This is only the second book I’ve read by the very prolific John Dickson Carr, who also wrote under several pseudonyms including Carter Dickson. The first one I read was It Walks By Night, one of his Henri Bencolin mysteries, and although I enjoyed it overall, I found the plot too far-fetched and I didn’t much like Bencolin himself. The Black Spectacles, first published in 1939 and recently reissued as a British Library Crime Classic, is from a different series, featuring a different detective – Dr Gideon Fell – so I hoped it would be more to my taste. And it was – I loved it!
The novel is set in the small English village of Sodbury Cross, where a child has died after eating poisoned chocolates. The culprit has not been found, but suspicion has fallen on Marjorie Wells, because she was the one who sent the little boy to the shop to buy chocolates that day. Marjorie’s uncle, Marcus Chesney, believes that most people see the world through ‘black spectacles’, unable to correctly observe what is right in front of their eyes. To prove his point, he decides to stage a performance showing exactly how the real chocolates were substituted with the poisoned ones – and invites Marjorie, her fiancé George Harding and a family friend, Professor Ingram, along to watch. The performance is being filmed with a cine-camera and Marcus has compiled a list of questions to test the observational skills of the three people watching. But when he is found dead, murdered in full view of both the camera and his audience, each of the three witnesses seems to have seen something completely different!
I’ve said that this is a Dr Gideon Fell mystery, but Fell himself doesn’t appear until halfway through the novel. Until that point, the investigations are handled by Inspector Elliot of Scotland Yard, who seems quite competent and thorough…until we discover that he is not being entirely honest with the reader. By the time Fell is brought into the story, most of the clues are in place, but Elliot and the local Sodbury Cross police have failed to interpret them correctly. I’m not surprised they were struggling, because this is a very clever mystery with lots of twists and turns and an ingenious solution. I certainly couldn’t solve it and had to wait for Fell to explain it all, which he does bit by bit as each piece of the puzzle falls into place. I was particularly impressed by a clue involving a clock, which I would never have worked out for myself.
There are so many other things I loved about this book. Carr does an excellent job of capturing the mood and atmosphere of a little English village where the people are trying to come to terms with the discovery that there’s a poisoner in their midst. Some references to real life crimes and poisoning cases are worked into the plot – in particular the case of Christiana Edmunds, who was known as the ‘Chocolate Cream Killer’. I was also fascinated by the descriptions of 1930s film and camera technology, with the recording made of Marcus Chesney’s dramatic scene playing a very important part in the solving of the mystery.
Having enjoyed The Black Spectacles so much, I’m sure I’ll be reading more of the Gideon Fell mysteries soon. You may want to note that this book has also been published in the US as The Problem of the Green Capsule, just in case anyone buys the same book twice!