Tuesday, January 26, 2021

The Problem of the Green Capsule, by John Dickson Carr


Bantam, 1964 (reprint)
originally published 1939
168 pp

mass market paperback

"...there was a trick in it somehow..."

The second book in the séptimo círculo collection, The Problem of the Green Capsule is book number ten in Carr's Gideon Fell series.  I have to be honest: I haven't read many of these novels -- after collecting them from library/yard sales for what seems like forever, they've been living in wicker shelf baskets for years.  It feels weird not to be starting with the first novel of this series as Carr refers to past Fell adventures in this book, but I didn't mind  --  he gave nothing away in terms of plot so I can go back and read them without knowing anything.  

Given what happens here, the original UK title, The Black Spectacles, makes much more sense than its American title (more on that later).    The cover is a bit more appropriate (and much better artistically) as well, with the main action of the story in plain view for everyone to see.  At the same time, I own a lot of these old Bantam reprints where they've put what just might be several key clues on the cover.  I used to think this was cool, but now it's just a bit annoying knowing what I'm supposed to be looking for. 

from Wikipedia

Detective Inspector Andrew MacAndrew Elliot of Scotland Yard's CID has been assigned to look into a case in the village of Sodbury Cross, where someone has been poisoning chocolates in Mrs. Terry's tobacco-and-sweet shop, somehow substituting strychnine-laced confections for the chocolate creams kept on the  shop's counter.     Sadly, eight year-old Frankie Dell died after he'd "wolfed down the lot" he'd bought, while the children of another family and their "maidservant" who had also picked up a half pound of the tainted chocolates became very ill.  The young niece of local businessman Marcus Chesney, Marjorie Wills (for reasons I won't go into here),  is the main suspect.  As Elliot begins to work with the local police on that case,  word arrives that Marcus Chesney is dead.  After arriving at the Chesney home, the detectives hear a fantastic story: as it happened, Chesney's murder not only occurred in front of a small group of people, but that 

"every one of 'em saw the murderer and followed every move he made."

Even more surprising is that "they can't agree on anything that happened."   

What comes next is unlike anything I've ever read before.

Chesney, who has as a hobby "the study of crime," had earlier invited his niece, her fiancé George Harding, his brother Joe and a friend of theirs, a professor Ingram, to a "performance,"  a sort of "psychological test" to start at midnight.  His helper Wilbur Emmet, one of the men who worked at the Chesney home, was to have a role in this scene, and after it was over, Chesney would have a list of questions that the participants were to answer, based on what they'd seen.  George was to film the entire thing as well.   What happens next went according to plan, except for the fact that Chesney was murdered and Emmet was found severely wounded outside next to a bundle of clothing and other props used during Chesney's little game.  The problem is that the potential suspects were all together at the time, never out of sight of one another.  When another murder occurs, a rather mystified Elliot turns to Dr. Fell, who is staying in a hotel in nearby Bath, enlisting his help to solve this rather baffling crime.  

I mentioned earlier that the original UK title, The Black Spectacles, turns out to be more appropriate than its American counterpart.  In a letter from Marcus Chesney written earlier to Fell which he doesn't hand over right away to the police, Chesney had noted the following:

"All witnesses, metaphorically, wear black spectacles. They can neither see clearly, nor interpret what they see in the proper colours. They do not know what goes on on the stage, still less what goes on in the audience.  Show them a black-and-white record of it afterwards, and they will believe you; but even then they will be unable to interpret what they see."

 As Dr. Fell says  before he goes off to observe George's film record of that strange night,  "that, together with what we are going to see and hear to-night, should complete our case." 

 I'll confess that I had absolutely no clue as to the who and the how before reaching the end and the big reveal, always a good sign.   I'm also sure that the phrase "jaw-dropping" was more than appropriate at that point, garnering silent but worthy praise for the mind that put this puzzler together. At just over 160 pages it should have been a quick read, but there are a number of elements at play here, each to be unfurled slowly,  mused over, and put on hold in the brain as the story progresses.    Not only is there a solid, impossible mystery here, but one of the added perks from my point of view is a brief, whirlwind history of infamous real-life poisoners, in which Fell expounds on the psychological make-up of people who had turned to this method of killing.   Another clue that The Problem of the Green Capsule is not going to be your run-of-the-mill Golden-Age detection story comes from the book's subtitle, "Being the Psychologist's Murder Case."  Add to that the author's  remarkable construction of the sleight-of-hand, misdirection and illusion that rule the day in this well-plotted novel, and it becomes something rather ingenious.  I also had great fun with this book, which in the end, is the most important thing.

Definitely recommended.  

Sunday, January 10, 2021

The Beast Must Die, by Nicholas Blake


ipso books, 2017
originally published 1938
251 pp


While I'm very a much a mystery series purist, meaning I have to read them in order, over the rest of this year I'll be making a lot of exceptions, including this book which is number four in the series featuring Blake's private detective Nigel Strangeways.   There's a reason for this -- my crime/mystery shelves are overflowing with books I've picked up here and there over the decades that I've never read, so in trying to get through at least some of them, I needed some organizational help.  I found it by chance while reading through a book called Serial Crime Fiction: Dying for More (eds. Jean Anderson, Carolina Miranda and Barbara Pezzotti; Palgrave MacMillan 2015) when I came across Miranda's chapter entitled "More Than the Sum of its Parts: Borges, Bioy Casares and the Phenomenon of the Séptimo Circulo Collection" (31-40).     Fascinated, I went online to discover exactly which titles were included, landing here.  As I read through the list, I realized that I owned more than quite a few of these books, and thus the decision was made to read as many as I can  this year and very likely on into the next.  Problem solved. 

Just a bit about the Séptimo Circulo Collection before moving on.  According to an article at the blog of the International Crime Fiction Research Group ,  this series of books was the creation of Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares which began in 1945.  The name derives from  the seventh circle of Hell, à la Dante's Divine Comedy,  the outer ring of which is reserved for various types of violent criminals.  You can read more about how this collection came about in an excellent article by Scott Adlerberg at Crimereads ,  but basically the idea is that prior to the publication of this series,  mystery/crime fiction in Argentina had been classified as "literatura de kiosco"  or newsstand literature, looked down on by as Carolina Miranda notes, " 'serious' Argentine writers,"  but that all changed in the hands of "a close circle of educated writers, translators and editors" including sisters Silvina and Victoria Ocampo, with Borges and Bioy Casares at "the core."   One main influence that would help turn what Scott Adlerberg  refers to as "amusing confections, at best" into a  "literary phenomenon worthy of the educated reader" as well as a "popular ... form of entertainment available to the less educated reader"  was Victoria Ocampo's influential literary magazine Sur, which served "as a platform promoting and validating the collection," publishing seven articles between 1940 and 1948  "specifically referring to Séptimo Circulo titles" (Miranda, 34).   There's much, much  more to this story, of course, but any of the links I've provided will fill in the gaps here, and there are a number of articles online in Spanish as well.  

Original 1938 UK edition.  Photo from John Atkinson Fine and Rare Books 

All right -- back to the book now, which is, if I may say so, a brilliant piece of writing, worthy of the mental round of applause I gave it upon finishing.   It is a solid whodunit -- I went through more than one round of  "it was him/her" and still did not get it right.   It's also a story about which I won't be saying very much, since any hint of what happens here would be a crime in itself.   The barebones outline is this: Frank Cairnes, a writer of crime novels under the name of Felix Lane, is out to get whoever it was that was responsible for the death of his young son in a hit-and-run accident.  As the novel opens, we are made privy to Felix Lane's diary entry of 20 June 1937, which begins as follows:  
"I'm going to kill a man. I don't know his name, I don't know where he lives, I have no idea what he looks like. But I am going to find him and kill him ..."

Writing the first part of this book as Cairnes' diary is a move of sheer genius on the author's part, as there is no way anyone will put the book down at that point.  Aside from Cairnes' desire for revenge, and his plans to "kill a man," just some nine days later we discover that he has slowly pieced together the identity of the driver as well as the woman in the car at the time. It's no spoiler to reveal that Cairnes now has his sights set on George Rattery (it's right there on the back-cover blurb), who lives with his wife, his son and his mother in Gloucestershire.  Eventually he meets Rattery, and not too long afterwards has ingratiated his way into the Rattery home as Felix Lane, where he has devised (and detailed) the perfect method of exacting his revenge, with the added bonus of making George's death look like an accident.   One would think that knowing what's going to happen would not leave much room for surprise, but the author  is not quite finished with his reader yet.  After a shift in viewpoint that begins part two, it seems that not only is Cairnes' murder attempt thwarted, but later, someone back at the Rattery home has taken it upon himself or herself to finish the job, albeit in a different way.   A phone call brings in private detective Nigel Strangeways, who agrees to help Cairnes, as he has now become the prime suspect in the eyes of the police even though he swears he is innocent.     

Not one more word of plot shall pass my lips (okay, in this case my fingertips) but I will say that my first venture into the mind of Nicholas Blake has been a successful one.   Not only is it worthy of my picky inner armchair-detective self,  but it also offers an insightful character study as well as the ingenious use of literary references that clicked into place in my head only after finishing the book.  Definitely not your typical 1930s, golden-age mystery, and it's one I can most certainly recommend.  I loved Georgia Strangeways; I'll now have to backtrack and go back to book number one to find out more about Nigel. 

My advice: do NOT read reviews of this book that want to take you to the big reveal. You'll kick yourself if you do, trust me.