First published: US, Harper, 1949; UK, Hamish Hamilton, 1950
In the English high-courts some called Patrick Butler “The Great Defender”, while to others he was “that damned Irishman”. Butler preferred murder cases; he preferred his clients to be guilty; and he was being quite sincere when he said firmly: “I am never wrong”.
First an old woman died of poison. Charged with the murder was dark-haired, quiet Joyce Ellis; and brilliantly acting as counsel for the defence was Patrick Butler, who privately—and cheerfully—believed his client to be “guilty as hell”.
But, before the end of the trial, a man named Richard Renshaw died of the same poison, and his beautiful, blonde wife Lucia was in imminent danger of arrest.
Butler believed passionately in Lucia’s innocence, though the evidence against her was deadly and complete.
It was Gideon Fell, of course, who saw the significance of the silver candelabrum, the red garter and the strange mark on the window sill.
John Dickson Carr has written a tight detective puzzle, but here, too, are chases through darkest Soho, weird rites, and tense action, handled by a master.
After two excellent Dr. Fell cases, this tale of witchcraft covens and poisoning falls rather flat.
The two murders of respectable people high up in the coven are by antimony; the companion-secretary is believed guilty of the first crime but acquitted, while the innocent wife, the only person who could have poisoned the water-bottle, is suspected of the second.
Although Dr. Fell is present, he does very little; the hero is the intolerable Patrick Butler, who calls a judge an “old swine” and engages in bouts of fisticuffs in a burning Satanist chapel with a common or garden thug he believes is “a real sportsman…the finest breed in the world”. (Understandably, the heroine has either divorced him or committed suicide by the time of Patrick Butler for the Defence.)
Although Carr has obviously been researching witchcraft, his handling of it leaves a lot to be desired. The thriller sequences, gangsters and marijuana, make it Dennis Wheatley-type sensation rather than detection.
And the culprit is obvious right from the start.
Chicago Sun-Times (James Sandoe, 12th August 1949, 120w):
It delighted me as thoroughly as it baffled me; as both experiences are rare enough in the contemporary detective story it seems to warrant a stately salute.
NY Herald Tribune Wkly Bk R (Will Cuppy, 14th August 1949):
Dr. Gideon Fell, Ph.D., LL.D., F.R.H.S., takes the cake, as usual, in this bang-up detective tale—a don’t miss item, of course. You wouldn’t think it possible, the conclusions he drew from a silver candelabrum in the home of Richard Renshaw, victim of antimony, and he was right, too. Seems he was all primed for some startling disclosures after attending the trial of young Joyce Ellis, acquitted of the charge of liquidating Mrs. Taylor, Richard’s aunt, with the same medicament. Patrick Butler, powerful K.C., believes
Lucia Renshaw is innocent, and you’ll be wondering like mad as you find yourself in the midst of a poisoning wave and a witch cult of truly horrifying description. Diabolical is the exact word for the fiend discovered at the last minute.
Problems: Did the back door slam at the Priory that night, or didn’t it? What lady wore the red garters? Who is the head of the cult? Mr. Carr, in the person of the amazing Fell, answers these and many others in a story that concludes with a fine show of mystery fireworks.
NY Times (Anthony Boucher, 14th August 1949, 230w):
John Dickson Carr is the finest contemporary writer of detective stories… There’s no need to repeat that Mr. Carr knows uniquely well how to blend the novel of character and the sternly deductive problem; let’s just say that he has rarely done it better than in this case.
New Yorker (3rd September 1949, 100w):
Impeccably plotted, of course, but a little too souped up to be genuinely blood-chilling.
Sat R of Lit (17th September 1949, 40w):
Adroit combination of witchcraft and murder. Tops.
Washington, D.C. Star:
Variations on the locked room routine, together with hints of the supernatural and malign, place this one in the ranks of Carr’s best. Who could ask for anything more?
Los Angeles Times:
Way above average in entertainment value—but Carr is always good.
One of the most complex and craftily-plotted yarns to date by this master-hand. Seek no farther.
Carr’s latest—and most brilliant!—puzzler. Skilful, gay and shuddersome.
Boston Morning Globe:
Carr’s immediately preceding book was a much-praised biography of Sherlock Holmes’ creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. One can’t help observing that good as some of Sir Arthur’s stories of the great Holmes are, they don’t compare in wit, variety or quality of writing with the best—or even the average—Carr output.
Observer (Maurice Richardson, 12th March 1950):
Coven of Satanists in Balham acts as cover for a mass poisoning organisation. Egomaniacal Irish K.C. blusters in the Old Bailey and throws snooker balls in Soho. Dr. Fell booms and bewilders. Mr. Dickson Carr is entitled to an off day if ever anyone was.