He Wouldn’t Kill Patience
John Dickson Carr (as Carter Dixon)
As motivational speakers are so fond of saying, we each have our own special talent. For John Dickson Carr, it was the ability to think up a series of increasingly unlikely ways people could be murdered alone in a room sealed from the inside. He’s the undisputed master of this, and He Wouldn’t Kill Patience doesn’t disappoint. The curator of a zoo is found dead in a locked room, sealed with paper from the inside: possibly murder, possibly suicide. Except that also found dead is one of his new specimens: and whatever he might have done to himself, the curator would never have hurt Patience the snake.
As a police officer in an Agatha Christie novels wisely said, most murders are dull: domestic stabbings, shootings, poisonings, “accidents”, with a cast of two or three suspects at most. This makes detective fiction an improbable genre from the start, and howdunnits even more so. Locked room mysteries consequently have a tendency towards the slightly (very) bizarre from the get-go, and then we factor in the second greatest thing about John Dickson Carr: his genuine love of the eccentric and the arcane. Writers such as Sayers or Innes sprinkle obscure quotations around like confetti and expect us to be impressed, but never once have they put a murder in a reptile house, with the Young Lovers investigating (a Carr staple, they begin at loggerheads despite never having met and end up a couple by the end) as the only descendants from rival warring families of magicians, the Quints and the Pallisers. Neither of these, naturally, are in any way vital to the plot.
He Wouldn’t Kill Patience wouldn’t know ‘gritty realism’ if it hit it over the head in a dark alley. Despite being set in the Blitz, the characters carry on their day-to-day lives as normal, even though there’s mention of longer-term effects. But neither of those things matter. Because it’s killingly funny and one of those books that, while wearing its learning lightly (Crispin, take note), has a genuine intelligence and love of knowledge that shines through every page. It’s only a couple of paragraphs into the first chapter, paragraphs that centre entirely on the zoo doorkeeper’s complete loathing for humanity, that you realise that you’re reading a murder mystery written in the style of P G Wodehouse. Carr’s title as ‘Master of the Locked Room Mystery’ is well-deserved, but it causes us to forget that he can also do to other things if he chooses: character, and comedy. Sadly, his comedy is based on absurdism and so never mixes with character, while his character is based on cynicism and so never mixes with comedy. But it means, as the Young Lovers get into an argument on their first meeting and inadvertently set a poisonous snake loose in the reptile house, we get confrontations like this between Merrivale and the grumpy doorkeeper:
‘Don’t incite him sir! Don’t run from him! Stand still, I tell you! Just stand still and he’ll be all right!’
‘I ain’t got the least doubt of it,’ roared the travelling voice of the stout gentleman. ‘Given the proper amount of exercise, he ought to be absolutely O.K. The point is, what happens to me?’
Wodehouse-esque. Especially in that a) the brilliant dialogue is for the page, and this scene would be unworkable acted and b) that line is supposedly spoken as the obese Sir Henry is running for his life away from a venomous snake. Sir Henry Merrivale himself can sometimes fall prey to the disease of many Golden Age detectives: he’s a collection of eccentric characteristics, but never quite works as a character. I gave a copy to my dad as a birthday present [Five Minute Mysteries believes the adage ‘give as you wish to receive’, so its friends and relatives have grown used to being given a nice book each Christmas and birthday], and his one observation was that Merrivale’s background, in this novel at least, just doesn’t fit: a Sir who refers to women as ‘wenches’ and drops his haitches. It may well be that this is explained in other novels – I think The Judas Window mentions it – but it’s still jarring. And despite the brilliance of the opening scene, which works brilliantly by introducing the detective as a potential passer-by / antagonist, Merrivale always has the upper hand, and there’s never really a sense of peril. He’s Sherlock Holmes, but with a sense of humour. Which, in a way, fits, as Carr in essence has the humour or Crispin and the plotting of Conan Doyle, with the addition of lines like:
‘Death was flowing out of the windows, flowing away; but it left a corpse like a straw doll.’
But I say ‘as good as Conan Doyle’ advisedly. A writer such as Agatha Christie will lay out the clues in a way that the intelligent reader should be able to guess. Since no reader is ever going to be as intelligent as Agatha Christie, that rarely happens, but by the end of one of her novels you’ve suspected all the characters but you’re still surprised. Then, when you read it again, the solution seems obvious. With Conan Doyle or Carr, you’re surprised and you never see the solution coming, but that’s because it’s a conjuror’s trick, like a rabbit out of thin air. As with many Carr stories, there aren’t really any characters and the motive is spurious but then the solution itself is so utterly, brilliantly ingenious that it doesn’t matter, and it’s an entertaining read in its own right. Nowadays Carr is essentially out-of-print in mainstream bookshops, which is quite a shame. Because while he’s utterly, utterly esoteric, he’s also completely brilliant.
Whilst anyone who calls J D Carr a misogynist is demonstrably an idiot, in approximately half of his books there’s a moment that makes you go ‘um…’, even though it’s almost always a sign of either villainy or simply a character taking the piss. Here, it’s in Merrivale’s romantic advice to Carey, one half of the story’s resident Young Lovers:
“If she starts raggin’ you, son, you just wallop her one. That’s the way to treat wenches when they get out of hand”.
The past is another country. They do things differently there.