This is another successful choice from the Puzzle Doctor library, a title which has now joined that most prestigious of lists: My Favourite Carr novels.
The story begins at a country house garden party, a storm threatening to break literally and metaphorically. Lesley Grant, a new arrival to the area and psychological thriller playwright, Dick Markham have been engaged for a matter of hours and are understandably very much wrapped up in themselves. Their plan to go to the fortune teller’s tent is derailed by the Major running a shooting gallery, but eventually Lesley makes it their alone. The fortune teller for the day is none over than Sir Harvey Gilman, Home Office Pathologist. Carr uses pathetic fallacy to perfection with the lightning striking at such a moment as to ‘pick out every detail’ of the party, including the fortune teller’s tent, ‘as though in the flash of a photograph.’ This lets everyone see Lesley’s shadow jumping away from the accusing arm of Gilman. What had he told her? So every mystery reader’s ears stand to attention when moments later when Gilman is about to reveal something dark about Lesley’s past that Lesley accidentally lets a rifle go off, which shoots Gilman. Nothing suspicious about that timing right…? Later that night Gilman does manage to pass his information on to Dick, a tale of past locked room murders of husbands and lovers, which have never been proven. Even Gideon Fell could not solve them. That night he suggests the laying of a trap, fearful of Dick sharing the same fate, but of course nothing could possible go wrong could it? Though is it really true what Gilman told Dick? All that is left to be said about the plot is to be prepared for Dr Fell to turn everything upside down, not once, not even twice, as well as other witnesses providing baffling and conflicting evidence which upset reader prediction of where the story is going.
My opening line already let the cat out of the bag as to what I thought of this book, but there may be at least one curious reader, (other than my mother), who might want to know my reasons why…
- Well my first reason has to be the opening chapter. The use of weather I have already mentioned, but Carr also sets up his two protagonists, Leslie and Dick, effectively, planting suspicion in our minds about the former from a very early stage. Additionally I liked one small subtle comment that the narrator makes about the garden party setting: ‘A lush, green, burning England; an England which, please God, we shall never lose for any nonsense about a better world.’ Although the story is set circa 1938, I felt that the context Carr was writing in, i.e. the end of WW2, might have influenced this line, perhaps incorporating feelings looking ahead to the close of the war, fearing the changes which have been or will be wrought.
- Psychological tension is my second reason, as I think Carr has this aspect of the plot pitch perfect, beginning with that brilliant opening chapter, but also in other important scenes, especially the one when Dick meets Leslie just after Gilman has spoken to him. Carr’s skill in this matter is akin to Agatha Christie’s Love From the Stranger and the best works of Ethel Lina White’s in my opinion, which is saying something. It was a good choice to make Dick a psychological thriller playwright by profession, as his work in some ways becomes more of a hindrance than a help to him, making events play on his imagination. Of course the ambiguity over whether Lesley is innocent, guilty, or guilty of something else is a secret which Carr keeps hidden until the denouement, which is another way the tension rarely lets up in this story. Just as soon as one piece of evidence seems to clear her, another piece comes flying in from a different direction which suggests otherwise. Dick also has the additional difficulty of having to decide whether to believe the statements made by his fiancée or by Cynthia Drew, another woman in the village that everyone expected him to marry.
- My final main reason is the mystery plot, because boy did take Carr take me for a ride! I wouldn’t say I am a particularly gullible person, but I certainly swallowed a number of erroneous ideas. Yet when it comes to the solution you can see how clue after clue is given to the reader and sometimes I even noticed them! But for all that I failed to put them together. It was like I could see pieces of information that were jigsaw puzzle pieces, but that I couldn’t figure out where they went or what picture they were trying to make up. Carr plays his surprises well in this book, as the reader receives more than one shock, given at unexpectedly critical moments.
I would say that this mystery focuses less on the how of the crime, in comparison to other Carr novels. Don’t get me wrong the solution works and the clues are all there, but we avoid long winded theorising by Dr Fell in his investigation, (hooray!). In fact he seems much happier saying as little as possible and I think this is a Carr novel in which Dr Fell is not hugely necessary. Someone else could easily have solved the case. This book reminds me therefore much more of The Emperor’s Snuffbox in terms of atmosphere and tone and the way he focuses and relies upon suspect interaction and dialogue to pull the narrative along. None of this is a bad thing of course, as The Emperor’s Snuffbox is one of my favourite Carr’s and it goes without saying really that Carr devised and executed a fast paced, 2 day long, action packed plot wonderfully. I don’t think this novel is too hard to get a hold of, even if you do not have access to the PD Library service, so I would strongly recommend tracking this one down immediately!
Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): Locked Room
This book has also garnered lots of praise from my fellow bloggers, so if you want a second opinion here’s five…
P. S. Just in case anyone ever manages to get this far down my blog posts (well done!), I am taking part in the Labour Day Weekend sale on Etsy, (which bizarrely seems to be going from today until 4th of September), so if you want to have a try of my vintage book box subscription a.k.a. Coffee and Crime, well now would be a good time… You can find my page by clicking on the picture icon on the right hand side of my blog.