Sunday, March 25, 2012

BELOW SUSPICION by John Dickson Carr

The latest in my dip into Carr, Below Suspicion (1949) is actually quite an engaging story, if marred by some of Carr's usual flaws.

Womanizing lawyer Patrick Butler takes on the case of Joyce Ellis, who's accused of murder. It turns out that Ellis was the companion of elderly and hypochondriac Mildred Taylor, and that Mrs. Taylor died of antimony poisoning under mysterious circumstances. While it's possible that Mrs. Taylor took the dose accidentally, it seems unlikely, but the first part of the book is spent with Butler getting her acquitted of the murder.

Then..lovely Lucia Renshaw is also accused of murder by antimony poisoning, this time of her husband, a vile domineering creature whom she was on the verge of divorcing. Is there a serial poisoner on the loose? Who is it, and how are they doing it?

Horning in on the case is Dr. Gideon Fell, a detective that Carr introduced in 1933's Hag's Nook and continued to write about through 1967. Fell is a corpulent man who walks with two canes, wears a cape and a hat, and is very much based on G. K. Chesterton, both in appearance and personality. This is Fell's 18th appearance, so he's very much in the groove and readers are supposed to know who he is. (It should be noted that Fell is an amateur who gets called on by the police, something that's rather laughable today.)

The story holds up fairly well, and includes a visit to a raffish nightclub behind a blank door in a bad neighborhood that reminds me of stories I've heard of exclusive cocktail lounges that can only be accessed through the phone booth of a cheap hot-dog stand. (Really, there's one like that in New York.) It was also interesting looking at the timing of a murder by comparing taxis and public transport. Another interesting aspect was the postwar setting, a time when Merrie Traditional England was segueing into Modern England.

To its debit, it has the narrative leaps that one comes to expect from Carr, and one of his failings at a storyteller. Characters will suddenly KNOW things and make all sorts of logical leaps, and the reader can't figure out how those folks were able to guess all that stuff. It's not as bad as in some other Carr I've read, but it almost always happens.

The solution is fairly nifty, though. (MILD SPOILERS) It turns out that one of the murders was an accident that occurred in the midst of committing another. (END) It's something you don't come across often and it all makes sense. And there's some good Gothick atmosphere, as the plot involves a cult of Satanic witches whose covenstead must be invaded. That in itself is rather interesting; often the titles of Carr works promise all sorts of Gothick terrors, but the stories end up being mundane. Below Suspicion has a mundane title but the plot actually has some of the Gothick terrors that others are missing. I'll have to see if this crops up in other Carr works.

Below Suspicion is worth reading if you happen on it at the library or your favorite used book store, but I'm not going to make this Required Reading.

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