How do I dislike thee? Let me count the ways: John Dickson Carr’s Patrick Butler for the Defence (1956)

It has been quite a while since I have read a Carr novel, 6 months in fact, and I imagine many Carr aficionados are querying my latest choice. I think the main factor behind the purchase was that it was only 99p, but I think what really prompted me to give it a read today was Tom Cat’s, (writer of the brilliant blog: Beneath the Stains of Time), warning against it. You know what it’s like someone says something is really really really bad and you just want to see for yourself how awful it is.

The story begins at the offices of the solicitors Prentice, Prentice and Vaughan. Only the two youngest partners, Hugh Prentice and James Vaughan, are in as evening draws near. But just as Hugh is about to leave the office and deliver some important papers to Patrick Butler, a mysterious thriller like stranger appears named Abu of Ispahan. He wants a private word with Hugh, but is told to wait until his return. Just as he is about to leave Hugh informs James of the situation. Yet moments later a cry is heard in Hugh’s office. Both men turn and look inside to see Abu has been stabbed with Hugh’s paper knife; his dying message is typically cryptic: ‘your gloves.’ Things look decidedly awkward for Hugh and James as the suicide theory is barely tenable and equally due to how the offices are positioned, no one could have got in or out of the office without someone seeing them. At this point Hugh loses his head and runs for Patrick Butler, the famous and infamous defence barrister, for help – not without having bumped suspiciously into a policeman first, with his hand covered in blood. Several chases ensue: Butler and Hugh after the killer, the police after Hugh and Butler, as well as James Vaughan. There are two women also involved, Hugh’s fiancé Helen Dean and Butler’s woman of the moment, Lady Pamela. What follows is a very helter-skelter night of chasing, carousing, interrogating and generally thumping people.

Overall Thoughts

So was Tom Cat right? In short, as my post titles loudly hints at, yes. Definitely yes. It is not the worst Carr novel I have read but it is certainly not one of the best. So what was wrong with it? Well…

Lets begin with Patrick Butler. From the very beginning we know he is going to be a divisive sleuth, one who has a decidedly anti-hero quality. He is certainly a detective who brings out strong opinions in others, opinions which invariably aren’t that good. Heck one character says that without Gideon Fell to help him he isn’t much of a sleuth. This is quite a brave decision on Carr’s part as his eponymous sleuth gets quite the character assassination in the opening pages. Equally our first glimpse of Patrick is hardly appealing – namely him smacking a woman on the bottom for poor grammar usage. Whilst he restrains his hands after that, his whole attitude towards women can be repellent at times, such as when he, in true advocate style, defends Hugh’s lack of resistance to Lady Pamela’s advances. There is also his tendency to put on an Irish affectation which does grate after a while. So why did Carr create such a sleuth? I have wondered whether Carr was trying to write a novel which fitted in with the changing nature of crime writing in the 1950s, write something a bit more hardboiled (as characters do recourse to their fists as much as their brains) or something which embodies a male fantasy figure who can act badly and get away with it, dare I say it, even get admired for it. Or maybe he was trying to create his own version of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason, a lawyer who doesn’t always follow the rules?

However I do have to admit that as the book reached its final third I was beginning to get irritated less by Patrick and more by Hugh, who quite frankly gets more interested in solving his love life than in solving the case. And to be honest the whole romance element of the book felt jarringly off key. The way Pamela and Helen change over the novel doesn’t make a lot of sense and didn’t work for me as the comedy of errors quality felt mishandled. At the end of the novel, looking back at the story it does seem like it had a Midsummer Night Dream feel to it, with events seeming mad and hallucinatory.

What also felt off key in this book was its structure as Carr seems to be trying to produce a Image result for patrick butler for the defencework which is a mishmash or poorly written hybrid of the thriller, the detective novel and the gothic mystery. The gothic and thriller components (although at times rather farfetched and straining believability) do blend together quite well and in Carr’s defence he does write some evocative opening lines:

‘It was not the pea-soup fog of Victorian fame, tinged brown with mud and chimney-soot. It was the soft, clammy, ghost-white strangler of today […] it muffled the lights in lower windows; it strangled the street-lamps […]’

Yet the detective mystery element of this story was sadly wanting. The mystery is not properly clued, so good luck trying to solve it yourself and in fact most of the important detective work takes place off the page by Patrick, whilst Hugh tries to figure out his love life. The solution is not one of Carr’s best, lacking any real sense of satisfaction for the reader. To be fair to Carr the novel doesn’t start out all that bad, but after the first quarter it progressively gets poorer.

So finally the moral of this post is to always listen to Tom Cat!

Rating: 3/5

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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20 Responses to How do I dislike thee? Let me count the ways: John Dickson Carr’s Patrick Butler for the Defence (1956)

  1. Brad says:

    Actually, it’s sort of a relief, given the tottering height of my TBR pile, to be able to cross one possibility off the list, particularly since I’ve repeatedly come across a copy of this one at the local bookstore. You didn’t have to take one on the chin for the rest of us, Kate – TomCat TRIED to warn you – but I appreciate your service nonetheless! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. TomCat says:

    I sure hope JJ is taking note of that piece of sage advice you imparted at the end of your review.

    Do you know why Dr. Fell was mentioned in this book without appearing? Dr. Fell played second fiddle to him in Below Suspicion, which is, plot-wise, slightly better than this one. So too bad it still has Butler as its main character. However, it was interesting that he appeared as a barrister, because it suggests Carr actually lifted the character from a Father Brown story (“The Man in the Passage”).

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  3. I read this years ago, and have exactly that edition on my shelves, but don’t remember a thing about it. and I have a terrible feeling that instead of being properly warned off by your review, I will have to at least take a look…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I imagine Tom Cat will be shaking his head, but I get what you mean. It’s tempting to see how bad a book actually is. Clothes do get a mention here and there so you might at least get something from that.

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    • You should definitely check out Fear is the Same, a historical published under the name of Carter Dickson. Out of all of Carr’s novels, it probably focuses the most on clothing. My review will be up in a week or so.

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  4. JFW says:

    I remember being excited to see a novel by John Dickson Carr in my local second-hand bookshop, only to feel deflated after googling ‘Patrick Butler for the Defence’. Possibly more troubling than your review itself would be the brief disclaimer that ‘Patrick Butler for the Defence’ is not the worst Carr novel’…

    Having only read ‘Below Suspicion’, I suppose I shouldn’t comment on ‘Patrick Butler for the Defence’, but I found the character so annoying in the earlier novel that I’m not surprised you found him somewhat detestable in the later novel. I read ‘Below Suspicion’ on Mr Green Capsule’s recommendation, and I confess that as a novel it was actually pretty good. Just hold your breath every time Patrick Butler makes a(n) (swaggering) entrance, preening with a metaphorical comb. At least the hands were not used for any butt-slapping then. *runs to the toilet basin*

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  5. Oy (as a Carr character would say)!

    Many thanks for the review. I know it’s one of the weakest Carr novels, and that most people hate Pat Butler, but–uhh…

    Should I bury my head and shut up now?

    Pat Butler is one of my favorite Carr characters. He’s amusingly egotistical and egotistically amusing, with some good holes punctured in his ego by Dr. Fell in Below Suspicion (by far one of Carr’s weakest as a detective story but rollicking fun as a Dennis Wheatley-esque adventure novel). He’s a very human character, with many human character flaws–which makes him unappealing to some people, I’m sure, but quite appealing to me.

    Anyhoo, Patrick Butler for the Defence is, again, a fun adventure tale rather than a good detective story. I enjoyed it, though–going in–I knew it wouldn’t be a particularly clever detective romp.

    To be sure, this novel definitely highlights JDC’s love of the action-adventure-thriller–one of his most appealing qualities, methinks (but, then, he and I have much the same tastes–when “Patrick Gore” reels off his list of favorite books in The Crooked Hinge, I found myself nodding in agreement with every one of the titles). I also love the business with Hugh’s wishing to fall into the Arabian Nights–a fantasy I’ve had more than once, and which reminds me of both Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights and, of course, Carr’s own Red Widow Murders.

    –Karl

    Liked by 2 people

    • ah at last a defence for Patrick (quite fitting really given the title). I don’t mind Carr’s adventure type style of novel as I did enjoy Captain Cut-Throat. However in this book he is trying to do too many things and the detective fiction element just does not fit. Equally I don’t mind ego in a sleuth as I do enjoy Holmes and Poirot (neither of whom suffer from low self esteem), but when it comes to a sleuth’s ego making them treat women hugely disrespectfully, I kind of find it hard to engage with them. I guess for each reader though there are different actions or attitudes which put them off a sleuth.

      Liked by 1 person

    • You beat me to the punch. I haven’t read this book yet, but I absolutely loved Butler in Below Suspicion. That isn’t to say that I like his character, but more that I enjoyed the book for having him in it. He is perfectly pompous and beautifully self absorbed. Watching him repeatedly get humiliated is pure bliss. And yet, as much as you loathe him, you still cheer for him at the end of Below Susicion.

      I’m not sure why Carr came up with the character, but I have to say that I rather enjoyed him. With that said, I don’t recall him being that degrading to women in Below Suspicion, aside from his assumption that they are all in love with him. To me, not every lead character has to be sympathetic and I enjoyed Carr breaking from his typical point of view character.

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      • Thanks, Green Capsule, and sorry for beating you to the punch! 🙂

        Yes, indeed, I agree with everything you said, and many thanks for articulating it better than I ever could!

        Patrick Butler seems a bit like a “rogue” character to me–not quite good, not quite bad, but also not quite an “anti-hero.” He’s firmly on the side of good, but with a mischievous air about him all the same.
        _______________________________

        Armchairreviewer, I completely agree with your contention that Carr was actually trying to do too much. As blasphemous as it may sound, perhaps this book, as with several other late Carrs, would have been better off without the detective element. I know, I know, but Carr was talented in genres other than our beloved mysteries, and at this point in his career he might have been growing tired of the genre’s confines, in fact. I think it was Xavier who made that argument first? Anyhoo, something to think about, perhaps.

        –Karl

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve never read a John Dickson Carr novel, but picked one up at Hay-on-Wye the other week (title has gone completely out of my head, but it’s not Patrick Butler for the Defence). Hoping though that this is not going to be an ill omen…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Generally speaking as long as the book was published in the 1930s and 40s you should be relatively okay as that was when Carr wrote at his best. There are some 1950s which are okay but the quality does definitely go down. The two books I would recommend to a reader new to Carr would be The Case of the Constant Suicides and The Emperor’s Snuffbox. Those two are my favourites, though I appreciate the likelihood of your Carr purchase being one of those two is quite slim given his large output.

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  7. I’ve been looking forward to your review ever since you mentioned that you made the purchase several months ago. This has been a hard book for me to track down a reasonably priced version with a cover that I want (I don’t go for Penguins – I know, blasphemy!). It is one of maybe five Carr’s that I have left to acquire.

    My previous experience with Patrick Butler was in Below Suspicion – an undeservingly despised book in my opinion. Yes, Butler is a pompous character, but that is what makes it so fun, particularly given how many times he stumbles. Plus, Below Suspicion offers a rare Carr double impossible crime and the solution to both is pretty enjoyable. The puzzle in For the Defense sounds pretty intriguing based on your description of it, although it sounds like maybe it doesn’t pan out fully in its solution.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah I am not so picky when it comes to covers as I would rather have the book to read than wait ages and/or pay more for a copy with a nicer cover. \having said that I do tend to avoid the covers from the 70s-80s, where scantily clad women are strewn across the cover, regardless of the fact that there is no such person in the story itself.
      Based on your view and on others mentioned here I am prepared to accept that Butler is better in Below Suspicion. I imagine Fell keeps him in his place and makes him the butt of jokes. There is no such check on him in PBFTD, which is probably why he acts worse and taints his fun-side. I also imagine the puzzle in BS is better as although the setup is fine in PBFTD, the solution is dull and the middle of the book doesn’t really achieve a whole lot in terms of revealing evidence or clues. The dull solution is just thrown out at you at the end in between Hugh sorting out his love life. You may get more out of this having read BS, but I wouldn’t rush to get a copy. What sort of cover are you looking for?

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      • I agree that it is all about the story and I won’t pay more than a dollar or two extra for a better cover, although I might hold off purchasing. I tend to like the 1930-1950 style cover art that you get with Dell/Pocket/Avon/Bantam/Berkeley mysteries. Like you, I’m no fan of the 1970-80 cover style, although for me it is more about the artistic style. I don’t mind the scantily clad woman who doesn’t appear in the story – my edition of The Burning Court featured on my site has a great one of those – but it has to be in the right style of art. It is the style of illustration that they used in some of the great pulp covers that really appeals to me.

        Cover art matters to me in two ways:
        1. It lends an atmosphere to what you’re reading.
        2. I only use my own scans on my blog, and so I want to put on a good face.

        Unfortunately, I don’t think there are any great Patrick Butler covers. The black cover with the gloves looks nice (is that a hardback?) and there is a decent cover with a sketch of a man’s face (I assume Patrick) on the cover.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Well I guess I don’t agree with using sexist imagery as a sales motivator. But yeah the cover art available for PBTFD is rather limited. I too try to always include a picture of the cover I own of a book but very often with me the older books I review don’t come with covers on them.

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