(Langtail Press e-book 2010, US title; originally published in the UK as ‘The Black Spectacles’ in 1939)
John Dickson Carr wrote detective fiction both under this name and as ‘Carter Dickson’. He was American, but spent much of his life in England, and created a couple of English detectives who feature in a number of his books: Sir Henry Merivale, and Dr. Gideon Fell (thought to be modelled, at least in part, on G. K. Chesterton). His books are not easy to come by – Gollancz have published his The Hollow Men in their Crime Masterworks series, but the others aren’t easily available – not in the UK, anyway.
This, rather peculiarly-titled, book begins in Pompeii, of all places. The setting is almost incidental, but it introduces the reader to all the main characters: Marcus Chesney, a wealthy peach fancier and grower; his brother Joe, a doctor; Marcus’s niece, Marjorie Wills; Wilbur Emmet, Marcus’s assistant and orchard manager; Professor Ingram, expert in psychology; and George Harding, a young chemist and Marjorie’s soon-to-be fiancé. Observing the scene is Andrew Elliot, a police inspector (though we don’t find that, or his name, out until later). A mention of Aulus Lepidus, who was thought to have the house outside which they are currently congregating, causes Marcus to tell George (a suitor for Marjorie’s hand) that there was recently an outbreak of strychnine poisoning of chocolates in their village of Sodbury Cross, leading to the death of a child, and, due to circumstantial evidence, it is thought that Marjorie is the culprit. There have been rumours, and innuendoes, all of which have affected Marjorie badly, though Marcus is keen to return home since he thinks he knows how to prove how the poisoning was done. Despite all this, George is determined to marry Marjorie, and so Marcus gives his blessing.
Later, after the Chesneys’ return from their holiday, Elliot is called into the poisoned chocolates case, but coincidentally, he arrives at Sodbury Cross to consult with the local police on the same day as Marcus Chesney was himself poisoned, in front of a group of witnesses. He had decided to put on a show for his audience, in order to prove a theory he held that no-one was able to observe and accurately recount what they had witnessed, and in fact he was murdered by swallowing a ‘green capsule’ – not a dummy as planned, but one containing cyanide – in full view of those watching. Then, the following morning, Emmet, who had been deliberately injured at some time during the performance, was also murdered.
Elliot investigates, along with the local police – Superintendent Bostwick, who is convinced of Marjorie’s guilt, and Major Crow, the Chief Constable – and with the assistance of Dr Fell, and, although Fell arrives at the solution of the mystery first, Elliot is not far behind. It’s a very clever plot, despite the limited number of suspects, since Carr piles up contrary evidence, and makes the reader wonder which of the characters is telling the truth. Carr is also honest with the reader, not holding back evidence or knowledge which the characters have (or not much, anyway). It’s rather funny that all the people watching the scene – Marjorie, Harding and the professor – maintained so strongly that they were excellent observers, and yet it’s Ingram who seems to refute Marcus’s contention by being the sole accurate observer (though we discover that he is mistaken at least once).
Carr’s dialogue is entertaining and his characters are well-drawn and psychologically realistic; Elliot struggles with a deep feeling for Marjorie (and consequent dislike of Harding), but tries not to let this influence him. Despite the small number of characters – and hence suspects – Carr maintains suspense and puzzlement, since the most important piece of evidence turns out to be a fake. It’s all very cleverly done.
“Sh-h-h!” roared Dr. Fell.
But there was not time to think, for the whole affair was over too soon. When Nemo circled the table outside the range of light he became a sort of exploding blur, unpleasantly as though he had no existence and were dematerialising.
Then they saw a man murdered.
This is a good, meaty detective novel, even if it’s a little dated, with carefully worked out clues and a satisfying conclusion.