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.
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.