Patrick Butler for the Defence (John Dickson Carr)

By John Dickson Carr

First published: US, Harper, 1956; UK, Hamish Hamilton, 1956

Blurb (US)

Carr - Patrick Butler for the Defence US.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

It was a foggy November afternoon, and in the almost empty offices of a staid old firm of solicitors a young lawyer was entertaining his fiancée at tea.

They had been discussing the too ordinary tempo of a solicitor’s life, when, as the clock struck five, a small dark-skinned man appeared, wearing a green fez.

The visitor, a remarkable figure, told a remarkable story.  At the end he said, “Unless justice is done there will be murder.”

The young lawyer had sent his fiancée off.  He himself was supposed to deliver a brief to Patrick Butler, that noted and colourful barrister.  So he asked his confrere, in the office next door, to keep an eye on the visitor until he got back.

And at that moment the visitor died.  He had—impossible though it seemed—been murdered.

The young lawyer realised that he was in an extremely precarious position.  He raced off for help to the one man who could handle the situation, Patrick Butler.

This fast-moving, colourful and exciting novel is John Dickson Carr in his most entertaining form, and gives Patrick Butler a chance to star splendidly.

My review

Carr introduced the thick-headed, impetuous Patrick Butler as a sidekick to Dr. Fell in Below Suspicion – and now makes him the detective of one of his weakest books.

The plot concerns a Persian, Abu of Ispahan, who tells the lawyer hero of swindling and murder, and is promptly stabbed to death, living only long enough to gasp out “Your gloves” before dying. At this point, the reader is in full possession of the principal clue, and only a numbskull will fail to spot the murderer.

Patrick Butler, however, takes a while to cotton on, and is not merely stupid but completely insufferable: an exhibitionist, who spends his entire time making a nuisance of himself, and is steadfastly rude to the other characters, calling the ginch heroine “a spoiled brat of whom it may be said that only your intelligence is virgin”, before pinching her behind (and the anatomy of the other characters; almost as “entertaining” as the similar scenes in Panic in Box C, in which entire chapters are devoted to the adolescent bickerings between the hero and his estranged wife about whether he did or did not “goose” her on an escalator…) It is not surprising that his wife has, apparently, committed suicide.

The plot then degenerates into a pointless chase, beginning with a largely irrelevant fight scene in an antique shop and going downhill from there to the point where the hero throws his sweetheart’s father through a window. Unlike the chases in The Blind Barber or The Punch and Judy Murders, there are no clues concealed in this mess, and the murder is obscured by a flurry of hyperactivity.

A particularly tiresome romance does not help, especially when burdened down with needless complications as to whether Hugh Prentice loves his fiancée, Monica Dean, one of the more unpleasant of the many unpleasant characters in the book (and what does Patrick Butler see in her?), or the reincarnated ginch, Lady Pamela de Saxe.  Since this is late period Carr, guess which one he chooses?

Contemporary reviews

NY Times (Anthony Boucher, 1st July 1956, 140w):

Rowdy action, wild chases and a protracted love story replace the cumulative terror of the classic Fell cases.  The result is short of Carr’s best work, but still an entertaining thriller.


Sat R (Sergeant Cuff, 7th July 1956, 30w):

French spoken here, also assorted English dialects; songs are sung; horseplay hinders pace.


NY Herald Tribune (James Sandoe, 15th July 1956, 140w):

This presents Mr. Carr at his most adept in the cheerfully weird, the succulently absurd.  By all means.


Observer (Maurice Richardson, 19th August 1956):

Another sealed room murder mystery, told with that wilful regardlessness that distinguishes his present period.  Solution by roaring Irish Q.C.  Can be read indulgently.