The Black Spectacles by John Dickson Carr

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!

It Walks by Night by John Dickson Carr – #1930Club

This week Simon from Stuck in a Book and Karen from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings are hosting another of their club events, where bloggers read and write about books published in a chosen year. This time it’s 1930 and I found two books on my TBR from that year, one from each of my two favourite genres, classic crime and historical fiction.

I decided to start with It Walks by Night, a detective novel by American author John Dickson Carr which has just been reissued as a British Library Crime Classic. My previous experience of Dickson’s work has been limited to the short story Persons or Things Unknown, which appeared in a Christmas anthology I read a few years ago, but I liked it and knew I wanted to read more. It Walks by Night was his first detective novel and also the first in a series featuring the character of Henri Bencolin, a juge d’Instruction (examining magistrate) of the Parisian police.

The novel is set in 1927 and opens with the newly married Duc de Saligny attending a gambling house in Paris. The Duc has been accompanied by a police escort who are providing protection after he received a death threat from Alexandre Laurent, the violent ex-husband of his new wife, Louise. Laurent recently escaped from the asylum where he had been committed after attacking Louise with a razor and has vowed to kill both Saligny and Louise if they go through with the marriage.

Late in the evening, the Duc walks into an empty card room with police guarding both doors. Soon afterwards a bell rings from inside the room and a waiter arrives to answer the summons, expecting to be given a drinks order. Instead, he finds the Duc dead, his head severed from his body, and a blood-covered sword hanging on the wall. There is nobody else in the room and as both entrances were being closely watched, nobody could have gone in or out without being seen. The murderer must be Laurent – but how did he manage it? Henri Bencolin, who claims to have never taken more than twenty-four hours to solve a case, sets out to discover the truth.

It Walks by Night is narrated by Jeff Marle, an American friend of Bencolin’s who plays a similar role to Watson in the Sherlock Holmes novels or Hastings in the Poirot novels. His main function is to provide a sort of bridge between the reader and the detective so that the solution is not revealed as early as it would have been if the story had been told from Bencolin’s perspective. Bencolin himself is not the most appealing or memorable of detectives, in my opinion, and I never warmed to him at all – but I haven’t met any of Carr’s other detectives yet, so maybe his characterisation improves in later books.

As a classic locked room mystery, it’s quite a clever one and certainly kept me wondering how the murder could possibly have been carried out, in a room with no secret entrances, no hiding places and a window forty feet above the ground. To make things even more confusing, we are told in the first chapter that Laurent is known to have visited a plastic surgeon and may have altered his appearance so successfully that he could be almost any of the characters we meet throughout the novel. I didn’t much like this idea as it seemed too far-fetched to me, but it did give me something else to think about.

So did I guess the solution? Of course not; I almost never do! There were clues – there’s a map at the beginning of the book and some allusions to a story by Edgar Allan Poe which I have read more than once, but I still didn’t work out the significance of any of this. I don’t feel too bad about my poor detective work, though, as it meant I was surprised by the twists at the end of the story! I will read more by John Dickson Carr, but as I didn’t like Bencolin I would prefer to try a book from a different series next.


I’m not sure whether I’ll have time to finish my second 1930 book by the end of the week, but for now here are some other books from that year previously reviewed on my blog:

The Mysterious Mr Quin by Agatha Christie
Giant’s Bread by Mary Westmacott (Agatha Christie)
The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton
The Diary of a Provincial Lady by EM Delafield
Mystery Mile by Margery Allingham