LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
The tower room was octagonal, with narrow windows on every side except that by which we entered. Under the windows were low bookcases painted white; a couple of good etchings hung on blue walls; and the furniture was wicker covered with chintz. A gas fire was burning, in sharp contrast to the falling snow, and Mary Quayle sat huddled before the low grate. Propped up in a brass bed, the gaslight above it shining on her tense face, Clarissa stared at us. She had not forgotten to wear black neglige even at this time. But her her eyes were red and puffy; and she was acutely conscious of the harsh light on her oily, faintly lined face. She was the stout matron, and she knew it. Suddenly she shivered. The fine, dark-blue eyes winked in their intent gaze on us; a couple of tears trickled down plump cheeks.
commentary: I read and re-read a lot of John Dickson Carr for our recent Tuesday Night Bloggers session on him – and came up with the conclusion that my favourite was the newly-read Emperor’s Snuff Box. I blogged on it last Tuesday, but feel I could have said more about it. Thinking about it, what I liked was that Carr took some standard tropes and did something very clever with them. So there is the young woman who is caught by the moral standards of the day (she had a man in her room), there is the vital witness who has concussion and can’t speak, there is a person who tells a lie to try to protect someone but totally landing them in it, there is the vital and expensive antique item, the snuff-box. Carr takes these and mixes them up and confounds our expectations. It’s what Agatha Christie was so good at it, and not many people have approached her for this particular talent, but I think in Emperor’s Snuff Box Carr shows the same brilliance.
Next I read this one, which is a good interesting book, with a surprise at the end, careful plotting and a lot of atmosphere. I loved the setting in a small town in Pennsylvania: the old wooden house, the Judge and his family. And Carr did very well to put over the feeling that this was the enviable family 15 years ago: everyone gathered there and admired them. Now things have gone badly wrong. And there is a memorable portrait of the small-town doctor, who had a few years in Vienna as a young man, and would very much like to go back there but knows he can’t – his description of his mornings in the city are charming.
So for atmosphere, characters and clever puzzles this is a good one. It was just unlucky that I read it so soon after Snuff Box, and it didn’t have that extra tang of brilliance – there was nothing to make you gasp in the ending. But still worth reading.
I’m not sure if the phrase about the neglige above is missing a word: ‘a black neglige’, or if this is a turn-of-phrase of the time. (My edition of Emperor’s Snuff Box contained a really terrible misprint, which was misleading and could have jeopardized solving the crime… it said a vital clue had been found in the ‘lave’ instead of ‘lace’. I was wondering if ‘lave’ was a word related to French washbasins.)
The phrase ‘Poison in Jest’ is a quotation from Hamlet, as featured in my blog/Guardian piece last year.
Picture from Kristine’s photostream.