Sunday, 3 April 2016

Dress Down Sunday: Poison in Jest by John Dickson Carr


published 1943

LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES


Poison in Jest



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.






8 comments:

  1. I've had that happen, too, Moira, where I read a book I thought was brilliant, and then followed it up with one that didn't seem quite as good. But was it? That sort of timing really does affect what we think about books, doesn't it? At any rate, back to this...Yes, I think Carr did a fine job here with atmosphere and isn't always given the credit he might be for doing that well.

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    1. It really does happen that way, doesn't it Margot? We can never quite be objective about a book for that reason. But yes - what a body of work JDC produced...

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  2. This was a pretty early Carr and I think, as you say, it probably shows - the ingenuity and cunning is there, as is the feeling for atmosphere - but at that stage he was not as good on characterisation in my view. Another I now want to re-read though - thanks as always Moira!

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    1. Yes, very much so - you can see the directions he's headed in. But still well worth a read, and better than I was expecting.

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  3. Carr apparently hated the book, and saw it as a disaster. It's not bad at all, but you can tell that it's an early work, and that he was still feeling his way. The disembodied hand that apparently scuttles around is a typical Carr touch, but he doesn't really so much with it. The setting is very close to where Carr grew up, and it feels much more real than the rather fantastic version of France that he had been using in the books with Bencolin as a detective. I do like the sleuth that he uses here. Rossiter is closer to characters like Fell and Merrivale, in that he is rather childlike, and thus able to see to the heart of things because his view is not cluttered by adult assumptions.

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    1. Yes exactly - as I said to Sergio, I wasn't expecting much of it, after finding Waxworks Murder rather lacking. And that was for exactly the reason you say: the Paris setting was like something from a penny dreadful of the 1880s. And, yes, his American reality worked well here. Yes, the scuttling hand was a missed opportunity...

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  4. I often wonder how my mood when reading or other extraneous circumstances affect my enjoyment of a book. I read
    The Mysterious Affair at Styles about 7 or 8 years ago and did not like it at all. Yet many other readers like it a lot, and I have liked almost every other Christie book I have read since. I was visiting in Alabama and circumstances were less than ideal; I will read it again someday to see if my opinion changes. Sort of going off topic there, but the post sparked my train of thought in that direction.

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    1. No, I know just what you mean - your own circs can change your response a lot I think. At a basic but extreme level - sometime I read books about family troubles, and remember that when I read in my 20s I sympathized with the children, but now I save my concerns for the parents!

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