First published: US, Simon & Schuster, 1939; UK, Harrap, 1939
Colonel Rand was startled by the telegram:
COME TO LOS ANGELES AT ONCE STOP FLY IF NECESSARY STOP YOU MAY BE INVALUABLE WITNESS AT INQUEST ON MY BODY STOP WATCH HECTOR CAREFULLY
Colonel Rand was so startled that he took the next plane to Los Angeles.
He arrived just in time to be an invaluable witness at the inquest on Humphrey Garnett’s body.
Dead by poison, and in his hand the clue that pointed to the murderer – a crumpled jack of diamonds.
Colonel Rand knew the significance of the crumpled knave. But he didn’t know anything about the “Hector” mentioned in that amazing telegram.
Nor did he know why Arthur Willowe played solitaire so very badly.
Nor why Camilla Sallice had sung for Humphrey Garnett.
Nor why Kay Garnett should count the world well lost for love.
Nor why Will Harding didn’t know the secret of Garnett’s experiments in the laboratory.
Nor why Richard Vinton had, like the leopard, changed his spots.
Nor why Maurice Warriner showed such intense interest in the history of playing cards.
Lieutenant Jackson of the Homicide Squad thought the case was solved when they found the crumpled knave in Humphrey Garnett’s dead hand. But when he found the other fifty-one cards of the pack, the poison glass with fingerprints, the needle in Arthur Willowe’s pillow, and the meaning of “Hector,” the solution was no longer so easy.
Many detective story writers are masters of the double bluff. In The Case of the Crumpled Knave Anthony Boucher triples it, and proves conclusively that the hand of the writer is quicker than the eye of the reader.
Boucher’s masterpiece? Humphrey Garnett is a research chemist working on an atoxipharmical gas to neutralise poison (and working on an even deadlier poison gas in the meantime). His household includes his daughter, Kay; her actor fiancé, Richard Vinton, an ex-card-sharp; Arthur Willowe, his ineffective brother-in-law; Will Harding, his laboratory assistant; Camilla Sallice, a Woman with a Past; while Maurice Warriner, an eccentric museum curator, hovers around the outskirts. All of these people conceal secrets, so there is a fine spread of suspicion in the best Christie manner as to which of them killed Garnett – with curare, no less. Was the motive money? A desire to obtain the formulae for the gasses? Or something else? What does the crumpled knave of diamonds found in Garnett’s hand mean? A blond young man: Harding? The French jack of diamonds – Hector, a name secretly connected to Willowe? A selfish and deceitful relative? Or does it refer to Vinton’ss career as a card-sharp?
Vinton is arrested, and Kay calls in Fergus O’Breen, an Irish private detective and “an introspective extrovert with manic-depressive tendencies” to investigate his first murder case. Infectious enthusiasm is O’Breen’s keynote: he is not an eccentric, but rather in the Lord Peter Wimsey / Roger Sheringham / Nigel Strangeways mould of believable human being as detective. O’Breen is aided in his detection by the Wendoverish Col. Rand, an elderly but observant type. The two men finally reach a really ingenious solution, a triumph of misdirection. The principal clue is a knowledge of card-players’ psychology.
Boucher was inspired by John Dickson Carr’s Red Widow Murders (1935) and Queen’s Siamese Twin Mystery (1933): elderly but observant men on the detective side; curare; use of cards; murderer’s identity, and motive.
Times Literary Supplement (John Everard Gurdon, 16th December 1939):
Vinton was arrested for the murder of Garnett because a superficial glance at the evidence suggested his guilt. Luckily a young private detective was able to persuade the police that they were wrong, and then a third investigator proved that every one, without exception, had misinterpreted the facts. It is a competent and careful plot, and some readers may also like the characters.