JOHN DICKSON CARR – Poison in Jest. Harper, US, hardcover, 1932. H. Hamilton, UK, hardcover, 1932. Reprinted many times in both hardcover and soft.


   The magic word in describing the prose of John Dickson Carr is “atmosphere.” His stories always seem to be taking place in dark and dreary locales even when the sun is shining brightly. Let me quote from pages 28-29 of the British Penguin paperback I’ve just read:

   I went into the library and stared about. It was filled with a hard brightness; one of the gas-mantles hissed slightly. Wind had begun to thrum the window-panes, so that reflections quivered in their black surfaces, and the gimcrack lace-and-velvet draperies twitched about. The plaster frescoes of the ceiling were very dirty, and the dull flowered carpet was worn in several places. […] A commonplace library. You felt, nevertheless, the presence of something leering and ugly. A vibration, a pale terror like the mist on a photographic plate.

   According to Hubin, this early novel is a non-series one, but the narrator is the same Jeff Marle who assisted Henri Bencolin, the head of the Paris police, in several earlier cases. (This one takes place somewhere in Pennsylvania, and Bencolin does not appear.)


   Even though Marle does his investigative best on the cae of domestic poisonings, he does not have the makings of a true Carr detective Neither does the county detective, Joe Sargent, who is called in. They see things too straight-forwardly, and the fail to see what things really mean.

   It falls upon a friend of the family’s youngest daughter Virginia, an eccentric chap named Rossiter, to come upon the scene and ferret out the truth. In the grand tradition of Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale, Rossiter’s appearance makes him seem nearly potty in his behavior — but as is finally revealed, there is method in his madness. (As the saying goes.)

   I don’t believe that this is one of Carr’s finer attempts at massive misdirection, as he is so prone to do, and the pace is rather stodgy and slow. I realized who had done it on page 154 of the Penguin edition (so that this won’t help you any), and there were still over 60 pages to go. (Which rather proves both points, doesn’t it?)

   On the other hand, second-rate John Dickson Carr (which I”m really implying) is still more interesting to read than 90% of the work produced by anyone else who attempts the rigorous challenge of the old-fashioned fair-play detective mystery.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File 37, no date given, very slightly revised.

Note:   In the most recent edition of Crime Fiction IV, Al Hubin now lists Jeff Marle as a series character. In the other five cases in which he takes part, it was always in tandem with Henri Bencolin.