It’s time for me to take a break from John Dickson Carr. Fortunately, I can’t imagine a better novel with which to pause than Death Turns the Tables. After the unfocused nonsense of The Punch and Judy Murders, here is a novel with nearly perfect construction. Every chapter builds on the previous one, adding only new (and highly contradictory) information and clues while subtly shifting the reader’s sympathies. Though I’ll grant the questionability of the last chapter, I truly believe Carr has earned the right to pull the freshly placed rugs out from under our feet. This is a towering achievement done on a small scale.
The Problem: Judge Ireton (a strict, no-nonsense sort of fellow) hopes his daughter Constance will marry the defense attorney, Fred Barlow. Imagine his displeasure when she decides to marry Anthony Morell(i), an Eye-talian with a checkered past, questionable morals, and uncertain finances. In fact, the judge sees right through Morell, immediately offering him 3000 pounds to leave his daughter. Morell agrees and comes for his money the following night. He’s found in the judge’s home with the 3 grand…and a bullet in his brain…and red sand under his body.
The Investigation: The American title of the book is apt because the tables are constantly being turned. Gideon Fell does little talking throughout, acting more like a wise sage than an investigator. Most of the investigation is done by Inspector Graham, and I enjoyed his character very much. He has a respect for Ireton, making his job extremely difficult because of the mountain of evidence against the judge. Constance claims to have witnessed the murder, but that is difficult to believe–she was at a telephone box more than 300 yards away. Whom was she calling? Jane Tennant, a woman in love with Barlow. Oh, I almost forgot–Barlow was near the scene of the murder. He ran over a bum who then vanished. ( I love how Carr’s non-impossible crime novels still feel impossible.) To top it all off, the gun is the exact one used on Morell years before.
The Solution: The concatenation here is out of sight. Remember that stuff about the prism in Punch and Judy? Oh yeah, you don’t…because it was horribly presented. Everything here works–the missing bullet, the vanishing hobo, the m—-. It’s crystal clear and (even at its most ridiculous) it makes sense. I can’t be too specific without spoiling things, but there’s a scene between Constance and Jane that is among the most subtly suspenseful Carr every wrote. Ditto for the gathering of all the suspects. It’s a reminder of how good the man was when he was on his game.
DTtT is one of Carr’s shorter novels and it’s bereft of his usual impossible hook, but you won’t feel like anything’s missing. I especially appreciated his use of the third person. We get a clear view of the conversations before the crime, making us privy to facts Fell doesn’t know, and yet (deliciously), that doesn’t help us much. It only deepens the mystery and makes the book more entertaining.
As for the last chapter–I’m not going to try and convince you. You’ll feel however you want about it. I disliked it at first, but as it played out, I appreciated the chutzpah. And I even appreciated Fell’s lack of morals. In an age when people salivate over criticizing and cancelling others, it was a good reminder that everyone is flawed and everyone has their reasons. Personally, I empathized with Fell.