First published: US, Harper, 1952; UK, Hamish Hamilton, 1952
After two highly successful excursions into historical fiction with The Devil in Velvet and The Bride of Newgate, John Dickson Carr celebrates his return to the present day with a tale of crime in London and New York more puzzling than any this master of mystification has ever conjured up before.
The story, which the author calls A Novel for the Curious, opens late one night in a lawyer’s office on Broadway. To this office, in response to an advertisement, comes Bill Dawson, a hungry young Englishman with only a shilling between him and the future.
From the law office to a Greenwich Village bar (where there was a murder that couldn’t have happened), to a B.O.A.C. airliner, heading for England and for still more death went Bill, on a strange mission. Arrived in London, he finds himself involved in a series of hair-raising scenes, first in South Kensington, then at the top of a Georgian house in St. James’s Place, and later in the B.B.C. Bill is faced with a clever and sadistic old man in a wheel chair, a tall manservant who must once have been a professional wrestler, a typewriter, whose keys change colour, two ladies with passport problems, and a number of skilful attempts at murder.
And at last, in a most suitable setting indeed, the puzzles, the threats, the split-second chases are finally resolved in a solution that will test the most astute reader’s ingenuity to the full.
One of the most consistently entertaining late Carrs, reminiscent of classic Hitchcock. Bill Dawson, a young Englishman working in America, is employed by a fellow expatriate to impersonate him for six months in order to inherit his splendidly sadistic uncle’s fortune; the nephew is poisoned, and suspicion falls upon Dawson, who travels to Britain to avenge the crime. Full of excitement and tension, with just a touch of diffuseness in the shift from America to England—note splendid scenes at the B.B.C. and in wicked Uncle Gaylord’s flat. Smash surprise solution given, very aptly, in Sherlock Holmes’s rooms. Catch this Carr.
Why does Bill call his mother ‘Mom’? (p. 254)
NY Herald Tribune Bk R (James Sandoe, 2nd November 1952, 270w):
Certainly the solution is surprising but I’m afraid that it isn’t a tale for the common reader but one for the connoisseur or those other fellows the cognoscenti or their cousin the aficionado. It’s theatricalities are strained, even in Mr. Carr’s cloudy lighting, and its ingenuities are puckeringly dry.
Observer (Maurice Richardson, 9th November 1952):
Starts with young Englishman broke in New York agreeing to impersonate legatee who wishes to avenge himself on his sadistic uncle in London. Goes in with every imaginable device for reader fooling, nobody and nothing being what they seem, plus nine misleading footnotes. Yet it manages to be exciting all the way and includes some “genuinely erotic” love interest. Maddeningly entertaining.
NY Times (Anthony Boucher, 16th November 1952, 400w):
Something has happened to The Master’s touch. Judged purely as fiction, this is an exceedingly long and ponderous novel, superficially and even inconsistently characterised. It will not be read as a story; it must stand or fall as a pure technical puzzle. And the regrettable fact is that it is not well or honestly constructed.
San Francisco Chronicle (L.G. Offord, 23rd November 1952, 60w):
It is truly painful to report that Mr. Carr has written a poor book, with only faint glimmers of his usual genius.
Springfield Republican (R.F.H., 23rd November 1952, 70w):
The book is too much of a tour de force to be a top-grade mystery novel.