Dress Down Sunday: Seeing is Believing by John Dickson Carr

published 1941


aka Cross of Murder. This book was published as by Carter Dickson – pseudonym of JDC – but I long ago decided that on this blog all his books will be filed together as John Dickson Carr, and when the title varies I will use whatever is on the front of the copy I am using. The excerpts below come from throughout the book.

[set in 1939]

In the bed Vicky Fane was propped up against pillows, from where she could look straight across to the windows and over the trees in the avenue.

She was handsomer than Courtney remembered her, for her face now had life and animation. She turned her head, with difficulty, to greet them; the jaws and neck were still tender and somewhat woollen, though this hardly showed. The tan partly concealed her pallor. She was wearing a lace negligee over her nightgown.

Ann Browning was not upstairs. She was coming down the stairs at this moment, dressed in a white twill sports-frock with bare arms, and much of the strain gone from her face. The bruise on her neck under the ear must have been covered with powder, for it was not visible.

Vicky Fane wore dark violet, with full skirt and sleeves, Ann Browning was in white, all stood out vividly, even in shadow, against the cream-painted walls.

commentary: JJ at the Invisible Event posted on this book a week or so ago: he wrote an excellent but rather damming review, which made me want to read the book immediately

- he writes such good posts, and he is persuasive and convincing, yet I almost always want to disdain the books he loves, and immediately find the ones he criticizes. It is not known why that is -

I liked the sound of Seeing is Believing so much that I searched online to find a reasonable copy, and ordered it instantly without leaving the computer. Then found that I already had a copy on my tbr pile. (I am generously offering him the spare, showing my forgiving nature.) At least I was able to read it without waiting.

Anyway, I loved every dynamite moment of this book right up to the final pages. At which point it totally fell apart, with the most ludicrous and annoying solution imaginable. Which is pretty much what JJ said, but it was still worth it to read the rest of the book.

It is top form JDC: the setup is absolutely splendid, one of the best I have read of his. A first murder has already taken place. There is an unhappy marriage, and a hypnotist, and an experiment to see if a wife could be made to stab someone. She has a rubber knife for this purpose, and is believed to love her husband dearly. She goes under and – I think you can guess what is coming. So someone exchanged the knife… but that is impossible. Sir Henry Merivale has to investigate.

The whole thing takes place in an upmarket house, but suburban (pinned down to Cheltenham) rather than super-grand, something I think JDC does well. There is this magic paragraph:
Courtney felt again the sense of evil, whose origin he could not trace, but which had touched him the night before. Ann’s story conjured up visions of unexpected things behind starched window-curtains: of a dark house, and something lying of a sofa. It is not always wise to explore too far the possibilities of a summer night.
Genuine shivers… Much more chilling, for me, than all those country houses with overt dramatic and deathly histories that he so often features. 

And there are enjoyably amusing lines too:
‘thank you my dear. If I seem to sense some latent irony in your tone, I trust I am well-bred enough to overlook it.’
[One character has just about held back from accusing another] 
‘Your delicacy, Miss Browning, fills me with ecstasy. At the same time, I am capable of taking a hint.’
[there has been a murder, a young woman has collapsed, the police have been called. One character, off to be questioned, says to another:]
  ‘I’ll try not to be long. Make yourself at home.’ 
The technique of making yourself at home under these conditions has not been defined by the authorities.
 ‘Making himself at home’ eventually leads to covert surveillance and eavesdropping from a balcony, and then having to jump down from the balcony when those whom he has been watching come to look for him.

There is a Colonel Race mentioned – a name that to me will forever mean Agatha Christie (ah, The Man in the Brown Suit and his doomed romance – but he appears in several other books).

The book has an undercurrent about sex  – JDC was far more open about this than other authors, and although his thoughts on women can be patriarchal, he is far more honest and realistic about women’s sexuality, for example, than any of his male contemporaries. And, as everyone reviewing this book notices, there are two potential happy young couples, so it is less easy to automatically dismiss anyone as culprit. (You either understand that sentence or you don’t – no point explaining it.) Some critics have claimed that JDC doesn't play fair in this book -  to do with carefully worded sentences early in the book. Despite my dislike of the whole solution, I didn't have any problem with that particular trick: I consider it to have been fair play.

And as ever, plenty of nice clothes for me.

So all in all – such a shame about the solution, when the rest of the book is marvellous.
There are more books by John Dickson Carr all over the blog – click on the label below. (Or look in the alphabetical author tabs on the homepage for the full list.)

The Blue Negligee by Frederick Carl Frieseke - circa 1930 – from the Athenaeum website.

All the evening dresses are from Vogue, 1938, via Kristine’s photostream.

White tennis dress, a blog favourite, is from the NYPL collection of 1930s fashion illustration


  1. Oh, that setup is fabulous, Moira. And so is the premise. I can see how you liked them so well. Carr really was good at the 'impossible but not really' sort of story. It is a shame that the book fell apart at the end, because the rest of it sounds excellent. And the bits you shared remind me of how good Carr was at conveying atmosphere.

    1. Yes! It's an interesting philosophical question isn't it, Margot - If you love the book hate the ending what is your overall verdict? But these days I can enjoy the journey and, as you say, the atmosphere, and try to forget about the shortcomings.

  2. Moira, you're too kind -- apologies for making you waste your money with my thoroughly average response to this, I'll gladly buy that extra book off you!

    We agree on the principle of that fair-play question, too -- with Carr you know you have to be on te lookout, and while I can see people not loving it I also can't really see it as a massive problem. As Ben said before, had no-one made an issue of it I would never ave assumed there was anything to take issue with...

    1. I was really surprised that people considered it not fair play - I thought it was careful wording, and made for a great surprise. And I am very glad to have read the book, so feel nothing but gratitude.
      I will email you about the two copies, so watch your mailbox...

  3. Every time you post on him, I say the same old thing. I must dig out the JDC (from you I think?) I have in the tubs.

    1. Yes - do you have any idea what it is? They vary a lot, and your reaction to them would do the same I think. But one of these days I'll expect to see one pop up.

    2. Definitely a good one - would be on most people's JDC's top 10 lists, and some people would put it first.

  4. I do need to read some more books by this author, maybe not this one any time soon though.

    1. Yes you should! What have you read by him?

    2. The Emperor's Snuff-Box is the only one I have read. And I liked that one a lot.

    3. Both of you, Tracy and Col, have to get reading!

    4. If you enjoyed The Emperor's Snuff Box, Tracy, I would recommend trying The Case of the Constant Suicides, Till Death Do Us Part or She Died a Lady. They have a similarly strong prose style to the one you enjoyed and good characterisation. The best puzzle one is TDDUP (I think) out of the ones I have highlighted.

    5. Thanks Kate - good advice! I can never think what to recommend next was someone has enjoyed a book, so I admire people who can.

  5. Must reread this one, don't remember much of it.

    1. Well I thought it was (mostly) great - will be interested to hear what you make of it on a re-read.

    2. Much did come back to me when I started reading and I think I enjoyed it more knowing the trick with the wording in the beginning, which I did not consider quite fair-play. (That Carr has a character comment on something the narrator said is rather amusing, in a way.) I thought the solution clever but probably impractical. Someone ought to do experiments to see which of Carr's crimes would actually work.

    3. I made a note of this comment somewhere, can't remember who said it:
      The problem is wonderful, and it has so many possibilities, but they’re squandered in the end. A real shame …
      Which pretty much summed it up for me.
      I LOVE the idea of trying out his tricks and seeing which ones work. A group of us should gather at a tennis court to try out The Wire Cage. We may need specialist personnel for the Crooked Hinge.
      Totally certain this one wouldn't work.


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