Summer vacation goal #2: Read a lot and get some blogging in.
Ah, the best laid plans . . . yada yada . . . gang aft a-gley.” With a TBR pile fairly bursting with juicy titles by authors both familiar and new, you’d think this goal would be a cinch. But I’ve had an admittedly rough start. After plodding for two weeks through an overlong and unsatisfying Modern Mystery without complaining (okay, maybe I complained a little), I turned with relief to a classic novel by one of my favorite classic authors. I can’t believe I have never read The Emperor’s Snuffbox (1942) before. First, it is one of the few novels by John Dickson Carr that contains not a whiff of an impossible crime, and I am not a locked room fanatic like some, er, fanatics I could mention. Furthermore, I had heard that TES is the Carr title that Christie fans will particularly enjoy. I took this to mean that the author’s use of misdirection was particularly fine here.
Finally, there was the sheer brevity of the book! In discussing Elizabeth George last week, I broached the question of just how long is too long when it comes to a murder mystery. A Banquet of Consequences was a gaping maw of a book, nearly six hundred pages in length and jam-packed with enough psychological insight to fill fifty crime novels; sadly, all it lacked was a good crime story to tell.
Some folks who read my post on George offered their suggestions about how long a mystery should be, and my buddy JJ of The Invisible Event provided the most specific answer:
“The ideal length of a mystery novel is 100,000 words. This is enough pace to make things interesting and complex and then tie it all up, without having to introduce too many additional threads which then bloat the narrative.”
In response to JJ, my friend John, the noted noir expert, replied that most classic mysteries were way shorter than 100,000 words. John Dickson Carr’s books, specifically, “as a random example, are usually around the 70,000 to 80,000 mark.” To which JJ responded, to my surprise, “And they often come up a bit hasty-feeling, don’t you think? I always feel that I could do with a little more . . . “ (I was surprised because I know how much JJ reveres Carr.)
And boy! After finishing The Emperor’s Snuffbox, which all my unscientific word-counting puts at a little under 65,000 words, do I share JJ’s sentiment! The book feels like a novella at best, and Carr’s usual cleverness, stripped of his sheer joy at inventing outrageous murder plots, seems pale as milk this time around. And there’s something else that really bothered me reading this book, but I’ll save that for the end.
The basic set-up is this: in the French seaside resort of La Bandelette, beautiful Eve Neill has recently divorced her attractive cad of a husband, Ned Atwood and has been swept into a romance with Toby Lawes, the boy from the villa across the street. One night, Ned bursts into his old house and confronts Eve, swearing that he is not ready to let her go. As they argue in her bedroom, Ned looks out into the window of old Sir Maurice Lawes’ study and sees someone standing in the shadows as the old man examines his beautiful new possession, an antique snuffbox that once belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte. Moments later, Eve and Ned see a gloved figure leaving the room, and the bloody body of Sir Maurice lies sprawled at his desk, the snuffbox smashed to pieces.
The opening is fun to read, as the slowly unfolding facts of the crime are juxtaposed into an ugly argument between Eve and Ned. From there, matters become complicated, as they are expected to do in any Carr mystery, and an innocent woman finds herself accused of murder. Two other elements of the novel distinguish themselves. First, there’s the detective, noted criminal psychologist Dermot Kinross. This, to my knowledge, is his only appearance in the canon, and he is refreshingly lacking in the comic eccentricities of a Merrivale or a Fell. After reading pages of description for each character in Elizabeth George’s novel, it was nice to watch a character’s backstory and personality be etched in with such remarkable brevity:
“It would have been difficult to say wherein lay Dr. Kinross’ air of distinction, so that you singled him out in a crowd and thought he might be an interesting person to know. It was perhaps the essential tolerance of the face, the suggestion that he was the same sort of person you were yourself, and would understand you.
“It was a weather-beaten face, kindly and thoughtful, a little lined by study, with absent-minded dark eyes. There was still no grey in the thick dark hair. You would not have guessed – except at certain angles – that one side of his face had been rebuilt by plastic surgery after a shell-burst at Arras. Humor you saw there, and wisdom without flippancy: but strength you never saw until it was needed.
“He smoked a cigarette, and had a whisky-and-soda at his elbow. Though he seemed in a holiday mood, he had never in his life known what a holiday meant.”
We get all the information we need here: war hero, workaholic, kind and intelligent, old beyond his years. Carr gives us very little else, except an occasional glimpse at how Kinross’ past injuries – which we never learn any more details of – has affected his sense of self. He is a quiet detective and a true hero by novel’s end.
The other really fine thing about the book is the snuffbox itself. After all, this book ain’t called The Bride Dripped Blood or The Murder at La Bandelette. Yet the presence of the snuffbox is not merely decorative or symbolic: its importance to the plot is both significant and very clever.
Would I could stop now and say I had a great time reading this! But alas! There were problems, not least of which was, ironically, the very brevity of the book. Aside from Eve and Kinross, every other character was reduced to a type: the roué, the stuffed shirt, the kindly uncle, the vicious French maid, and so on. And although Eve is the heroine of the show, the thing that really stuck in my craw about this book was having to become immersed once again into the sheer chauvinism of the 1940’s. I understand that, historically, the taint of divorce once cast a pall on any woman’s reputation. And, to his credit, Carr does weave the unfair double standard regarding men, women and sex into the plot with some sympathy. And traditionally, Carr has the propensity of many American classic mystery writers to reduce women to the noir stereotypes of femme fatale and the good wife/secretary. (Often his subterfuge centers around amisreading of which “type” a character falls into.) Yes, his women here all come across as stereotypes, but aside from Eve, Carr can’t slow down to provide much more than brush strokes about each character.
Here’s the first description of Eve:
“She had meant no harm. It never occurred to her that a good-looking, good-natured woman, who combines gentle manners with more sex-appeal than is good for her, can be suspected of sinister motives no matter what she does. She knew, of course, that she lived in dread of scandal. But she never went on to analyze why the brush of scandal never kept very far from her skirts. It just seemed to happen to her.”
“More sex-appeal than is good for her?” How tiresome it gets to watch men cast beauty as a savage force that turns a woman into a wanton or a weapon. I wanted to feel sorry for the girl for this characterization alone, but it doesn’t help that nothing that happens to Eve in the first five chapters of the novel strikes one as realistic in any way: her predicament reeks of authorial manipulation, and the reactions of the characters simply follow what Carr needs them to do to further the plot against Eve. It’s especially hard to sympathize with her because the people Eve is trying to impress – the members of the Lawes family – are either unpleasant or so thinly drawn as to be little more than stick figures. Carr needed to take more time to develop characters, backstory and motivations. We never understand what makes Eve tick (why, for example, is she drawn to abusive men?) or get a sense of any of the Lawes family as people or even as suspects.
Being set in France, there are, of course, some French characters. The prefect of police, M. Goron, is a charming sort who I would swear is a sort of lampoon of Hercule Poirot: dressed to the nines, he tends to resort to malapropisms whenever he is forced to conduct business in English. And, like any police figure in a typical mystery involving an amateur sleuth, he is unstintingly wrong in his assumptions of the case, to the point of bullheadedness. (Unfortunately, it is also implied that he resorts to strong-arm methods to get confessions from those in his custody.) As for the Frenchwomen, the cliched Normandy peasant woman and the money-hungry coquette are not people but plot devices, pure and simple.
To make matters worse for this reader, I didn’t fall for Carr’s misdirection in the least and glommed onto the identity of the murderer immediately. (Fortunately, I didn’t figure out the significance of the snuffbox; that, at least, afforded me a bit of a surprise.) As anyone who knows me can tell you: “Fool me, mystery writer, and I’m a fan for life.” Carr usually accomplishes that feat quite well, (She Died a Lady comes to mind), and even when I guess the murderer’s name, as in He Who Whispers, this is only one of many surprises that unfold in a book that has everything to recommend it. Unfortunately, as a both mystery and as a novel, with The Emperor’s Snuff-box Carr seems not to be operating on all cylinders.
I have to confess to great disappointment that I did not enjoy this more, for it seems to enjoy a generally fine reputation amongst Carr fans. It seemed to me much more of a trifle, and the inherent sexism – which I grant is something of a given for the time the book was written – grated even more given the simplicity of the plot. Still, Dr. Kinross is an attractive figure that I would have enjoyed revisiting, and the snuffbox itself turns out to be worth the price of admission.
And it’s short. Oh man, it’s very very short!