The Judas Window (Carter Dickson)

  • By John Dickson Carr, as Carter Dickson
  • First published: US: Morrow, 1938; UK: Heinemann, 1938; also published as The Crossbow Murder, Berkley 1964

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Widely believed to be the best of the Merrivales, but I’m not a fan.

H.M. acts as counsel for the defence, his client, Jimmy Answell, accused of murdering his prospective father-in-law in the locked and bolted study. He deducts, rather than detects, for the facts are already known to him in preparing the case; with this in mind, the reader may still wonder why the case ever came to trial, for, although H.M. explains his reasons satisfactorily enough at the end, the reader may still suspect that H.M. (and Carr) wanted a grand courtroom drama.

There’s a great twist halfway through, and the placing of clues and deductions is superb.  The solution to the locked room, the “Judas Window” of the title, is disappointingly mechanical, and, on first reading, hard to visualize; and the murderer’s identity is a decided anti-climax. Indeed, the characters are all very flat, and the book moves much more slowly than the average Carr novel.

Blurb (US)

THE CASE:    Avory Hume is found stabbed to death with an arrow—in a study with bolted steel shutters and a heavy door locked from the inside.  In the same room James Caplon Answell lies unconscious, his clothes disordered as though from a struggle, his fingerprints on the damning arrow.

THE ATTORNEY FOR THE DEFENCE:    That gruff and grumbling old sleuth, Sir Henry Merrivale, who proves himself superb in court—even though his gown does tear with a rending noise as he rises majestically to open the case!

THE ACTION:           Before H.M. can begin his defence, Answell, his client, rises and cries out that he is guilty.  Sir Henry doesn’t believe it.  But proof, circumstantial evidence, and the man’s own confession point to his guilt.  Here is the unique Carter Dickson “impossible situation”—yet the great, explosive detective gets down to serious sleuthing and at last startles the crowd in the Old Bailey with a reconstruction of the crime along logical, convincing lines.

Blurb (UK)


March 4, 1936


The Charge.  Wilful murder of Avery Hume.

The Judge.  Mr. Justice Rankin.

The Counsel:

For the Crown: Sir Walter Storm, K.C. (Attorney General)

Mr. Huntley Lawton

Mr. John Spragg

For the Defence: Sir Henry Merrivale, K.C.


“The arrow, from hanging so long on the wall, had accumulated a coating of greyish dust; except for a thin line along the shaft where, presumably, it had hung protected against the wall…  When he bent down to look, even with the naked eye he could make out clear fingerprints.  Answell looked back at his own hand, holding it out in front of him as though he had burnt it.

At that moment, he says, there came into his mind some faint notion of what might really have been meant by that telephone-call; of Mary’s white face, and certain conversations in Sussex, and a hasty letter written overnight.  But it was only a cloud or a ghost, a name that went by his ears.  He lost it in Avery Hume’s study, standing over Avery Hume’s body, for there were other things to claim his attention.

No, it was not the sound of the blood beating in his own head.

It was the sound of someone knocking at the door.”

Contemporary reviews

Saturday Review of Literature (8th January 1938, 40w): First-rate…most ingenious murder device in years…

Books (Will Cuppy, 9th January 1938, 300w): You may not believe every word of this new Dickson tale, yet you’ll probably find it as satisfactory as any thriller you can name, thanks to the author’s justly famous skill at plotting and the presence in fine fettle of that favourite sleuth, Sir Henry Merrivale, K.C.

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 9th January 1938, 200w): Perhaps you are tired of locked-room murders…  But do not condemn the idea until you have read this one, for it is a particularly ingenious one, and it has the additional merit of showing H.M. at his very best.  There is, however, one little point about the murder that is left unexplained.  The one possible explanation seems, in view of what we are told, to be impracticable or, to say the least, difficult enough to make a complete description of the method eminently desirable.

The New Yorker: One of the most ingenious of the sealed-room mysteries which are the specialty of the touchy but tender-hearted detective, Henry Merrivale.

Philadelphia Record: One of H.M.’s best.  Plot, action, pace, all Grade A.

The Times (1st February 1938): CUNNING DEVICES

Mr. Carter Dickson’s readers know his methods sufficiently to expect a murder planned and executed with a cunning that borders on the fantastic.  They will not be disappointed in The Judas Window.  Here is another of this author’s “locked-room” mysteries.  James Answell, calling on his prospective father-in-law, is drugged and awakes to find his host skewered with an arrow that was one of a group of trophies on the wall.  Naturally Answell is arrested, and the story is skilfully presented as an account of his trial.  As Sir Henry Merrivale, K.C., is briefed for the defence, the Old Bailey sees some entertaining and startling developments.

Times Literary Supplement (Caldwell Harpur, 5th February 1938): “You have a Judas Window in your own room at home,” says H.M., the fat and ingenious defence lawyer.  He declines to explain, but he is right, though the word window is not often applied to an opening so small.  Still, it is just credible that a murderer might use it as the dust-cover artist shows and, if so, James Answell need not be guilty merely because he was found in a locked room with Hume’s corpse.  But the case against him looked complete.  Henry Merrivale had to show not only that James did not kill Hume but that Hume and others had planed most of the incriminating details themselves.  The details are neatly fitted and the actual murderer comes as a surprise.  Crossbow archery and Central Criminal Court procedure are well described.

Observer (Torquemada, 6th February 1938): CROSS-BONE PUZZLES

If the reader looks forward to a Carter Dickson, as I do, for an ingenious mechanical problem, unassailable logic and a well-written comedy, he will agree with me, I think, that The Judas Window is the best story which even this author has written.  Caplon Answell was in a bad spot, for he had been found alone with the murdered body of Avery Hume in a more perfectly sealed room than has ever before, I imagine, been presented in a “sealed room” mystery.  For a certain reason Sir Henry Merrivale had to let the case come to trial and appear for the defence himself instead of doing one of his conjuring tricks beforehand.  Though an H.M. in court for the first time since, before the war, he opened his address to the jury with “Well, you fatheads,” and an H.M. determined, moreover, to be “the old maestro if it choked him,” is a perspiring anxiety to his friends within the building, to the reader he is unadulterated jam, almost as rich as the superlative jam in which young Answell finds himself.  Apart from the loving comedy of the “old man” himself, the chief of the many interests of the book is the “unsealing” of the room.  The Judas Window is there all right; and, to save the reader from being worried by a certain doubt which bothered me, I may say that I successfully carried out the experiment which H.M. details.  The window is not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door; but ‘tis enough, ‘twill serve.

Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 18th February 1938, 220w): The book would merit the highest praise if one did not feel it would be a little spoilt for some readers by the author’s odd assumptions of what is possible under the lunacy laws, and for others by a feeling that the hero is not much to be congratulated on winning the hand of a young lady so partial to pornography in the nude.

New Statesman & Nation (Ralph Partridge, 26th February 1938, 180w): I regard it as Mr. Dickson’s masterpiece to date.

Spectator (Rupert Hart-Davis, 25th March 1938): Mr. Carter Dickson always promises a little better than he gives.  He is particularly fond of our old friend, the sealed-room mystery, and in The Judas Window he gives it another outing.  His solution is certainly ingenious, if a trifle over-elaborate, but it does not seem to agree with the position of the body as marked on the plan.

Evening Standard: The Judas Window must rank as one of the best crime stories of the year.

Sunday Times: Surprise after triumphant surprise.

Punch: The most diverting and satisfactory example of his work.

William Lyon Phelps: One of the most thrilling murder trials I’ve ever read.  He’s perfect.