Sunday, 21 August 2016

Dress Down Sunday: The Seat of the Scornful by John Dickson Carr

 

US title: Death Turns the Tables


published 1941



LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES


 
 
Seat of the Scornful 1


[A swimming party is being held at the pool in the Esplanade Hotel at a seaside resort]


Thirteen guests, seven women and six men, sat or lounged or swam or fell in. These ranged from the very young man with the taste for fancy diving to a middle-aged lady, a remote courtesy-aunt of Jane’s, who was supposed to be ‘keeping an eye on’ the house-party and on whom a close eye had to be kept by Jane herself. The girls’ bathing-dresses were of all colours, and all different. Nor were they conspicuous for prudery. Some guest wore beach-robes of heavy towelling; but this was not observable in the case of any girl with a good figure.


Fred, stepping into the clean, close,Seat of the Scornful 3 tangy atmosphere, was dazed by noises. Voices and echoes: from the echo of laughter to the fine, hollow echo of a splash. Voices struck at him…

Then he saw Jane. She saw him at the same time and came towards him. She was wearing a yellow bathing-suit. The effect was inspiring. She had just come out of the water; she also wore a yellow rubber bathing-cap which she took off to shake out her hair, and caught up a beach-robe from a chair.
 
 




commentary: On Friday I read Martin Edward’s review of this book over at his blog Do You Write Under Your Own Name? I thought I had it on my shelves, found it, and read it over the course of a couple of hours – it is very short, but it is also deeply compelling, and I would challenge anyone to read the first few chapters and not want to continue.

It’s not a classic locked-room puzzle, but the ins and outs of the murder are challenging. Tony Morell is a dubious character who has got himself engaged to a judge’s daughter. The judge tries to buy him off: then someone is found dead in the judge’s beach-house.  

There are motives and revelations and surprises. There’s something near the end of Chapter 6 which stuck in my mind and meant I wasn’t taken in by one of the twists…

The solution is wildly unlikely but very well done – using a happenstance which has also featured in Dorothy L Sayers and Georgette Heyer, and maybe occurs more often in books than in real life…

I am completely torn about this book. As a puzzle and a crime story I thought it was superb, and I enjoyed it hugely. But I had a huge objection to the moral framework of the book.

There’s a shady solicitor (Morell’s lawyer) who is described as having ‘scanty but well-brushed morals’ – and I found that hard to swallow considering the unprincipled and scandalous behaviour of many of the ‘nice’ characters in the book, onstage and offstage. I very much hoped Carr was going to redeem this, lay into their shamelessness at the end, but far from it: the opposite happened. One character keeps saying (apparently with Carr’s approval) ‘no-one could accuse me of hypocrisy or being a stuffed shirt’ when that is exactly what you would say about him. Again, if someone is badly in debt when they have had every opportunity in life, then to me that is not a reason to give sympathy to them, but a sign of a very poor character.

We are meant to condemn one person’s behaviour, but then this person is completely stitched up by the establishment in a way that must have involved perjury, dishonour and theft by the ‘nice people’ and the legal system. But that – apparently – is fine. No wonder this man is unhappy. Lying, cheating and worse are apparently perfectly acceptable among the upper classes.

I suspect some will argue that I am putting too much expectation on the characters and the book, that it is just a light-hearted story, but part of the setup does hinge on the ‘rightness’ and trustworthiness of some people’s views.

The ending - the fate of the murderer - beggars belief: I was left open-mouthed by it. Martin says it is ‘in keeping with the mood of the times’, and I would love to hear more of his views.

John at Pretty Sinister Books reviewed the book under its US title, and surely has his own views on the morals of the book, and will accuse me of naivete…

I have rarely read a book that I so much wanted to give a split verdict to.

And – I did enjoy it, I liked the puzzle and the clues, I liked some of the characters, and theSeat of the Scornful 4 clothes:
Jane… wore blue, with white at the neck and wrists.
‘That dress becomes you, Jane.’
‘It’s the old story. All you’ve got to do is put on blue, and any man thinks you look well.’

Yellow swimsuit is from a Jantzen advert of 1943.

Pool Party is from Ladies Home Journal via George Eastman House (on the blog before here).

There are plenty more bathing pictures around the blog – labels below – this entry fitted nicely with summer time, when the sun is actually shining in the UK some of the time.

There was swimming last Sunday in fact, and also this makes two John Dickson Carr entries on the run – The Black Spectacles/ Green Capsule was entertaining us on Friday.
























20 comments:

  1. Interesting book by the sounds of it, but I'll stick with my one!

    ReplyDelete
  2. This is admittedly the more problematic side of one of less remarked upon and yet most distinctive features of Carr's writing - he looks, sounds and feels like a super traditional writer in the 'safe' Christie mould, but his characters are often much more plausible and, frankly, carnal, than the often pallid figures found in Golden age fiction of the 30s and 40s. Carr paddled his own canoe and I dare say his editors had something to say about his sense of 'justice' (CROOKED HINGE has a similar element at the end). I always felt he was more of a traditionalist than actually a conservative (though by jingo he certainly hated the tax policies of the postwar Labour government), which is why you get stronger and more interesting women in such classics as HE WHO WHISPERS and EMPEROR'S SNUFFBOX. In this respect at least he reminds me a lot of Rex Stout.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes I totally agree - he's not nearly as staid as he might be. I've always liked his strong women characters and his open attitude to sex. He just is always a fascinating chap.

      Delete
  3. Split verdict, indeed, Moira. And I know exactly what you mean about the moral issues in the book. As to the plot, though, I think that's one thing Carr did really well: set up a challenging murder mystery puzzle. And you do want to read on and find out what happened. His characters, too, are often fully-fleshed out. As to the rest? Yes, a mixed bag.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, Margot, he wins out for his entertainment value - you can always pick up a Carr and know you will get a good puzzle and a good read.

      Delete
  4. Moira, I don't remember the last time I read a book in a couple of hours or in one sitting. I envy you! I manage to distract myself even when there are no outside distractions.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It hardly ever happens for me either Prashant! It was great, I should do it more, if life would allow...

      Delete
  5. Every time I read another review of one of Carr's books here I am more determined to read one of his books. I suspect it is because you include excerpts and they seem interesting. I know it is heresy but I don't care for locked room mysteries (which basically means I have not tried many and thus is not a fair judgement). And since this one is not a locked room mystery, it sounds more appealing.

    When I saw this post, I thought... but she just did a post on a Carr book. I am also amazed at you reading it so fast, but also getting a post out so fast. Now that would be impossible for me.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It was fairly unusual! - I had a quiet few days and had decided I was going to read whatever I wanted, so this was it...
      I DO like locked room puzzles, but actually there is a lot more to JD Carr, and I like his characters and his women, as Sergio and I were discussing above.

      Delete
  6. Interesting - I just finished Anne Ellis' "The Life of An Ordinary Woman,"* and Ellis tells how she sews a blue dress for her daughter for an elocution contest because men like blue and two of the judges are men.

    (*I liked it a lot better when I first read it about 30 years ago than I do now. Tastes change).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'd never heard of that idea before, now am going to have to find out if it's a pre-internet meme! I just looked up that book (which I had never heard of) hoping it was a stage school story - I've been reading a handful of them lately. But it sounds quite other... not recommended then?

      Delete
    2. When I first read it, it was being touted as pre-WWI feminist masterpiece. For some reason at age 61 I am no longer as impressed by Ellis as I was in my late 20's. It's a good book, but her observations don't resonate with me in quite the same way.

      However I would recommend it as a vivid if somewhat self-centered slice of life in the Colorado and Nevada mining camps of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

      Delete
    3. Mmm. I've just spent ages trying to think of the name of a book that I thought might be this one, read 10 years ago. It was actually These is My Words (diary of Sarah Prine, book by Nancy Turner). It came highly recommended to me, and I absolutely hated it. So totally unreasonably, based on that, I probably won't read this one...

      Delete
  7. Great review, and I'm glad the blog post tempted you to read the book. I don't want to comment in detail about the ending for fear of spoilers, but the moral aspects of the story I found intriguing more than disturbing. My comment about the mood of the times relates to the way that issues about justice are dealt with in a good many significant detective novels of the 30s, an issue tackled in The Golden Age of Murder.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I know, it's a shame not to be able to discuss ending, and I do remember your writing about that kind of thing in your marvellous book. But I also had a problem with the treatment of Tony Morell throughout the book - and in particular the court case referred to in the story. I'm sure as a lawyer yourself you cannot approve!

      Delete
  8. "Nor where they conspicuous for prudery" should probably be "Nor WERE they conspicuous for prudery."

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yikes! my bad, a copying error. I have put it right now - thanks.

      Delete
  9. Re-reading Carr it's fascinating how many different approaches he tries. The popular image of him is of his being obsessed by 'Locked-Room Mysteries' but this is as much a thriller and character study as a mystery novel (although the mystery side of it is excellent). The moral framework that you mention did strike me when I first read it a few years ago. A lot of pre-1945 detective novels have a 'Great Detective' character as the sleuth. They often follow in the footsteps of Sherlock Holmes in having him (or her) ignore laws and customs in order to achieve justice. Nowadays we're a lot more suspicious of 'supermen'. Similarly, we're a lot less sure that 'the right sort of people' always do the right thing.

    Towards the end of the book, one of the female characters decides to take a light-night swim in a pool and is menaced by a barely seen figure. This was in 1941. In CAT PEOPLE the famous Val Lewton horror movie from 1942, one of the female characters decides to take a late-night swim and is menaced by a barely seen figure. The similarity may just be coincidence, but it is so similar that you do wonder...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes - I think when I read these books when I was much younger it didn't bother me so much, I thought that was just the way books were in that era. But this one did leave me uncomfortable.
      Oh fascinating about Cat People - because yes that was a striking and clever scene in the book. And what a good film Cat People is..

      Delete