It is 1940 and WW2 is beginning to make its presence more felt on the London home front. The Royal Albert Zoological Gardens are facing closure, due to the anticipated bombing, with all the animals except the snakes and insects to be rehomed. Those exceptions are destined to be destroyed, something which is hugely distressing the zoo’s director Edward Benton. But was he so distressed one night that he sealed and locked his study from the inside and turned on the gas? Many suggest he was, but there is also a growing body of people who think, however impossible, that he was murdered. Not least because of the other victim of the gassing, a snake named Patience. Edward was a devoted herpetologist; he would never have turned on the gas with Patience in the room. Unsurprisingly, Sir Henry Merrivale, who happened to be invited along to dinner that night, (amongst others), is one advocate of the murder theory and is determined to find out how it was done.
Dickson opens with an intriguing line: ‘Their romance – if it can be called that – began in the reptile-house at the Royal Albert Zoological Gardens.’ Yet the narrative doesn’t stay with these anonymous lovers but cuts away to Mike Parsons; zoo employee who is something of a curmudgeon. I think this was a good move, as going against expectations it is quite entertaining to read about this man who probably only smiles at others’ misfortunes:
‘Not that Mike Parsons exactly disliked the commotion. Mike was a misogynist. He had been a keeper here for a very long time. He disliked zoos, he disliked animals, he disliked everything else too.’
The only suggestion I would make is that Dickson needs to change the word misogynist to something like misanthrope, as the former doesn’t particularly apply. It is through his eyes that we see the young romantic leads, with all his assumptions and expectations, only to find things are not quite so simple. The author upends these notions of a lovers’ meeting and teases out over the first chapter what their relationship is; namely two young illusionists who are maintaining a family feud of several decades. Their argument and the addition of Mike leads to a full-blown fight, with smashed enclosures and loose reptiles, one of which seems very intent on biting Henry Merrivale.
Looking at the big picture, of the approach Dickson uses to commence the story, I would say he chose quite a creative way in the events he selects to lead to the run up of Edward’s death. He does not take a direct route and some of the earlier, almost sillier events, have a serious impact on later ones. The downside to this approach is the writing style Dickson employs. His brand of slapstick comedy and violence does not wear well and if you only read the first two chapters of this book you could go away with a very poor impression of the writer in some respects.
Before starting this book a blog reader warned me that in this story ‘Merrivale, in full gusto and indiscretion, promotes some Neanderthal-ish attitudes towards women.’ This left me feeling reluctant to bring this book to the top of my TBR pile. Having encountered books with similar issues, my imagination was reeling at how bad it might actually be. It probably sounds wrong, but in retrospect I felt it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. These particular politically incorrect comments reside mainly in the opening chapters. So once you get past them they’re pretty much home and dry. The Puzzle Doctor in his review of this title includes one such quote by Merrivale:
“If she starts raggin’ you, son, you just wallop her one. That’s the way to treat wenches when they get out of hand.”
And then goes on to say that: ‘How the hell was that an acceptable thing for our hero to say even in the middle of the war? It’s completely appalling and really took the shine off this book.’ I think the Puzzle Doctor puts it well in suggesting that the opening scenes, with these types of comments take the shine off the story, which has many strengths. My final comment on this theme is more of a query – Would inhaling some poisonous gas make you amorous? Lacking the relevant experience, I don’t know. Nausea, vomiting, dizziness, gagging and choking seem like more likely things to do. The urge to forcibly kiss someone less so. But what do I know?
The mystery plot itself is great in how tricky it seems, yet how simple the solution is – once you know it of course. I like a solution which doesn’t require 10 diagrams and 50-page explanation. The events just preceding the discovery of the body are very cleverly done, in that you know there must be some really important points to pick up from it, but you’re stumped as to what they are, partially due to the un-embellished literary style. Dickson uses misdirection splendidly in this story, not least because of the presence of the illusionists. Once they stopped acting so objectionably to one another I enjoyed their role in the book as they add an interesting perspective to the locked room aspect of the mystery; a professional eye.
If you can identify the motive, the hardest part of the case in my opinion, it is easy to know who did it, but it is cleverly tucked away. My attention, naturally, was everywhere else, suspecting anyone and everyone apart from the right person. The writer was good at making me doubt things I shouldn’t have doubted and to second guess myself.
However, I did feel that the progress of the case was slightly hampered by characters figuring things out but then not being able to and/or choosing not to articulate these discoveries. I felt the reader is kept a bit in the dark. I can see why these characters had to remain silent, due to the simplicity of the case, but it did sometimes feel like the story was treading water. The plot takes place over two days, yet it weirdly feels like a lot happens off stage. Perhaps because Merrivale is not as present in this book as he is in others. His thoughts are the most closed off from the reader. The who, why and the how of the solution are all very good, but the way they are revealed is far less satisfying. The showdown with the killer is something of a pointless drama, which doesn’t add to the narrative.
To end on a brighter note, I read Castle Skull last weekend, (see my thoughts alongside Anjana’s and Laurie’s here), and I found the prose and the characters did not particularly grab me. My attention wandered and the narrative style felt dense. Yet with He Wouldn’t Kill Patience, despite its faults, I was able to quickly race through the book, finding the prose style and the characters, (even if they could be rather unpleasant), much more engaging. I was keen to find out what happened next. So whilst this is not top Carr/Dickson, it is still a strong entry.