Poison in Jest (1932) by John Dickson Carr

I was a little anxious about reading this one, as shortly before I was to begin reading it, Tomcat at Beneath the Stains of Time blog, mentioned the need to read some Freeman Wills Crofts before really appreciating the book I was about to read. Given my lack of enthusiasm for Crofts I didn’t think this boded well…

As with several of Carr’s early novels, in the opening chapter discussion takes place between two unnamed friends, though one is quickly identified as Jeff Marle and their discussion of course is about an old case which revolved around the ‘terror of murder by poison.’ What I have noticed about these opening chapter discussions is that Carr enjoys teasing his reader with brief glimmers of foreshadowing in the way of objects such as arsenic, hatchet, white marble hand, statute of Caligula, and offhand phrases about important clues.

Jeff Marle then takes us back to the time of that case, himself being very much in the centre of things. It all kicks off when he goes to visit Judge Quayle, father to children Jeff grew up and was friends with. Yet Quayle is not quite how Marle remembers him: irritable, unnerved, tense and ever keen to fly off the handle, usually in reference to ‘they’ who hate him. The rest of the household is little better, with all of the grown up children still living at home, except the eldest who Quayle threw out, much to the despair of his wife. It is not long before not one, but two attempted murders take place, via an unknown poisoner. One household member is determined to rout out the culprit, yet committing huge faux paus of letting their suspect know they’re on to them, I think we know what we will happen next…

Overall Thoughts

I think one of my main reasons for not gushing over this book are the characters. Ben at the blog The Problem of the Green Capsule suggests, the cast in this story come ‘with a heavy dose of Agatha Christie’s Crooked House.’ Yet like Ben my issue with the suspects was the lack of character and psychological development, the opposite of which we get with Christie. I never felt like I got particularly close to any of Carr’s characters. One of the suspects, Virginia, briefly gained my interest with some sparky moments, but we don’t see enough of her to really get attached. Marle is a solid narrator, but he is not a character to get enthusiastic about. Ben also mentions the additional mystery in the tale as to who will solve the case. Ben quite enjoyed this aspect but for me, I found it meant that Marle had no definitive sleuth to bounce off. With so many detectives on the job it is almost ironic that the revealing of the culprit has nothing to do with any of them, though one sleuth, (which I really didn’t buy into or gel with) does afterwards explain how they knew who the guilty person was. All in all this dampened my enthusiasm for the solution, which was good, but was poorly delivered at the end in my opinion.

I’m not entirely sure why prior reading of Crofts is necessary for appreciating this book, though alibis do feature a lot I guess. Hopefully Tomcat will enlighten me in the comments. The writing style is not excessively dry like Crofts, but nevertheless I struggled to get enthralled or captured by it in the way I have with other Carr novels such as The Case of the Constant Suicides, The Judas Window, The Emperor’s Snuffbox and Till Death Do Us Part. I’m not sure if my final rating is a little harsh, (good old reading Grinch that I seem to be at the moment), but no doubt the hordes of Carr fans will defend this work if I have. My last Carr read was Till Death Do Us Part, so perhaps my expectations had been somewhat raised by this brilliant read.

Rating: 3.75/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): Method of Murder in Title

See also:
Moira at Clothes in Books and Tomcat have also reviewed this title.

25 comments

  1. Hey, aren’t you supposed to be reviewing The Plague Court Murders?!?!?!

    This is a good example of a lower tier Carr that’s still pretty decent. Were it written by an unknown author it might be a gem of a find. It reads very much like Carr’s first four books, but it doesn’t pack that extra punch of It Walks By Night, Castle Skull, or The Corpse in the Waxworks. I enjoyed the opening set of poisonings, trying to figure out who the detective would be, the creepy scene in the basement, and the fairly surprising identity of the villain. Aside from those aspects there wasn’t much memorable.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I seem to like this book much better than anyone else does, partly because I was totally blindsided by the identity of the murderer (I think it puts a brilliant spin on a plot device that most writers have tried and failed to pull off). But I’ve seen several other reviewers say they weren’t fooled for a minute, so maybe my deductive powers were just having an off day.

    There’s only one other Carr novel where I was so surprised by the killer’s identity, and oddly enough it’s THE PLAGUE COURT MURDERS! Almost everybody rates that one highly, and I think you might like it better than this one.

    Not quite sure what the Crofts connection is…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Given what I have heard about TPCM I am intrigued to try it, so I’ll have to make it my next Carr read.
      I think every reader has that book or two for which they seem to be the only fan or vice versa the only person who doesn’t enjoy it. Always makes for an interesting discussion though.

      Like

  3. I’m afraid you misunderstood my Crofts comment. This was not meant as a slight against Poison in Jest, which I liked a lot, but suggested it as a remedy to help you out of your Grinch mood. A botched joke. 🙂

    Anyway, I’ve always wondered if Poison in Jest has, in some way, inspired or influenced The Addams Family. We have gloomy, rundown Gothic mansion, inhabited by a dysfunctional family, in which a white, disembodied hand walks around like a spider. And my edition had a picture of Carr on the back cover that made him look the spitting image of Gomez Addams. Probably just a coincidence, but found the comparison very striking at the time.

    I agree with Green Capsule’s comment that Poison in Jest is a good example of a lower-tier Carr being the equal of the best from other, lesser-known writers. This would have been an unsung classic had someone else’s name been on the cover.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for the review, which warns me against purchasing an expensive copy of ‘Poison in Jest’. Barring one or two stray titles, I think I have obtained a copy of every Carr title I wish to read. Unless I become a completist and frantically scramble for the lesser-regarded titles. 😅

    I’d be keen to read your review of ‘Plague Court Murders’. It was either the first or second Carr novel I read, and my only recollection was that it felt somewhat like cheese graters against my eyes. 😣

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I had to go back to my review (thanks for the shoutout) to remind myself – I knew I wasn’t superkeen on this one, but I find that it was partly because I had just read Emperor’s Snuff Box, which is my absolute JDC favourite. I’m going to risk a sweeping generalization, which is that I don’t think JDC is at his best with an American setting, even though it was his home country. I like him in the fogs of London, or the mystery buildings of France…

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.