ACDC PART NINE/BOOK CLUB ’38: Death in Five Boxes

I have just finished reading a review of Carter Dickson’s Death in Five Boxes, written by my pal, the Puzzle Doctor, and I must say – I am confused. 

Make that doubly confused.

My puzzlement first stems from Book Club, of which PD and I are both members. Last month, you might have heard the collective groaning over the Zoom wires as we discussed The Wychford Poisoning Case by Anthozzzzzzzzzzzzz . . . . (Sorry, that happens whenever I mention it.) We realized that the last few selections had been, er, problematic. That’s when the Puzzle Doctor, whose turn it was to select the next novel, had a brainstorm: instead of a single book, why not randomly select a year and have everyone pick a book from that year that suited their individual fancy? That way, nobody would get bogged down suffering through another person’s choice.

I know what you’re thinking: this absolutely defeats the purpose of a book club, that of collectively reading and critiquing – for good or ill – a single title. But we were all weary from several months of so-so reads – and two members had dropped out – so we took PD up on his idea. He found some selecting thingumabob on the Internet and came up with a glorious year for classic mysteries – 1938. 

Of my top four favorite authors, only Christianna Brand had not begun writing books. But Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, and Ellery Queen had written eight books between them. In ’38, Christie, as I recently described, created two of her most insidious victims in Appointment with Death and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. Ellery Queen produced two . . .  well, it was not a great year for Ellery Queen, stuck in his Hollywood saga with The Devil to Pay and The Four of Hearts. As for John Dickson Carr, the most prolific of the bunch, he managed four books, two under his own name and two under his alias Carter Dickson. The Crooked Hinge and The Judas Window are two of his best under any name, which leaves To Wake the Dead, a Carr that fans tend to malign, and . . . . .  Death in Five Boxes, which – wonder of wonders! – turns out to be the next title in my Carter Dickson Celebration. We call that KISMET, folks, and that is why I am here, killing two birds with one stone to continue the celebration and honor my book club. 

Now, I had fully expected something else to come from the Puzzle Doctor. Perhaps he would re-read The Ebony Stag and Cold Evil and create one of those all-too-rare opportunities of mentioning what’s-his-name, you know, the guy PD went to school with who wrote a bunch of books that were forgotten. You know, Flynn . . . However, since even the Doctor couldn’t recommend either of these titles as a starting point for He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Plugged, it would have been a perfect time for PD to review any one of the four books Brian Flynn produced (and that PD probably found first editions of at some Oxfam bin in Grantchester for 5p that he will sell for a thousand pounds): the two titles under his “John Rhode” name (Invisible Weapons and The Bloody Tower) or the two written as Miles Burton (Death at Low Tide and The Platinum Cat). 

But no! The good Doctor has chosen to follow another path – my path. And suddenly, in a world where members of a book club should all be reading the same book, I find myself annoyed that PD chose the same title as me. For once again we find ourselves on different sides, which leads to my second confusion:

In his review, the Puzzle Doctor calls Death in Five Boxes “a magnificent mystery.” He goes on to say that, while we usually read Carr/Dickson for the fiendishly clever impossible crimes and locked room puzzles he creates, this book illustrates another of the author’s gifts: “Was there any author better at hiding the villain than him?”

May I offer an alternative theory? It goes like this: 

Death in Five Boxes is not a magnificent mystery – it’s just . . . okay.Carr does indeed succeed in hiding the killer’s identity . . . by breaking a precept (and not for the first time) so important to readers of classic mysteries that it features prominently in both Knox’s Commandments and Van Dine’s Rules!

One of the biggest problems that this latest adventure of Sir Henry Merrivale has is that it’s competing against earlier and better adventures. Take the opening hook: the discovery in a penthouse apartment atop a small London office building of four people sitting at a table, all of them poisoned to unconscious, but one of them very dead from a stab wound. It’s an eerie enough tableau with which to begin a novel, but it can’t compare to the perfection of its predecessor, The Judas Window, which benefits from one of the best opening chapters in detective fiction and follows up with a genuinely funny murder trial where Sir Henry surprises everyone – especially the judge – acting as defense attorney. 

Or take the nominal hero of the story, forensic scientist Dr. John Sanders. No one can accuse Carr/Dickson of wasting time giving his young male protagonists any sort of strong characterization or backstory. But we have just bid adieu to the most lasting of these Brian/Jeff/James sort of fellows, and Ken Blake had actually been growing on me, especially after the sheer madcap joy of The Punch and Judy Murders. Sanders never amounts to more than an amiable cypher, and the requisite girl-he-meets-fights-with-and-then-becomes-affianced that you always find by the man’s side – here, one Marcia Blystone – is the worst of the lot. Honestly, she pulls Sanders in to the mystery on page two by begging him to accompany her up to the apartment of investment broker Felix Haye (henceforth to be designated the victim) and then willfully scorns Sanders and obfuscates the case beyond reason just to be annoying. Her best moment literallyencompasses the final two sentences of the novel, but it’s almost too late for us to believe that there’s hope, either for this girl or for her upcoming marriage to Sanders.

Or let’s take the quirks and impossibilities of this mystery compared to the others. It’s unfair to place this one next to the first three HM cases, all of them steeped in Grand Guignol: the crooked medium stabbed in the little hut in the muddy courtyard in the haunted mansion (The Plague Court Murders), the haughty actress killed in the fancy pavilion outside the country manor surrounded by snow and containing the wrong footprints (The White Priory Murders), or the series of deaths in the cursed room stuffed with the furniture belonging to an evil executioner (The Red Widow Murders). And we can’t seriously compare this one to the next two books, heavy in espionage and Hitchcock-like behavior (The Unicorn Murders, The Punch and Judy Murders). Since The Ten Teacups, Dickson has gone contemporary, and while that title didn’t necessarily satisfy me, The Judas Window did – and both of these novels have ingeniously bizarre impossible crimes to account for.  

In contrast, Death in Five Boxes is more of what one would call “a neat little problem” in comparison to the more epic scale of the past cases. The major impossibility involves how Haye and his guests could have been poisoned when they made the cocktails in full view of each other and never let the glasses or the shaker out of their sight; plus, one of the suspects actually tasted the concoction from the shaker several minutes before they all sat down to drink and suffered no ill-effects from that sip. There’s also a secondary “impossibility” regarding an apparent witness who disappeared from the building even after all the doors were locked and the place was surrounded by police. 

I hate to say it, but the solution to both these “miracles” is disappointing. I won’t say that the issue of the poisoning wasn’t ingenious in 1938, but times have changed, we’ve all read Encyclopedia Brown, and this one was a snap to solve. As for the second situation, it turns out – as so many of the subsequent issues here do – to be resolved by a quality possessed by this or that character, something that wasn’t revealed earlier so that there’s not much chance of deducing the truth. 

Finally, there’s the issue brought up by the Puzzle Doctor about Carr/Dickson’s brilliance at hiding the murderer’s identity. In fairness, this is a different question from the concept of a “surprise killer,” that person beyond suspicion who turns out to be the hidden culprit. Christie, Queen and Brand all did this better than Carr. No, here we’re talking about the ability to twist our sensibilities so that we lose any trail of real suspicion attached to a particular character. More often than not in Carr, someone will say after reading the book, “Well, I suspected him early on, but then . . . “ These are legitimate surprise endings, ones that don’t break the Van Dine/Knox rulebook (as both Christie and Queen did in some of their most iconic titles). 

Here, the killer is very much a surprise, and I take no joy in saying that because this is the sort of surprise that cannot fail to anger and disappoint me. Why, you ask? Well, I’ll tell you: 

Ebanyq Xabk SVEFG pbzznaqzrag fgngrf: Gur pevzvany zhfg or fbzrbar zragvbarq va gur rneyl cneg bs gur fgbel, ohg zhfg abg or nalbar jubfr gubhtugf gur ernqre unf orra nyybjrq gb sbyybj. Ina Qvar chgf vg rira zber cynvayl va uvf gragu ehyr: Gur phycevg zhfg ghea bhg gb or n crefba jub unf cynlrq n zber be yrff cebzvarag cneg va gur fgbel — gung vf, n crefba jvgu jubz gur ernqre vf snzvyvne naq va jubz ur gnxrf na vagrerfg.

Urer, Qvpxfba oernxf gur ehyr ol univat n punenpgre jub unf nccrnerq sbe n srj cntrf va gur zvqqyr bs gur obbx ghea bhg gb or gur xvyyre. Vg’f nyy jbexrq bhg dhvgr snveyl, nf Fve Urael’f svany fhzzngvba pna nggrfg, ohg V pna’g uryc ohg srry gbgnyyl qrsyngrq jura n zvabe punenpgre gheaf bhg gb unir qhaavg!

The final point I’d like to make, one that even the Doctor noticed, is the surface similarities between Death in Five Boxesand Christie’s 1936 Cards on the Table. The victims in both novels take pleasure in collecting the secrets of their friends, not to expose them so much as to discomfit them. In Cards, Mr. Shaitana goes for the gold by tracking down and befriending folks who have got away with murder. Felix Haye isn’t so choosy, as any sort of criminal will do. Thus, much of the book is spent uncovering what sort of crime each of the suspects is quilty of. 

Ultimately, these premises are important to their respective plots in quite different ways. Obviously, this is a matter of taste, but the way Christie utilizes this idea leads to strong characterization and an elegant investigation by four corresponding sleuths. It may not be one of her strongest mysteries, but it is absolutely charming and a delight to read. In Dickson’s hands, we get a hodgepodge of events that lead to a series of revelations. Nothing surprises because we never get to know these characters enough to care if one of them is an arsonist or another an extortionist. 

We also get here the first faint glimpses of Sir Henry Merrivale at his more annoying, physically comic and endlessly pontificating self. His entrance here is a literal upsetting of an apple cart, and then he leads everyone around talking and talking and talking. And much of his talk goes like this: 

I didn’t want to see you, exactly. But I wanted to see Marcia Blystone. She’s comin’ to see you this morning. At least, she most solemnly promised she would last night. It’s a funny thing about a woman. You can scare the daylights out of her. She’ll be half faintin’ and out of action for a week. Yet at the back of your mind there’s something that’s always awake and always practical, even if she’s hoppin’ from ice-floe to ice-floe like Eliza crossin’ the river. “Now, a man’s not like that. If he’s in scaldin’ danger or difficulty he’s got eyes and ears for only that one thing. Everything else is washed out. The most money-grabbin’ bandit, in the middle of a gun-battle with the coppers, wouldn’t spare two seconds to scoop up a fifty-pound note out of the gutter. But a woman would. Her life’s like that. All this is by way of preface. Masters has been talkin’ about people who obstruct justice. But of all the people who most consistently, charmin’ly, and earnestly shove justice into the ditch at every turn, your friend Marcia Blystone is the worst.” 

It’s almost a running joke how often the Old Man is about to explain something and then gets interrupted. And this is a case that I wanted to have solved as quickly as possible. I felt manipulated and less than charmed as the quirky features kept piling up: the silly objects found in the pockets of the poison victims; the titular five boxes stolen from the dead man’s lawyers’ offices, each box affixed with a suspect’s name. With Merrivale so verbose,  Sanders and Marcia so respectively bland and annoying, and Inspector Masters playing so minor a role to the action, the real star of this show is Sergeant Bob Pollard, whose lustful feelings for one of the suspects, solo investigations that lead him both closer to the truth and further astray, and inner monologue about the rest of the sleuthing team, account for all of the best humor in this book. 

Summation: not in any way the best of Carter Dickson. Read Cards on the Table instead. Have a cocktail while you read. Skip the atropine . . . 

My rankings follow for the first nine HM adventures. Next time, we’re visiting what I believe to be a perceived classic: The Reader Is Warned

The Punch and Judy MurdersThe Judas WindowThe Red Widow MurdersThe Plague Court MurdersThe Unicorn MurdersThe Ten TeacupsDeath in Five BoxesThe White Priory MurdersThe Bowstring Murders