Vintage mysteries: Two books, two names, one writer

I’m going to double up on some of these writing challenge reviews – I was overambitious, and I’ll never manage to comment on all of the books individually. So, here’s my first twin review:

Review: The Problem of the Green Capsule
by John Dickson Carr

A keeper? Yes

Marcus Chesney loved to lecture people about how little most of us really notice. One night, he staged a little show to prove it – his friends and family had to sit in a dark room watching what happened in his adjoining office and getting ready to answer his questions, after the show, about what had just happened. (How did he get them to cooperate? Well, he was rich, and they had hardly any money except what he doled out.)

It was quite a show, too, especially when the weird-looking man in a long tight raincoat and gloves and top hat and dark glasses, with a scarf wrapped around his head to hide his face, stalked into the brightly lit room where Marcus sat “writing”. The intruder went up to Marcus, seized his chin, tipped his head back, and forced a green gelatine capsule into his mouth and down his throat – then turned and walked out. Oh, but it was all part of the show! Marcus pretended to collapse, and then announced that the show was over – the “invisible man” with the green capsule was his assistant Wilbur Emmett. And by the way, where was Wilbur?

It took only a few minutes to find him, outdoors unconscious under a bush, with his skull cracked. Get a doctor! But just then Marcus really collapsed – the green capsule was full of cyanide, and in a few more minutes Marcus was dead.

Was Marcus so passionate about his theories that he would stage his own murder? At least the whole show was filmed, so the police have a chance to study what really happened. Or do they?

Review: Nine – and Death Makes Ten by Carter Dickson

A keeper? Yes, again

(Apparently that grotesque cover is a reissue of the original 1940 design.)

There’s a whole group of vintage mysteries that are often called “country house” stories – get a handful of people isolated in a big old-fashioned English country house, and let the murders begin. Of course, there are various ways of setting up a limited pool of suspects, and this book uses a clever one: set the story on a passenger ship crossing the Atlantic in the first year of World War II, when only the foolish or desperate would risk being sunk by German submarines with  torpedoes.

The Edwardic sets sail from New York City to “a British port” with eight passengers listed. Or are there nine? Anyway, when somebody cuts Estelle Zia Bey’s throat on the second evening at sea, it can’t be that hard to identify the killer. Whoever it was left several fingerprints in her cabin. Before long, everyone on board has been fingerprinted and the prints have been studied – and the prints from Mrs. Zia Bey’s cabin don’t match anybody!

It’s a trick, of course, with more and more tricks behind it. And as the killer feels more and more trapped, more people will die. But is there a spy on board trying to signal enemy ships? Even if they can catch Estelle’s murderer, will any of them survive this voyage?

(Most of the Carter Dickson books are comic, or try to be comic. This one has a convincingly tense atmosphere, probably because, as Dickson explains in a note at the beginning, he based the situation on an Atlantic crossing he made in late 1939.)

Hmm, the authors sure have similar names, don’t they?

Back in the thirties through the fifties, people who liked mysteries involving impossible puzzles could choose from the latest books by either John Dickson Carr or Carter Dickson. The two men had slightly different “flavors” – Carter Dickson liked to throw in some slapstick comedy with his series detective Sir Henry Merrivale – but other than that, their stories were so similar you’d think they were written by the same person.

And they were. John Dickson Carr wrote an amazing number of books, even for that period when popular writers churned out a couple of stories a year; so many that he felt he needed to use a different name for some of them. (I assume he got all the money, though.)

Anyway, these are two good examples of his work, even though neither one involves the “locked room” situations he was famous for. (Maybe because of that. Some of his locked rooms are pretty far-fetched.) Both have genuinely scary moments, and both lean harder on confusing you about the characters’ real personalities than on expecting the killer to pull off unbelievably complicated stunts.

6 responses to “Vintage mysteries: Two books, two names, one writer

  1. I am going to hunt down some of these books and add them to my reading list – just got to get to the bottom of the existing pile first 🙂

  2. I’m a huge fan of Carr and really enjoyed the reviews, thanks. The Carter Dickson book was I think the second book if his that I ever read (the first was THE READER IS WARNED, whch is an underrated classic) – that was 30 years ago and I still remember the shipboard tale and the fingerprint gimmick – clearly made an impression!

    • Glad you liked them! I first came across The Reader Is Warned when I was in my teens, and while I forgot a lot of the details the basic setup stayed with me for years and years until I was able to find a copy again. He does have that gift of being memorable, doesn’t he?

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