Seeing is Believing (Carter Dickson)

By John Dickson Carr

First published: US, Morrow, 1941; UK, Heinemann, 1941.  Also published as Cross of Murder, World 1959.

Blurb (US)

Carr - Seeing is Believing US.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

A murder is committed in a room full of people, with everyone watching, yet no one knows who did it or how it was done.  Here’s another “impossible” situation put up to Sir Henry Merrivale to solve.

Our grumbling old friend, H.M., is grumpier than ever because he’s absorbed in dictating his “me-moirs” – in no unseasoned phrases nor with any eye for libel – and resents bitterly having to sandwich his spirited dictation in between te investigation into this “impossible” murder and the series of hair-raising episodes that follow.

Beautiful Vicky Fane agreed to be the subject of the experiment and the small, intimate group at the Fanes’ house was attentive to every detail.  Their recollections of the episode checked perfectly.  Yet murder was committed before their eyes!

There was Dr. Rich, the psychiatrist, proving that he was not a trickster; handsome young Captain Sharpless, desperately in love with Vicky and openly suspicious of Dr. Rich; Arthur Fane, Vicky’s husband, who didn’t know that he’d been blurting out a terrible secret in his sleep; jovial Uncle Hubert, whose sponging on the Fanes seemed to Vicky nothing but blackmail; and lovely Ann Browning who resembled another girl, recently disappeared.

Blurb (UK)

Carr - Seeing is Believing UK.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

One night in midsummer Arthur Fane murdered a girl named Polly Allen.  Even in real life this sort of thing is apt to have complications.  In a book by Carter Dickson you can be sure the complications will be thrilling and entertaining to a degree, especially as one of the characters turns out to be “a magnificent figure in flannels and a high-crowned hat of loose-woven straw”, who is of course none other than “H.M.”  This lovable and irascible detective manages to dictate some lurid and wildly improbable chapters of his memoirs, while solving one of those ingenious and seemingly impossible murders which he (but no one else) can read like an open book.

My review


The murder is committed during a demonstration of hypnotism; the victim’s wife stabs her husband to death with what she believes to be a rubber dagger, for which a real dagger had been substituted. Further attempted murders, by strychnine and strangling, follow. H.M., occupied with his “me-moirs,” produces a solution weak both on believability and on logic. Carr sacrifices both authorial integrity (“admitted fact” indeed!) and believability of characterisation (the jug, to which the average reader will break out into unbridled mirth) to produce a surprise solution, in which neither method nor motive convince.  All feels a bit Hollywood.

Contemporary reviews

New Yorker (23rd August 1941, 50w):

Very funny, and written in Mr. Dickson’s usual brilliant manner.


Books (Will Cuppy, 24th April 1941, 160w):

You can hardly beat this for sure-fire, all-around mystery entertainment, what with one of the author’s smoothest plots and grumpy, loveable old Sir Henry rallying around.  Also two pairs of sweethearts and plenty of quiet fun.


NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 24th August 1941, 290w):

Mr. Dickson’s ingenuity in leading his readers astray is truly remarkable.  All the evidence is in plain sight, if one only knows where to look for it, but not many will find it.  There is one place, however, where the author slightly oversteps the bounds of what should be permitted to a writer of mystery stories.  It is all explained away, to be sure, but the explanation is not quite satisfactory.  Even so, no admirer of Carter Dickson and Sir Henry Merrivale will regret having read thisi story.


Sat R of Lit (30th August 1941, 40w):

Ennobled sleuth’s robustious memoirs vie with excellent detecting in fantastic and shrewdly tangled mixture of laughs and horror.  Essential.


Time (1st September 1941, 40w):

Good mental exercise and robustly amusing.


Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Willson Disher, 7th February 1942):

Some detectives become more and more shadowy.  Sir Henry Merrivale grows richer and fatter in personality as well as in bulk.  Fragments of the autobiography which he dictates at odd moments in Mr. Carter Dickson’s new story are partly responsible for this, but there are other reasons besides.  Somebody is killed during a demonstration of hypnotism; the case is so simple that an explanation seems either easy or impossible.  Merrivale’s Chestertonian logic proves that it is both, before the mat on a polished floor lets him down heavily and diverts his flow of language in another direction.  The author exercises subtle skill in making us suspect characters we know quite well, in saner intervals, to be innocent.  The most likeable people scarcely escape hanging before the criss-cross of false scents is at last smoothed away.


Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 20th March 1942):

Once more, in Seeing is Believing, Mr. Carter Dickson shows that it is nothing of the sort, since all are agreed that what is here seen to happen could not possibly have happened—till Sir Henry Merrivale shows the utter simplicity of it all.  Mr. Carter Dickson writes with such gusto and displays such ingenuity that his work always demands attention.  More the pity, then, that he, who knows better, should deliberately and in cold blood mislead the reader by a presentation of facts he later on calmly contradicts.