Thursday, November 2, 2023

and now we come to the end -- The Four False Weapons, by John Dickson Carr


Berkley Books, 1957
originally published 1937
217 pp

mass market paperback
(read earlier in October)

It's truly a pity that the British Library Crime Classics series (as of right now)  doesn't include the final Bencolin mystery, because until they do, I'm sort of stuck with this cover, which was probably very cool in 1957 but doesn't hold a candle to the covers from the British Library.   This book lives in one of many baskets of old, beat-up, barely- read mass market paperbacks that I probably bought at yard sales or library sales over the last god knows how many years, while my British Library books live on their own shelves.  It will likely go back in its basket now, and hopefully the British Library will publish a new edition and I can add that one to the other four that came before.  I really hate when things are incomplete.  

In terms of tone, The Four False Weapons is absolutely unlike the other Bencolin novels.  Gone are the sort of grand guignol theatrics and the supernatural-ish/macabre elements Carr flirted with to give his books a different edge, and alas, gone too is Jeff Marle.   I have to say that I missed all of these things while reading Four False Weapons, just as I'll miss Bencolin now after having finished this book.  

The mystery doesn't present itself right away as in the previous books.  Instead, we meet Richard Curtis, who works as junior partner in a law firm whose "professional dealings" are mainly with "the more conservative families of Great Britain and certain English families abroad."  What he does isn't particularly exciting but more on the "humdrum" side, leaving him with the feeling that there has to be more out there and dreaming of something along the cloak-and-dagger lines.  He dreams of the day when his boss will tell him that he has a "mission for you to undertake," and as this novel begins, to his great surprise, today is that day.   As it happens, his boss is sending him off to Paris to meet and take care of Ralph Douglas, a wealthy client whose brother is in the Diplomatic Service, and whose fiancée is the daughter of a highly-esteemed head of a well-known travel bureau.  It seems that there is "something very, very fishy" going on at Ralph's home in the Forest of Marly, the Villa Marbre, that is connected to his former mistress, Rose Klonec (actually, the phrase Carr uses here is "poule-de-luxe" which translates out to something like "kept woman").   Before leaving,  Curtis gets advice from his boss to get in touch with Bencolin, whose might be "very useful" to the business at hand.    Once he meets with Douglas, his client tells him about "three queer incidents" starting with an offer to buy the Villa Marbre.  The second came about when Douglas had gone out to the now-empty villa (where he'd lived with Rose before they broke things off), and found things locked up, dusty and "undisturbed" as he'd expected, but with lights and water working, which he hadn't expected since he'd ordered them to be shut off.   And finally, while taking a look around, upstairs he'd discovered that in Rose's room there were pillows and new linens on the bed, followed by the discovery of a full refrigerator.  All of the above adds up in Ralph's eyes to "something damned funny going on," but there is absolutely nothing funny about the discovery of Rose's body and the maid's unbreakable insistence that Ralph had been there with Rose the night before when he swears he hadn't been near the place.  Enter Bencolin, who just happens to live nearby, and who finds too many clues that seem to have nothing whatsoever to do with Rose's death.    

the original 1937 Harper Sealed edition, from AbeBooks

I have to be honest here -- while it's another fun Bencolin entry, it falls heavily on the convoluted side when it comes to the French detective actually solving the case, in my opinion making the book longer and the ending more complicated than it needed to be.  There was one point where I'd thought the story was over, only to count the remaining pages and discover that it couldn't possibly end there.  And I was so right -- Bencolin had more than a few tricks left up his sleeve, none the least of which was an antiquated card game at a private gaming house.

I think this was my least favorite of the five books, yet despite the unnecessary over-complicatedness of it all, the twists and turns in the plot kept me engaged throughout.  More than anything, I was sad to see the end of the weirdness in the basic plots of the first four novels, but having said that, it's clear to me that those four Bencolin stories were the work of an author trying to find his footing; judging by what I've read by Carr outside of that series, The Four False Weapons is the closest in style to his later books.  

So, it's adieu to that series, but not to Carr -- I have every book the man has written, which will likely keep me going for some time.  As far as this novel, I'd recommend it in general to fans of this era of British mystery fiction, to hardcore Carr enthusiasts, and to those readers who must read and finish their mystery/crime series in order.    It's been a good series run. 

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