For those mystery fans who may be in the dark about the title of this post, it’s a reference to Dear Evan Hansen, the award-winning musical about a lonely boy on the spectrum who one day decides to have a drink with his prospective father-in-law over a game of bows-and-arrows behind the locked door of the man’s study. . .
Oh, wait! I really should remember not to mix my fixations together! Dear Evan Hansen isn’t a mystery at all; it’s about how the lies and deceit surrounding a young man’s death nearly destroy the lives of a small circle of peo-
Okay, now I’m really confused. The truth of the matter is that I’m home, sick in bed, as I write this. My cold has kept me from work, made me woozy, and affected my sense of humor. How ironic that it has also given me some rare-for-these-days spare time to spend putting together another post in my continuous Celebration of Carter Dickson! I started this thread ten months ago, and yet it was almost three years ago to the day that I read my first Dickson mystery, The Judas Window. I figured to myself that it was about bleeding time I gave up this purposeless aversion to the pseudonym and, as you must be aware by now, was I glad I gave that up! And yet, for reasons I cannot fathom, I did not review the book on this blog and have only mentioned it in passing. Since so much time and so many book reviews had followed, and since everyone’s “first” holds a special place in his heart, I decided to give TJW a re-read in preparation for this post.
Loved, loved, loved it!
After the zany shenanigans of The Punch and Judy Murders (which shot that novel right to the top of my rankings list), Dickson returns to his more traditional roots with a bang. (Or is that a “thwang,” arrow fans?) The prologue of The Judas Window has to be one of the greatest ever openings in classic mystery fiction. Dickson gets right into it, although he takes a moment right from the start to endear us to his ill-fated protagonist:
“Jimmy Answell was large, good-natured and fair-haired. He was just such an easygoing sort as people like, and there was no malice in him. His hobby was the reading of murder mysteries, like your hobby and mine. He sometimes took too much to drink, and he sometimes made a fool of himself, even as you and I. finally, as heir to the estate of his late mother, he might be considered a very eligible bachelor indeed.”
Jimmy has recently fallen in love at first sight. It takes him no more than a week to meet, woo, and propose to Mary Hume, who was introduced to Jimmy at a Christmas house party by his cousin Reginald. When the opportunity presents itself for Jimmy to travel up to town, he decides to look up Mary’s father, distinguished bank director Avory Hume, to formally ask for his daughter’s hand. It’s unfortunate that Hume did not read the opening paragraph above because although he agrees to meet with Mary’s suitor, his manner is “of a freezing formality” that suggests enmity rather than paternal fondness. Is this why Mary seemed so frightened when she sent Jimmy off on his train?
It’s also unfortunate that Hume is an archery enthusiast, but we’ll get to that later.
Jimmy arrives as 12 Grosvenor Street. He meets the butler Dyer. He sees on the staircase the respectable Amelia Jordan, Hume’s confidential secretary and housekeeper. He finds no sign of the other occupant of the house, Hume’s brother, Dr. Spencer Hume. Avory is closing a chessboard as Jimmy is showed into his study. Could he have been playing a game with his neighbor and fellow archery nut, Randolph Fleming?
(Let’s see: Jimmy, Mary, Reggie, Dyer, Amelia, Spencer, Fleming . . . the closed circle is complete.)
Jimmy finds something sinister behind his host’s noncommittal manner and his rather sinister description of his passion for, and prowess at, archery, so he gratefully accepts a whisky and soda. The drink, it turns out, has been doctored, and Jimmy passes out. When he wakes up, his host is dead, shot in the chest with one of the arrows that had been arranged as trophies on the study wall. The door is locked. The windows are shuttered. The whisky and soda bottles are untouched and unblemished. There is nobody present in the room but a dead man and the innocent stranger who is about to be arrested and tried for his murder.
What follows is a courtroom drama as rollicking as any you ever found in Perry Mason but with a distinctly British bent (emphasis on “bent”!) The court is presided over by the “red judge, Mr. Justice Bodkin, “a very short plump man whose robe of scarlet slashed with black made him look even shorter and stouter.” The defendant sits on the dock with “a certain air about him which gave the impression that he did not now particularly care a curse what happened.” And if you look carefully to the reserved seats behind counsel, you will catch our old friends, Ken Blake and his lovely wife Evelyn, returning to the Dickson fold for one last bout.
One could imagine that Ken has been sent by Sir Henry Merrivale to take careful notes of the case and report back every evening so that the Old Man can sit back in his office, close his eyes, and play armchair detective. Isn’t that how it is always done in H.M.’s universe? But this time . . . this time, I direct your attention to the Counsel for the Defense:
“H.M. . . . was sitting alone on the left of the front bench: his elbows outthrust on the desk, so that his ancient gown made him look still broader, and his wig sitting strangely on him . . .
“’But he shouldn’t have come into court, (Evelyn) insisted. ‘He took silk before the war, but Lollypop (H.M.’s voluptuous secretary) told me herself he hasn’t accepted a brief in fifteen years, and they’ll eat him. Look at him down there, sitting like a boiled owl! And if they begin to get under his skin he won’t behave himself; you know he won’t.’”
The great joy of course – for we’re still into the early works, when Sir Henry’s hijinks were genuinely funny and not comic padding – is that H.M. does not behave himself, and a good time is had by all . . . well, all but the defendant, the witnesses upon whom the Old Man levels his beady eye, and the murderer.
A murder trial is one of my favorite settings for the unfolding of a murder investigation. There’s no “dragging the Marsh” here: the testimony is terse, and the court reactions supply a certain entertainment value of which a stolid police investigator seems incapable. This format also changes up the way H.M. typically works. Most of the great sleuths have that deliciously infuriating habit of keeping nearly all their cards close to the vest until the final quarter or so of the novel. As the Old Man explains to the Blakes, such trickery is not possible here:
“What’s more, if you’re lookin’ for any dramatic last-minute eruption of the hidden witness bustin’ into court and causin’ a row, get it out of your heads. You’d no more cause a row in Balmy Bodkin’s court than you’d find one on a chessboard. It’s all goin’ to be on the table all the time – and that’s how I want it. One quiet move to another. Like chess. Or maybe like hunting.”
Things are not quite as open as that. Every time a witness takes the stand to tighten the damning case against young Answell, H.M. asks a few questions that cast doubt and suggest that we should be examining this or that event from a different angle. It’s like Dickson is presenting a series of mini-puzzles to get our minds racing along, a sort of hint that although it looks darkest before the dawn, the great detective is here, and the dawn approacheth!
All Carr/Dickson enthusiasts will avow that one way in which he excels above all others is in the placement of an earth-shattering twist somewhere at the mid-point of a case. At their best, these twists turn everything around and/or make sense of some of the most confounding facts. Such a twist occurs here, and it is utterly delightful.
And that, I think, is where The Judas Window falters just a touch. Because the denouement is not quite as satisfying as what occurs before. As often happens for me with Carr, I did not solve this one (hooray!) because I could not have solved it. I can’t say it’s because the author doesn’t play fair; it’s just that I clearly didn’t take enough of the right subjects in school to be able to wrap my mind around this murder. Oddly enough, I recently read another mystery that has a Judas Window in it, although not in any sort of major way. I understood that window, but I failed to wrap my feeble little mind around this one. Honestly, there should be classes to train impossible crime fans!
However, this mental hiccup on my part is not enough to damage one’s sheer enjoyment of this fine entry in the series, for its deliciously impossible trap set forth in that fabulous opening, for the way the noose almost literally tightens around an innocent man’s throat, and for its humor. Also, for once, Sir Henry Merrivale is put front and center, and it couldn’t have happened at a better time. He is at the sterling point of his literary career; in another five years, his antics will start to resemble the worst of the Ealing comedies and slowly (quite slowly, thank goodness) bring down the quality of Dickson’s work. For now, however, we revel in his glory.
Court adjourned. Let’s retire to the pub, raise our mugs of chicken soup, and sing songs from Dear Evan Hansen.
Here are my rankings thus far:
- The Punch and Judy Murders
- The Judas Window
- The Red Widow Murders
- The Plague Court Murders
- The Unicorn Murders
- The Ten Teacups
- The White Priory Murders
- The Bowstring Murders