Sunday, 13 July 2014

Dress Down Sunday: A book from 1939

The Reader is Warned by Carter Dickson aka John Dickson Carr

published 1939


LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES







It was a woman’s bedroom or boudoir after the French fashion of the middle eighteenth century. The wall-panels were of silk, alternating in mirrors with gilt medallion-heads. The bed at their left, a sort of indoor tent, was draped and billowing from a gilded circle of wood in the ceiling…

The mist of unreality about that scene behind the gold gauze, the two electric candles throwing their light dimly on the silk wall-panels, the hush given to footsteps and even voices by very thick carpeting, all these things kept the brains of the watchers dulled like an opiate.

By moving his head sideways, Sanders could see her reflected in one of the long mirrors across the room. She was a small, plumpish, extremely good-looking blonde, with long ringlets which fell past her shoulders, large lips, and narrow twinkling eyes… She was wearing a heavy lace negligee which went went with her air of silk sleekness…



observations: Rich Westwood, Mr Past Offences himself, does a roundup each month on his blog of Classic Crime in the Blogosphere, a meme in which Clothes in Books is proud to make regular appearances. In June, he suggested that prospective participants do a 1963 book – see the fascinating results here. The July year (chosen by ME) is 1939. So this is my entry.

The book gets off to a stonking start – the usual odd collection of people are gathered in a country house, and one of them is a ‘mind reader’. As they make plans for a scratch meal, the mind reader says to one guest ‘I do not think that you will get any dinner… I do not think you will be alive.’ He sets the table for one fewer person than is in the house – and sure enough, by 8 o’clock there is a dead body on the landing. Excellent stuff. Lots of misdirection about the mind reader, who claims to be able to kill people via ‘Teleforce’ – kind of psychic waves. There’s a fascinating contemporary reference, given the date:
‘Well could you kill Hitler, for instance?’

‘Who is Hitler?’

All of a sudden it was like talking to the man in the moon. I asked him where he had been for the last five or six years. He said quite seriously, ‘In various parts of Asia, where we do not get much news.’
A chef’s hat crops up several times, and is referred to as a muffin-top hat – a change from the contemporary meaning of muffin top.

The book is dedicated to the author and playwright JB Priestley, and there is an extended reference to his play Dangerous Corner – which should be a clue, but didn’t help me much.

So all was going well. But then….

UNFORTUNATELY the solution and explanation involve (as something of a side-issue, this isn’t really a spoiler) some extremely racist views which will be abhorrent to most modern readers. It seems likely Carter Dickson was merely reflecting the society around him, and playing with ideas for clues and crimes, but it really messes up this book, and for that reason I can’t recommend it – except perhaps as a sociological document showing views of the time.

Dramatic scene reflected in a mirror is from the Library of Congress.

21 comments:

  1. Moira - Oh, I know what you mean. I've read Golden Age novels like that too. It's so hard sometimes when the book is corking, as Carr could be, and then that happens. *sigh* - Well, the snippet you shared reminds me of his ability to depict a scene, and of course he was such a master at the 'impossible' mystery. Some of it was great stuff.

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    1. Yes it is a shame: he was such a good writer, with such clever plots, but unfortunately the views at the end spoilt this one for me. I don't think this is an issue with most of his books...

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  2. Well, that ending is a shame, because I was thinking I would try this one. Oh well, there are plenty others by Carter Dickson to try. I thought I must have read some when I was young but not sure.

    The word "stonking" is totally new to me and my husband. Thanks for adding to my vocabulary. The image is perfect.

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    1. He is so good, you should try something by him, but maybe not this one. Very glad to introduce you to the word stonking... I hope you will have opportunities to use it frequently

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  3. On the racism matter in this novel, Doug Greene address this in his biography of Carr: "But H. M. and Carr himself, though still having some stereotypes about the genetic holdover of primitivism ("reverted to type"), have a grudging respect for [X]....The Old Man explains that African fetishism is no different from medieval European witch beliefs. In short, Carr seems to be saying that whatever evil beliefs and practices exist, they are not racial; they are human."

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    1. It's good to see a defence of the book and of Carr, but I'm not wholly convinced, and it did make me very uneasy. But thanks for passing this on, Curt.

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  4. Although I'm sympathetic to Doug Greene's interpretation of the book, I don't think it's among Carr's best. But the reference to the international situation strikes me as very interesting indeed.

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    1. Yes it was definitely worth reading for historical and sociological reasons. Like you, I was interested in hearing another view, but I still can't help having a cool attitude to the book based on the ending.

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  5. I cant remember if I got myself a Dickson Carr book or not. Well done on hitting another challenge anyway. Not started my 39 read yet, but I have finished my 63!

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    1. Well done with the historical work. I think I can do this kind of challenge - one book a month - much better than the bigger ones. Surely you have a DC book tucked away somewhere in the Criminal Library Mountain?

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    2. Scratches head......I thought I had one, but I can't find it on my "acquisition log," I thought I had agreed he was someone I ought to read at least one by.

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  6. I can't come at Dickson Carr for this very reason - I can't remember what book it was I read (in the days before I kept lists) but it really put me off - I can forgive a certain amount of period-specific opinion but this author just makes me too uncomfortable (but also glad I live in more enlightened times). I was an archivist for many years and I argued vehemently that we should not alter records to suit modern sensibilities when using them for exhibitions or publications but that doesn't mean I want to spend my leisure time wallowing in abhorrent opinions

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    1. Yes - it's a philosophical question isn't it? I think his views were very much of their time, and I can try to be forgiving of that, but it's not going to make me love a book... even though this is an author that I generally like, and who has quite modern views on some things.

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  7. I was all set to read a book or two by Carr, but reading this about the racism I don't know. I'm not tolerant of that or anti-Semitism or misogyny at all. I stopped reading some classic mysteries when I found this to be true. (With Jewish/Russian immigrant grandparents, I have no tolerance for this stuff.)

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    1. I think from this, and your previous comments, you probably would not be able to enjoy this book.

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  8. Sounds like I shall have to revisit this one Moira - I remember loving it as a teen but haven't re-read it in a very long time - Carr is one of the few authors from that era who, in own recollection, seemed to have avoided the casual racism that blights so many books of its type - annoying to see that my memory has cheated (not for the first time ...)

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    1. Sergio, I looked at your site after I read this, hoping you might have reviewed it - I really wanted another opinion. It's difficult to say too much about this, but actually it isn't casual racism - the passing remarks that you find in many of his fellow writers. It's to do with the solution, and it truly seems as though he was just looking at something that would work in his own way. But I found it hard to read. Please read it again - I really want to know someone else's take on this, I'd like to know if it would strike someone else differently.

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  9. Thanks. I'll pass, but I'm hoping some of Carr's other books, some classics, don't involve racism. I do want to read a few of his locked-room mysteries, so I hope there are a few that don't have this characteristic.

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    1. As others discussing this have said, Carr is much less prone to racism (usually) than some other authors. We'll have to try to find one for you!

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  10. I don't agree with many of the above remarks. Accusing Carr himself of racism is a serious misreading of the book's finale. Racist attitudes ARE expressed in its pages, but by its two most reprehensible characters: 1) the 1st victim; 2) the actual murderer. Carr's spokesperson, sleuth Sir Henry Merrivale, emerges as not only tolerant and sympathetic but ADMIRING of the novel's African protagonist: "he really has got a remarkable brain, a stunning penetration, an ability ... to read and judge people."

    As there are racists today, there were racists in this 1939 novel -- except that, here, they get their comeuppance, and Carr himself remains compassionate, objective, and humane. So this is still an old favorite of mine, and here's my recommendation: read it before leaping to judgment.

    F P Walter
    Albuquerque NM

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    1. Hi Ms/Mr Walter - thanks for visiting and I found your comments very interesting. I obviously had a different take on the book, but I am always open to other views, and indeed think people should make up their own minds. I am very happy to have a defence of the book here. Thank you.

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