Advance praise for John Dickson Carr’s Death-Watch:
“The meager traces of romance are cynically used in service of the puzzle, appearing only when necessary and resembling little in the way of true human emotion!”
“The chess-piece characters don’t learn anything, nor do they change throughout the course of the story. The same goes for the reader. 5 Stars!”
Growing up in Chicago, I had the wonderful opportunity to read Dave Kehr’s weekly musings about cinema. One of the (mind-blowing) concepts to which he introduced me was that every film genre is equal–the elements didn’t matter. If a filmmaker used mise-en-scène and montage with competence, they could work in any genre and make a great film. To be sure, there are other factors (I’m not a fundamentalist), but saying you don’t like horror, romance, or westerns is not criticism; it is appeal. Certain elements and conventions attract or repel us, often blinding us to a work’s qualities.
Because mysteries take many forms, their conventions are not specific enough to limit their appeal. Whodunits, on the other hand, tend to demand stricter adherence with the required elements.
One look at the reviews on Amazon or Goodreads will tell you that readers prefer elements to craft. Where’s the romance? Zero character development. I didn’t like it because the names were so goofy. What I consider a brilliantly crafted novel can be dismissed by others because it doesn’t say anything meaningful about existence. In turn, I can dismiss a book because no one gets murdered. Priorities, people–it’s all about priorities.
Where does this leave the whodunit within modern literary rankings?
From what I can gather, it’s somewhere below smut and above a kitchen appliance manual. John Dickson Carr specialized in impossible-crime novels, a subgenre that ranks even lower. Occasionally, he wrote whodunits, but they tend to read like impossible crimes anyway.
Carr’s Death-Watch is a chamber-piece whodunit with a monstrously elaborate murder plot. If plot doesn’t interest you, stay on your side of the ideological divide and don’t touch this book. It’s poisonous.
A hobo is murdered with a gigantic clock hand on the second floor of a house. Standing near with him, holding a gun, is the slimy Bescombe. But he didn’t kill him because…well the hobo wasn’t shot, was he? Let’s move on to the ex-cop, Stanley. He’s an ex-cop because he shot an innocent suspect four times in the head and…no, no, he was behind a screen the whole time, so he ain’t the killer. Why was he behind a screen? Don’t ask; it’ll take a while to explain.
Maybe it was the beautiful Eleanor. After all, she was near the body, too. Lucia certainly thinks so. Who’s Lucia you ask. She’s the one taking care of Hastings, the man who had a nasty fall off the roof where he witnessed the whole thing. The house is owned by Mr. Carver, the maker of the murder weapon. You can be sure drunk Mr. Paull didn’t have anything to do with it, he’s passed out on his bed. But he does produce some crucial evidence. And Ms. Steffins, she accuses lots of people. It’s a shame she was working with the same kind of paint used on the clock hand though.
I forgot to mention the most important part. The hobo was an undercover cop named Ames. He was investigating a murder at a shop. The killer (a woman) stole a watch which was made by Carver. Ames left some (unfinished) notes claiming that the killer was in the house. Naturally, it is assumed that the shop killer and the cop/hobo killer are one and the same.
I think you know whether you want to read this book or not.
Inexorability is difficult. The effort to obfuscate the truth often leads to random plot threads. Carr addresses this with a lot of dialogue about coincidences. He also uses his usual tricks–lots of passed out or injured people that cannot clear things up right now–and he even outright lies at an important moment. I’ll be damned if he doesn’t manage to tie it all together.
I struggle a lot with the intricacies of my plots. This happens and then this happens and soon you’ve got a tangle of unrelated, extremely unsatisfying threads. It takes a long time to connect them with anything approaching inexorable logic. (some of my one-time readers will say I don’t do that) That’s why Carr’s output is so impressive to me. The sheer amount of stupidity that has to be waded before a whodunit begins to run smoothly is mind boggling. When did he find the time to do that and still publish so frequently?
Death-Watch is a little murder play, self-contained and full of minute puzzle pieces. It will only appeal to hardcore murder mystery fans. Fans of other genres will find it long-winded, horribly convoluted, and far-fetched. In short, it’s magnificent.