THE MASTER AT WORK: The Problem of The Green Capsule

Bear with me: I’ve got a fantastic book to talk about today – John Dickson Carr’s classic The Problem of the Green Capsule (aka The Black Spectacles, 1939) – but I’m going to take my own sweet time getting to it.

Like so many in this vast blogosphere, I follow a lot of other bloggers who share my passion for that slim sub-genre of fiction, the Golden Age mystery. Let’s be honest with ourselves: we’re like fans of the Beatles who refuse to accept the fact that the band broke up forty-seven years ago! Not only do we keep on listening, we engage in mammoth discussions over tiny points of interest, and our obsession relegates us to the level of geekdom.

Happy Hearts Club

And yet, like Beatles enthusiasts, we are a varied lot. They have their favorite albums; we have our favorite authors. They prefer this or that recording of a song; we favor Grand Guignol over farce, savvy spinsters or monocled fops, locked rooms before train timetables.

Real enthusiasts take it even further, bantering about our favorite tricks, the importance (or lack thereof) of characterization or social context, and, of course, structure, structure, structure!!! How many times has Kate at Cross Examining Crime lowered the score of a book when a lousy set-up fouled up a brilliant solution? Who doesn’t recall the fierce argument over John Dickson Carr’s insertion of historical events in The Plague Court Murders and The Red Widow Murders: some reveled in the atmosphere while others found certain chapters so irrelevant that they advised skipping them! How often has JJ at The Invisible Event blasted Paul Halter for surrounding a clever locked room set-up with cardboard characters, stilted dialogue and indigestible meta-literary tricks? (Oh, wait . . . that was me.)


There are some things on which most of us agree. First, the solution should satisfy. (I prefer that it dazzle, but you can’t pull the rug out from under the reader every time.) You know it works when you’ve traveled down the road of an intelligent and fairly laid out investigation and at the ultimate signpost you breathe a sigh of satisfaction – everything feels so right. Second, we tend to berate a mystery that bogs down in the middle, usually due to a reliance on lengthy interviews with the suspects. Many of us call this “dragging the Marsh.” Come on, is there anyone out there who revela in a hundred-plus pages of, “Send the next one in, Sergeant Smithers?” Some authors try to alleviate the tedium by tossing in a second or third murder, yet, if it is totally out of character for Dolly the maid to turn to blackmail, these desperate bones provide scant relief.

I’m a tough reader: I need my mysteries to snag me right away, cruise along at a jolly pace and finish with a bang. I admit that I’m not nearly as prolific a reader as some of my fellow bloggers. JJ recently stated that he likes to get one or two reviews out a week, and Kate reviewed seventeen books last month!!! I hate to disappoint my revered followers, but I’m a slow reader, and I’m easily diverted. In July, I struggled with several books, all of them highly recommended by people that I respect. One was a classic-style mystery written by a modern author. The prose was very pleasant, and no one can accuse it of delaying the crime aspect, as it opened with the autopsy of a woman who had been cut into three sections. But after fifty pages of watching the story meander through exposition and mild character development, I found the book easier to put down than to pick up.


More problematic is an actual Golden-Age rediscovery that I’ve already picked up and put down three times at the Chapter Three mark. It has a unique setting and the craziest assortment of characters. Almost too crazy, perhaps . . . and oh, the casual racism on every page is driving me up a wall! I will finish this one (I will!), but the lazy sunbeams of summertime beckon, and I find myself turning back to the tried and true.


John Dickson Carr is one of my go-to authors, and unlike Agatha Christie, there are many titles that I have either not read or read too long ago to remember them. Carr doesn’t hit it out of the ballpark every time, but he has mastered several criteria for excellence that I require: he knows how to serve up a solution to the point where, more often than not, he pulls the rug right out from under you in the end, and he almost never “drags the Marsh,” getting there. Instead, he propels us through a volume with fabulous plotting tricks, cliffhanger chapter endings, and brilliant false solutions. I will venture to say that he does all of these better than Christie; in addition, he tends to make a second or third murder count much better than she does. My preference for Christie is a more organic thing, something to do with how her books make me feel as a whole. That, plus her ability to misdirect is at least as brilliant as Carr’s, if not more so.

Carr and Christie really know, like all the best writers do, how to begin a book in a way that’s slam-bang enticing and never formulaic. Christianna Brand, another of my favorites, tends to start all her mysteries in the same way, introducing a group of charming folks in Chapter One and then announcing at chapter’s end that 1) yes, these characters are as endearing as you imagined them to be, and 2) by novel’s end, two of them will be dead, and one of them will be convicted as a killer. Christie tends to ease you into the criminal proceedings through the prosaic details of ordinary life. Sure, there are books that jump right in: Carla Lemarchant hiring Poirot to prove her mother innocent of her long-dead father’s murder in Five Little Pigs; Elinor Carlisle standing trial for the murder of her aunt in Sad Cypress; Luke Fitzwilliam meeting a little old lady who tells him about a serial killer loose in her village . . . right before she gets run down in the street. But think about Mr. Morley and his patients getting ready for a day at the dentist’s office at the top of One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, or the residents of Chipping Cleghorn perusing the local paper at breakfast in A Murder Is Announced, or the bustle attending the local fete hosted by a big movie star who has just moved to St. Mary Mead in The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side. The world spinning on its regular axis, all of that seeming normalcy about to be disrupted by murder most foul!


Carr’s openings are often more fantastical, setting an immediate tone of apprehension. No long scenes of the aristocracy planning a birthday party, like you find in Ngaio Marsh. No bouncing back and forth between eight or ten potential suspects (Carr’s list usually numbers three to five anyway) as they travel by train or sit down to dinner. His people plunge right into the thick of it. Think of Miles Hammond attending a dinner at the Murder Club, only to find the restaurant deserted, in He Who Whispers. Or James Answell, in The Judas Window, meeting his future father-in-law in the man’s study for a drink, then waking up from a drugged stupor to find the man dead and the study door locked on the inside. The Duc de Saligny gets beheaded at the start of It Walks by Night. That marvelous scene in the fortune teller’s tent at the top of Till Death Do Us Part drives us mad wondering if Lesley Grant is good or evil.

The Problem of the Green Capsule begins on a seemingly ordinary note for Carr with a man observing a British family on holiday in Pompeii. True, the man turns out to be a Scotland Yard Inspector, but I felt I was in Christie territory reading as Andrew Elliot watches a young man taking home movies of a beautiful posing self-consciously in front of an ancient palazzo – just like so many people in the early Kodak era have done. An older man – her uncle, it turns out – bemoans the necessity of his family members behaving like mere tourists. (“Trippers,” he calls them.) Everyone seems crabby, as if the vacation has been going on a bit too long and it’s time to go home. It all seems typical – until the man with the camera reads from his guidebook about this palazzo, a house where a poisoner once lived, and it produces a sense of tension in the rest of the party that is not lost on the eavesdropping Inspector.


From there, the story takes off and never stops. Back in England, Eliot is summoned to the village of Sodbury Cross to consult with the local police on a case. As they are talking, the station phone rings, and Eliot is invited to join the cops at a murder scene. And wouldn’t you know it: the victim is none other than Marcus Chesney, peach grower extraordinaire and the patriarch of the touring group that Eliot observed in Italy. The Inspector is invited to take over the murder case, and he has several good reasons to do so: first, Marcus Chesney’s death might be directly connected to the horrific goings-on that summoned Eliot to the village in the first place: some maniac seems to be targeting children by poisoning a bin of chocolates in the local sundries shop; at least one child has died. Secondly, the main suspect in the poisoning case, at least according to the villagers, is Chesney’s beautiful but off-putting niece, Marjorie. Eliot has good reason to be concerned with Marjorie’s fate, for, despite his better judgment, he finds that he has fallen head over heels in love with her.

This whole set-up is done with such economy. In fact, the novel’s structure is the epitome of tight plotting, a tight web of action and information. The fantastical events surrounding Chesney’s murder – which was not only observed by three witnesses but was filmed – unspools at a breathless pace. Carr dispenses with the dreaded series of boring interviews by having the suspects interviewed en masse using and the questions devised by the victim himself, who had been conducting an experiment at the time of his death on the fallibility of witnesses. Who knew that suspect interviews could be so dramatically compelling?


As usual with Carr, the cast is small: there are five suspects, one of whom becomes a second victim, and assorted servants and townspeople. The males and the smaller characters are sketched in nicely (I especially liked the maids, who are not your usual adenoidal types, and Mr. Stevenson, the eager-to-please owner of the local photography store.) Carr has a tendency to falter in his depiction of women, but then so do most male mystery authors. (And isn’t this one of the many reasons the Queens of Crime stay in print while the guys fade into obscurity?) Marjorie suffers from Carr’s tendency to reduce his leading ladies to a cipher: they are always lovely, either attractively headstrong or charmingly domestic (Marjorie is of the headstrong type), yet everything about them boils down to whether they are saints or sinners. I liked her and was invested in her fate, but this was largely due to the author’s employment of that old plot twist of the detective in charge being in love with his main suspect. It helps here that Eliot, a truly likable figure, suffers so staunchly, willing himself to remain professional even as he struggles to interview Marjorie’s fiancé without punching the fellow in the nose.

Halfway through the case, Eliot consults that gargantuan sleuth, Dr. Gideon Fell, who happens to be taking the waters at Bath. Fell performs with such flair here, solving one tiny mystery after another, only to confront even more mystifying questions. I love detectives who don’t leave everything to the end and writers who know that dangling a bit of the solution here and there can drive a happy reader up the wall! This isn’t one of those cases where a bizarre surprise ending is pulled out of someone’s posterior: every suspect comes under suspicion at each point, and false solutions abound. And in the end, the solution satisfies, like the best impossible crime endings do, for being both deliciously complex and satisfyingly simple.


This is a sublime book, one to be read in a burst of pleasure and then revisited to savor its brilliant structure and subtle interweaving of clues. The only flaw I can find here is that the book is over and, I must now turn to something that is less good. But these are the problems we GAD mystery fans – even the slow readers – face every day.

32 thoughts on “THE MASTER AT WORK: The Problem of The Green Capsule

  1. I can’t fault your enthusiasm for this one, Brad. Carr was such a master at drawing in the reader and creating a complex mystery, even with just a few ‘cast members.’ I always liked that. You’re right, too, though, about his treatment of women *sigh.* At any rate, I”m glad you enjoyed this so well.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This really is a great Carr title, but not one of my absolute favourites. I love the idea of having everything take place in front of witnesses and on camera, but Carr doesn’t seem to be in tight control of this story. Why all the stuff about Christiana Edmunds, the Chocolate Cream Poisoner? It’s like he was fascinated by the real-life case and needed an excuse to drag it in. Well, the mystery is satisfying and the solution is very surprising, and those are what I come for, but there’s a lot of … wandering around that just delays the solution. It takes way, WAY too many chapters to get that film developed.
    I have to say in Carr’s defence that to me he was just about the only GAD writer to allow women to be sexual beings rather than untouchable. The young woman on the witness stand in The Judas Window stating forthrightly that, “Yes, those pornographic photographs are of me” — not someone who would have appeared in Christie or Marsh. I agree there’s a lot of the “pocket Venus” in JDC but there’s also the exceptional female characters in He Who Whispers and The Sleeping Sphinx.
    And, Brad, I am TOTALLY stealing “dragging the Marsh”. 😉 Perfectly done, sir. That’s a phrase that needed to exist.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Firstly, I’m with Noah on “dragging the Marsh” — that’s going in the review lexicon straight away.

    Secondly, I think Carr certainly has a habit of throwing in bonkers situations early, but he can also completely mislead you with something apparently mundane that turns into something amazingly unexpected: the comedy opening of Constant Suicides, or the domestic setup in the Eight of Swords, say. Hell, I’m four chapters from the end of The Emperor’s Snuff-Box at present and the entire thing is this beautifully low-key series of events that’s hopefully about to be exploded…Carr’s genius is in being able to turn in a sentence and spin everything in totally the opposite direction.

    The amazing thing here is just HOW MANY times he does it, taking every little instance and exploding it again and again. It is pure GAD perfection, and I’m delighted you enjoyed it so much. Now read something you expect to be bad as a follow-up…it’s the only sensible course to take!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Well, I’m on the second chapter of Lord of Misrule . . . but I think he writes the Owen Burns series much better than the Dr. Twist ones!

      So . . . four chapters from the end and you really don’t know who did it? What’s wrong with me that I got this one immediately?!?

      Liked by 1 person

      • No, it turns out I dis know whodunnit, I was just hoping that was a bluff or some sort of “Aha, I knew you’d be thinking that…!” sort of thing. I need to reread your thoughts on this one, but I enjoyed it overall — I kike Carr’s non-impossibilities, the plotting is sublime most of the time and he should be remembered for these as much as the inexplicable wonders he gave us. Would be a great one to start with, I think — those of us more travelled on these roads are likely to see through his deceit — and it’s beautifully put together. More once I’m back, perhaps…


      • What is wrong with you people!!! Or, I guess, what is right with you? Am I the only person who was completely blindsided by the end of The Emperor’s Snuff Box?!?!? Well, obviously not, since this is so frequently sited as a top 10 Carr. Hopefully you still enjoyed it JJ. I can’t wait to hear the rest of your thoughts on the book.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Another slow reader here, and anther who had a great time with this book. I came to this title with no preconceptions whatsoever, not having been aware of the high regard in which it’s held by many. I assumed it was just another mid-range Fell mystery and then discovered it was was much better than that, not that a mid-range Fell mystery is something to be dismissed belittled in any way of course.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, the problem I have as I’ve read more Carr is the inability to come to something any more without being generally aware of the esteem in which it is held. The days of wonderful surprises being launched in the way you describe here are well and truly passed. Or, well, we hope not, eh?!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think each of us is discovering our own “new” wonders with all these forgotten authors being rediscovered. That’s what happened to me with the first Harriet Rutland, and I think it happened with you and Theodore Roscoe. So perhaps there’s still a lot of “buried treasure” to be unearthed! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • Oh, we can only hope! That’s what keeps us all going and disagreeing, right? The second everyone is able to turn around conclusively and go “Nope, there’s nothing left” would not exist in a world I’d wish to live in…!

          Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ll this the “dragging the Marsh” phrase – almost makes me want to read an Alleyn just to be able to use it. Almost … While there is that odd scene with the gun int he car, I don’t otherwise agree with Noah about the pace of the narrative. Carr was fascinated by real-life crime but it only lasts a few pages and I like that folkloristic element of the past repeating itself.

    Liked by 2 people

    • What has always struck me about this book is that if the police were interested in solving the case, they would have marched the film over to the chemist and stood over him while he developed it … but instead, yes, there’s time for that odd scene with the gun in the car. I don’t say it’s wrong to delay the solution, far from it, but it seems like Carr is merely distracting you with other nonessential things while the film gets developed. If someone had stolen the film and then it showed up again, that would have answered my objection. Give me a reason to delay the ending.
      I also don’t see the point of the Pompeiian prequel — that material could have been told in the first chapters without resorting to the action of coincidence.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I’m with Sergio here, Noah. It didn’t feel dragged out to me at all. The first half of the novel (barring the prequel which gives us some nice misdirection as to the murderer’s character) takes place over the course of the first night’s investigation. The next morning, Eliot goes to visit Dr. Fell, and then they return to the village and watch the movie. Carr is clearly interested in the difference between the sexes when it comes to being a poisoner; hence, the lecture at the end. I’m not sure if it holds up psychologically, but it justifies the reference to Edmunds and other past poisoners. SPOILER: I think Edmunds in included to aid in us focusing on Marjorie as a possible mad poisoner, and then the gender is flipped around. Again, the idea that women murder for love and men for money is awfully limited, but it forms the basis of much of Fell’s reasoning here.

        Liked by 1 person

    • I can’t stand that scene with the gun in the car. Light spoiler It’s extremely exciting when it happens, but then in retrospect it just seems so random. It is obviously thrown in there for some additional excitement and a touch of brute force misdirection. Take that scene out of the book and the story is near flawless.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think one of the many things I love about this book is how Carr introduces motive. The argument between Chesney and Ingram about “the perfect crime” comes out in casual conversation. So does the possibility that Harding is a fortune hunter. We know Marjorie and Joe inherit Marcus’ fortune. There could even be something going on regarding Emmett’s crush on Marjorie. I suppose the scene with the gun in the car is meant to shift things back around toward Joe, and I agree it’s probably the clumsiest attempt in the novel. I didn’t particularly mind it, but Carr’s game is so smooth here that I understand why you delicate flowers might be put off by its “brute force.” 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Oh…err…I guess…err…I read the title of your post and I thought it was going to be about me.

    I love this book and I’m fairly certain it will come out as my #1 Carr once all of them are read. It has everything, and aside from the car scene, it is executed perfectly.

    Let’s start with atmosphere. I love nothing more than the visions of horror that Carr conjures in The Red Widow Murders, The Plague Court Murders, and Hag’s Nook. And yet, as much as we allow our imaginations to run away with vengeful ghosts and rooms that kill, we never lose sight of the fact that it’s all an illusion. In The Problem of the Green Capsule, Carr gives us a real live creeping horror in the form of Mr Nemo. If there is any one scene in any GAD book that I’d like to see put to film, this is it.

    Next we have the puzzle. Now, this is by no means an impossible crime, but the confounding nature of the problem is no less engaging. How did three captive witnesses observe a man get murdered directly in front of them, and yet none describe the scene in the exact same way?

    Pacing? Yes, that too. Similar to Till Death Do Us Part, Dr Fell provides the answer to one of the core mysteries with plenty of chapters left to go.

    Finally (well, not finally, but the last I will mention) we have the history and research. You can throw stories of murders from the past at me all day and I’ll eat them up.

    Hmm, maybe I should actually review this one…

    Liked by 1 person

      • Which raises the post-worthy topic of “Which 5 GAD novels would make the best films”. The rules of course would be that the film would have to stay 100% faithful to the book, down to the last pince nez and vile black cigar.

        1. The Problem of the Green Capsule – there is no question on that.
        2. The Judas Window – a flashback scene during the finale that shows the actual murder playing out could be done brilliantly.
        3. The Crooked Hinge – this could have a near-horror vibe and it moves along pretty well.
        4. The Problem of the Wire Cage – I think the screen could really sell the impossibility, and the antics of trying to disguise the crime would create great tension.
        5. The Witch of the Low Tide – again, the screen could really sell the footprint mystery, and this would be an enchanting period piece.

        Of course, I’d want The Ten Teacups, simply to hear you say “By Jove! When you see it actually done it is perfectly realistic!”

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Great piece Brad, lovely to read your thoughts on this. I love come to your reviews and settling in with a cup of tea for a long read.

    I do love this book, it is brilliant, and feels in many ways unique in Carr’s oeuvre. The whole set up it is just blindingly original, but never feels like it’s forced for the sake of a solution, a means to an end, or convoluted – which I still can’t understand how he managed.

    Its one of those Carr’s as well were every scene and every room still lives on in your mind. I can still see the room with the lamp and the garden beyond absolutely burned into my memory, or the little pharmacy with its glass door, or the upstairs with the projector whirling. Its just atmosphere after atmosphere.

    But for me I guessed the killer and method quite quickly, which did mar my experience a little. And left me feeling a little deflated, and wondering if there was something I missed.

    But on reflection I feel that this in many ways is a step on from the lecture in the Hollow Man, in that the whole book to me I think is one big meta narrative. It’s a book about detective fiction, a book about deduction/observation. It feels like the whole think is an experimental exercise for Carr, to see how deep he can explore the ideas around detective fiction.

    For me though, over all, what lasts forever is the clock trick, and how that relates to the whole idea of observation and the meta narrative of the book. Oh my… That is what dreams are made of.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I always maintain that I enjoy a book more when I don’t figure out whodunit! That’s one of my biggest problems with Halter, Dan! And it’s also one of the reasons I didn’t love The Emperor’s Snuff Box.

      I also don’t think I’m spoiling things here when I say that one of the things I loved about this book is that Carr presents us with five pretty likable people, spreads the suspicion around beautifully, and then shows us at the end what a truly despicable person the killer was. I love that total reversal of character, where every action turns out to have been misunderstood by us. (That’s one of the reasons I think the prologue is important.)

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I really liked the puzzle for this one; I liked the writing somewhat less. I think the very first Carr novel where I liked both the writing and the puzzle was my fourth outing, which was ‘Emperor’s Snuff-box’. Thanks for the review! 😀


  9. Fascinating reading, and the comments of a particularly high standard. I liked this book, while tending to agree with Noah’s criticisms (in my blogpost on it I wondered if someone had told him to insert that opening scene in Pompeii, as it seems pointless). My big problem with the book is that from fairly early on I wasn’t in any doubt who had done it, although method was still a mystery. I thought he didn’t spread the possibilities out amongst 5 likeable people, I thought there was no serious contest. I can’t say more for fear of spoilers, but detection and clever clues did not feature much in it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Have no fear, Moira: this is exactly how I felt about The Emperor’s Snuff Box, and nobody understands! That killer was apparent to me from the beginning, and everybody keeps saying, “But how could you have figured that out???” When a solution seems that clear, it’s hard for a true fan to totally embrace a book.


  10. I just read it and liked it well enough, but I don’t love it. It’s very clever and the howdunnit was excellent. My main problem is, that I found the killer too obvious.





    If it was one of the three characters in the “audience”, it had to be the one sitting closest to the French Window. Once we were told who it was, I had no doubts.


  11. Pingback: The Problem of the Green Capsule by John Dickson Carr (1939) – Bedford Bookshelf

  12. Pingback: My Book Notes: The Problem of the Green Capsule, a.k.a. The Black Spectacles, 1939 (Dr Gideon Fell # 10) by John Dickson Carr – A Crime is Afoot

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