In Spite of Thunder (Carr)

Eve’s a shady lady: the ageing actress was a Nazi sympathizer, and a possible murderess. Her wealthy boyfriend fell to his death at Berchtesgaden; nearly 20 years later, the ageing actress topples from the balcony of her Geneva villa. But nobody was around…

At 14, I thought this was one of Carr’s best: identical deaths past and present, and a nifty murder method. It doesn’t hold up to my fond memories, though. I started to reread it in September, and gave up. I finished it this afternoon; the second half is readable, but this is late and tired Carr.

Do you remember Gideon Fell in his youth? Quaffing beer by the gallon, playing with clockwork mice, impersonating Viennese psychiatrists? An absent-minded, unruly schoolboy in the body of G.K. Chesterton? In his old age, the once-loveable sleuth is now a parody of Dr Johnson, much given to ponderous rhetoric, and suffering vastly from wind.

He and stuffed-shirt writer Brian Innes lie to the police to protect a chit of a girl. There’s a lot of activity, emotional scenes, crises de nerfs, in a hothouse atmosphere; gunplay at a witch-themed night club; but it adds up to little. (Sound and fury signifying sumthin, Curt Evans quipped, riffing on the Macbeth title.) The telling is as ponderous as Dr Fell himself; it lacks zest and badly needs editing. Pity.

Blurb (UK)

Though the background of this mystery is Geneva, and the international set who make their homes there, it does not concern international politics.  Each of the characters is in some way an artist: a former screen-star, whose husband has been a well-known actor on the stage; two painter; a famous woman journalist; even the errant daughter of a British financier, and a young man who is trying his best to understand artists.

An apparently commonplace death in past years turns out to have been anything but commonplace.  Somebody is committing murder with an invisible weapon.

Staid Geneva, the city of John Calvin, becomes a good deal less than staid when menace stretches from a night-club in the Old Town to a villa on the road to Chambéry.  By the time Dr. Gideon Fell solves the impossible, both Dr. Fell and Brian Innes have begun to wish they had never heard of anybody’s artistic temperament—including, it is to be feared, their own.  In a modern detective problem, with all the clues presented, you are again challenged to find the answer.

Contemporary reviews

Kirkus (15th April 1960, 70w):

Well staged and acted.

NY Times (Anthony Boucher, 3rd July 1960, 100w):

An admirable detective story and probably, if you’re unfamiliar with Carr, a sensational one; but the veteran reader may keep thinking of Carr twenty-to-thirty years ago, with his dazzling ease and inventiveness and brilliantly unobtrusive technique.

NY Herald Tribune Bk R (James Sandoe, 10th July 1960, 100w):

In Spite of Thunder flags only as Dr. Gideon Fell labours the ultimate answer to a problem which began when a film actress did or did not push her fiancé off a parapet at Berchtesgaden in 1939.  Postwar Geneva is the scene of the inquiry, which is unmistakable Carr if not the best Carr and, best or not, still dazzling showmanship.

San Francisco Chronicle (L.G. Offord, 17th July 1960, 150w):

The old black magic that John Dickson Carr has woven so well over the years is back again, perhaps not so black nor so magical as it was, but still on hand…  The plot is ingenious as anything, in spite of a few faint creaks, and there are one or two fine atmospheric episodes in the old style.

Springfield Republican (L.H.T., 17th July 1960, 160w):

A well-plotted story, typical of Mr. Carr’s good work in this field.

Guardian (Francis Iles, 21st October 1960, 70w):

Adept as Mr. Carr is at elusive dialogue which goes round and round the point without ever seeming quite to reach it, I think in this story of not very credible wildness in Geneva he indulges this foible too much.