Poison In Jest by John Dickson Carr

The Blurb On The Back:

Many people in that ghostly place beside the moulins heard the murderer’s step in the hallways at night, and saw the white marble hand run along window-ledges like a spider, but nobody saw the murderer’s face.  There were four clues written in the yellow book, and any member of the household might have been guilty.

Rossiter – who has credentials from Scotland Yard, but cannot keep a job anywhere – solves the Quayle murders by means of an empty paint-bucket, a view from a window, and an absent-minded drawing in a book. 

You can buy POISON IN JEST by John Dickson Carr from Amazon USA and Amazon UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

It’s 10th December 1931.

Jeff Marle, the writer and occasional sidekick to Parisien judge and part-time detective Henri Bencolin, is back in his home town in western Pennsylvania visiting the Quayle family.  As a teenager, Marle had hung out with the Quayle children – Tom (the eldest son and apple of his mother’s eye), Mary (the eldest daughter but plain and unremarkable), Clarissa (beautiful and petulant), Virginia ‘Jinny’ (the youngest daughter, who Jeff was very fond of), and Matt (bumptious and full of his own importance) but has had little contact with them over the last 12 years.  

Marle’s been invited to visit by Judge Quayle (now retired from the bench) who has finally finished the manuscript he had been working on for many years.  Marle assumes the Judge wants his professional opinion but finds a household that’s very much on edge.  Mrs Quayle is bed ridden with peripheral neuritis and is being treated by Clarissa’s husband Dr Walter Twills and a nurse, Miss Harries.  Jinny has graduated from college and is wafting around trying to find something to do while Mary tends the house with the Slavish maid, Joanna and Matt practices as a lawyer.  Tom was banished from the house several years earlier following an argument with the Judge over his refusal to study law and no one dare mention his name for fear of enraging their father and upsetting their mother. 

But Marle doesn’t realise how bad things are in the Quayle house until three members of the household are poisoned in one night and one victim dies.  As Marle tries to manage the enthusiastic but out-of-his depth local county detective, Joe Sargent and short-tempered coroner Dr Reed, he finds support in the form of Pat Rossiter, an ex-Scotland Yard detective now working in New York and would-be suitor to Jinny.  Rossiter is an unlikely detective – vague, shambling and prone to go off at weird tangents but Marle soon realises that there’s method in his madness and slowly they begin to unpick the Quayle family’s secrets …

John Dickson Carr’s standalone novel first-published in 1932 puts Bencolin sidekick Jeff Marle in an emotionally overwrought and overly complicated plot that suffers from having a cast (including the main detective) who are bundles of quirks rather than fully realised characters.  There are some interesting plot twists and I’m a sucker for poison plots and the Golden Age of Detective Fiction anyway but this is only an okay example of the genre.

I had heard of Carr as a master of locked room mysteries but not previously read his work before so was interested to pick this up from a neighbour who was having a lockdown clear out.  I therefore came into this book not knowing anything about Jeff Marle or his adventures with Bencolin, which is fine because this is intended to be read as a standalone work (although I do wonder if Carr was floating Rossiter for a potential series).

As a character, I found Marle little more than functional.  He’s there to give some background on the Quayle family and their reactions to what’s happened and then describe the investigation but doesn’t bring much of his own deductive reasoning.  That’s not to say he’s without intuition – he realises that Sargent sees this as an opportunity to boost his reputation and he’s alert to Reed’s ties to the family and how that may make him want to minimise what’s happened and look at alternate theories.  There’s a hint of Marle potentially having a bit of a thing for Jinny but it doesn’t go anywhere – partly because Jinny is so underwritten (more on which below) and partly because Marle’s interactions are all functional, there to drive the plot rather than advance character.

This brings me to the other characters who are all pretty much out of the stock catalogue.  All are created to serve the needs of the plot, which means it’s very difficult to care about any of them.  For example, Jinny is very passive and exists solely as a means of getting Rossiter into the action (speaking of which, the inflammatory wording in the telegram she sent him never gets picked up on again or asked about, which I found an infuriatingly wasted opportunity).  Mary is pretty much an old maid and borderline hysteric, Matt a bumptious drunk and Mrs Quayle a bedridden hysteric.  Joanna is a version of that dreadful ‘foreigner’ caricature that’s unfortunately common to detective fiction from the 1930s and the broken English dialogue, although not the worst example I’ve seen, is incredibly dated.  Still at least Joanna has a proper scene – Mrs Harries is pretty much a name on the page and that’s it.

Judge Quayle has the most developed character with Carr gradually unveiling family backstory to explain his psychological state (although I have to say I found it all a bit overblown).  I did believe in his sense of fear, however, and how that causes him to lash out at his family and Marle and there is real tension when he takes umbrage at Sergeant’s questions.  I actually would have liked more of Sargent and Reed in the book than we get because there is a dynamic there that lends tension to the interrogation scenes but unfortunately once Rossiter arrives they both pretty much fall away.

Rossiter, who is very much in the mould of bumbling English genius detective from a privileged background that he’s trying to escape.  He’s indirect, always off on tangents and yet intuitively knows the answers from the start, which again, is typical of detectives in this period and genre.  I did not for one moment buy his romance with Jinny (which goes largely unexplained in terms of background) – there are so few scenes between them that it would be overselling it to describe their supposed forbidden attraction as perfunctory.  He turns up half way through the book but other than answers, I don’t see what he brings.  His background (having worked for Scotland Yard but now – for unexplained reasons – working for the NYPD) is unnecessarily convoluted and, to be honest, I just didn’t get a sense that there was enough there to turn him into the main character of a series (assuming that Carr had ever been considering this).  He irritates Marle, Sargent and Reed and, to be honest, got on my nerves a bit too.  Part of this is because Carr uses this weird device of a prologue and epilogue where Marle meets up with him with a manuscript setting out what happened at the Quayle house and, again, there’s just no good reason for it.

Plot-wise this isn’t one of those locked room mysteries that Carr is famous for – it’s more along the lines of a country-house mystery.  I am a bit of a fan of poison mysteries because there are always so many suspects and I like learning about obscure toxins so on that score, Carr delivers in this book and, for all my gripes about character, there are plenty of suspects and motives.  However the plot strands never really come together – there’s a financial motive that doesn’t quite make sense (especially a key revelation and the outcome of the same) and the background on the Judge’s background also didn’t really make sense when you think about it.  In addition the revelation of the murderer and their motive is all a bit underwhelming and feels rushed and the denouement is an ending rather than a satisfying resolution.

The other issue for me is that Carr writes in a somewhat hyperbolic, adjective heavy style that’s all a bit breathless and overwrought for my taste.  Characters shout and snipe at each other rather than engage and there are a number of info dumps that are quite clunky.  And to return to an earlier point, the prologue and epilogue in Vienna is somewhat tacked on and raised more questions for me than they resolved.

There was enough here to keep me turning the pages and as my first introduction to Carr’s work, it hasn’t put me off checking out his better known works even though this one didn’t really work for me.  

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