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The Problem of the Green Capsule

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Carr, John Dickson - The Problem of the Green Capsule (1939) aka The Black Spectacles


Review by Nick Fuller


"We are travelling in a house of illusions, a box of tricks, a particularly devious sort of ghost-train."


Carr's version of Agatha Christie's Cards on the Table, and, like that book, as brilliantly tricky a detective story as the reader could wish for. The rich dilettante Marcus Chesney uses a psychological observation test to demonstrate the method used to poison several children, the revelation of which trick would clear Marjorie Wills, his niece, from suspicion. She - and two other people - were watching Chesney's on-stage murder, in full view of each other; and Chesney's brother, the only other possible suspect, has a cast-iron alibi. Nobody could have committed the crime -- yet it was committed. This is the authentic Carr touch, and the solution is typical of 1930s Carr: utterly brilliant, utterly surprising, and utterly convincing.

A series of poisonings of village children by means of doctored chocolates brings in a Scotland Yard detective, Andrew Elliot. While he's there, it is learned that another murder has taken place: that of Marcus Chesney, a local millionaire whose niece, Marjorie, has been suspected of the earlier poisonings. Chesney has died from poisoning! And he was being filmed at the time he was poisoned!


Chesney was doing a demonstration of how the doctored chocolates had been substituted for the innocent chocolates in the village shop, testing the perceptions of an audience of three people: Marjorie; Marjorie's fiance, George Harding; and a neighboring friend, Professor Ingram. Chesney's brother, Doctor Joe Chesney, had had to absent himself from the performance, while Marcus' employee, Wilbur Emmet, was a participant in the performance, as the mysterious, muffled Mr. Nemo. It is "Mr. Nemo" who forced a presumably poisoned capsule down Marcus Chesney's throat. But Wilbur is found concussed in the yard after the performance. Was Wilbur really Mr. Nemo, or was someone else masquerading as him? All three members of the audience seemingly have perfect alibis--they were watching the performance. Dr. Joe was attending a patient. So we have an impossible crime once again, though more in the nature of an alibi problem: how was someone able to get in position to poison Marcus?


I find this on rereading still to be a very good detective novel, with an interesting problem, lucidly elucidated at the end. Some may find it short on action, but that's okay with someone like me, who finds some Carrs too active. Interestingly, the Carr stand-in hero here is a young police inspector. One the whole this works well. Dr. Fell does not appear until halfway through the book, and a very good police investigation is conducted until then. Then Inspector Elliott meets Dr. Fell, shouts that he loves Marjorie and confesses that he has concealed that he knew before taking the case that Marjorie tried to buy poison. Fell (who it turns out is suppressing evidence about Marjorie as well) compliments Elliott on his chivalry. This put me off a bit. It seemed Carr's romanticism getting the better of good sense. Any policeman behaving that way should have been drummed out of the force. And that Elliot could have been "in love" with Marjorie to that extent after seeing her once in Pompeii (Pompeii is for lovers?) seemed absurd to me. But I think I'm the first person ever to complain about this, so I guess it isn't an issue with most people.


The characters are solid enough, classic Carr stock. We have the disputatious academic (Professor Ingram); the bluff, hearty fellow who roars a lot (Doctor Joe); the goody two shoes, obsequious male (George Harding -- though did Carr really need to give us as black marks that he has "Southern European" looks and went to a "minor" public school, oh dear!); and the beautiful girl who is either an angel or a devil. The police are nicely-characterized (Major Crow only sounds like Carr once, when he informs Elliott of Marjorie: "For all her sweetly innocent looks, I hear she sometimes uses language that would startle a sergeant-major"). There's a lot of roaring from the male characters that goes on in this book (Dr. Fell even makes a roaring whisper, I don't know how). I could do without the roaring myself, and I know this got on Barzun's nerves. After reading Doug Greene's excellent biography of Carr with all the information about his drinking, I can't help wondering if the drinking bouts kind of influenced Carr's writing in this regard. After all, drunken people do often roar and shout. Or maybe Carr was just naturally excitable.


We know he was strongly attracted to the more romantic past. It's interesting that he was such good friends with the phlegmatic John Street. Of course, both Carr and Street had a fascination with and great talent for murder mechanics. Carr often coupled this talent for murder with a Christie-level skill at misdirection, which makes him a truly major figure of the period even if one does like all his stylistic quirks. Barzun and Taylor are far too harshly critical of Carr (and it should be noted they never read many of his best books). Nitpicking aside, this seems to me one of Carr's strongest books. Not flashy, but a fascinating problem.


One part of the explanation has a beautiful simplicity, but chances are the reader will miss it until it is revealed!


Hoy count: "Hoy!" whispered a voice. "And--hoy!" roared Uncle Joe. "Hoy!--" said Dr. Fell. "HEY!" roared Dr. Fell (oh, sorry, that's hey, not hoy)


Curt Evans.


P. S. MAJOR SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER Only those who have read the book should continue


One thing about the crime I have to ask. Isn't one problem with Harding's scheme that if Marjorie were to be arrested and found guilty of her uncle's murder, it wouldn't matter that Harding were married to her: she wouldn't be allowed to inherit from her victim and thus he couldn't inherit through her as her husband? Or is this wrong? Of course it was a pretty speculative scheme to start with, but one makes allowances for clever plot mechanics!


See also: http://doyouwriteunderyourownname.blogspot.com/2011/05/forgotten-book-problem-of-green-capsule.html

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