Death in Five Boxes (Carter Dickson)

By John Dickson Carr

First published: UK, Heinemann, 19 September 1938; US, Morrow, 28 September 1938

Blurb (US)

Carr - Death in Five Boxes US.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Sir Henry Merrivale, the grand old man of The Judas Window, solves the mystery of three distinguished men, and a beautiful woman, at a grotesque cocktail party – one murdered and the rest of them drugged!

Every light blazing.  Rain on the roof…  Four people sitting at a long refectory table – like a human waxworks…  And the telephone as dead as red-haired Felix Haye.

That was the scene that greeted young Dr. John Sanders, consultant toxicologist to the police, when a lovely girl stepped out of the mist, at one o’clock in the morning, and begged him to go with her.  For Marcia Blystone wanted to know what had happened to her father.

“Impossible situation”?  That was only the beginning.  Sir Dennis Blystone, surgeon, had four watches in his pockets.  The art critic, Mrs. Bonita Sinclair, a woman men wanted to know more about, had in her handbag two bottles, one of limestone, one of phosphorus – both poisonous.  Bernard Schumann, dealer in Egyptian antiquities, carried the ringing mechanism of a cheap alarm clock.  And Felix Haye, the fourth figure in the silent company, had been stabbed through the back with a swordstick from what seemed to be just a brand new umbrella.

No wonder baffled Chief Inspector Humphrey Masters of the C.I.D. finally called in Sir Henry Merrivale, who alone had the ingenuity and the gall to bring the truth to light in his most complicated and exciting case.  And the old bear had a hand, too, in a romance that a mystery started!

Blurb (UK)

Carr - Death in Five Boxes UK.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

What is the connection between the gruesome discovery in Great Russell Street – a party of distinguished and apparently quite respectable guests found at a friend’s flat in various stages of atropine poisoning with the host, in addition, stabbed through the back – and the five small packages, each labelled with a name, deposited at a solicitor’s office?

Before you can make even a remote guess at the identity of this particularly cunning murderer, you will be led through the most intricate and breath-taking series of events, with clues as plausible and attractive as only Carter Dickson can make them.  And only Sir Henry Merrivale, the most rotund and likeable of all detectives, can, after prodigious sittin’ and thinkin’, put his finger on the crucial point, scandalising his friends and enemies alike.

The publishers are confident that every Carter Dickson fan – and that, surely, means every reader of detective fiction who has met “H.M.” – will find this his most cleverly worked-out and exciting case.

My review

I think Death in 5 Boxes is excellent – I liked all those crypto-criminals.  It’s almost like a textbook for budding arsonists and cat burglars.  This was the first time I’d come across the method, so I thought it was brilliant.  The murderer also really surprised me, and I kicked myself for forgetting about dragons.  In fact, I think it’s a lot better than The Judas Window, which has a really clever twist halfway through, but an arbitrary murderer and a boring method.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Percy Ashley, 24th September 1938):


After Mrs. Bradley and Nero Wolfe [in Gladys Mitchell’s St. Peter’s Finger and Rex Stout’s Too Many Cooks] comes another excellent detective in Sir Henry Merrivale, specialist in locked door mysteries.  Four eminent persons are discovered in an upstairs room, three of them poisoned but not dead, and the other murdered with a swordstick.  In the pockets of the victim are discovered, among other things, four watches and the works of an alarm clock which are later identified as some of the contents of five mysterious boxes placed by the murdered man in the hands of his solicitors, from whom they have been stolen.  While the crime was committed the front door was being watched and the back door remained locked from the inside.  This is, of course, child’s play to Sir Henry, who has solved far more complex problems than this.  In spite of the excellence of the opening scene the atmosphere is less frightening than in some of Sir Henry’s previous adventures and the mechanism of the murder less puzzling.  It will not be possible for the reader to fathom the explanation until a late stage in the narrative, but before the solution is given Mr. Dickson, as usual, supplies the full information from which Sir Henry by “sittin’ and thinkin’” makes his deductions.


Time (26th September 1938, 30w):

Ingenuity and humour offset a tricky confused plot and far-fetched solution.


Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 30th September 1938):

It has been argued here before, and may be so again, that no sort or kind of fiction demands a more strict adherence to probability in detail and plausibility of incident than does the detective novel, dealing as it must with the extraordinary and the abnormal that yet, to win acceptance, must be related to the everyday experience of the ordinary man.

Every rule has its exception, however, and to this rule a very evident exception is Mr. Carter Dickson, of whom it may be said that the possible is his washpot and that over credibility does he cast his shoe.  In his hands the utterly insane is transmuted into a cold and formal logic, with him the nightmare becomes as ordinary as afternoon tea.  All this is once more abundantly demonstrated in Death in Five Boxes, in which again and again we are brought up short by the palpably impossible, only the next moment to see it melt away into the normal and the obvious.  None there can be with soul so dead as not to enjoy the most extraordinary, ingenious, diverting, fantastic invention that even Mr. Carter Dickson has yet perpetrated, nor will any reader soon forget the picture of “H.M.”, most human and friendly of detectives, Inspector Masters, most solemn of inspectors, and the fruit barrow, all mixed together in glorious confusion.  As for the main puzzle of how there got into the drinks the atropine with which had been drugged the group found sitting round the murdered man’s table, any reader able to discover the quite simple explanation is entitled to apply to the author of the book for an award of merit.


Spectator (Nicholas Blake, 30th September 1938):

Death in Five Boxes is one of Mr. Dickson’s best cases.  He starts off with one of those apparently impossible situations at which he is so adept—four people sitting round a table in a room in Great Russell Street, three drugged with atropine and the fourth stabbed with a sword-stick.  Not content with this, he allows us to find the most peculiar articles in their possession: Sir Dennis Blystone has four watches in his pocket, Mr. Schumann parts of an alarm clock ditto, and Mrs. Sinclair quicklime and phosphorus in her bag.  He then proceeds to solve this knotty equation with easy logic, throwing in a passage with an air-pistol which will lift the startled reader several inches out of his chair.


Books (Will Cuppy, 2nd October 1938, 250w):

We’d call this a dazzling exhibition of mystery ingenuity; a real triumph in the way of complications that would sink an ordinary thriller, not to say a battleship…  One of the slickest tales of the season; and, of course, Sir Henry Merrivale, the grumpy and lovable sleuth of The Judas Window and other Dickson tales, is on hand to add to the entertainment.  And you’ll believe it.  Required reading.


NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 2nd October 1938, 130w):

H.M.’s entrance into this story is informal enough and funny enough to be worth the price of admission even if it were not a perfectly good murder mystery for him to solve in his usually brilliant and unconventional fashion… Our only quarrel with this book is that H.M. is offstage too much of the time. The other characters and the incidents concerning them are plenty good enough for an ordinary mystery story, but in a Carter Dickson book one can’t have too much of H.M.


Observer (Torquemada, 2nd October 1938):


Carter Dickson is prodigally generous to his readers.  He knows that we are ready to laugh and love as soon as we meet Sir Henry Merrivale; so, in Death in Five Boxes, he allows H.M. to enter the case in such a boisterously farcical fashion that the reader glows with happiness until the end of the book; it is as if Sherlock Holmes, in the disguise of a governess, had been knitting on top of a four-wheeler when introduced to one of his more aristocratic cases.  Carter Dickson also knows that we expect a fantastically assorted collection of clues from him; so, round the table at which Felix Haye sat murdered, there were grouped, all under the influence of atropine, a famous surgeon with four watches in his pockets, a female picture expert with a bottle of quicklime and a bottle of phosphorus in her handbag, and an Egyptologist with the ringing mechanism of an alarm-clock secreted about his person.  Yet in the subsequent scenes of comedy, tragedy, and hard thinking, it becomes clear that we ought not to have expected anything else.  When I finished Death in Five Boxes, my sole criticism was that the murderer had been kept a little too far to the side of the reader’s field of vision; then I ran through the book again, and even that criticism had to go.


The Times (4th October 1938):

How careful in comparison is Mr. Carter Dickson.  There are no loose threads here, no unexplained passages.  His invention is as fantastic as that of any other author writing to-day, but his stories are superbly constructed and carried through to the end with complete conviction.  The Death in Five Boxes of the title of his latest Sir Henry Merrivale story arises from the fact that Felix Haye deposited some sealed boxes with his solicitor.  Each bore the name of an acquaintance who might wish him ill, and each contained something to that individual’s discredit.  An insurance against sudden death, in fact.  For all that, Haye is found stabbed at his own table, while beside him, suffering from atropine poisoning, are three of the people named on the boxes.  And the latter have vanished.  Here is the sort of bizarre mystery that “H.M.” loves to get his teeth into, a mystery that discerning readers of detective stories will gratefully note for early reading.


New Haven Journal-Courier:

If you want ingenuity of plot, airtight development and good, pungent writing, this is your meat.