book review

The Emperor’s Snuff Box

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.

5 thoughts on “The Emperor’s Snuff Box”

  1. I don’t know how you find time to read and review other people’s books while writing and releasing one of your own, but I’m glad you do!

    I read TES recently and I would consider it among Carr’s best-constructed works. The way that Carr could dangle the main clue right in front of my face without me spotting it puts me in awe of his skill and in frustration at my powers of observation!

    It’s a shame that Carr didn’t return to the Dr Kinross character as I rather liked him. I’m not sure he could sustain as many stories and Fell and Merrivale but he’s an interesting part of the Carr universe.

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    1. I don’t have time to review other books and write my own which is why I’ve only reviewed two books in three months.

      I enjoyed Kinross too. He was a nice change of pace–no bloviating and no physical comedy high jinx. (I’m looking at you He Wouldn’t Kill Patience and The Skeleton in the Clock). Goron was equally good in the misguided authority figure role. He never struck me as needlessly stupid or spiteful.

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    1. The realisation of how we know someone is lying is superb, one of the most brilliant uses of a particular form of informing-while-misinforming I think I’ve ever encountered; but the twist itself was — c’mon — boilerplate.

      Incidentally, the paperwork on that bridge I sold you should come through any minute now…

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      1. SPOILERS…I guess…Hey, if you want to poke fun at some naivete, you’ll have to start with me–I was looking for the twist (sort of–I thought it was either Eve or Ned) and I still missed it. As Ned positioned himself next to the window, I was on the lookout for the oddly-phrased description. Thinking back over the chapter, it may have been the (at the time) very real threat of rape that distracted me from the hunt, forcing me to reconsider.

        I’d say the twist is rather elegant. Carr begins by pointing to the culprit (he put cigarettes out on her arm for Christ’s sake!) then he does everything he can to take us away from him.

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