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