Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Tuesday Night Club: John Dickson Carr’s Comic Masterpiece



The Tuesday Night Club is an informal group of crime fictionCarr logo fans choosing a new author to write about each month – and we have picked on John Dickson Carr for March. We’ll all be producing pieces about him and his books on Tuesdays: new and occasional writers always welcome to join in – just send one of us the link to your piece.



Logo courtesy of Bev Hankin.

Noah Stewart is collecting the links again this month:


The week 1 posts are gathered here.


For week 2 I decided to revisit an old favourite – would it live up to my recollections?

The Case of the Constant Suicides by John Dickson Carr


published 1941


 
case of the constant suicides 2
 

Even then he noticed how attractive she was, though she wore very little powder or lipstick, and there was a look of determined severity about her rounded face. She was five feet two inches tall, and pleasantly shaped. She had blue eyes, spaced rather wide apart, a good forehead, and full lips which she tried to keep firmly compressed. She wore tweeds, a blue jumper, and tan stockings with flat-heeled shoes.

 
 
[Laterlooking at photo albums]

He turned over a page or two.

Case of the constant suicides 3‘The women, as a rule, come out better than the men. Here is one of Colin as a young man, which looks as though he’d drunk about a quart of the Doom of the Campbells before leering at the case of the constant suicidesphotographer. Aunt Elspat, on the other hand, was a really fine-looking woman. Bold-eyed brunette; Mrs Siddons touch. Here she is in a man’s Highland costume: bonnet, feather, plaid, and all.’




commentary: This has long been one of my favourite JDC books, and (no Carr-style suspense here) when I re-read it I was not disappointed.

From the romcom opening scenes - with the two combative academics forced to share a compartment on the sleeper train - onwards, it is a joy and an entertainment to read.

I thought about the things I most like about JDC, and then looked at this book to see how it fitted my preferences:

1) London settings. I always say I much prefer his books that are set in London – a city Carr plainly loved and describes well. He is very good at atmospheric descriptions of London – I would say He Who Whispers is particularly good in this respect. He had the outsider/insider view: he was born and brought up in the USA, then moved to Europe in his late 20s. Kate Jackson has done a marvellous entry for the Tuesday Night Club on Carr’s settings, with solid research – so I don’t need to rely on my intuition to say that most of his books are set in the UK, a few in Europe and a handful in the USA. (Dead Man’s Knock is a US-set book that has featured on the blog – I wasn’t over-enthusiastic about that, and said ‘two characters met at a dance in a gymnasium, which you can’t somehow imagine in his English-set books.’) In general I think cities bring out the best in him - better than villages or country houses.

This book: entirely set in Scotland, and a remote Highland part of the country for that matter.

2) Really excellent locked room puzzles, impossible to guess and satisfying to have solved – for example the classic Judas Window.

This book: I couldn’t say I guessed every detail of the plot, but a key aspect of how death could be achieved did rather jump out at the reader.

3) An unsettling sense of wickedness and fear – bad things are happening. See, for instance, The Reader is Warned.

This book: far too full of jokes and comedy situations to work up much sense of dread. The warring couple, the severe ancient relation, the casual attitude to drink, fighting and sex - all are played for laughs. I particularly liked Aunt Elspat on hearing that Alan is C of E.
‘Rags o’ Popery!’ she said….   ‘Think shame and sorrow that wad dally wi’ sin and lechery i’ the hoose of the Scarlet Woman!’
Later she is hoping to hear that Kathryn goes to the ‘godless dance-halls o London’, so she can find out what the jitterbug looks like.

She and the comedy-American are absolute stereotypes but still great fun.

4) Strong women with their own sexual needs and desires, which needs are treated very straightforwardly – see this article I did for the Guardian for my claim that Carr would like to have written more openly on the subject.

This book: Yes! Finally a match – Kathryn is combative and serious about her career, and very amusing and forthright about many other matters. Carr’s work is full of splendid heroines, such as the magician in He Wouldn’t Kill Patience.


So, clearly by these standards, this should not be one of my favourite Carr books – but it certainly is. Great fun, and must have cheered up those hard early days at the beginning of WW2.

There is some discussion of Robert Louis Stevenson’s matchless adventure Kidnapped in the book.

My friend Christine Poulson mentioned this book in passing in a recent review – she obviously didn’t like it as much as I did. Armchair Reviewer (that’s Kate as in the mentions above) looked at it here – a very thorough review, with a fascinating thesis that the book is a comedy of manners. Jose Ignacio reviewed it at The Game’s Afoot last year too – he gave it an A+.

JJ at The Invisible Event has a great review of the book, correctly claiming that it is ‘laugh out loud, technicolour funny, but light enough to take up residence in your brain without leaving so much as a shadow…’


My memory had played me false about the opening scenes of Constant Suicides – I thought the two academics had a train compartment with bunkbeds. Well they don’t (one bed between them…) but I still liked the picture of the tweed skirt heading up the ladder, from Kristine’s photostream.

The Scottish pictures above were first used for another Highland book – Violet Trefusis’s Echo

























16 comments:

  1. Thanks for the mentions. Kathryn is one of Carr's better heroines in my opinion and I did love the comedy of manners style of the story. I think though that I tend to read more comic or light hearted crime novels. It's not often that a book from the GA period can give me the shivers or feel dread. Though Ethel Lina White's Some Must Watch Did that - do not finish reading it late on a stormy night home alone, is all I can say.

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    1. I think a lot can depend on how and when you read them - it can vary with mood over whether I think something is ridiculous or creepy. I really liked your idea that it was a comedy of manners. And, I know I would probably object to slapstick and racial stereotyping in another book, but he totally got away with it...

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  2. Carr certainly did have a way of writing strong and interesting female characters, didn't he, Moira? And I do like his ability to evoke even small detail, 'though his novels aren't long. Very glad you like this one so much.

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    1. I was so glad to read it again, and am sure will do so again in the future. Such an entertainment...

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  3. Yes, I didn't like it all that much. It could well been that I just wasn't in the right mood. I started skipping about half way through, always a bad sign. I have noticed though that JDC is one of those writers who doesn't always take with me. Have you read The Reader is Warned or The Emperor's Snuff-box, both of which really gripped me?

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    1. I'm sure you are right - as I said to Kate above, the right mood can help a lot. The Reader is Warned I read recently, and absolutely loved the setup but had a few problems with the ending. Emperor's snuff box I read probably 30 years ago, and remember nothing. I must seek it out - it may well be on a shelf upstairs....

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  4. It doesn't always get the respect that it deserves, but I also think that it's one of his best, and certainly one of my favourites. Whenever Film/TV versions of Carr's books are discussed it is said that they are too complicated to easily adapt, but this does feel really cinematic. The story is told via a series of set-pieces--the bickering on the train, the drunken party, the murder. And the final explanations of the impossible crimes are really clever without being excessively complicated.

    The comedy is also much better integrated with the rest of the book. Some of his earlier books either have no humour, or else the jokes swamp the story. This is far more sophisticated, and you have to wonder whether Carr was responding to the Screwball Comedies that had recently been so popular. I also love the fact that the vision of Scotland is pure Hollywood, but not only does Carr know it, he knows that we know it too!

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    1. I'm always astonished that there haven't really been film versions - you wouldn't think any problems were insurmountable, and they would make such good watching. And nowadays you'd think someone would enjoy making a lavish period version with great clothes and settings...
      Yes, he has a lovely gentle, self-aware irony.

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    2. It sounds like the sort of story Powell & Pressburger would have done well.

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    3. Oh yes, good call, they would have been a great match, with the combination of dark deeds and light-heartedness - hard to do well, but great when done properly.

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  5. Thank heavens for Inter-library loan -- I have blown my book budget already and it's only the 8th of March.

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    1. I know the feeling - hope you can find and enjoy this one...

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  6. This is one of the two Carr books that I have, the other is To Wake the Dead. Is this a good one to start with? (Or did I already ask you that?)

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    1. I think it is - it has great momentum. I have no recollection of To Wake the Dead at all!

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  7. I'll try one eventually, but not going to become a favourite.

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    1. No, probably not, but you might enjoy the odd one....

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