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.