The Bowstring Murders (Carter Dickson)

  • By John Dickson Carr, as Carter Dickson
  • First published: US, Morrow, 1933, as by Carr Dickson; UK, Heinemann, 1934

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The Bowstring Murders is a bone of contention between fans of Carr’s writings. Some condemn the book; others, including the writer of this review, quite like it. Although certainly not one of Carr’s best, there is a great deal of detective interest in this tale of walking suits of armour and strangling by bowstring in a haunted medieval castle which boasts the finest private collection of medieval arms and armour in Britain (Dorothy L Sayers says he got his facts wrong). In these pre-Merrivale days, the sleuth is the alcoholic widower John Gaunt, probably the model for Anthony Boucher‘s Nick Noble. Like Carr’s other detectives, he mistrusts science, trusting to his brain to perform brilliant deductions. The solution is both ingenious and surprising, although similar to It Walks by Night (1930). It is hard to build up a coherent picture of the castle, there is little atmosphere, and the servants all speak Cockney — in the middle of Suffolk.

Blurb (US)

Against the dusty, historic background of Bowstring Castle, Carr Dickson plays out a tormentingly puzzling mystery to an exciting yet logical end.

The pace is swift and like the characters in the story, you will be completely mystified by a baffling murder – with the corpse found strangled in a room with undisturbed dust at the windows and a watcher by the door.

The characters in this story

Lord Rayle – master of Bowstring, a crazy, capering little man, immersed in the past, and in his famous collection of armor.

Lady Rayle – A hard, sophisticated woman, but with a taste for chocolates and French novels, and devoted to her little dog.

Patricia Steyne – Their daughter, young and lovely, and wildly infatuated with the movie star –

Larry Kestevan – Who had won his fame playing gangster parts, and who speaks in the approved language for gangsters, and revels in spotlights, and gaudy silk bathrobes.

Francis Steyne – The heir to Bowstring.  He seems a little queer too, and everybody knows that he has lost his head over –

Doris – Lady Rayle’s pretty housemaid.  Doris has just revealed that she is going to have a baby, and refuses to name the father.

Bruce Massey – The harassed secretary to Lord Rayle, who runs here and there, trying to keep the safe locked, and does his best to save the crazy peer from libel suits.

Dr. Tairlaine – A dignified American professor, who during an innocent visit to Bowstring is engulfed in the whirlpool of mystery and plays an intelligent Watson to –

John Gaunt – Silent and sombre, a detective of the old school who scorns modern, scientific methods of crime detection, and whose brilliant deductions – after he has tossed down enough brandy – justify his neglect of more conventional methods in solving the crime.

Blurb (UK)

Lord Rayle is found strangled in a room with undisturbed dust at the windows and somebody watching by the door!  Moreover there was an observer inside the room when the murder was committed.  The room was the world-famous armour-hall in Lord Rayle’s lonely castle; the hall was vast, gloomy, haunted with the ceaseless tumult of the mill-race below it.  The old-world castle atmosphere creates mystery and cloaks the most baffling murders we have encountered.

Apart from the inevitably exciting man-hunt, you will enjoy the atmosphere of this weird stronghold, with its odd assortment of inhabitants – Kestevan, the film star, suspect for the perfection of his gangster rôles; Francis Steyne, heir to the house, not so feckless as he seems; Dr. Tairlaine, dignified professor – an admirable Watson to the Holmes of John Gaunt – that topping doyen of detectives.  Last but not least comes Doris, Lady Rayle’s attractive maid, whose misfortunes promise a sub-plot – and double-guilt for the murderer.

Contemporary reviews

Sunday Times (Dorothy L. Sayers, 19th August 1934): The Bowstring Murders take place, if anywhere, in the Castle of Otranto.  There is a mad old baron in a weird old castle, where corpses appear mysteriously in a great old hall filled with suits of armour, and apparitions of armed knights haunt the staircase.

The plot is of the “hermetically sealed chamber” type, and the mysteries all have a plain, physical explanation, but the style is rather Adelphi, and some of the details are not convincing.  I have my doubts about the ballistics, and I know that a vambrace is not a kind of armour-plated skirt, but a defence for the forearm (avant-bras).  But there are ingenious touches here and there, and, with better handling, this might have made a good tale of the near-thriller type.

Times Literary Supplement (30th September 1934): Dr. Tairlaine, Professor of English Literature at Harvard, ought to have felt at home at Bowstring, the vast Gothic seat of Lord Rayle, since he had been lecturing on the “horrid novel” at Cambridge, England.  He was not; nor will the reader be.  For Mr. Carter Dickson has created a truly sinister and macabre setting for the death of the crack-brained nobleman and the death of one of his housemaids.  It is to his credit that he does not allow the absence of electric light, the incessant roaring of a waterfall and a thousand exits and entrances to obscure those sights and sounds which an intelligent reader needs if he is to identify the criminal.  On the whole, though, it must be admitted that his novel is one of mystery rather than of detection.  What detection there is must be credited, not to the police, who are never allowed a fair chance to carry out their normal routine, but to one of those Holmesian giants, John Gaunt, who treats the police as a pack of well-meaning nincompoops.  Whatever may objected against Gaunt’s methods, his solution of the crime is undeniably clever, though anyone who pays very close attention to the timing of the events preceding Lord Rayle’s death should have little difficulty in spotting his murderer.

Sat R of Lit (9th December 1933, 40w): Grim castle, clanking armour, ghostly halls form grand setting for macabre, shuddery, and well-developed yarn.  Gothic but good.

Books (Will Cuppy, 10th December 1933, 250w): Heartily recommended.  Carr Dickson appears to be a riddler of unusual talent, though running to a few more corpses than the law allows in the higher flights of credibility.  Read this one for creepy background, well assorted characters, lively plot and pleasing literacy…  First-rate example of the fast and fairly complicated school.

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 10th December 1933, 200w): The author’s skill in depicting odd and contrasting characters has made an essentially fantastic yarn appear to be perfectly logical.

Morning Post: Who murdered Lord Rayle, the dippy goat-bearded little Peer, found with a bowstring round his neck in the gallery where he kept his collection of mediaeval armour?  Who strangled Doris, the attractive housemaid, with a pair of mediaeval gauntlets?  And who shot the hard and handsome Lady Rayle?  The secret is kept with extraordinary ingenuity, with such ingenuity that Mr. Carter Dickson’s Bowstring Murders must be counted one of the best thrillers we have had for a year or two.