Friday 27 April 2018

Forgotten Book - Death in Five Boxes

Death in Five Boxes is a novel featuring Sir Henry Merrivale that was first published in 1938. The author was Carter Dickson, the pen-name under which John Dickson Carr wrote about H.M., "the old man". And I must say that the opening scenario of this story shows Carr at his most brilliant. It's quite entrancing.

A young doctor, walking in central London one night, is accosted by a pretty young woman, who is a state of some distress. She wants him to accompany her into a house, and when he agrees to do so, first they encounter a blood-stained umbrella-cum-swordstick, and then they are presented with a bizarre situation. Five people in a room, four of them in a drugged state, the fifth one dead. One of those who is still alive is the young woman's father...

It's a great premise, and Carr develops it splendidly in the next chapters. All the people in the room are rich and well-known, all of them are - allegedly - criminals. What on earth do we make of the strange items found on their person, such as a smattering of quicklime, four watches, and part of the insides of an alarm clock? Not to mention the five boxes which apparently contain deadly secrets, and have been stolen from a solicitor's office. It's all weird, and all entrancing. Suffice to say that I was absolutely hooked.

Unfortunately, my enthusiasm waned as the story progressed. The complications about how the drug was administered began to wear me down, and the presence in the story of a renowned cat burglar rather irritated me (perhaps this was unreasonable of me). We are presented with a "least likely person" culprit, but I felt, again perhaps unreasonably, that this character's motivation hadn't been adequately foreshadowed. Maybe I wasn't paying close enough attention. In the end, I felt that a superb situation was rather inadequately resolved. But full marks for the set-up; it really did grip me. 


J F Norris said...

I enjoyed this one. Gushed over it on my blog seven years ago. When I read Carr in both of his guises I tend to get upset if the book is not over-the-top with detective fiction gimmickry. This one delivered the goods in abundance. Cat burglar and all! One of his best opening chapters, too.

AND -- Very good news for John Dickson Carr fans is the soon to be released reprint of CASE OF THE CONSTANT SUICIDES. Just got an email from the sales rep at Birlinn Ltd, a Scottish indie press, about their plans. If ...CONSTANT SUICIDES sells well there may be more. I'm curious how they secured UK rights for the book where so many others have failed. Exciting news in any case!

Graham Powell said...

This was the first Carr book I ever ready, probably 30 years ago or more. I re-read if a year ago or so. I would agree that some of the complications are less than compelling, but HM's arrival on the scene was pretty memorable, and I thought the way the guests were drugged was extremely clever. Not his best, but not a bad way to start!

Martin Edwards said...

John, Graham, belated thanks for your very welcome comments. I must admit I don't know anything about Birlinn but it is good to see JDC making a comeback.