- By John Dickson Carr, as Carter Dickson
- First published: US: Morrow, 1944; UK: Heinemann, 1944
Lightweight Carr, and a long way from his best. The opening introduces the reader to a pair of Carr’s patented lovers, both professional magicians, who vacillate between quarrelling and canoodling. The hero is a bone-headed lout who demonstrates his masculinity by throwing people through glass cases, breaking doors down, or canoodling in the vicinity of a corpse. The body in question belongs to the Zoo director, an apparent suicide in a locked room sealed up with paper.
Unlike many earlier Carrs, Carr doesn’t suggest false solutions to the puzzle, so the reader’s guess is likely to be the correct one. The alert reader will spot the significance of the hall closet early on, and won’t be convinced by H.M.’s statement that a twin-engined bomber sounds like a vacuum cleaner. An application of noughts and crosses will eliminate all suspects bar, two, so the villain is obvious. Again there are no double-edged clues, so the effect is one of laziness. The unlucky murderer had a lot of luck not to have been caught committing the crime. An absence of sub-plots and of red herrings only confirm the reader’s belief that this tale is little more than an expanded short story.
Carter Dickson has a positively uncanny ability for presenting the perfect murder, the insoluble problem, and then letting Sir Henry Merrivale go to town with it. Through all the confusion old H.M. keeps a firm hold on the significant clues…though he does let his temper fly away with him once in a while…
Ned Benton, director of the Royal Albert Zoological Gardens, had a new snake called Patience. And, as a passionate herpetologist, it almost broke his heart that the zoo would soon have to be closed on account of air raids.
Mike Parsons, the keeper, had a terrible temper.
The young and very beautiful Madge Palliser had a grudge against Carey Quint that dated back to 1873. You see they were both professional magicians.
It looked as if Carey’s grudge were going to turn into something else.
Agnes Noble had a way with the men the men didn’t like.
Horace Benton had a deceptively pleasant personality.
Dr. Rivers had a passion for snakes, and also rather liked Louise, Ned Benton’s daughter.
As Dickson fans know, old H.M. can’t be stopped—not even by a cluster of snakes—or magicians. Of course in the beginning all the snakes are neatly in their cages with the magicians outside. But that’s only in the beginning. That’s before one of the magicians gets mad and starts mixing things up.
It all begins in the reptile house at a Zoo where Sir Henry Merrivale, chased by a scaly, yellow-striped lizard, makes an undignified though characteristic entry into one of the most baffling murder mysteries that even he has come across. The Blitz of September 1940 provides a noisy and terrifying background for a story of many kinds of thrills—macabre, reptilian and magic—while the lovable and humorous “H.M.” presides boisterously over everything.
Sat R of Lit (12th February 1944, 50w): Up with the best!
New York Herald Weekly Book Review (Will Cuppy, 13th February 1944): Guess who was found dead in a sealed room at the London home of Edward Benton, director of the Royal Albert Zoological Gardens. A second corpse in the death chamber was Patience, a rare Bornese tree snake just received by Mr. Benton. Milling around in a state of love and deduction were Madge Palliser and Carey Quint, youthful magicians held apart for the nonce by a family feud going back to 1873. (Abel Palliser was the first man to saw his wife in half; even Carey admits that.) The stout gentleman eating a bag of peanuts in the reptile house turned out to be Sir Henry Merrivale, the War Office criminologist, fond of exclaiming “Oh, Lord love a duck!” and “Oh, my wench!” If Madge can remember about the burnt match, she may solve the problem of the locked door, then Sir Henry can put on the finishing touches.
Others on hand are Louis Benton, sweet on Dr. Jack Rivers; Mike Parsons, a keeper who dislikes animals; Agnes Noble, a dealer in wild beasts, an American lizard, a Gila monster, a black mamba and a king cobra. Treats include inside stuff on conjuring, ingenuity in all directions and a melodramatic ending among deadly serpents. Frankly artificial and not too speedy, but full of Mr. Dickson’s tricks and peculiar moods.
Observer (Maurice Richardson, 28th May 1944): Carter Dickson’s He Wouldn’t Kill Patience is one of his H.M. standard models: a mysteriously sealed room and two dynasties of magicians. It is set in and around a Kensington reptile house on the eve of the blitz. A surprisingly poor start, but you’ll have to read on.
Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Willson Disher, 1st July 1944): Two sides of London are shown in He Wouldn’t Kill Patience. One is the picture, faithfully drawn, of dim masses in the darkness showing against the pink glow of burning dockland in the east. Another is a happily conceived fantasy of rivalry between two Homes of Magic, rather as though St. George’s Hall and the old Egyptian Hall had never gone out of business. To enliven things still further a Royal Albert Zoological Gardens is run on up-to-date lines in Kensington. Mr. Carter Dickson has not put in all this extra colouring just for the fun of the thing. Raids, reptiles and rival illusionists are all necessary to his story. It may be whimsical, but there can be no argument about its being highly original.