book review

DEATH-WATCH

Advance praise for John Dickson Carr’s Death-Watch:

“Wall-to-wall dialogue!”

“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.

12 thoughts on “DEATH-WATCH”

  1. I think you capture this perfectly: it’s too dense, too obtuse, contains a frank lie, and is so overstuffed with incident that it beggars belief…and yet I would change only one word and think it’s actually something of a masterpiece.

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    1. Carr often tries to defuse potential criticism by having the characters discuss it within the narrative, but this book really takes the cake. There were a few moments when I thought, “Fine, I forgive you. Just get on with it.” I love how obsessed it is with its own little world.
      Pray tell, what is the one word?

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      1. The word concerns the lie; I’d remove the word that makes it a lie, or replace…another word…with something else so that it also wasn’t a lie. The lie is the only thing that bothers me, because there’s just no need for it. Carr did similar things elsewhere — Seeing is Believing for one — but never quite as blatantly as here.

        The first half of this is just the craziest ride. When you consider that it’s set on a staircase and in three rooms, just how much keeps happening and happening and happening…for plot density it’s surely the best-value book ever written 🙂 And then the second half just slowly unpeels everything, and leaves it so damn obvious. Feels like a lot of the modern crime writing these days does that the other way around: simple setups made far too complex by the finish…

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      2. I do recall the blatant lying in ‘Seeing is Believing’, which made me go 🙄 because it was quite clearly unnecessary. The only other time I recall such duplicitousness was in one of Robert Thorogood’s ‘Death in Paradise’ novels – ironically, in the best one, I thought. Again it was unnecessary, which made things somewhat frustrating.

        But I don’t recall this moment in ‘Death-Watch’; clearly it’s time for a re-read. 🤩

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  2. I thought it was great! I loved the sparring scene between the inspector and Fell in the middle. To date I think I would only rank one other Carr novel above it: Till Death Do Us Part. But I do still have a handful more Carr novels to read, of which some are meant to be among his better/best titles. So maybe my ranking will change… Glad you enjoyed it!

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    1. re sparring scene–Yes! I love that TWO chapters are devoted to it. A wonderful way to slow the narrative, which, honestly need the extra time because of its complicated nature. I haven’t gotten Till Death Do Us Part yet. The Black Spectacles/Green Capsule is probably the best I’ve read thus far. The House at Satan’s Elbow is next on my schedule.

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      1. I think ‘Black Spectacles’ suffered in my books for being the second Carr novel I’ve ever read – and at that time I couldn’t quite stomach the dramatics/histrionics. In fact I found ‘Plague Court Murders’ (the first Carr novel I’ve ever read) quite intolerable; my memory tells me I once likened the reading experience to putting cheese graters onto my eyes!

        Admittedly, when I re-read ‘Black Spectacles’, I liked it a lot better – but I’d still rate it below ‘Death-Watch’. I acknowledge I’m in the minority here… 😅

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  3. I remember this as being one of Carr’s best stories overall. Other books may excel in terms of the puzzle, the solution, the twists, the how’s or why’s. This one just read so well and is one of my favorite representations of Dr Fell. That long ending, where Fell sits everyone down and explains it all, is a lecture for the ages. And man, that solution caught me so off guard and is yet more evidence that Carr sure knew how to hide a killer.

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  4. I wouldn’t rate The House at Satan’s Elbow very highly in JDC’s output – I was in my teens when I first read it, and even then I found it disappointing. Will be interested to see your opinion.

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