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.
* * * * *
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.
11 thoughts on “ACDC PART TEN: In Which The Reader Is Warned . . . about The Reader Is Warned”
This was the first Carr I ever read, some 40 years ago. (Well, not to be coy, actually I know exactly when I read it: August 1983.) I absolutely loved it, turned me instantly into a huge fan. Not read it since as it is such a treasured memory and I didn’t want to spoil it (also, I rarely re-read). I read it in an Italian translation. And I don’t remember who the murderer turned out to be or the details you are alluding to, so I skipped that bit of your post Brad. Sorry. But I will now read it in English and … get back to you 😁
Besides the aspect of social repellentness you mention (which perhaps I’ve always taken too lightly— it actually didn’t bother me all that much, perhaps because the subject of it is a character who turns out to be more innocent dupe than culprit… but still, shame on me!), I actually have more of a problem with the convenience of the initial incident that makes the whole plot possible for the culprit. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in remarkable coincidence— I’m after all one who can quite easily believe that Agatha Christie was unaware of the Gene Tierney tragedy when she wrote The Mirror Crack’d— but I believe that DEPENDING upon remarkable coincidence to make a plot possible is a weakness. For me, it’s much like the difference between the chance that any two people in a room of 30 will have the same birthday (which is actually quite high) and that any two people in a room of 30 will both have the birthday of July 29th (which is very considerably lower). Remarkable coincidences do happen, but the odds that they will happen just when we need them are very small.
This is more like self-fulfilling prophecy than remarkable coincidence, but still…
And I still think you underrate The Ten Teacups, as two elements of the plot you cited as weaknesses were nothing of the kind (the second gunshot was a lucky accident, but unintentional and unnecessary to the success of the plot, and Merrivale’s reticence regarding whether something else was intentional or not was playful suspense on his part— the action in question was definitely meant to be understood as intentional).
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Regarding Teacups: I don’t k ow when or if I’ll get to re-reading it. Yet, while it has been some time since I reviewed it, one thing I remember that would compare completely negatively to this one is the sense that we’re always coming in AFTER something important happened. That is especially true for the whole murder game that introduces most of the suspects. I also found the solution way too technical to interest me. Here, we’re always in the thick of things, and these things are INTERESTING!
But yes, there are issues. Dickson tries really hard to explain why the first murder occurs at the precise moment of the prediction, but it’s not wholly convincing. And as I said, the dependence of the killer on Mina talking coherently in her sleep almost defies reality for me. But it’s GAD, and this is the stuff about which I tend to be more forgiving.
Except for the teacups!!!!! 😜
Having not read this one, in a perverse kind of way, knowing there’s something unappetizing about the ending only fuels my curiosity. I have only heard positive takes on this book but it has remained so hard to come by for the longest time and I wonder if that stuck in its time element contributes to its rarity. I hope to rectify that because the other titles from this period of Carr remain some of my favorites.
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By all means, if you find
It, grab it. The mystery is really good; it’s just that the other part is really bad.
A really enjoyable book, but the opening shows that the announced plans of Sanders and Marcia Blystone at the end of the last book were substantially changed. Ultimately it is kind of a clue for the reader that we get a returning Sanders here, as opposed to Carr creating a new but similar character, like he does in many of his books.
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Johan, I agree! Most of these guys last two or three books at most, and while they often romance the girl in the case, their presence serves one purpose: to be Merrivale’s Watson. Here, Sanders’ emotional state of
Mind is extremely relevant to all that follows. As the only future Dickson book I’ve read is She Died a Lady, i’ll be interested to see if Sanders makes at least one more visit to resolve his storyline.
Thanks so much for this report! Other online discussions of the book have skated so lightly over the repellent part (not even minimizing it, but ignoring it as if it weren’t there) that I had begun to question my own reaction and wondering if I was alone in feeling as I did.
One reason it hits so hard, I think, is that until the subject arises, quite near the end, there’s not a hint that it’s coming — it’s intended as a surprise. So a reader like me can sail along, perhaps thinking “Thank goodness, this is one GAD book that needs no warnings for its that-was-another-time outlook” and suddenly wham! there it is. It’s not going to stop me rereading it the next time I feel like revisiting Carter Dickson… but it does mean that it goes a fair way down the list of titles, for me.
I appreciate the support! I just got raked over the coals on Facebook by one guy for posting this. He dismissed me as a “woke” liberal and accused me of forcing my opinion down his throat. A big problem for me is that the racism is integral to the puzzle plot. You claim you didn’t see it coming, and neither did I, but in the end, Merrivale points out the physical aspects of the character and the racist comments made by Sam Constable, which I just flicked away as annoying, to make them into Pennik’s motive for issuing his curse. And the killer’s diatribe at the end is hard to read, but there is no moment where anyone tries to make this the POV of the killer alone. No one rails defends Pennik against the killer’s disgust at leading on a black man. In fact, Merrivale manipulates Pennik and breaks him in order to serve his own needs for trapping the killer. The race aspect of all this adds a distinctly unappealing flavor to the whole plan. Pennik isn’t a fake – he’s just a superstitious African tribesman who believes in voodoo. Hurrah!
“Sir Henry hurries down to assist Masters and Sanders – and he’s pissed.” Well, of course he is! That’s why he drives a train and hits a cow. In fact, that explains H. M.’s increasingly outrageous behaviour in later books: he’s munted.
“Zshatsh’sh anuzzer shing, Mastersh, shon. All zsheshshe imposshshishishi – whatshaword, locked room thingummies, zhat’sh it, locked roomsh, burn me… An’ I shaid, I shaid..”
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I’m totally with you on this one. It’s how the “controversy” comes across as part of a one-two punch of a solution: a punch line of sorts. The reader is totally supposed to slap their head, say “how did I not think of that?” in just the same way that they would when confronted by the solution to the impossible crime, although they’d get a good laugh on top of it. That part sucked the wind right out of my sails and to this day The Reader is Warned simply doesn’t cross my mind when I think of top Carr novels.
Which is unfortunate, because it has a killer setup, some fantastic tension, and I’ll forever remember the description of the first victim “dancing” on the stairs. The whole death by telepathy impossibility is absolutely mind boggling, and the solution to that aspect is pretty fine.
With that said, I do recall some flaws beyond the “controversy” (using that term to avoid spoilers instead of calling it what it is, which I really should). There’s a bit of a lie told to the reader, and I seem to recall flipping back to the relevant passage and still feeling mislead, but I could be misremembering. It’s funny that I quibble with this, as Carr does a similar thing in Seeing is Believing and it never bothered me a bit. The other flaw that I recall is the killer spilling the details behind their plans in a monologue that plays out like something a James Bond villain would do.