book review

What you see is what you get. Sort of. (Spoilers)

A. What do we want on the cover?
B. I don’t care. Just don’t give anything away.
A. No problem.

Of all the deception in The Case of the Constant Suicides, the presentation is what really impresses me. Consider, we are given the following scenario: Angus Campbell takes out no less than three life insurance policies (all containing a no-suicide clause). He intends to leave the payouts to his debt ridden brother, Colin and ex-mistress, Elspat. Then, he kills himself.

We know that can’t be true. Nothing in that narrative makes a lick of sense. And yet…That is essentially how it went down. The false narrative is true. Putting aside the question of how jumping from a window would not be perceived as suicide (the plot includes a clever double cross, a coincidence (or five), and some rather twisted motivation), my bare-bones description contains nothing that is inaccurate. We are told what happened and then coerced into not believing it. It’s that bald-faced presentation of story that really got to me on my second reading.

The important whodunit clues are bunched together in two chapters (excluding the Alec Forbes murder which isn’t all that impressive) and there aren’t many false whodunit clues. (The one I blindly followed was Swan’s heritage. On my first reading, I kept leaning to the Glencoe connection. I wouldn’t keep my detective job very long in a John Dickson Carr novel.) I noticed the howdunit clues (ice-cream is mentioned twice for God’s sake), but wasn’t able to figure out how it played a role. The best obfuscation comes in the unbelievable truth of the story which is then amended (but not destroyed) by the revelation of the plot.

Although I think Carr could have provided more clues as to whodidn’tdunit (whohiddit? whodunitlater?), the few that occur are intelligently embedded. When Duncan mentions Chapman’s avoidance of Elspat, he only does so when linking him to the Fiscal. It seems such a natural extension of his dialogue. The same can be said for Fell’s line, “Which Campbell are you sir?” He had not met Chapman previously. Why wouldn’t Fell assume him to be another member of the family? The three pertinent descriptions of looks all make sense. At one point, Chapman says, “…it’s not my money.” If you guessed the plot from that line, you are not allowed to read any of my books. (makes a finger cross and hisses while backing away)

The romance is light on its feet. We get a charming meet-cute in chapters dripping with narrative economy. Love tends to eliminate two suspects in Carr’s work, but I didn’t mind so much this time. That image of their reflections in the train window is lovely. The comedy works well. Indeed, this is an entertaining novel—perhaps a good entry point for the uninitiated. All of that is well and good.

Dat presentation, doe. At one point Kathryn speaks for the reader.

…I felt absolutely cheated! Oh, I know I shouldn’t say that: but it’s true. You’ve got us looking so hard for a murderer that we can’t concentrate on anything else.

Dr. Fell nodded as though he saw the aesthetic validity of the point.

Very funny, Carr. Although, it took me a second reading to see the humor.

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5 thoughts on “What you see is what you get. Sort of. (Spoilers)”

  1. I’m a little blurry on the specifics of this one, but I do recall being blown away by how compact the statement of the problem and the clewing were, and managed in such close proximity, too. The only other time I’ve felt Carr has used that much compacting of incident and relevant information so gorgeously is a rather key moment in He Who Whispers — man, when he was good he was so goddamn good,

    And, man, that cover is something else, isn’t it? It just defies all belief…

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    1. Agreed. All the elements are compact. The relationship between the (distant!) cousins is handled so well in such a short time, Fell’s “Haven’t you realized yet?” speech comes early, and the clues are jam packed in short sections. I’ve got to choose next between The Burning Court and The Peacock Feather Murders. Which would you recommend?

      That cover’s hilarious. I have heard of worse though. There’s a famous story about Psycho’s premiere on an island somewhere. It was the kind of screening where the film would be stopped every ten minutes so the host could explain what had happened. The title had been translated to “The Boy Who Was His Mother.” Fantastic!

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      1. I’m not sure which I’d recommend — I enjoy them both equally, I reckon — and while I’d love to know your thoughts on The Burning Court (hopefully you know very little about it) there’s also a key aspect of the puzzle in Peacock Feather that I’d be equally interested to pick through. I’d say…go with Burning Court first. But do not read any reviews or thoughts or hints or…anything. I had a lot soiled for me by innuendo, and it’s a book that really rather demands you come at it pure.

        There was an edition of Edmund Crispin’s Swan Song, I believe, that showed the workings of the impossible murder therein. Though I have also rad a book that gave away the means of impossible death in its own title — and, nope, as far as I’m aware it wasn’t a vt for the UK or the US. The author themself would appear to have called it that…

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