#782: Below Suspicion (1949) by John Dickson Carr

Below Suspicion

star filledstar filledstar filledstar filledstar filled
After a year — a year, people — of mind-numbing repetition and drudgery against a background of tragedy, Below Suspicion (1949), John Dickson Carr’s forty-sixth book in twenty years and the 18th to feature Dr. Gideon Fell, was exactly what I needed…for the simple reason that it is so very, very different. Ten years from now I could reread this and be appalled that I ever thought it so great, but right now it is manna from heaven: eerie, baffling, infuriating in many ways, and fascinating given the direction we know Carr’s career took from this point in how it blends the classic detection he had excelled in with the historical mysteries he was about to launch himself into.

Everything about this book that I would expect to frustrate me proved instead to be somehow delightful, so that a list of its irritations for others would be the same things that made me love it so. Top of the shop, there’s barrister and protagonist Patrick Butler, K.C. — so arrogant, so pompous, so disrespectful of the truth…and so unlike any of the bland young men called Jeff and probably Philip who are Carr’s usual protagonists. Plus, if Butler’s highfalutin ways rile you too much, there’s the delight of schadenfreude as he is doused with the consequences of his actions: the defence he (needlessly) fakes for Joyce Ellis in getting her acquitted of murder at the start providing grist for the mill of suspicion for his new client Lucia Renshaw, say. Or, for all his “very real streak of eighteenth-century gallantry”, the way he is reduced to a nervous schoolboy in his ardour for Mrs. Renshaw, whose status as a new widow concerns him professionally and personally both:

Butler arrived at Claridge’s more than half an hour early, just in case it should occur to Lucia to be half an hour early too.

Equally, at the midway stage this devolves into a series of bawdy brawls that are fascinating because of how obvious it is now that they set the archetype for the likes of Dick Darwent in The Bride of Newgate (1950) and John Cheviot in Fire, Burn (1957) — yet another occasion when history, having be lived forwards, is best appreciated in retrospect. And when the theme linking the murders emerges, it sounds ridiculous at first…but then you get the explanation from Fell that ties it all together and makes it something rather more serious and chilling.

Plus, c’mon, this does some stuff brilliantly. The poisoning of Richard Renshaw is as solid a stumper as Carr ever devised, with a solution that works on psychological as well as physical grounds (provided, naturally, that you believe the psychology — and I did!). And Carr does legitimately great work in starting out with Butler as a self-aggrandising braggart (“It was unthinkable, he told himself again, that he should lose this case. He was not thinking of Joyce at all. His pride would be scraped raw, he would explode and do something damned silly, if he lost.”) and ending up, via one of the best beatings anyone has ever taken in fiction, as something rather heroic (“Butler, despite a burning throat, would have found breath to speak clearly if he spoke it in hell.”).

There’s some superb history here, too — I think this is the first time I’ve been aware of someone in a GAD work asking “Didn’t it occur to you to ring 999 for an ambulance?”, which set me on the path to discovering that the emergency services number had been launched in the UK a full decade prior to the novel’s 1947 setting. And although the Second World War is over, we’re still close enough to its conclusion for the overspill of the conflict and its impact on the world at large to be a very present and a very real thing:

“[The average man] does not starve, though he gets just enough food to keep his body going. Even if he has money, he cannot buy anything. There is nothing to buy. He stands in long queues for cigarettes, when he can get any. Even newspaper-advertisements jeer at him, carolling that So-and-So’s Custard is noblest, but that he can’t get any because so many people want it.

“He is stifled in crowds, hammered to docility by queues, entangled in bureaucratic red-tape, snubbed by tradesmen with whom he must deal. His nerves, frayed by five years of war and air raids, are scraped raw by reaching for something which isn’t there. Haven’t you ever observed those long theatre-queues, blank-faced as sheep, waiting in the cold to lose themselves for a time in the sugar-candy nonsense of a motion picture?”

Fell, too, while something of a backseat driver in this case, is very much in control, and as magnificent as always. I like Fell more than Carr’s other regular sleuth Sir Henry Merrivale — I think I like Fell more than any other fictional detective — and his common sense and the clarity of his own intentions at every stage (there’s a wonderful moment towards the end where a word he has used throughout is made apparent to the reader, and I just…laughed with the joy of it all) make the perfect foil for Butler’s…being Patrick Butler. Grousing about the way houses are named, an expansive spirit of largesse behind his admission of having “so often flummoxed the evidence, and cheerfully perverted justice for a good end”, the rambunctious insight of Fell’s intelligence and the pellucidity of his moral ambiguity that is so much more enjoyable than Butler’s high-handed swaggering…you surely don’t imagine any of this happened by accident, do you?

The sheer differentness of this left me replete and delighted — we talk about Carr’s inimitable Golden Streak of the mid-thirties to -forties, but he has so much more to him than simply trotting out that style of tight, twisting tale. After 45 books in less than half as many years, his desire to experiment is understandable, and the freshness of this, the clarity of it as a change of pace that retains so many of his best elements, is something I devoured with alacrity. As I say, I may feel differently ten years from now, but if we’re still, ten years from now, going through what we are today, well, I think we’ll all have bigger concerns than my repsonse to a murder puzzle.

~

See also

Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World: Although Carr has obviously been researching witchcraft, his handling of it leaves a lot to be desired. The thriller sequences, gangsters and marijuana, make it Dennis Wheatley-type sensation rather than detection. And the culprit is obvious right from the start.

Laurie @ Bedford Bookshelf: I’m having a hard time with this drab, cynical world that Carr continues to move toward with his writing. Satanic rituals, covens, thugs, smarmy lawyers—or should they be lumped in with one of the former? The atmosphere feels stark, grimy, and morose. And every episode feels as if it takes place under cover of darkness. The setting, of 1947 London, is a time of significant change in England. Carr makes these changes a recurring theme in the story—rationing, an unpopular government—that results in a dreary world, one in which people have become like automatons.

Ben @ The Green Capsule: So what’s there to hate? I’m not completely sure. Well, I mean, obviously Patrick Butler is an egotistical prat, yet it seems clear that’s what Carr intended him to be. He’s not a character for you to empathize with. He’s the one you gloat at as he’s repeated humbled, both mentally and physically. And yet, for all his brashness, you still hope that he’ll solve the puzzle.

~

Some personal matters that require my attention will keep me off the blog for the next couple of weeks, but I’ll be back by mid-April I would expect. Don’t forget to read Cards on the Table (1936) by Agatha Christie in the meantime, and I’ll see you soon.

30 thoughts on “#782: Below Suspicion (1949) by John Dickson Carr

  1. It’s a while since I read this and don’t recall that much now. I know I wasn’t completely bowled over by it but I also know I quite enjoyed it. There’s not much by Carr in these years that doesn’t have merit of course, and then I’ve never been as bothered by Butler as some people seem to be.

    Like

    • I gave this rating a lot of thought, because the book isn’t as good as Seat of the Scornful, say, or Till Death Do Us Part…but I still loved it. As I say in the review, everything that should make me dislike it actually turned out to be a strength in its favour. Clearly I need a couple of weeks off 😄

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Glad this went down so well. Glad to see thus fab book get some love. And thank you for pointing out that Butler is actually meant to be annoying! as you say, Carr was a fabulous writer and produced plenty of good books in the 50s and even some in the 60s. Why get caught up in an artificial cut off date? No need to be so surprised or defensive. Some other bloggers didn’t like this one? So what. That’s their bad luck

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for the review. 🤩 I purchased a copy off the back of Ben’s recommendation, and I daresay I enjoyed it. The mystery I thought was clever; I did want to tear out pages every time Patrick Butler entered the scene.

    Like

    • Yeah, Butler is annoying, but at least you remember him — Carr knew what he was doing there, after all those Philips and Martins and Alans who made very little impact. I know the follow-up to this is regarded poorly, and I’m wondering if my appreciation of Butler will a) lasl and b) cause me to see that book in a more positive light. Time, I suppose, will tell.

      Like

      • I have to admit that for the majority of Carr’s 30’s-40’s novel, I couldn’t tell you which point of view character is in them (aside from the Jeff Marle books, which are kind of obvious). I want to say that Ken Blake is in Punch and Judy as well as Unicorn Murders, and I recall that the same guy was in Bowstring and Red Widow… Alan Tarlaine, was it?

        Like

        • I can understand why Carr kept cycling through forgettable young men — he essentially needs someone to be the reader’s avatar, but if the same guy keeps turning up with H.M. and Fell all the time then you’re getting into a Holmes/Watson dynamic that must exist outside of the books…and he had no interest in that.

          And while this chop-and-change leads to some nice moments — the fleeting mention of Ken Blake in And So to Murder is pure fandom-pleasing Easter Eggery — you do sort of feel that it might be nice to actually remember some of these guys from time to time. Hence Butler’s strident abrasiveness being a lovely touch; you won’t forget him in a hurry, that’s for damn sure!

          Like

    • Hahaha, well I shall be doubly intrigued to see how that ones fares when I get there. Maybe forewarned is forearmed, eh?

      And, yes, it was lovely to just enjoy a book again. Yeesh, I’m sue it shouldn’t always be this difficult to find good, well-written stories.

      Like

      • It’s strange how you can sometimes just hit a big vein of meh books. Sometimes I think it is because I am having a bout of reader’s grinch, but other times I am sure it must be the book’s fault lol

        Like

        • I feel like my reading life is long stretches of Reader’s Grinch with occasional “Aha!” books to lighten the load.

          That’s not true by any means — I enjoy far more than I don’t, otherwise I’d be reading the wrong genre — but, damn, it feels like it sometimes.

          Like

  4. I’d discuss every sentence that you wrote, but no time for that today. I’ll say that this review made me excited to dive into another Carr novel, late career being damned!

    If ever there was a book that represented a turning point in Carr’s career, Below Suspicion is it. You very much have his classic 30s/40s puzzle and ingenuity, and yet this is the archetype for his historical adventures. You’ll see ripples of this in Behind the Crimson Blind and Patrick Butler for the Defense, but this is the book that did it best.

    And yeah, I love it too. I swear at the time that I read this its reputation was in tatters, and that’s just beyond me. The first few chapters are a nice packaged story of their own in a sense, and then we get this great adventure that harkens …er… forward… to the battle with Vulcan in Fire, Burn. Then there’s the “oh my god, how could I not have even considered that” simplicity of the solution. Yeah, there’s a cheesy bit with the reveal of the culprit, and one of the themes is definitely a thing of the time this was written, but man, what a fun book.

    Like

    • The reveal of the culprit is amazingly cheesy, but then so is the villain monologue in The Reader is Warned, He Wouldn’t Kill Patience, etc — Carr knew when to embrace this OTT side of things, and it’s just another great piece of the puzzle here. I mean, how else do you want your Satan-worshiping witch cult thriller to end? 😄

      I’m almost tempted to reread The Bride of Newgate in light of having enjoyed this so much — it goes downhill after the first five chapters in my memory, but I’d be willing to bet that I got a lot more out of it now. However, I’ll resist and forge onwards to whatever is new and unread…

      Like

  5. I remember really enjoying Butler’s sharpness in this, especially in comparison to those other avatars. (Great word choice there!) Now definitely looking forward to revisiting it. I always enjoy most those OTT moments of his—so few go out there as well as he does.

    Like

    • I think Carr dealt with pure emotion better than probably anyone else writing at the time. Rhode could dazzle you with the mechanics of a crime (hence why he and Carr make such a poor fit in Drope to His Death/Fatal Descent — they’re each pulling in opposite directions), Sayers with the impact of a crime, Chrostoe with the obfuscation of a crime, Crofts with the minutiae of the scheme…but Carr does that sudden sweep into the pure, passionate emotion of the situation and setting and people magnificently.

      He conjures up dread, fills your mind with eldritch horros and possbilities, gets the heart pounding…and this means that he sometimes overdoes it, but when it lands right — as here, or the Corpse in the Waxworks, or He Who Whispers, etc, etc — it does kind of sweep you away with its magnificence.

      Like

  6. I don’t think anyone, ever, wrote a kinder review of Below Suspicion, but the only thing I remember is hating Patrick Butler with the burning passion of a Grand Inquisitor. Carr was the Greatest of All Time, but not on account of Below Suspicion and Patrick Butler for the Defense. But that’s my opinion. And your very generous, five-star review probably balances something out in universe.

    Like

    • There’s also that time I saw some give The Problem of the Green Capsule 0/10 — so the universe is well and truly rebalanced now. My work here is done.

      Like

  7. Spot on with those relative strengths! Carr definitely—with Woolrich—stands out for hitting the full gallop of that Poetic magnificence, and as long as he hangs on there’s nothing quite like it.

    Like

    • Yes, my fairly recent reintroduction to Woolrich showed me that the man demonstrated the same emotive power as Carr. Really looking forward to getting deeper into his work.

      Like

  8. ‘ I like Fell more than Carr’s other regular sleuth Sir Henry Merrivale — I think I like Fell more than any other fictional detective…’
    Can’t but agree to that wholeheartedly.
    To me too Dr Fell along with Dr Thorndyke remain incomparable.
    The only likeable sleuth I could add to that rather short list was – unexpectedly enough – Rowan Manory of recent Byrnside’s trilogy.

    Thanks for the passionate review 😉 Having read the novel I felt almost the same.

    Like

    • The more I reflect upon it, there more I realise that while there are several series detectives I hold in the highest regard and whose company is sheer delight — Berrow’s Lancelot Carolus Smith, Christie’s Hercule Poirot, Penny’s Edward Beale, etc — Fell comes out so far ahead of the lot of them it’s almost comical.

      The question is…why? Why does Fell command such a lead? Hmmm I must get to cogitatin’…

      Like

  9. You can say that Patrick Butler was meant to be viewed as an annoyance, but since Carr chose to use him as the sole protagonist in “Patrick Butler for the Defense”, I think it can be argued that Carr did not intend that at all. Even more so since almost all his “heroes” from his historical detective fiction are fairly similar types to Butler. I honestly think that Carr thought this type of man was something to admire.

    Like

    • Oh, I believe it’s taken as canon that Carr saw a lot to admire in the morals and conduct of that eighteenth century age — that was part of the appeal of writing so many later books where his heroes could behave in that manner.

      My point was rather more that Butler stands in deliberate contrast to Fell in the way Bencolin stood in contrast to the other sleuths of the era in which he lived — Butler, like Bencolin, isn’t intended to be liked. Carr wants to wirte the sort of character he wants to write, and is now secure enough in his own writing (and, frankly, success) not to worry if the reader has less sympathy with his sleuth than would be usual. Butler is a total dry run for the exact phenomenon you mention.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.