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.
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 work 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!