Friday, 10 June 2016

Forgotten Book - Poison in Jest

I''m having something of a binge on the works of John Dickson Carr at present, and my Forgotten Book for today is his fifth novel, Poison in Jest. Here he moved away from the  French setting of his early books to the US, although the prologue and epilogue are set in  Vienna. Henri Bencolin, Carr's first super sleuth, is mentioned in passing, but does not appear in person; Jeff Marle, however, continues in his role as narrator.

The Great Detective here is Patrick Rossiter, an Englishman who sees himself as something of an exorcist, and who was perhaps a prototype of Dr Gideon Fell. However, he arrives in the story at a relatively late stage, after an intriguing set-up. Some very strange things are happening in the household of Judge Quayle, up in the mountains of western Pennsylvania. A disembodied hand from a statue keeps making an appearance (although it has to be said that this element of the story is not developed quite as one would expect).

After the apparent failure of an attempted poisoning, murder is committed. The atmosphere of the decaying mansion and the tensions between members of the dysfunctional family who live in it are wonderfully conveyed. Carr's ability to conjure up macabre settings was one of his great strengths, and the powerfully Gothic quality of this novel is in my opinion its outstanding feature.

The mystery is competently handled, with a pleasing "least likely person" culprit, but is not quite gripping enough for me to rank this as one of Carr's best books. Indeed, according to Doug Greene's biography, the author soon became rather dismissive of it. Yet while I don't think it is the best introduction to Carr's work for the uninitiated, it's still a lively read. As others have said, even a novel that is second-rate Carr is likely to be superior to the best work of many other writers of traditional mysteries.

1 comment:

Clothes In Books said...

I read this one recently too, and very much agree with you: not nearly as bad as some dismissive opinions would lead you to expect. Not his greatest by any means, but I thought he did the sad family atmosphere unexpectedly well, and there were some impressive moments.