The Black Spectacles (UK title)
The Problem of the Green Capsule (US title)- being the Psychologists’ Murder Case
by John Dickson Carr
[Andrew Elliot is visiting Pompeii and comes across a party of English tourists]
It was a large house, evidently a patrician’s villa which in the heyday of Pompeii had stood at a soothing distance out in the suburbs. He climbed the stairs and went in.
The atrium was gloomy and damp-smelling, less well kept than the re-touched town houses he had already seen. But beyond it lay the garden of the peristyle, closed in by pillars, with the sun pouring down into it…. He heard a swishing in the long grass, and he heard English voices.
A girl in white stood looking in his direction. And he saw not only beauty, but intelligence. Her dark brown hair was parted and drawn back behind the ears into small curls at the nape of the neck. She had an oval face with small, full, lips and wide-set eyes that expressed good humour despite the gravity of her expression. They were grey eyes, rather heavy-lidded and thoughtful. Her pose was easy; she smoothed the white frock idly. But she was nervous; you saw it even in the arch of the eyebrows.
commentary: This is a strange and enjoyable book, though I have a few reservations. This entire opening scene at Pompeii seems to be pointless, and hangs there with no purpose. Of course a reason is given for a group of people being on holiday together, and some information is conveyed, but none of it actually needed a trip to Pompeii. It’s hard to imagine JDC being told to use more exotic settings, and his readers wouldn’t have expected such a backdrop.
The action moves back to England, where the same group has been caught up in a dramatic death in a country house. It’s an excellent setup: trouble in the village about an apparently random poisoning, and trouble at the big house where the head of the family set up an elaborate staged event to make some important points about witnesses and observations. Of course the event goes wrong, and someone dies. And – such a great concept – the whole thing has been recorded with a cine camera. The atmosphere in the house becomes nicely fraught, the police do their best to find out what is going on, and Dr Gideon Fell tips up to cause trouble and give us his important thoughts on poison as a murder method (at some length). There are excellent scenes where the action shifts to the pharmacy and the sweetshop. And a moment in time: ‘everyone’ would know how to take ordinary gloves off (fingers first, apparently) but to remove rubber gloves would be a specialized skill…
It is all quite unbelievable, but that’s fine: I don’t go to JDC for realism. He does make excellent and convincing points about the lack of reliability of eye-witnesses, and the nature of the plot means there are good clues, revelations and twists throughout. All that said, I was in absolutely no doubt as to who the guilty party was from fairly early on, but found means and motive and opportunity harder to work out. It is a VERY clever plot.
I’m intrigued by the differences in the UK and US titles, and both black spectacles and green capsules feature in the plot, but I have no theories as to why there are different titles – I’m hoping more expert readers might come up with theories.
My friend (and Carr expert) Sergio covered the book very enthusiastically over at his Tipping my Fedora blog a while back, and gives a very good account of the story.
John over at Pretty Sinister Books blogged on this one a few years ago, giving an excellent analysis.
And there’s another great review of the book at The Invisible Event.
The picture, from Clover Vintage, is from the early 1950s, but I thought had the look of Marjorie amid the ruins.