First published: US, Harper, 1967; UK, Hamish Hamilton, 1968
John Dickson Carr’s latest detective novel opens on a typical Southern scene. The magnolia trees are in bloom, the South Carolina moon shines down, a man and a woman are talking. It all seems very peaceful. But not for long. Things never remain quiet very long when Dr. Fell appears on the scene. Henry Maynard invited him to come, and it was perhaps just as well, particularly when the mysterious happenings which began after Dr. Fell’s arrival culminated in murder—the murder of Henry Maynard himself.
“He has communicated very little. The man has positive genius at evasion; for politics he would be what you call a natural. But he must speak out soon, by thunder! When the Sphinx propounds a riddle, we have a right to demand just what the devil the riddle is.”
One of the clearest indications that Carr’s once legendary narrative and plotting skills were failing very badly by the 1960s.
There is no narrative drive. Instead, there are a lot of Incidents over which everybody waxes hysterical. It takes an entire chapter to reach (or even mention) the point of what the character said he would talk about in the opening sentence; and there is a lot of intolerable padding, a running commentary on everything and anything, combined with really tedious guide-book stuff about South Carolina.
The characters – including a revolting couple who hate each other but really love each other but won’t let their true feelings show because they bicker all the time – are uniformly dull and juvenile. They play EMBARRASSING baseball games to demonstrate how macho they are, and tell dirty stories and limericks at the drop of a hat (not to mention the facetious nick-names, about which the less said the better).
The dialogue is oracular, enigmatic, and utterly pointless, peppered with interruptions whenever it seems likely that the slightest headway could be made — if they manage to stay in one place long enough to begin a conversation, for they “run in and out, they run back and forth, not always with a good reason for doin’ it”.
Most of the descriptions are given in dialogue — a horrible habit, as the following examples — taken from a “normal” conversation – show:
‘The five of us went to the library, which is the big room to the left of the front door and down four steps, with the books behind wire gratings and early Victorian furniture padded in yellow satin.’
‘It is the door to my study. Beyond the wall, as you shall see, two rooms open off the central one on either side. To the right of the study, bedroom and dressing-room with bathroom attached. To the left of the study, billiard-room and lumber-room.’
Under all this is buried a very badly cluttered and unconvincing plot. Henry Maynard is murdered two-fifths through, bludgeoned to death in the middle of the terrace — no footprints anywhere in sight. Little is done with the impossible crime. There is no feeling of impossibility, or any logical reason for the impossible crime, whose method is borrowed from Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia, other than to provide an impossible crime. Why did the murderer not shoot Maynard and let the pistol down on the string tied to the trees, and cut the string so that the pistol would fall to the ground, thus indicating suicide?
The family curse of the Maynards — “the thing that follows and leaves no trace” — is dragged in kicking and screaming to no purpose, other than to remind the reader that Carr could once seamlessly interweave the detective and the ghost story.
There is very little mystification, as the reader knows that the murderer — Maynard’s daughter Madge’s lover — is one of two people, and cannot really care which one. Mysterious messages left on a blackboard further complicate the hideously convoluted mess. Dr. Fell, who is fat and pompous throughout, does not come out of the imbroglio at all well.