and relative blandness of Snuff-Box has about it nothing to offend or dissuade, and so everyone likes it 🙂

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      • For me, Snuff Box is a breathless read. There’s no especially memorable setting, and yet it all stands out so vividly for me years later because of the frantic pace. And the twist – understanding that you and JJ probably don’t agree with me – is a top 10 twist for all times.

        Your comment about “very slight” seems appropriate for Bronze Lamp (understanding you intended it for Snuff Box), and reminds me that it’s actually very much like The Gilded Man in that respect. Both books are fun reads, but they seem so insignificant when placed alongside most other of Carr’s work. I can’t imagine anyone really having anything negative to say about either book, other than they’re insignificant. Contrast that with Seeing is Believing, which has an absolutely stellar set up, but is dragged down by one of Carr’s most disappointing solutions (the how, not the who).

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  7. I can’t agree with you about Nile, JJ— though readers may walk into it with different experience levels, I still consider it one of the most sturdily carpentered of deceptions, including both motivational and multiple opportunity deceptions (among which are one outside the culprits plan), as well as inventive clueing.

    But as for this novel, I quite agree. It’s definitely not terrible but, I certainly can’t remember many of the plot details, and I do recall being disappointed by the fact that both disappearances, while having different explanations, had somewhat similar explanations. By this, I mean explanations of a similar type, if that makes any sense at all. I can only illustrate this by contrast— the explanation of the multiple past impossible crimes in Till Desth Do Us Part is almost a polar opposite from that of the present impossible death, which is one the things I cherish about the book… have you any idea what I mean there? (I’m the first to admit that there’s a great level of vagueness there, and only part of it brought about by a desire to avoid spoilers

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    • Scott, I fully expect to be alone in that view of DotN, but I would love to love it as much as others do. Maybe a rereread will bring the full force of its charms out for me — like Chesterton, the reputation and joys others take in it do make me feel a bit left out because I just don’t see it. But I’ll always put a “yet” in, since light may dawn at any moment 🙂

      As to Bronze Lamp, I would really like to hear the original broadcast, or read the script if the broadcast is lost, because I’m guessing a half hour radio serial is a more apt use of this sort of ploy. To a certain extent, I can believe that the ending of ‘Cabin B-13’ would be a disappointment after 240 pages, but on the radio it’s delightful, so there’s no reason for that not to be the case here. And in order to retain that essential trick — and, yes, I understand your commendable desire to be vague, and I follow the point you’re making — maybe not too much could be added, else it gets too complex and somehow wouldn’t have worked as neatly or felt as clean to Carr who’d devised it to be relatively unadorned.

      I’m just delighted to get so much conversation out of it; the current world situation aside, it’s always lovely to be able to pick through things with people who share an enthusiasm to the same degree. Being socially distanced from people I’d usually be around makes me appreciate it even more.

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      • Ha, if Carr whipped out the solution to Cabin B-13 after a 240 page read, I’d rip the book in half.

        I think Death on the Nile is a charming cozy period piece; it really excels on that front. But man, talk about telegraphing the misdirection… Well, who am I to talk? You’ve felt some other titles were just as obvious, yet I was floored.

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        • I just don’t see the telegraphing of the misdirection— unless it is the fact of Jackie knowing where to find Simon and Linnet, and that went over my head and that of most people I know. For me it’s the combination of the apparent enmity between conspirators, the time-shift alibi of incapacity, and the outside attempt by an independent agent that in CONJUNCTION make the plot deceptive. If there’s a weakness in the novel— and I believe there is— it is a surplus of unnecessary subplots, which raise the coincidence level of the story unnecessarily high.

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          • I know we’re talking about en entirely different book now, but it’s my blog so I’ll do what I want:

            SPOILERS FOR DEATH ON THE NILE
            SPOILERS FOR DEATH ON THE NILE
            SPOILERS FOR DEATH ON THE NILE
            SPOILERS FOR DEATH ON THE NILE

            For all the layering of the various elements you mention, and I agree on most of them, it always seemed to me that Christie took for granted how simple it would be for Simon to shoot himself in the leg. Maybe it was a sort of censorship of the time, but Poirot’s explanation more or less goes “After killing her, he ran back to the lounge and shot himself in the leg” like it’s the most natural thing in the world. I find this casual treatment of an act of incomprehensible self-harm something between inexplicable and hilarious.

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            • I find this casual treatment of an act of incomprehensible self-harm something between inexplicable and hilarious.

              To you, perhaps, but not to readers at the time. Death on the Nile was published barely twenty years after the First World War and there were many cases of soldiers who shot themselves to escape the trenches or battle fields. I looked up the exact number and during that war 3894 British soldiers were found guilty of self-inflicted wounds.

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            • While I don’t disagree, I don’t know if the translation from the horrors of war to “I want to inherit a lot of money” is necessarily that easy. I take your point that it wouldn’t have been as uncommon a principle as I was originally imagining, though, even if I don’t think the example quite holds…!

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            • Well, the act of shooting oneself in the leg is in itself a fairly simple. It’s the act of mustering up the courage to shoot oneself in the leg that is the big deal. The prospect of dealing with such pain is incredibly daunting, but apparently the money means that much to him. It’s similar to those clever theft plans that entail planning on spending a few years in prison. The mindset of a criminal can be a strange thing.

              Of course, apparently Jackie planned the whole thing, which brings to my mind this exchange from Duck Soup:

              Bob Roland: We’ve got to get rid of that man at once. Now I’ve got a plan. You say something to make him mad, and he’ll strike you… and we’ll force him to leave the country.

              Rufus T. Firefly: That’s a swell plan… why couldn’t you arrange for me to strike him?

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      • Yeah, I agree, the short story version of Bronze Lamp would work better for me— and the Cabin B-13 analogy is good, especially since (if my very hazy memory of this bod holds), it’s very much a Cabin B-13 type of solution.

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        • I’ll have to read some of the Carr radio scripts I have and see how many of them are similarly afflicted: Carr had a fertile mind, and was probably pretty adept at choosing which problems and solutions went into which form: short, novel, radio. Doubtless some would fit certain vectors better (Green Capsule as a radio play, for instance — bleurgh…) so I wonder if there are any commonalities. Expect this point to be addresses in the far, far future.

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  8. It is odd how lacking Bronze Lamp is in the kind of spooky atmosphere you’d have expected, given the subject matter. I wonder if how different it would have been if Carr had written it around the same time he wrote something like The Burning Court.

    I also wonder how many people were surprised by the revelation of the guilty party at the end of chapter 19? I had my eye on this person right from the beginning, and on the basis of the clues the author supplied. Carr throws a lot of complications at the reader as per usual, but I found them less effective at diverting me from the truth than in most of his books.

    I think if you’re going to do a “someone walks into a house and vanishes” problem, you have to really make it airtight… the house was already under police surveillance at the time the vanisher walked in, all the ways out were under constant observation, the rooms were searched and immediately sealed off when the search was carried out so the vanisher couldn’t dart from room to room, etc. Carr himself did that in “The Adventure of the Highgate Miracle.” You could impose these restrictions and still use the gimmick Carr used to explain Lady Helen’s disappearance, but without them, the situation does come across as more of a semi-impossibility, if there is such a thing.

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    • I can’t even remember the identity of the culprit in bronze lamp. I just recall that one disappearance was a variation on what I think of as the “usual” explanation for a vanishing person in such a book, and the second vanish was another variation on that same device. That’s an intense oversimplification of the solution, of course, but that’s what my memory has done with it… which I think rather reinforces (if not proves) JJ’s initial point.

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    • Carr had, I now realise, played the sort of trick with a malefactor’s identity that he plays here several times around this era and that, I’ll be honest, is what put me onto them, Sometimes — and in say Nine–and Death Makes Ten Carr shows you (or doesn’t show you) something that I know is relevant but I can’t work out why. Here, with the matter of identity, it was rather clear what he was doing for which particular person, and that sort of blew the gaff.

      Not, of course, that it ruined an otherwise amazing novel…

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  9. Somehow missed this when you first posted it. I would have gladly joined in deriding it. Hate this one. What a shaggy dog story it turns out to be. Practically threw the book at the wall when I was done with it. Rolled my eyes and said, “Well that was a complete waste of my time.” And I love the Merrivale books more than the Fell books. Nothing more than a tiresome rehash of Chesterton’s mailman. Is this the one he wrote because of that bet with Rawson or was that one He Wouldn’t Kill Patience? I never remember and I no longer own my copy to check the dedication page. Dumped it as soon as I could. Sold it for chicken feed I think. And I don’t own any chickens. I have a complete collection of Carr and Carter Dickson books EXCEPT for Curse of the Bronze Lamp. Not interested in having a copy at all. The US edition doesn’t even have an attractive DJ anyway. HA!

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    • The best with Rawson was He Wouldn’t Kill Patience — this one he apparently sent to Fred Dannay boasting it couldn’t be solved ahead of time, only for Dannay to reportedly solve it.

      The ‘Chesterton’s mailman’ is a comparison I hadn’t considered, but you’re quite correct to draw the parallel; I still find Chesterton’s take on it more annoying for the sheer repeatability of his point 🙂 But, yeah, the idea behind this one is, I feel, better than its execution. Revealing the answer to the vanishing halfway through would have vastly improved it as a book.

      Oh, well, the guy did write some of the classics of the genre, so we do have to allow him the odd off day…

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      • I agree that “The Invisible Man” is an overrated story. At the same time, I often feel the need or desire to defend Chesterton (and Christie and others) who are accused of class snobbery when they bring up the concept of “no one notices a waiter” (or postman, or stewardess, maid, etc…). People working in such capacities ARE often easy to overlook and forget even today by those being served (how often have I heard at my restaurant table, sometimes said by myself, “I’ll call our waiter— which one WAS our waiter?”), but not because we think less of these people as human beings, or believe they are of an inferior class. After all, many of us have actually served that function, having worked as waiters, clerks, and the like.

        No, such servants are easy to not notice or forget because of one of the primary psychological principles that also governs much of puzzle plot deception. I refer to it as the congruity concealment principle— namely that entities are least conspicuous where they seem to belong. A dog is less conspicuous on the street than in a doctor’s waiting room, a man is less conspicuous on the ground than in a tree. We are far more likely to notice, register and recall that which is out of place than that which is where it belongs (or at least, appears to). Add that to the fact that most of us are generally preoccupied with our own agenda (making a conversational point with members of our dinner party, etc…our dinner party holding our attention not because we hold them be more significant human beingsCthsn thr waiters, but merely Because they are members of our dinner party) and then add to that the class snobbery that actually DID exist at the time (and still does to a lesser extent), its seems perfectly understandable that a waiter’s face is forgotten. That is, class snobbery was indeed prevalent in the Golden Age, but the congruity concealment principle is the primary deceptive factor that made servants “invisible.”

        And I’ve also heard it complained that Chesterton’s “The Queer Feet” is just a matter of his making the same point again, but I’d argue it’s a demonstration of a very different idea, that of the fallacy of the false dilemma. Group A assumes that because they recognize that a person is not one them, he must be of group B. Group B assumes conversely that that person must be of group A. Neither recognizes that there is the possibility of a group C that is neither A nor B, but will be assume by each to be the other.

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        • I don’t disagree with any of what you say, Scott, and you’ve helped to clarify some of the core principles of those stories, for which many thanks. The thing that intrigues me is that I agree with what you say, and I’m aware of those points to a greater or lesser extent…and I still don’t like ‘The Invisible Man’ 😆 I’m not sure if the principle of congruity concealment holds per se because Chesterton’s tale relies on a man sat, watching a corridor ignoring another person, regardless of position, walking down the corridor. If it was housing for postal workers I could accept it more easily…but, who knows?

          Also I like to think that, were I to discover someone at my table had been murdered, it would be a notable enough even that I’d be able to recall some detail of my faceless waiter; or, even if I didn’t remember the face, I’d remember that a waiter had come over the the table in the first place. But again, who knows? I’ve accepted far less likely things in the pursuit of an impossible crime, and it’s my hope that 20 years from now I develop the patience to see what’s good in Chesterton rather than simply finding him loquacious and needlessly pompous.

          ‘The Queer Feet’ however, is a masterstroke of ratiocination; one of the smartest bits of work in the genre — far too long, and ponderous in the extreme, but so, so clever in a way I wish I saw more in Gilbert’s work.

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          • Well, I agree about “The Invisible Man”— I don’t see what’s the big deal about it, except the central principle behind it. Like many other Chesterton stories, I consider it merely one of the molecules from which great GAD novels were built

            The story I really love, though, is “The Sign of the Broken Sword” which in its small number of pages still manages to cover the same principle and at the same time be more interestingly-clued than the much lauded Christie work based on it.

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            • I have strong (not necessarily good 😉) memories of some Chesterton stories — ‘The Invisible Man’, ‘The Wrong Shape’, ‘The Secret Garden’, ‘The Hammer of God’, ‘The Oracle of the Dog’, ‘The Arrow from Heaven’, ‘The Queer Feet’, ‘The Blue Cross’. Others are vague impressions — ‘The Purple Wig’, ‘The Man in the Passage’, ‘The Mistake in the Machine’, ‘The Honour of Israel Gow’ — but ‘The Sign of the Broken Sword’ doesn’t register at all…I know the title, and that’s about it. Shall keep an eye out for it, thanks, but don’t expect me to turn into a ravening Chesterton fan in the manner of what’s happened with Crofts. We’re still a few years away from that conversion just yet…

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            • Well, check it out if you can. I definitely think it’s Chesterton’s masterpiece. I also do like The Secret Garden, The Oracle of the Dog, The Queer Feet, and a few others. But Broken Sword stars head and shoulders above the rest.

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