The Four False Weapons (John Dickson Carr)

By John Dickson Carr

First published: US, Harper, 1937; UK, Hamish Hamilton, 1938


Blurb (US)

Carr - The 4 False Weapons US.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Henri Bencolin, greatest of French detectives, returns in this most ingenious mystery to solve the murder of Rose Klonec, who was found dead in her villa with four weapons beside her.  A stiletto, a razor, poison or a pistol – which of them had killed her?  That was a problem for Bencolin, no less than for the young Englishman who had come there to protect his client.  Can an electric clock be made to serve as an alibi?  What was the significance of the missing champagne bottle?  Were the open balcony windows an important clue?  And which, of the little group of English and French who gathered one night to play at Basset, the greatest gambling game of them all, the game of the kings of France, was the one who had murdered Rose Klonec?

Here is a mystery with a new twist, wherein Bencolin returns once more to capture with his wit and humour the imagination and absorbed attention of the reader.

Blurb (UK)

Carr - The 4 False Weapons UK.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Bencolin, famous French detective and central character of It Walks by Night, returns to this magnificent new thriller by one of the outstanding mystery writers of our day.  Rose Klonec is found murdered at the villa in the Forest of Marley, outside Paris.  Four weapons are found in the room.  Which was used in the crime?  And can an electric clock serve as an alibi?  And what had become of the missing champagne bottle?  Out of a twisted and baffling series of events, Mr. Carr has woven this most exciting thriller.


My review

A good solid mystifying problem. Henri Bencolin, mellowed since his retirement, does a logical job of clearing the play-boy from suspicion of having murdered his poule-de-luxe (murdered, it later transpires, in a particularly ingenious way). The book’s theme is the triumph of common sense over science: none of the physical clues (sleeping pills, fingerprints, an electric clock, champagne, and the four false weapons themselves) are to be trusted, and the ingenious theories of Auguste Dupin, criminologist of L’Intelligence, which rely heavily upon physical clues, are invariably wrong. Ironically, the book is in the tradition of R. Austin Freeman, who wrote several scientific satires (e.g. The Red Thumb Mark). The book’s principal flaw is its over-reliance on “the innate perverseness of all human events”; and, although the solution is logical and impeccably fair, the murderer’s character and relationship with his victim are not sufficiently built up to make the motive convincing.


Contemporary reviews

 

Observer (Torquemada, 10th April 1938):

CARR AND DUKE

After his good work in To Wake the Dead, Dr. Fell has been given a holiday.  I am only glad of this because it has allowed Dickson Carr to let us pick up our friendship with Bencolin, from whom we parted too long ago in It Walks by Night, and who is perhaps the only French detective in English fiction worthy, as a personality, to live in the same memory as Hanaud.  With this change of detective there is also an amusing change in stress of construction and in kind of problem.  In the matter of stress, instead of waiting to learn all the truth at the end, we solve the minor half of the major problem two-thirds of the way through the book, then unknowingly work on a minor problem till nearly the end, and only whip back, as it were, to the major half of the major problem in the last chapter.  In the matter of kind, instead of being concerned in finding out how an “impossible” or sealed crime could have been made possible, we have to explain to ourselves the presence on the scene of a perfectly possible crime of an unconventional plethora of grisly tools, and to determine the identity of our murderer by finding out why, at every stage, he apparently did the wrong thing and left the wrong clue.  Richard Curtis, the very junior partner of a London law-firm, goes to Paris to help a pleasant young millionaire in an embarrassment with a somewhat unusual poule de luxe, and finds the latter murdered in bed.  A dastardly little sin and a crime not of violence, but of temper, have met over her dead body, to their mutual confusion, and before this complication is straightened out young Curtis has managed to win the hand of the daughter of an entirely extraneous murderer and also £9,000 at The Corpses’ Club.  By the time we have failed to note one small but crucial lie, and have reached the end of what the genially ferocious Bencolin calls “this merry little account of cross-purposes and the perverseness of all human things” we begin to suspect that Dickson Carr has by now waded through slaughter to the very throne of literary detection.

 

Spectator (Nicholas Blake, 27th May 1938):

The scene of The Four False Weapons is [like Eric Ambler’s Epitaph for a Spy] also laid in France, and the book is notable, amongst other things, for the return of Mr. Carr’s unconventional French detective, Bencolin.  Mr. Carr’s plots often convey the impression that someone has presented him with a fantastically improbable situation and a list of the most insane, random and paradoxical accessories, and has defied him to knock some sense out of them.  As usual, he makes it appear the most logical thing in the world when, in this new book, a demi-mondaine is found dead with a revolver, a razor, a stiletto and a box of poisonous pills grouped around her, none of which has caused her death.  There is some hanky-panky with an electric clock to exercise the scientific reader; the characters stand up in their own right; and suspicion flits like a butterfly from one person to another.  You will also find plenty of good and amusing dialogue to enliven the detection.

 

Times Literary Supplement (George Palmer, 30th April 1938):

Rose Klonec, ex-mistress of a young American playboy, is found murdered in the latter’s luxurious villa on the outskirts of Paris.  In the bedroom are a variety of weapons, quantities of champagne and many cigarette stubs.  Bencolin is recalled from retirement by his Government, for it is known that politics have some part in the crime and Bencolin alone can be trusted to solve the mystery in a discreet manner.  So discreet, indeed, is he that he advises against the prosecution of the guilty person, when he has proved his cause.

The plot may be a complicated one but it is superbly handled.  And if politics and passion are the predominant causes of the violent death of a beautiful poule-de-luxe, the forest of Marley is the perfect setting.  Such a thing could never occur at Epping, for instance.  There are many amusing characters in this excellent book, particularly the ingenious Jean-Baptiste Robinson, a crime reporter.

 

Books (Will Cuppy, 10th October 1937, 150w):

This might almost be a translation—an excellent one—from the French, so atmospheric is Mr. Carr, as always, in his Gallic puzzle.

 

NY Times (Kay Irvin, 10th October 1937, 300w):

A story of crime and detection in Paris among sophisticated moderns, and it moves from point to point along its path of incident, repeated surprise and clear-cut suspense to reach its climax in a brilliantly handled scene of emotional excitement.

 

Sat R of Lit (25th October 1937, 40w):

Too many sharp turns in solution—and Bencolin is slightly rusty—but the gambling chapters are swell.