After a notable pause, we return to my Carter Dickson celebration with The Reader Is Warned (1939), the tenth book John Dickson Carr wrote under this pseudonym and the ninth Sir Henry Merrivale mystery. Frankly, this is a difficult one for me to write about because, for the first 168 pages, it is so wonderful that it shoots right to the top of the list. And then things get extremely . . . . . problematic. To sum it up without spoiling, this is a brilliant mystery that happens to be saddled with one of those horrific “stuck in its time” situations where things turn very ugly very quickly. And that leaves me at a crossroads about a book that, in twenty or so paragraphs, I’m going to have to rate.
I find it significant – in more ways than one – that TRIW was published the same year as And Then There Were None. While the characters manage to reference most of the eight cases Merrivale has already tackled, there seems to be here, as there was with Agatha Christie, a change in direction for the author. Both books are dark in tone, almost nihilistic at the end, perhaps in keeping with the brewing threat of world war. For much of the time, both books promise to be something more than a traditional whodunnit, an accomplishment one of them lives up to. Interestingly, too, both books have a . . . problem. Christie’s publishers solved theirs by simply changing the title – twice! But what can you do with The Reader Is Warned? That, as the Danish prince muttered, is the question.
Let’s start with the good stuff, as there is so much of that going on here. Never one to wallow in large casts, Dickson has created perhaps his most intimate novel to date. There are six characters that concern us here, who have gathered at a country estate for the weekend. One of them is Dr. John Sanders, the forensic pathologist and the latest in the line-up of Generic Male Sidekicks that the author provides as an eyewitness and sounding board to HM. We met Sanders in the last case, Death in Five Boxes, which I ranked seventh out of nine cases. I wasn’t terribly impressed with Sanders there, although I was happy that he and Marcia Blystone, the heroine du jour, found each other’s heart at the end.
At the start of TRIW, Marcia is dealing with the emotional repercussions that case wrought upon her father in the only way one really can deal with these things – a luxurious world cruise – and the separation is wreaking havoc with Sanders’ heart. In every way, he is a warmer, richer and more important character in this novel. His emotional state, his actions, his observations, are all not only interesting to follow – they are significant. It’s also worthy to note – and this is so apparent throughout that it hardly amounts to a spoiler – Sanders is an innocent witness to events. And what events these turn out to be!
In search of distraction, Sanders jumps at the chance when an intriguing invitation arrives from his attorney friend Lawrence Chase: he wants Sanders to bring Merrivale down to Fourways, the home of Sam and Mina Constable, to check out Mina’s guest, a self-avowed mind-reader, and either expose him as a fraud or shake hands with the real deal. But this is Friday, and Sir Henry is not available until Sunday (we can’t have HM witness the events of that fateful Friday, or this would be a much shorter book!) Still, Pennik intrigues HM, and he implores Sanders to travel to the country alone. It’s a very small house-party, just the Constables, Pennik, Lawrence Chase and his charming new friend, Miss Hillary Keen. What could possibly go wrong?
Need you ask???
With such a small cast – five housemates, and two of them dead by the halfway point – Dickson pushes us to wonder if we’re dealing not with a standard “which of them?” story but with a cunning game of cat and mouse. This is largely a result of the presence of one of the author’s most fascinating and . . . problematic characters – the mind-reader Herman Pennik. The last time we met a “magical” figure in the canon was in the Doctor Fell adventure of the previous year, The Crooked Hinge, and Ahriman the Egyptian dwarf was a grotesque and a minor figure. Pennik is genuinely creepy, partly because he combines the ordinary (Dickson uses words like “homely” and “pleasant” to describe him) with something otherworldly: “. . . an aura; it had to be shaken off; it was formidable and disturbing. It prompted the insidious thought: what if this fellow can read my mind?”
In his ability to disturb the hell out of his fellow guests, Pennik wields a power that reminds me of one of Christie’s most intriguing killers. By the time everyone goes up to change for dinner, Pennik has set friend against friend and forecast the death of his host. He claims that he can cause Sam Constable to die with his mind, through something Pennik calls Teleforce: “the power of drawing out or, conversely, crushing, from afar.” This prediction is proven correct in a highly dramatic murder that, as in Hinge, takes place right out in the open. Sam seems to have a seizure and die on the upstairs landing outside all their bedrooms. It must have been a heart attack – except Constable had a constitution like an ox! Some sort of poison, insists Inspector Masters, sent down from Scotland Yard – but Sanders is equally insistent that no poison was used. And Dickson informs us outright, in the first of a series of footnotes that this was murder and that the killer was present when Constable died.
We know that Sanders is not the killer. And Hillary Keen was with him in his bedroom where they were visited by a very much alive Sam Constable and then chatted away until they heard the screams. And Mina Constable and Larry Chase were in their bedrooms when Sanders opened his door and beheld Constable collapsing at the top of the stairs. That leaves Pennik – but he was downstairs in the kitchen making dinner before witnesses who will swear he never left their side!
(The footnotes in Carr/Dickson novels are always entertaining if a bit of a cheat. They provide a shortcut so that we don’t have to read page after page of proof that something is murder or someone is innocent. And sometimes you really have to check the wording to figure out what kind of bamboozlement the author has in store for you. But they’re fun nevertheless and particularly effective here.)
Sir Henry hurries down to assist Masters and Sanders – and he’s pissed. This is the first half of Merrivale’s career, and the humor is more subtle and quite wonderful. HM has had an eventful and difficult weekend (“Was it my fault if they launched her down the slip too soon and the champagne bottle conked the mayor instead?”), and he is in no mood to face off against a fake psychic who might also be a murderer. But face off they do, in a series of increasingly fraught confrontations that begin to take on national significance. For, whether or not Pennik believes his abilities to be genuine, he is becoming power-mad and nobody is safe.
A second death occurs in another rich and atmospheric scene, a dark night of the soul where Dr. Sanders is left alone with the victim. From there, the investigation speeds along, and aside from another subtly funny scene at an inquest where it becomes clear that Sir Henry Merrivale is everywhere, this is Dickson at his most suspenseful. Has Herman Pennik indeed found a way to harness the powers of his mind to kill? And if, like me, you hope and expect this to be nonsense, has he discovered a method of murder that can be performed from great distances?
In answering these questions and explaining the two murders, Dickson does himself proud. Every seemingly random detail we’ve been given becomes woven into the solution. What seems complex and supernatural becomes rational and – for Dickson – fairly simple. There’s one bothersome moment for me involving the nature of talking in one’s sleep, but other than that, all of this is quite wonderful . . . . . except –
Chances are most of you who stopped by here have already read the novel and know what I’m talking about. I won’t lay it all out specifically as a spoiler for the rest of you. However, I feel I must warn you: the ending of this novel contains an element that must needs disturb and disgust modern readers. I know we all do our best to wrestle with these stuck in their time moments, but this feels especially ugly, partly because of the tone in which it is presented (the murderer here is particularly nasty), but mostly because these kinds of representations stink to high heaven.
I find it difficult to imagine that The Reader Is Warned will make it on the list of republished titles in the British Library or American Classics series because of this, and rightfully so; I think the ending taints its brilliance. I wonder if there is a way to rewrite it to preserve what is essentially a fantastic mystery but eliminate the awful stuff. Some might argue that this “fixing” another author’s intent would be, in itself, a mistake. I honestly don’t know. I believe, however, that we have a responsibility to look at the uglier parts of our past and acknowledge their wrongness. This isn’t a matter of being “woke” – it’s a matter of doing what’s right. There’s some ugly stuff in here. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Next up: Sir Henry goes to the movies in And So To Murder.
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Here are my current rankings. Without this issue hanging over it, I think The Reader Is Warned would have gone straight to the top. The least I can do is remove a couple of points (a la All About Agatha) for the “stuck in its time” element. I apologize if this seems to make light work of a bigger problem.