The Blind Barber (John Dickson Carr)

By John Dickson Carr

First published: US, Harpers, 1934; UK, Hamish Hamilton, 1934

Blurb (US)

Carr - The Blind Barber US.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

The Queen Victoria was the most sedate of all Atlantic liners until this crossing.  But when four hilarious allies tried to prevent a diplomatic scandal, they became entangled in events of comedy and terror which turned the ship upside down.  There was the girl with the Greek profile, who was found murdered in her berth.  Stolen moving-picture film, and a stolen emerald, international jugglery and a novel device called “The Mermaid” play their parts in this swift and colourful murder-mystery.  The four allies took their troubles to Dr. Fell, whose chuckles were never more genial or his wits more sharp than in this case, which once again demonstrates his unique abilities in the field of crime.

“Mr. Carr can lead us away from the small, artificial, brightly-lit stage of the ordinary detective plot into the menace of outer darkness.  He can create atmosphere with an adjective, alarm with an allusion, or delight with a rollicking absurdity.  In short, he can write.” – Dorothy L. Sayers

My review

The Blind Barber is superb farce rather than a good detective story. In fact, although there are many clues, there is very little detection; instead, the book concerns four lunatics, who, whenever they see the captain of the Queen Victoria, attack him — with whiskey-bottles, fly-spray or professional boxers. Throw in the sozzled antics of M. Fortinbras, the master puppeteer; a pair of aesthetes who would make Philo Vance quail; and a Norwegian captain who tells pointless anecdotes, and the result is a classic comedy. Yet amidst all the comedy, the detective story is not forgotten. Dr. Fell, who appears only in brief episodes at the beginning, middle and end, functions as armchair detective, pointing out sixteen wonderfully gnomic clues, which would enable the alert reader to work out who attacked an unknown woman outside the room of one of the daft heroes, and vanished while the zanni rushed off to clonk the captain over the head with a whiskey-bottle, leaving only a bloody razor and a blood-soaked mattress behind. The MacGuffin clues, both an emerald elephant and an incriminating film of “eminent soaks,” are superbly handled, especially the elephant, which, like the money in The Punch and Judy Murders, is a brilliantly double-edged clue. The murderer’s identity is a grand surprise, SPOILER along the lines of G.K. Chesterton’s The Head of Caesar, a surprise that adds to the reader’s delight, for, not only has he been tremendously entertained on every page, but he has been hoodwinked and led right up the garden path.

Contemporary reviews

Observer (Torquemada, 11th November 1934):

We have never before laughed nearly all the time, and sometimes out loud, while reading the story of a really horrid murder; in fact, we doubt if any but the genuinely brilliant author of It Walks by Night and The Mad Hatter Mystery could have made us do so.  In The Blind Barber, Mr. Carr’s Dr. Fell only occurs as an introduction once, in a brief insert, and again at the end to make all clear: for the rest, we voyage from New York to England on the Queen Victoria with Henry Morgan, write of thrillers, whom we have met before, and also with some of the best companions in pure farce it would be possible to imagine.  Curtis Warren, who is robbed of the indiscreet “talkie” he took of his Uncle Warpus, M. Jules Fortinbras, who is in no state to give his marionette show, and the Norwegian ex-skipper who has known the commander of the liner in a more spacious youth-each has it in him to be the very centre of a humorous novel.  It is only at the end, when we sit in Dr. Fell’s flat in Adelphi-terrace, with one of the most repellent villains in recent fiction snickering and jeering at us in handcuffs, that we realise we have been treated to a first-rate detective problem which we have been almost too weak with mirth to solve.  It seems a shame that, apparently, no proof reader enjoyed this excellent story.


Times Literary Supplement (27th December 1934):

In this tale of crime on a liner, what with an emerald elephant that appears and disappears, and a girl whose body, after her throat has been cut, disappears for good, Mr. Carr achieves a fair degree of mystification and gives signs of an ingenious faculty in plot-making.  Unfortunately he has chosen to convert it into what he describes on the first page as “a rowdy and topsy-turvy chronicle”, which means that the characters rush ceaselessly round the ship getting themselves hit or hitting others over the head, and indulging in floods of loud (but quite innocent) oaths.  Mr. Carr has not the delicacy of touch to make this sort of thing palatable through 300 pages.  The characters are really neither here nor there: but in the Captain, and in one scene especially, the author shows distinct skill.


Sat R of Lit (27th October 1934, 30w):

Murder and merriment refuse to mix, even in practised hands of Mr. Carr.


NY Times (4th November 1934, 290w):

The Blind Barber is good mystery and lots of fun in the bargain.


Dorothy L. Sayers, Sunday Times:

I call it a gorgeous book, and if anyone doesn’t like it, I pities ’em.


Los Angeles Saturday Night:

We are in a ticklish position.  For years detective stories have been anathema to us, but a gentleman named Carr came along with an entirely new line of mysteries.  We read, laughed, shivered and were converted.


Baltimore News:

When you get mystery and farce-comedy in one book, you have a double-barrelled winner.