On my post, Clocks and Crime, I became intrigued by the suggestion of this Carr title, which in part includes a deceptive clock. Equally it felt like it had been a while since I had last read a book by this author so I decided to take the plunge and give this story a go. Cryptic crosswords fan may be interested to know that this book was dedicated to Powys Mathers, who was perhaps better known by his pseudonym, Torquemada, which he used when compiling cryptic crosswords for the Observer and in some ways I think this book has a crossword type feel; the clues given out by the victim, killer and sleuths tend to be set out in order to trip you up. And yes you did read correctly, the victim does indeed add a lot of obfuscation around his own death, not that he realises that he has been allotted the role of murder victim number one…
The story revolves around the Chesney brothers, their niece, her fiancé and family friend Professor Ingram. They have recently returned from their group holiday, a trip they took to get away from their village, in which there had been a spate of chocolate poisonings, which lead to one death. However, the leader of the group Marcus Chesney, is determined to return, believing he has figured out how the poisonings were achieved. Meanwhile in the village feelings are running high and local consensus is convinced that Chesney’s niece, Marjorie is responsible for the crimes. Events come to a head when Marcus decides to conduct a performative experiment, to prove how unreliable and inaccurate eye witnesses are. Of course the scene he devises is deliberately constructed to bamboozle and obscure the truth, though the tables are turned when he ends up dying after the performance, poisoned naturally. All in plain sight, yet none of the witnesses the wiser or are they? The performance is even filmed, yet again can this be fully trusted? It doesn’t help that the lead detective feels compromised by his growing feelings for Marjorie. It’s a good job Dr Fell is soon called in to unravel the whole matter.
Looking at other reviews, post-reading, I feel like I’ve missed something. Initially I was quite engrossed by the opening gambit and the focus on how eye witnesses can be deceived by what they think they have seen. This interest continued throughout the execution of the first murder and for the beginning of the investigation. The crime setup called to mind Christie’s Cards on the Table (1936), in the way it focuses on 3-4 suspects who could have been responsible and were in very close proximity to the killing. Moreover, the way the story draws reader attention to the list of questions Marcus created for his experiment and to the questions the policeman formulate, reminded me of The Nine Wrong Answers (1952) and for the first half of the book I was quite entertained by it all, trying my best to work things out.
Yet I have to admit that after this point I struggled to maintain much interest. Firstly because the characterisation fell rather flat for me. This is a case where the character psychology should be quite claustrophobically intense, but unfortunately Carr does not deliver in this respect, especially with the suspects who seemed rather cardboard like. Secondly the second half suffers from pacing issues quite significantly, with the policemen and Dr Fell talking an awful lot, yet not really saying much at all. Equally Dr Fell is allowed to over theorise, which meant that by the time it came to his poison lecture and then his explanation of the case, my attention is nearly flat lining. If this story had been shorter, perhaps even written as a novella I think it would have worked much better, for me, as I might have been able to appreciate its strengths more.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): During a performance of any kind