In my Hag’s Nook review last week, I lamented my lack of Carr readership in 2022 and promised to up those numbers by the year’s end. Well, I’ve already started toward that goal, which is why I’m back to Carr so soon. Well, not Carr but his very secret alter ego Carter Dickson, under which he wrote his series about the incorrigible barrister / baronet / espionage expert, Sir Henry Merrivale. My third Carr was The Judas Window, and across my journey so far I have tried my best to keep equal the numbers of Dr. Fell books and H.M. books I’ve read. “Dickson” had a pretty impressive run in the first nine Sir Henry mysteries, which contain a slew of clever impossible crimes, hidden murderers, and impeccable plotting. Death in Five Boxes was the last of those first nine I had yet to read. I’m glad to report that even though it isn’t perfect, it still exemplifies the hallmarks of the series which endear the Old Man to all of us.
Death in Five Boxes provides one of the best examples of Carr’s ability to write a truly wondrous introduction. The first couple of chapters provide the background that would take many other authors 25% of the book to get through, but Carr doesn’t rush it and still takes his time to provide atmosphere and mystery. Dr. John Sanders (who takes up the “Ken Blake” role in this book and The Reader Is Warned) leaves his place of work late one night, only to be stopped in his tracks by a young woman, Marcia Blystone, who asks him to check up on her father at the top floor of a house on Great Russell Street. The two enter the building, where Sanders finds a bloody umbrella/sword and a clerk on the third floor who seems concerned about the people upstairs. On the top floor, which is the flat of stockbroker Felix Haye, Sanders and Blystone find four people – Haye and his three guests – who have all been poisoned into unconsciousness but are still alive. That is, besides Haye, who has been stabbed to death. As the two call the police, the clerk on the third floor, Ferguson, warns that everybody on the top floor is some kind of a criminal, before he vanishes out of thin air while the police guard the building. In terms of mere plot packed into the introduction, Death in Five Boxes might take the cake; it rivals the beginning of To Wake the Dead, which features my favorite start to a Carr mystery.
Another author might struggle to keep the pace up after so much packed into the first few chapters, but Carr keeps the action and detection steady across the next 200 or so pages. Chief Inspector Masters and his protegee Sgt. Pollard are on the scene first, and they get some time to investigate themselves, and by the time that H.M. appears, they’ve already learned a lot about the main suspects: Haye’s guests were Sir Dennis Blystone, famed surgeon and Marcia’s father, who has had an affair with guest number two – Bonita Sinclair, an art critic who may be a black widow. Bernard Schumann, owner of the Anglo-Egyptian Importing Company of floor three, seems innocent enough at first, but his clerk, Peter Ferguson, is the most suspicious of the lot, especially as Schumann believed him dead for the past eight years. Once H.M. crashes his way into the investigation (literally), though, he by no means takes over the investigation. This is an aspect of Death in Five Boxes I have seen mentioned before, and it is really one of its strengths. From beginning to end, each of the investigator characters gets their own opportunities to do the routine investigation and to make their own breakthrough discoveries. H.M. mostly gives helpful clues to everyone but at the same time makes keen observations about the suspects’ supposed “criminal activities”. While Masters is of course the main detective on the scene, and he gets his own moments, it is Pollard who really gets to shine in this book, more so than he did in The Ten Teacups. Pollard does a lot of the interviews, and oftentimes he makes important discoveries simultaneously with the other characters, such as the secret behind the mysterious “Judith Adams”. While Sanders and Marcia are obviously the bickering to-be-couple of the story, they make their own discoveries too. My favorite moment of theirs is their “break-in” halfway into the book, in which Marcia’s quality of impeding just about everything about the investigationboth hurts and helps their efforts in thievery. This constant stream of detection and investigation, as well as the various explanations given to the different aspects of the mystery, was definitely my favorite part of the novel. It almost felt like Carr’s take on the humdrum mystery – Pollard’s routine especially reminded me of Jimmy Waghorn in Death in Harley Street. – and he does it in such a way that it becomes exciting and engrossing.
Carr’s characterization in this book is a bit of a mixed bag. Many of the characters involved in the mystery are not the most fleshed-out of characters, but I thought that Carr put more time to humanize his suspects than he did in other novels. Although he isn’t too well-known for it, Carr had the ability to write really good mysteries with short suspect lists. The best example of this is definitely The Problem of the Green Capsule, which has at most five suspects, but really more like four – and each suspect has enough going for them that they’re worth suspecting. The aforementioned To Wake the Dead, on the other hand, has five main suspects who were all at the scene of the crime for each of the two murders, but they’re too paper-thin to really consider as the murderer. Death in Five Boxes, however, finds a kind of middle-ground; while the three people in Haye’s flat and Ferguson are never explored too deeply to have any complex motivations or anything, we know enough about them and the kind of people they are that each could very well be a viable murderer. Besides that, though, the other characters can be kind of one-sided: Sanders and Marcia fill in their respective roles and that’s just about it, and the suspects don’t get filled in beyond the level they need to be so that they’re actually worth suspecting. The one character who I felt Carr did a really good job with was Sgt. Pollard, who came across as a hard-working detective who is willing to do the grunt work, and has equal levels of deductive skill and human fallibility. In this way he reminded me a lot of Inspector Elliot from the Dr. Fell oeuvre, and both are characters who I wish Carr has features more than a couple times each.
That leaves the puzzle itself to talk about. Death in Five Boxes fits into the H.M. tradition – it features a tantalizing impossible crime, just as its seven predecessors and The Reader Is Warned feature one or more impossible crimes (although the impossibility in The Punch & Judy Murders is solved like one page after it happens, but that book is much different than the other H.M. books in the best way possible). There are two main impossible crimes in Death in Five Boxes. The first is the impossible poisoning of Felix Haye and his three party guests – since the three survivors/suspects all testify to the same story that shows that none of them could have poisoned their drinks before, during, or after their preparation. The second is the disappearance of Ferguson, who vanished from the Anglo-Egyptian Importing Co. – the front door of the building was guarded by police, the back door was locked from the inside, and the only other way out was the window on the third floor which had a rain-pipe a bit too far away from it for comfort. Both these impossibilities are given much consideration, but unlike, say, the first four books in the series, they are put on the back burner so that the detectives can focus on the puzzles of the crime scene, the suspects themselves, the murderer’s timeline, a mysterious theft from Haye’s lawyers’ offices, and Haye’s strange behavior before his death. In this way, the slight disappointments of the solutions to the impossibilities do not hurt as much, since there is much more to the crimes than the impossibilities. The solution to the poisoning was, I’m sure, very clever for the time it was written, and while it would not be very clever nowadays, I can appreciate it for that. However, Carr tried too hard to hide the method of introducing the poison from the reader, and the result is a bit of a letdown. The disappearance, too, could have been very clever, but Carr had his characters rule out the correct method before they figure out that it was right all along! I felt that Carr tried to create two impossibilities whose solutions relied more on human psychology and assumptions in the way that G.K. Chesterton did to much success – and it just didn’t work for him. I give Carr points for the attempt, but the execution was subpar.
However, the rest of the solution in my mind made up for the letdown of the impossibilities. Carr has hidden his murderer very well, but by the end H.M. will convince you that the murderer may as well have waved a sign that read “Arrest Me” the whole time. There’s a complex and satisfying chain of deductions on H.M.’s part, with the proof to boot, and it’s presented a lot like a solution from the first period of Ellery Queen – a kind of solution I really love. Every aspect of the mystery is cleared up – and even if we thought a certain aspect was cleared up, H.M. either reveals the true reason behind it or adds onto it in a way that makes the solution even better. Unlike the last two Sir Henry novels, Carr does not include a clue-finder, which I think was a smart choice because he hides his clues much more in the open. I know that some people dislike one certain aspect of the solution (ROT-13: gung gur zheqrere vf gbb zvabe n punenpgre gb or n tbbq pubvpr sbe gur phycevg – n pevgvpvfz gung pna or yrivrq ba znal Pneef, naq juvpu V unir znqr zlfrys sbe bgure Pnee obbxf.) But what makes this okay for me is that Carr still includes enough clues and proof that the reader could definitely figure it out for themselves – I myself had figured out the secret behind the whole “Judith Adams” thing.
My copy was the Dell Mapback, and it’s always a delight to read one of those. The covers feel nice, the print is a good size, and the map itself is always fun to look at (although I would argue unnecessary for this book). One problem, though, that I had with this Mapback is the character list given on the very first page. I won’t say more, but if you’ve read Death in Five Boxes you can probably figure out why the character list angered me.
I read Death in Five Boxes in only two days, which hasn’t happened in quite a while for a GAD book. The pace, plot, and deduction of this book helped me to read it so quickly, and I enjoyed every minute of it. The mystery of Felix Haye’s murder was one I thought about even when I wasn’t reading it, which is always very high praise for a whodunit. Even if there are some disappointments in the solution of the impossibilities or the level of characterization, it’s still a very strong effort from JDC. I’m very glad that this was the book I chose to continue my self-challenge to read more Carr, because in many ways it reminded me of what I love about his books in the first place: Puzzles, plot, atmosphere, and surprises. It may not be one of Carr’s masterpieces, but it ‘s a book that I feel could be appreciated both by Carr newcomers and Carr fans.
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2 responses to ““Death in Five Boxes” by Carter Dickson”
A minor point that I liked: sometimes Carr sets up a puzzle of explaining not how someone died, but why someone behaved so weirdly. He does it here with the boxes; why would anyone go around with these contents? And he then delivers a satisfyin explanation.
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This is an aspect which Carr tried a few times, and he almost always did it well. The explanation for the boxes and Felix Haye’s behavior is explained wonderfully for sure. He did something similar in The Eight of Swords, where both the victim and his murderer both acted strangely (i.e. the murderer using an unusual point of entrance, the two opening windows during a thunderstorm, one of them apparently ate a meal, etc.) and it’s all explained away by Dr. Fell in some of his best ratiocination in the first half of the story. I found it a bit of a shame that the first act of T8oS and the solution were pulled down by a middle act which really drags for a while and then turns into a quasi spy-caper for thirty pages before the reveal of the murderer.