Friday, 19 August 2016

Black Spectacles or Green Capsule?

 

The Black Spectacles (UK title)


The Problem of the Green Capsule (US title)

- being the Psychologists’ Murder Case

by John Dickson Carr

published 1939


 
Green capsule black specs
 

[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.

















18 comments:

  1. Love this book Moira, one of his best. I raved about it at Fedora (shameless plug department) under its UK title: https://bloodymurder.wordpress.com/2014/10/24/the-black-spectacles-1939-by-john-dickson-carr/

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    1. Don't know how I forgot your review Sergio - have now added it to the list above. This book could be designed for you couldn't it!

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    2. It does have me written all over it - I admit it, I whopped with joy at the resolution, the sheer audacity of it just made me smile like an idiot! I know what you mean about the culprit being theoretically easy to spot, but since it was clearly quite impossible for them to have done it ... and so I fell into Carr's trap, as usual!

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    3. Oh yes, I totally agree. It was impossible! I liked the reliability of the special lightbulb...

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  2. I really like Carr's writing style, Moira, and you've captured it nicely, here. He did have a way, didn't he, of making points about what witnesses think they see. I've noted that in other books he wrote, too. And there's something about the country house and small town settings. Glad you enjoyed this.

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    1. Yes, I always think he gives guaranteed enjoyment - this was one of his really good ones, in my view, but even his lesser efforts are always of interest.

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  3. Not tempted to be honest. I just don't think I'm a massive fan of books this old or your country house mystery.

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    1. ... but you'll have to read something by him sometime. Nothing in the tubs?

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    2. Oh well you're not going to get away without reading it are you!

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  4. Thanks for the mention and link. Moira. My take on the practice of changing titles when a book is published over here (and vice versa) is all about marketing. US publishers wanted to attract the mystery crowd. Prosaic titles like The Black Spectacles don't immediately make a reader and prospective buyer think "Aha! a mystery novel." But The Problem of the Green Capsule will do the job nicely. There are other instances when the title is too tied to a culture or is too strange like Vegetable Duck and needs to be changed. Then there is the case when a title is viewed as too literary and obscure that a publisher does the opposite and creates a boring obviously mystery related title. Rue Morgue Press liked to do that often as when they changed Green December Fills the Graveyard (one of my all time favorite mystery titles) to the boring but more obvious Murder at Shots Hall.

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    1. Right, nicely explained. And I agree, Green December is a fabulous title - I would buy a book based on that...

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  5. I remember this as being a particularly tricky and complicated plot, where you spend a great deal of time scratching you head and thinking 'No, hang on...no wait...but it couldn't possibly...' Like you, I sort of expected the Pompeii setting to have some sort of direct relevance to the plot. Now I think that it was there simply to give the novel a bit of expansiveness, because once it gets back to England it feels very claustrophobic.

    It is beautifully constructed, with clues and twists and turns and bamboozling the reader in a very fair way. It's not realistic, but it's not realistic in the way that Japanese Noh Theatre or Jacobean Revenge tragedies are not realistic. Like you say, you don't go to Carr for that. Once you start reading, you're entering the writer's world, and as long as it is internally consistent it doesn't matter how close it comes to 'real life'. Mind you, when you look at the real-life Christiana Edmunds case referenced in the book, you do start to wonder what words like 'realistic' actually mean!

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    1. I hadn't heard of the case, and couldn't make up my mind if Carr had invented it, I decided not to check till after I'd finished the book. I was surprised it was real for the reason you suggest - it does rather defy belief!
      And yes this is such a good clever plot, you really don't know where he's going to go with it. I love the lip-reading.

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  6. Fine review, Moira. Tempted to read Dickson Carr.

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    1. Thanks Prashant - I think you should. I suspect you would like him, and there are plenty to choose from.

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  7. I will consider this one after I give the ones I have a try. I use to be attracted to a book no matter what if the description said country house mystery, but I have found that there is great variability in such books.

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    1. Oh very much so. I did like this one very much, more than some of his others.

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