The Problem of the Green Capsule (1939) by John Dickson Carr

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.

Overall Thoughts

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.

But I am probably, knowing me, in the minority with this one, so you may well wish to take a look at these other reviews by JJ, Ben and John, who seemed to have enjoyed it much more than I did.

Rating: 3.5/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): During a performance of any kind

44 comments

  1. Stands to reason that some people won’t love this as much as others, even if I don’t understand how that’s possible. Maybe we’re all guilty of banging on about how wonderful it was and so raising your hopes to an unattainable level…

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  2. Yeah, I always thought this was a bit overrated. Even if we ignore the terrible attempt at misdirection towards the end, it has flaws. Also, it contains the “Investigator falling in love with the chief suspect” trope, which I strongly dislike.

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    • Yeah I’m in the middle when it comes to that trope as I love Wimsey and Vane’s courtship, which begins with her on trial for murder. But it can be poorly executed and in this one I was exactly cock-a-hoop. Elliot did seem a bit of a chump at times.

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  3. We’re sorry, your review of The Problem of the Green Capsule has been rejected. Please rewrite in a much more flattering manner.

    When people build a book up so much, you probably can’t help but be disappointed – although it sounds like maybe you would have had issues with the second half anyway. With that said, I still hold that it’s my favorite JDC read so far. The passage where the suspects recount the story of the murder is absolutely chilling and one of the scenes in the genre that stands out the most in my mind. The story of the young boy poisoned by the chocolates also really sticks with me for some reason.

    You’re comparison to Cards on the Table is interesting because I just finished that book. I can see the similarity in a captive group of suspects, although the focused attention in The Problem of the Green Capsule made things much more interesting to me. Truth be told, I found that Cards on the Table dragged a little bit, which is probably sacrilege and will send Brad screaming. Well, he can wait for my full review.

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    • haha you sound like someone organising a blog tour for Carr.
      I did enjoy that scene where the suspects attempt to answer Marcus’ questions, but I think the way the investigation goes after this point just drags way too much. The lack of characterisation definitely didn’t help matters.

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  4. Apparently this title meets with many different reactions. I’ve never thought it was as great as others have mentioned above, although I certainly respect their opinions. I thought the whole “poisoned chocolates” subplot was simply unnecessary and didn’t fit with the rest of the plot very well; similarly the side trip to Pompeii didn’t make sense to me in terms of the flow of the plot. And then there’s the guy who gets shot in the car near the end of Act II for no apparent reason at all other than the action line was sagging a bit 😉 And the police who don’t knuckle down and make their most important priority the development of the film … the book would have been shorter but more believable. I agree, this would have made a superb novella.
    Those things said, I think the misdirection of the film equipment is excellent, the atmosphere wonderfully creepy, the central puzzle twisty and difficult, and the basic idea of actually having the murder available on film (but no one can agree on what they saw) was just wonderful. And the writing is up to JDC’s best. I’ve quibbled here about small things but I think a lot of people will enjoy this book very much on first reading. It’s a good book with which to introduce people to JDC, I’ll suggest.

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    • I agree with pretty much everything there though in spite of those quibbles it remains my favorite Carr so far because of the set piece of the staged murder. It was my first so I certainly agree with the idea that it makes for an excellent introduction.

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      • I definitely agree that ‘Green Capsule’ boasts of one of Carr’s the strongest puzzles – but I wonder whether a novel with a better story/ narrative might function more effectively as an introduction to his work? For the whole of last year, I gave out second-hand Carr novels as birthday presents: ‘Green Capsule’, ‘Constant Suicides’, ‘Death-Watch’, ‘He Who Whispers’, ‘Emperor’s Snuff Box’ and ‘Till Death Do Us Part’. The ones that came back with the best reviews were ‘Constant Suicides’, ‘Emperor’s Snuff Box’ and (surprisingly) ‘Death-Watch’. In fact, the friend who read ‘Death-Watch’ became somewhat hooked on GA-style mysteries – and proceeded to purchase and read ‘Hollow Man’, ‘Constant Suicides’, the Death in Paradise novels, as well as ‘Decagon House Mystery’. 🤓

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      • In terms of birthday presents, I’ve been getting GA or GA-style mystery novels as presents for friends over the past few years. I tend to tailor the title to the personality, cultural background and taste of the friend. And so one friend received an English translation of a Kindaichi manga, while another friend from an Asian background received one of Ovidia Yu’s mystery novels.

        Apart from the friend who received ‘Death-Watch’, another friend who received ‘He Who Whispers’ has also been encouraged to read widely within the genre. I’m currently watching Death in Paradise with him and his wife, and he has, to date, read works by Anthony Berkeley, Brian Flynn, John Rhode and Richard Hull. In fact, for Christmas last year, his wife purchased a British Library Crime Classics reprint as a gift for him (George Bellairs, I think). For his birthday this year, I got him Christie’s ‘Roger Ackroyd’ and Carr’s ‘She Died a Lady’ – we’ll see which one he prefers!

        To be fair, the seeds of enjoying GA and GA-style mystery novels were always in him, as he grew up watching Jonathan Creek.

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    • Hmm not sure it would have been the best introduction to Carr for me, though not as dire of In Spite of Thunder (which was my first Carr novel). The Case of the Constant Suicides was definitely the book which helped me give Carr a more serious try.

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  5. Thanks for your review, especially since I agree with you, and suspect we’re in the minority here… 😅 This was either my first or second attempt at Carr, and there were some scenes towards the end that just didn’t work for me. The first time I read it I think I gave it 3 out of 5, but bumped it up to 4 out of 5 when I read it again, for the second time.

    It hurts me to criticise ‘Green Capsule’, because I believe it contains one of Carr’s strongest premises for a puzzle – and certainly the most interesting premise in my opinion. But I’ve found that it works less well as a story, and as such I would rank ‘Death-Watch’ above it, which I thought located its puzzle in a better narrative. For me, the novel where Carr succeeds equally well in terms of both the mystery and the story is ‘Till Death Do Us Part’. In fact, this is one instance where I think the narrative outstrips even the puzzle – and as such I think it’s the best Carr novel I’ve read to date. 😁

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    • After many many years, I’m starting to agree with you (and my friend Scott Ratner) that Till Death Do Us Part is one of his best. To be honest it didn’t really call itself to my attention until a few years back (I preferred JDC’s earlier, creepier work). But the puzzle plot is balanced with the narrative really, really well and everything just falls together seamlessly.

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      • Noah, which would have been the earlier, creepier novels you once preferred? Are you talking about ‘Plague Court Murders’ and ‘It Walks by Night’, etc?

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      • Till Death Do Us Part is an astoundingly near-perfect book. I’m still amazed that it has such a belated fandom, but I guess the important thing is that everyone got there eventually 🙂

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      • JJ, am I right in thinking you rate ‘Till Death’ and ‘Green Capsule’ at the top two spots of your Carr rankings? I seem to think you once commented that ‘Green Capsule’ is your no. 1 Carr novel.

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      • At present, these are probably my two favourite Carrs, yes. These two and She Died and Lady. And The Burning Court, and the Plague Court Murders, and The Reader is Warned. And The Four False Weapons. And Castle Skull. Those are my two favourite John Dickson Carr novels.

        And Death Watch.

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      • The earlier, creepier novels I was thinking of were, yes, Plague Court, Red Widow (which I realize is not a great book but I read it at age 12 and it was very formative), and Crooked Hinge. I had a lot to say a few years ago about which were my most and least favourites (https://noah-stewart.com/2016/03/08/the-tuesday-night-bloggers-my-five-mostleast-favourite-john-dickson-carr-novels-part-1-of-2/) and embarrassingly enough I think I would re-write the whole thing if I wanted to be more accurate to my current tastes. Part of it is that I’ve re-read some things that didn’t stand up as well as I remembered, and part of it is my fellow GAD bloggers making excellent cases for the quality of books that I hadn’t considered from their points of view.

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      • Thanks for sharing, Noah. ☺️ I didn’t think ‘Red Widow’ was scary, but then again I didn’t find it especially engaging anyway. I definitely agree that ‘Plague Court’ and ‘Crooked Hinge’ were chilling – that automaton! 😱

        JJ – you’re right about ‘Till Death’ being a late bloomer. I believe Puzzle Doctor, in his original reviews, commented that ‘He Who Whispers’ was the superior work. But in his eventual ranking, ‘Till Death’ came out top! Incidentally, where might you place ‘Death-Watch’ in your current ranking – at no. 3?

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      • How can I place Death Watch at number three when that’s a list of my two favourite books by Carr? If you want me to list a top three, well, we’re gonna need a bigger boat… 😀

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    • I definitely agree about the cleverness of the premise, it’s just as you say situated in a less than brilliant story. Tighter plotting and more impactful characters would have made a world of difference to this one.

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  6. Kate, I think we are in a minority here but to me too this was a big disappointment. The premise is brilliant but certain things are just too much to take:Elliot behaving like a love-sick teenager (I am with Sherlock on this one: Absolutely hate the Investigative officer falling in love with the chief-suspect trope), Marjorie’s character, the shot-gun wedding episode (just what was Carr thinking)… well I could go on but just providing the link to my thoughts on it:

    http://inkquilletc.blogspot.com/2014/10/forgotten-booksr-burning-court-and.html

    Have a look, if you are interested.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Incidentally, Inspector Elliot appears in 3 novels: The Crooked Hinge (1938) prior to this and The Man Who Could Not Shudder (1940) after this.
    But it is only in Death Turns The Tables (1941), Chapter 7 that we learn that he is married to Marjorie, though he does not appear in that book.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. This was one of the first Carrs I read (about 50 years ago!) and I still enjoy re-reading it. However, it occurred to me recently that there is quite a serious problem with the plot – to avoid spoilers, I’ll just say it concerns what must happen immediately after the main murder…

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    • Impressed you guessed the killer early on. I did chuckle at the bit in your blog post about the taking off of rubber gloves as a specialist skill. Who knew? Something to put on my CV at any rate…

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