In the opening chapter of John Dickson Carr’s The Emperor’s Snuff Box, we meet the two main characters in the middle of divorce proceedings. Eve Neill is the aggrieved spouse. She’s an intelligent woman who nevertheless allows herself to get mixed up with jerks. Men tell her what to think, what to feel, and (on occasion) what to notice. Her soon-to-be ex, Ned Atwood is the controlling type. After cheating on her and committing abuse both mental and physical, he has the temerity to believe she still loves him. Unfortunately for her, he may be right.
Happily, Eve finds herself a suitor in the form of Toby Lawes. The Laweses live across the street, giving Eve the chance to w̶i̶t̶n̶e̶s̶s̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶m̶u̶r̶d̶e̶r̶ become friendly with the family. Maurice (father), Helena (mother), Ben (uncle—Bens are always uncles, aren’t they? Spider Man, rice, etc.), and Janice (sister) welcome Eve to the family with open arms and only a few middling pokes into her past.
Thus, we are set up to enjoy the ride, a masterful class in concatenation and misdirection. The events happen at the wrong time and they’re seen from the wrong perspective, creating a densely-woven web filled with blind alleys, but the threads of those alleys remain attached to the plot, gnawing at the reader long after they’ve been dropped. Indeed, TESB is a frugal mystery; No detail is wasted. I was genuinely impressed with the callbacks during the last chapters.
The titular snuff box ends up being a crucial piece of evidence but not for the reason you might suspect. I was very close to the solution before I even began reading the book. You see, I didn’t know what a snuff box was; I had no idea what one looked like. Just like somebody else I won’t mention. 🙂
As the five readers of this blog know, few things make me as happy as an author who’s willing to play. A few of my favorite lines show how game Carr was:
“Can you imagine such a commotion over a small point of the sort?” (after examining a piece of evidence)
“I am , quite deliberately, not going to tell you. I’m not saying that like the great detective, in order to astonish the weak-minded in the last chapter.” (Sure you’re not.)
“You’ve told me who the murderer is.” “But I haven’t got the least idea!”
Snuff Box is great fun. One last thing: it employs the dreaded coma trope. The character, who remains incapacitated for over a week, knows the murderer’s identity. Of course, Carr can’t have that character just blurt it out or the mystery would be over. The eventual conclusion of this plot thread is superb, a fantastic idea that I must recycle in the near future.