book review

The Punch and Judy Murders

There’s a moment late in John Dickson Carr’s The Punch and Judy Murders when we are told that the earlier parts of the evening had been an adventure yarn, but now it was time for the psychological study. In other words, 2/3 of this novel was a North by Northwest/The 39 Steps hybrid, and the last part is the psychological whodunnit which Carr did so well. Except this time. This is not a good book.

Oh, there are good parts to be sure–many come up in scenes of what might be called situational suspense. But the whodunnit aspects deserve much more than a third of an already short novel. To explain a little further, I’ll use one of my favorite Carr books as a contrast.

Death Watch has a plot (and a backstory) just as complex as TPaJM; however, instead of cramming the investigation into a short space, it takes its time to elaborate (and complicate) the mechanics. That novel had a dead cop as its centerpiece, and his mysterious undercover work (baffling at many points during the narrative) was given time to slowly take shape. Because TPaJM spends so much time on its (admittedly entertaining) adventure story, we get a ton of revelations packed into about an hour of narrative time. To be sure, there are a few revelations during the first 140 pages, but not nearly enough to invest the reader in the story. By the time we get to the supposed good stuff, we don’t care about it.

Our narrator, Ken Blake is due to marry Evelyn Cheyne the next morning. (The love story is pretty bland–especially when compared to something like The Case of the Constant Suicides) H.M. decides Ken would be perfect for a mission to investigate a suspected spy who may be working on method of transporting himself through time and space. It’s all rather vague and remains so for quite a while. Ken is assigned to break into the suspects home and see what’s what. He has to finish in time to make his wedding. The mission starts off on the wrong foot when Ken drives to the house and is arrested immediately. Someone called and warned the cops in the area that a burglar was coming. Who called? H.M.

I’ll be totally honest: this part of the novel is excellent. I may be angry at this book, but what’s right is right. As Ken falls deeper and deeper into a pattern of escape, disguises, and just plain rotten luck, TPaJM is a lot of fun. Much like North by Northwest, the misunderstandings reach more and more absurd levels until Ken doesn’t even know whom he’s investigating or whom he’s running from.

Now let’s get into the single most infuriating part of the novel. The hook of this book is stated thusly: How can a dead man be found in two places at the same time?

That’s a great hook. It would keep me reading to find out. And we get the hook. One character is found dead and later, the body has moved to another town. What’s the problem, you may ask. Carr allows this hook to remain for about seven goddamned seconds. I’m not even joking. He instantly ends the mystery. And he ends it really shitily too, with minimum effort. I was so mad. It’s the dumbest shit ever. Okay, I’m going to stop talking about it. Maybe, I have to care less about these things. But come on! God, it sucks. Why would anyone do this. I mean…okay spoilers…you say a dead man will appear in two places at once. You do that, and then you say, oh it’s a different guy. Really? How could you do that without instantly apologizing to the reader in the footnotes? I understand there aren’t many other solutions, but let it last a while. It takes Ken and Evelyn no time at all to say, “Oh, it’s not our guy. He just looks like him a little and it’s a dark room.” I’m flabbergasted.

I think it would have better if Carr had simply continued the breathless adventure pace of the first 2/3. It wouldn’t have been a great mystery, but it would have been entertaining. As it stands, we get thrust into one of Carr’s typical solution scenes, but with none of the build up and (therefore) none of the suspense. I didn’t care who the murderer was–not in the slightest. I also didn’t care if Ken and Evelyn got married on time…or married at all.

It’s a shame, I was really looking forward to this. People around the blogosphere seem to like it, and it is a change of pace for JDC, so you might enjoy it more than I did.

I’m still pissed about the hook. It’s gonna take a few days to get over that.

14 thoughts on “The Punch and Judy Murders”

  1. Pulling no punches (pun somewhat intended), I see. Two of the last three Carrs you’ve read have been a letdown, one of them being the great Plague Court. I can’t fathom what you’ll say about the historicals and the post 50s novels in general.
    While I agree this isn’t one of his best works, and for a madcap adventure I even prefer the underrated Patrick Butler for the Defense, it isn’t THAT lousy a book.
    When it comes to hooks, Carr used to grab what fit the solution better while telling you he thought of battier alternatives. Halter, for instance, does the opposite: when in doubt, he uses the most demented setup, even if the ending is compromised.
    I did care about Ken and Evelyn because they fit my idea of characterisation more than Christianna Brand’s, for instance. I know you love her, but I never connected with her characters at all.
    Back in the 40s and 50s she might have been seen as a lesser writer by both classical and noir writers because she didn’t fit in. She was more of a late XIX century writer: grab lovable characters like Heidi’s and throw the strongest emotional punch by making them behave wildly through extreme occurrences. Like Heidi’s grandad impregnating wheelchair bound Clara in her sleep or Pedro being a drug dealer who got Heidi hooked on coke. Now those things are game, but back in the day no one gave a flying fudge. Times recycle and all that…
    You could say writers like Carr and Christie saw people as moral except for a few bad weeds, while Chandler thought everyone was an asshole, except for a few upright men. Brand’s worldview was something like: every good guy you know is capable of being pushed to murder, or everyone is dirty deep down inside.
    I know you like Carr’s characters, James, and this novel is a particular case but I just wanted to throw that last s#it in as a bonus,because many people claim Carr’s characterisation is weak and I strongly disagree. It’s a matter of time and context.
    Better luck with your next JDC!

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    1. To be fair, I enjoyed Plague, save for one aspect. It was an important aspect, but the vital stuff was great.

      My problem with the hook wasn’t the solution. My problem was how Carr tossed the hook aside with such disdain. Honestly, I haven’t been this disappointed by an artistic promise since my 13-year-old self waited an hour and ten minutes for Jason Vorhees to reach Manhattan. It’s either that or when Godard claimed he was returning to “narrative” features–my memory’s a little hazy.

      I’d say Carr’s characterizations are perfect within the narrative. When I’m finished reading, I remember far more about the plot than the people. That’s not a good or bad thing–it’s just how I feel.

      I’ve just started Death Turns the Tables and I love it so far.

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  2. This is not a good book

    You’re breaking my heart, James. This is honestly one of my favourite ten Carr novels. I’m…gonna need some time to process this.

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    1. One man’s flower is another man’s allergic reaction. Such is life.

      Incidentally, my next book (after Death Turns the Tables) is one that was mentioned on your last podcast. It should come in the mail in the next few days, and I’m very excited to crack it open.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve to reread this one to make sure I’m as heartbroken as Jim, but what always fascinated me about The Punch and Judy Murders is that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was reading it on the day he died. It was found unfinished on his nightstand. I could live with the dying part, but slipping into eternity in the middle of a detective story is the stuff of nightmares.

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    1. What if the afterlife is nothing but spoilers? I’d say Roosevelt was lucky if he didn’t make it to the hook. As for your next Carr reread; make it Death Turns the Tables. I’m halfway through and I know it’s gonna be 20 times the book Punch is.

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  4. I also was a bit disappointed with the rather perfunctory impossibility on first reading this, but I liked it better on re-reading, because I didn’t think of it as that sort of book. (PS If this book affected you like that, do not ever read “Calamity in Kent” by John Rowland.)

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  5. I clicked “like” Byrnside, but I really don’t like . . . I’m not one for madcap adventures unless they’re directed by Hitchcock, but to my surprise, this book delighted me. It made me laugh through most of it, and then it had that wonderful twist at the end to remind us that, yes, we are reading a John Dickson Carr mystery. I’m so sorry you didn’t get/like it, but this is NOT a “bad book.”

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    1. I know you like Punch and Judy, Brad. A lot of people do. Reading your reply, I am reminded of Roger Ebert’s quote about another critic telling him that The Velachi Papers was better than The Godfather. Ebert replied by saying, “Sometimes, matters of subjective opinion stray into errors of objective fact.” That’s probably how you feel about my review.

      All I can say is that the book is the disjointed union of two unequal halves. An entertaining adventure yarn is combined with a meager and wholly unsatisfying detective story. Rather than grade the book cumulatively, I have expressed how frustrated I was with its Frankenstein’s-monster construction. And I’m still angry about that hook. I thought I had gotten over it, but your comment made me hate it all over again.

      Anyway, I’m sorry my review left a bad taste in your mouth. Since I mentioned The Velachi Papers, I’ll leave you with my favorite Charles Bronson story in an effort to make peace.

      In the 70s (I’m sure you’ll remember) foreign films had a much smoother pipeline into the American market. Ingmar Bergman, of course, was seen as a major world director. He distributed films into America through Roger Corman and New World Pictures. Because of this, he needed an agent just for America. His agent happened to be Charles Bronson’s agent. Naturally, Bronson thought this was hilarious.

      As the 70s became the 80s, Bronson’s choice of roles became quite erratic (even more so than before) and his agent often suggested turning these films down. Bronson would reply, “Well, I know it’s no Ingmar Bergman picture, but I think it’ll do all right.” And he’d laugh.

      One day, the agent shows up on the set of Death Wish part whatever, and who is with him but the Swedish Prince of Melancholia himself. Bergman is fascinated with the squibs because he’s never seen or even heard of them before. He pesters Bronson with a ton of questions about them. Bronson winks at his manager, gives his best shocked face, and says, “You mean to tell me you don’t have machine guns in your movies?”

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      1. I know this story and its aftermath: Bergman laughed at Bronson’s comment and the two of them decided to lunch together, where they discovered that they actually had a lot in common – including the fact that their favorite Carter Dickson novel was The Punch and Judy Murders . . .

        Custom dictates that I respond with my own famous person story: many years ago, my parents took a trip to New York. It was summer and very, very hot. After walking around the city to the point where they became lethargic, Mom and Dad returned to their hotel and boarded the elevator to go up to their room. A tall, craggy, elderly man came on with them, holding the hand of his grandson. The little boy was dressed to the nines, including a stylish overcoat, and the kid was sweating. My empathetic mother leaned down and said to the lad, “Oh, my, it’s too hot for you to wear that heavy coat, isn’t it?” She then rose to her full height (4’11”) and looked up into the glaring eyes of the grandfather . . . who happened to be Peter O’Toole.

        This has nothing to do with GAD mysteries, but it does explain why I wasn’t cast in My Favorite Year.

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  6. I like that your review comes across as a raw take immediately after putting the book down. Have your thoughts changed at all in the days since? I know that my review of It Walks By Night would have been very different between finishing the book and cooling off a day later.

    You’re right that this isn’t a mystery of the sort that is expected from Carr, but we kind of box him into those expectations, don’t we? It’s an excellent read, and yeah – the killer was a bit obvious/disappointing, and there certainly wasn’t the puzzle element or solution that you expect – but don’t tell me you didn’t enjoy the first 120 pages. Of course, you did say that you liked the early elements, but I’m just here to say the enthusiasm is understated. Not Carr’s best mystery, but an excellent story. Man, I was laughing.

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    1. No, I wouldn’t say so. The disguises (police and religious) were fun scenes, and I would have loved to continue in that vein (no problem with Carr writing a different kind of book). The big problem is that he attempts to morph the story into his usual fare. It does not work. Not at all. The goodwill of the first 140 pages vanished. I’ll return to this in a year and see if I change my mind.

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