The Problem of the Green Capsule (John Dickson Carr)

  • By John Dickson Carr
  • First published: US: Harpers, 1939; UK: Hamish Hamilton, 1939, as The Black Spectacles

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This was the first John Dickson Carr novel I ever read, back in ’97, and it converted me.


“We are travelling in a house of illusions, a box of tricks, a particularly devious sort of ghost-train.”

Carr’s version of Agatha Christie‘s Cards on the Table, and, like that book, as brilliantly tricky a detective story as the reader could wish for. The rich dilettante Marcus Chesney uses a psychological observation test to demonstrate the method used to poison several children, the revelation of which trick would clear Marjorie Wills, his niece, from suspicion. She – and two other people – were watching Chesney’s on-stage murder, in full view of each other; and Chesney’s brother, the only other possible suspect, has a cast-iron alibi. Nobody could have committed the crime — yet it was committed. This is the authentic Carr touch, and the solution is typical of 1930s Carr: utterly brilliant,  surprising, and convincing.

The book is dedicated ‘To the memory of my father, Powys Mathers’.  Mathers was famous as Torquemada, the Observer‘s cruciverbalist and crime reviewer.

2015 addendum: One of JDC’s trickiest – the alibi is inspired, and the clueing logical and elaborate; it has a lecture on poisoners.  However, it’s almost entirely PLOT rather than story, so the solution can seem like a trick – possibly not enough story to support the book’s length, and may have worked better as a novella.  Well written, of course, but not much humor, characterization, or action.  It’s telling that the clues are almost entirely physical rather than character-driven, but JDC does a much better job than Ellery Queen of putting flesh and blood on the skeleton of the puzzle plot.

Blurb (US)

“Most people,” declared Marcus Chesney, “are absolutely incapable of describing accurately what they see.”

All his friends disagreed with this.  Each insisted that his account of anything would be accurate.  So Chesney challenged them to a test.  He staged a brief show for them, while one of the guests recorded the performance with a ciné-camera.  But when it was all over, Chesney lay dead from prussic acid poisoning.  Thus, three persons saw the murder done, and afterwards not one of them was able to tell what had happened.

What was the curious article, differently described by each, which Chesney had picked up in the course of the show?  Who was the man in black spectacles?  Why was there so much disagreement about his height?  Did he remove anything from the table?  Although all the testimony was at variance, everything, they thought, could be settled when they saw the film of the performance.  But as to what actually happened then…

The murder of Chesney came as a climax to a series of wholesale poisonings which had been terrifying the village.  Dr. Fell, taking the waters at Bath, was summoned by Inspector Elliott.  It was not until almost too late that Dr. Fell, in the greatest detective triumph of his career, could explain how it was possible for the murderer to be in two places at once.

Blurb (UK)

“Most people,” declared Marcus Chesney, “are absolutely incapable of describing accurately what they see or hear.  If they see a street accident, a riot, a fight, their minds are so muddled that every account will be wildly at variance, and of no value to the police.”

All his friends disagreed with this.  Each, from one reason or another, declared that it would be impossible to deceive him, and that his account of anything would be accurate.  Marcus Chesney challenges them to a test.  He will stage a very brief show for them, with his office as a stage and folding doors as a curtain.  They shall sit in another room and watch it, while a powerful light shines on the stage and the whole performance is recorded with a cine-camera.  Afterwards the guests must answer accurately a series of questions Chesney has prepared for them.  Thus:

Three persons saw the murder done, and afterwards not one of them was able to tell what had happened.

Who was the figure in black spectacles?  Every witness gives a totally different account of what happened.  Was the colour of the chocolate box on the table blue or green?  What was the time by the clock on the mantelpiece?  What was the curious article – described by one person as a pen, by another as a pencil, and by a third as a blow-pipe dart – which Chesney picked up in the course of the show?  Why was there so much disagreement about the newcomer’s height?

The murder of Marcus Chesney comes as a conclusion of a series of wholesale, brutal, senseless poisonings which have been terrifying the village of Sodbury Cross.  Chesney’s niece – Marjorie Wills – is under strong suspicion; but the evidence against her is not strong enough, and, at the murder of her uncle, she – like everyone else – has a sound alibi.

Dr. Fell, taking the waters at Bath, is summoned by Inspector Elliott, who did such good work in The Crooked Hinge.  And Dr. Fell’s explanation of the real black spectacles is perhaps the greatest detective triumph of his career.

Contemporary reviews

New Yorker (20th May 1939, 40w): Grand idea, beautifully told, with Dr. Fell, who luckily has been taking the waters at nearby Bath arriving at a solution.

Sat R of Lit (20th May 1939, 40w): Most intricate and sinister puzzle in moons, worked out step by step with devastating logic.  Explanation demands very close attention.  Super-baffler.

NY Herald Tribune Books (Will Cuppy, 21st May 1939, 300w): A meaty tale, chock full of problems and done to a turn.  It has everything most fans desire.

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 21st May 1939, 140w): In the hands of a less skilful writer than John Dickson Carr this story would probably have been a complete flop, for the plot is so unbelievably ingenious that most writers would have been unable to make it convincing.  But Mr. Carr has done the trick and has scored another triumph for himself and for Dr. Fell.

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Percy Ashley, 23rd September 1939): THE BLACK SPECTACLES

Here is Mr. Dickson Carr in his most ingenious, learned and readable form.  The Black Spectacles is a book which even in these grim days is capable of carrying the mind of the reader right away into the realm of the fantastic and which will yet confront him with a soluble intellectual problem.

The story begins with a number of children being poisoned with chocolates sold in the village shop.  This somewhat commonplace crime is followed by a far more complicated murder at the house of the rich man of the village, Marcus Chesney by name.  Chesney is an eccentric who dabbles in psychology, and one night he arranges a scene, in which he is the principal actor, to test his theory that the average person is incapable of recording accurately the things he sees.  Three persons watch the scene, his niece and her fiancé and an eminent psychologist.  In the course of the scene another figure appears disguised as “Dr. Nemo”, and the audience see, although they do not realise it, the murder of Chesney by a poisoned capsule being forced down his throat.  One of the characters takes a ciné-camera record of the whole astonishing episode; there is the trained psychologist to describe it; and there is afterwards found a list of trap questions written by Chesney to test the observation powers of his audience.  Thus the police are given a great deal of evidence disclosing a number of important discrepancies to work upon.  On the other hand, all the suspects appear to have cast-iron alibis, for the supposed accomplice is himself murdered and therefore, it is felt, is unlikely to have been the murderer.

Inspector Elliott, of the C.I.D., who is brought in to handle the case, is handicapped because he falls in love with one of the suspects, but fortunately for him Dr. Fell is near by and ready to help.  And this is the more fortunate in that the local chief constable and superintendent are in a highly critical frame of mind; indeed, it is surprising that they bothered to call in Scotland Yard at all.  The story is admirably told and is not overloaded with confusing characters.  Perhaps some of the red herrings are a little far-fetched and seem to conflict with the murderer’s objectives, but otherwise the plot appears to be soundly based on the other episodes of poisoning history outlined by Dr. Fell in his concluding lecture.  Mr. Dickson Carr should, however, beware not to make his characters too alike.  In this case all of them, including the three policemen, seem short-tempered, pig-headed and quick witted.  But it is ungrateful to be hypercritical.

The Times (14th November 1939): Not the weapon, but the baffling way it is used, is Mr. John Dickson Carr’s strong suit.  Marjorie Wills is suspected of substituting poisoned chocolates for some of the stock in a village shop.  Her uncle, who has theories on the value of eye-witnesses, stages a little melodrama as a test.  Three people, one of whom is taking a film of the proceedings, see him murdered before their eyes, yet none can identify the murderer.  Inspector Elliot’s attempts to get at the true story of what happened are fruitless until Dr. Fell takes a hand.  The Black Spectacles is as exciting and puzzling as anything this author has already given us.  He has long been acclaimed one of “the Big Five” in crime fiction, and those of his readers who are backing him for first place of all will be encouraged by this new mystery.