Thursday, September 22, 2016

Carter Dickson's The Judas Window

The Judas Window, written in 1938, is one of the more celebrated Carter Dickson mysteries featuring the delightful H.M. (Sir Henry Merrivale).

Carter Dickson was of course John Dickson Carr so you won’t be surprised to hear that this novel includes a locked room puzzle. This is however a locked room mystery with a difference. The essence of the locked room sub-genre is that the body of the murder victim should be found in a room that is locked from the inside so that  the murderer could not possibly have made his escape. In this case the police are faced with a much simpler problem. The murderer is found locked in the room with his victim. There can be no doubt whatsoever of his guilt. The arrest is made and when the case comes up at the Old Bailey no-one has any doubt that a speedy conviction will ensue and that Jimmy Answell will be hanged.

The only puzzling thing is that Answell’s defence counsel, the irascible Sir Henry Merrivale KC, seems quite confident that he will secure Answell’s acquittal.

Jimmy Answell, a wealthy and quite respectable young man, had been engaged to be married to Mary Hume. Jimmy had been summoned to the London home of Mary’s father, Mr Avory Hume, to receive his formal blessing to the union. Jimmy arrived at 6.10 pm. By 6.30 pm Avory Hume was dead, with an arrow through his heart. Avory Hume had been an archery enthusiast and the arrow, a much-prized trophy, had been affixed to the wall of his study. It is clear that the arrow had not been fired from a bow but used as a dagger. Jimmy’s fingerprints are on the shaft of the arrow. Raised voices had been heard emanating from the room. The two men had obviously quarreled and Jimmy had stabbed his prospective father-in-law with the arrow. It’s as close to being an open-and-shut case as one could ever hope to encounter.

In spite of all this H.M. not only intends to fight the case, he intends to win.

I must confess that I have mixed feelings about locked room mysteries. Even in the hands of a master like John Dickson Carr they can be a little contrived. In this instance however locked room mystery is only one element in a plot constructed with fiendish ingenuity. And it is by no means the most impressive aspect of the plot. There is another crucial element that (in my opinion at least) easily surpasses it in cleverness.

A great golden age detective story requires more than an ingenious murder. It has to conform to the conventions of the fair play mystery which means that not only must the reader be provided with all the clue necessary to solve the puzzle, the way in which the detective uses those clues to unravel the mystery must be plausible and logical without any wild leaps of intuition. The Judas Window succeeds admirably in this regard.

Courtroom scenes can be a little risky - they can be talky and a trifle dull if not handled carefully. Even Erle Stanley Gardner, the grand master of courtroom dramas, generally kept his courtroom scenes in reserve for a vital moment. In The Judas Window Carr chooses a particularly daring option - virtually the whole book is courtroom scenes. It’s a gamble that pays off. A significant chunk of the story is told through the testimony of various witnesses but Carr is able to make it consistently vivid and entertaining. Of course it helps that H.M. is even more fun than usual when he’s in full cry in court. 

It’s to be expected that Carr’s plotting will be top-notch but in this book he also manages to make the motivations of all the suspects (not just the murderer) believable. The actual motive for the murder is perfectly convincing.

This is Carr in very good form indeed. He gives us a carefully constructed and very satisfying plot with a good locked-room mystery component. There’s a judicious leavening of humour but it’s never overdone. The Judas Window is representative of the golden age detective story at its very best. Highly recommended.

No comments:

Post a Comment