Friday 20 May 2011

Forgotten Book - The Problem of the Green Capsule

My choice for today's Forgotten Book is another title by John Dickson Carr that has happily found a fresh life thanks to the enterprise of James Prichard's Langtail Press. This is The Problem of the Green Capsule, which was first published in 1939. Dickson Carr wanted to call the book The Black Spectacles, and that was the title used in the UK (and I think, given the storyline, he was right and his American publishers rather missed the point.)

After some scene setting in Pompeii, the action switches to a quintessential English village, Sodbury Cross. Someone's been poisoning chocolates, and an attractive young woman called Marjorie Wills is a possible suspect. Her rich uncle, Marcus Chesney, a man with an ingenious turn of mind but a habit of penny-pinching, dreams up an elaborate charade intended to cast light on the mystery. Of course, in Golden Age detective fiction, a tendency to over-elaborate is a fatal characteristic of both murderers and victim alike, and so it proves here. Needless to say, Marcus ends up dead, poisoned by the eponymous green capsule.

Another murder occurs, and Dr Gideon Fell, who has been taking the waters at Bath, is called in to assist the baffled police. This is not a "locked room mystery" of the type for which Dickson Carr was renowned, but there is some jiggery-pokery with a clock and with the film of Marcus Chesney's charade which contribute to the puzzle. As always with the best of John Dickson Carr, the mystery is ingenious and atmospheric, and I did not guess the solution.

One of the features of this novel which particularly interested me was the way in which Carr used elements from real-life murder cases to cast light upon the events of the story. He was fascinated by true crime, and made excellent use of his knowledge. I'm certainly planning to read more of his books to see whether this was a recurrent feature of his work.


Graham Powell said...

I thought this was a fairly weak effort, but it definitely picks up halfway through and the way the film figures in the solution is ingenious.

Anonymous said...

Martin - I do enjoy Gideon Fell, so I'm glad you highlighted this book. And well done to you and your team at winning the Crimefest competition :-).

J F Norris said...

This is a good year for this book on the crime fiction blogs. I did one a few months ago. I later read three other reviews. Each time someone picks up on something new. I liked the theatricality of it all. You mention the true crime element. Carr wrote well and apparently densely, too.

aguja said...

This sounds a good read, Martin.

Yvette said...

Thhis sounds a hoot! I read John Dickson Carr many years ago, but damn if I can remember any of the plots or who-done-what-to-whom.

I wish Carr's books were easier to find here. I mostly just sumble across them once in awhile.

Thanks for a great review.

P.S. I've been reading your books (so far I've read four)and enjoying them. (I'm playing catch-up.)

George said...

John Dickson Carr (aka Carter Dickson) wrote some fabulous mystery novels. Every so often, I get into a mood where only classic mysteries like Carr's will satisfy me. I've read about half of his output and I'm carefully rationing what's left to read.

The Passing Tramp said...

This is a good book with wonderful murder mechanics, but if you know Carr's personality sufficiently you will spot the murderer.

I found the attitude of Fell and the police detective--i. e., that if you fall in love at first sight with a lovely young lady murder suspect you should not tell your superiors what you know--quite irritating; but then I suppose Carr would say I'm not a romantic.

The Black Spectacles is a better title than The Problem of the Green Capsule, though sticking up for American publishers (who usually changed titles for the worse) I would say The Three Coffins is a better title (for the specific book)than The Hollow Man.