The Reader Is Warned (1939)

The Reader Is Warned

the-reader-is-warnedAuthor: Carter Dickson, the best-known pseudonym of the late great John Dickson Carr, a Grand Master of the mystery genre.

Publication Data:  1939, William Morrow, first US is possibly the true first, although it may be the Heinemann edition (UK), of similar date, upon which I am unable to obtain reliable information.  First paper is the beautiful Pocket #303 from 1945, which is worth looking at; unfortunately I have a policy of showing the book which I actually read, and the Berkley Medallion (F972) edition, 1964, was the one at the top of a random box of books.  Mine is in a lot worse shape than the picture here and might be worth the $2 I seem to have paid for it.  As is occasionally and regrettably the case, this cover gives a small clue to the identity of the murderer which is not justified by its contents, and that’s all I’ll say here.

About this book:

The subtitle is “A Sir Henry Merrivale Mystery”, which just about says it all for a certain category of John Dickson Carr (JDC) fans.  JDC, of course, wrote at a furious rate for many years as both Dickson and Carr, with multiple books yearly for many years. Both his series protagonists were nearly the same character; Carr’s Gideon Fell a heavy-set British upper-class amateur, and Dickson’s Sir Henry Merrivale a heavy-set British aristocratic dilettante. Both are irascible, brilliant and magnificently logical. The main difference is that Fell’s books are rarely even remotely funny, whereas Merrivale’s (although the earliest works are serious and eerie indeed) began to contain more humour and continued to outright farce in the later works.

This is the 9th Merrivale novel (in five years!) and the broad streak of JDC’s low humour that once a novel involves Sir Henry in some sort of slapstick calamity has not yet begun to manifest itself. Nevertheless he has already started to harumph and bumble and sputter, although it is still at a mercifully small level.  He calls women “my dolly” and men “my fathead” and is, all in all, a very Chestertonian figure — although he gets very stern and implacable near the end of each book as he’s pinning the crime inexorably to the criminal.

JDC’s style was such that H.M., for so is he referred to, is offstage for the first third of the book while the stage is set and the characters are sketched in. His arrival is usually immediately after the murder; he takes charge, terrorizes the local police and Scotland Yard and finally solves the crime. There is usually a great deal of frenetic activity and some of the subplots of the books are quite eerie, in a Gothic nightmare kind of way. H.M. (and his cognate Dr. Fell) always brush away the cobwebs of the supernatural which JDC so effectively raises and show that there is a logical, sensible, scientific solution to the impossible problem which has developed in the course of the novel.

Since JDC’s strict-form detective works are  always based around a central “trick”, a set-piece of mystification by which the murder is accomplished, the aficionado finds himself describing the individual books in a specific way.  “This is the one about …”  The characters are unmemorable and interchangeable, the locations vague and unspecific, and the motives usually banal or incomprehensible, but the set-piece reigns supreme, and only by mentioning it will you be able to trigger a recognition of whether your listener has read the novel or not.

Thus, “this is the one about” — Teleforce, and the guy who seems to be killed at the top of the stairs with no one near him, with witnesses observing from a number of angles.  Teleforce is the major subplot, about a man named Pennik who seems to be able to kill people at a distance using some sort of mental power. The combination results in the host of a country-house weekend party, a wealthy man with an intelligent wife who writes murder mysteries, being threatened by Pennik and then dying for no apparent reason in full view of witnesses.  There is a great deal of hugger-mugger about Teleforce and whether or not Pennik can be prosecuted for killing his host.  JDC in this novel puts in a good deal of excellent work building the picture of the British national press going doolally about Teleforce, with the passion with which they today might greet a two-headed Royal heir, or Jade Goody.  H.M., of course, sees through all the foofaraw and brings the crime home to the extremely surprising murderer, in a dramatic denouement.

There is an elegant little conceit in this novel that explains its title. At various points in the novel, JDC inserts a footnote guiding the reader away from certain types of solutions to the mystery.  For instance, at page 56 of the Berkley edition, we find:

“In looking over these notes of what I said, I think it only fair to add that [the victim] was not killed by any mechanical device which operated in the absence of the guilty person. The presence of the guilty person was necessary to make the method succeed. The reader is warned.”

And this is signed with the initials of the narrator, whom we are sure is reliable. Similarly, “… the murder in this case worked entirely alone, and had no confederate who either knew the murderer’s plan or rendered material assistance in any way. The reader is warned.” from page 102. JDC was well-known and loved for occasionally breaking the fourth wall in his books — The Hollow Man contains a disquisition upon locked room mysteries, by a character who adds, “We’re in a detective story, and it’s no good pretending we’re not”. But this is perhaps his most determined effort of this sort, although he does it again later in 1952’s The Nine Wrong Answers. JDC literally tells you that he has led you down a bit of a garden path and not to be fooled.  (However, at least one of the asides quoted here is phrased in such a way as to be significantly misleading, although linguistically correct.)

This is not first-class Dickson; that honour belongs to the earliest books from 1934 and 1935. It is, however, a good example of second-class Dickson. There is a nearly impossible puzzle, interesting characterization, significant misdirection (although here not with the overtones of supernatural occurrences, a hallmark of JDC) and, as happens a handful of times in the novels, a sexual frankness which is extremely unusual for detective fiction of the period. The murderer not only engages in sexual activity which was extremely inappropriate for the times, but appears to take physical pleasure from the physical pain of others. (In the ending, the murderer contemplates with pleasure the prospect of torturing a minor character with lit matches before killing her.) And it avoids the twin errors of the later Dickson books, poorly-written farce that breaks the action and characterization which is at the level of gossamer and cardboard.

And I think the best thing about this book is that, essentially, yes, you will be fooled. JDC will lead you down the garden path like he has led so many others, actually dangling the true solution before your eyes in a single sentence before misleading you by dismissing it for what appears at the time to be a good reason. I must say that, for me, most of the pleasure of these novels lies in JDC’s ability to bamboozle me, and he does so here effectively and amusingly. The delight lies in having to slap one’s forehead at the end and say, admiringly, “And the murderer was so-and-so all the time, I never would have guessed.”

As an aside — I have recently made the acquaintance of an extremely intelligent reader who has well-developed literary tastes which hitherto do not seem to have included much of detective fiction, although she does read with pleasure Henning Mankell and a few others. I intend to try this on her and note her reactions, if she cares to share them with me. I will be interested in her point of view about whether the puzzle mystery at this recherche level of the “impossible crime” subgenre is capable of interesting a reader from a more “art fiction” background than JDC’s fans will usually share.

Notes For the Collector:

reader warned offers a VG US 1st (William Morrow) for $400, which seems excessive except that one of the few other such copies for sale notes that this is a “very scarce first edition”. This apparently means that a Fair ex-library copy will cost you $100. Yikes. Perhaps a better investment is the first paper, Pocket #303. What sounds like a beaten-up copy will set you back $45.95, but the cover is an exquisite abstract design in shades of blue and grey, and I suggest that this is the most collectible edition. That means that paying a premium for a copy in great condition will never let you down — $60 for a crisp copy of this would be very fair and I am pretty sure it will hold its value.

There are a number of other paper editions of this title from smaller presses, which I always felt to be scarce; certainly the average mystery bookstore will always have a waiting list for a couple of reading copies. First UK paper is Penguin #812, a typical greenback, and they certainly hold their value well. The IPL (International Polygonics) edition from 1989 seems to me to be priced on Abebooks far beyond its actual worth and somebody in Grand Rapids, MI wants $107.15 for a Like New copy. As I recall, it sold for about $10 and the typical IPL edition was poorly constructed. Its cover is certainly as significantly undistinguished as that of the average IPL paperback, which tend to the mawkish and badly-drawn efforts of a company that cannot afford better. If there are IPL collectors, I’ve never met one and I can’t think of what’s attracting them. So save your $107.15 and get a really good copy of Pocket #303 as an investment.

two_complete_detective_books_194307One interesting-sounding edition that I haven’t personally examined is in the July, 1943 edition of Two Complete Detective Books pulp magazine (#21). But ho boy, the cover looks great!


A few days later, it occurred to me that I had been unfair to IPL in the paragraphs above. I can remember being sincerely grateful for bringing books back into print which I badly wanted to be in print, copies of which were scarce or impossible or ludicrously expensive before IPL came into being. Clayton Rawson’s Death in a Top Hat, for instance, was only available in a low-numbered and horribly expensive Dell mapback edition. Et cetera. So, yes, their covers were awful and their production values were shoddy. But thank you, IPL, for doing the sincere service of introducing a generation to writers like Clayton Rawson and Carter Dickson whose lesser-known works might otherwise have passed beyond resuscitation. Your list was superbly well chosen, highly knowledgeably managed, and I am sorry you are no longer with us.



Sweet Poison, by Rupert Penny


Title: Sweet Poison

Author: Rupert Penny, a pseudonym of Ernest Basil Charles Thornett

Publication Data:  Originally published 1940, Collins Crime Club (UK), no ISBN.  This edition, trade paperback, Ramble House, 2009.  ISBN 9781605431901.

This is an Inspector Beale mystery by an author whose work is so scarce, it is nearly legendary — Rupert Penny (pseudonym of Ernest Thornett).  Apparently he was only published in small-run fragile wartime editions in England and reprinted in small-run fragile paperbacks in Canada and Australia, all associated with the “White Circle” imprint.  But it is not merely scarcity that he has to recommend him, it is a certain indefinable quality of — loopiness.  They have found a home in reprint recently with Ramble House, and I have to say it’s a natural fit.  Ramble House is the champion and archivist of Harry Stephen Keeler, the loopiest of them all, and they seem to cherish old mysteries and crime fiction with a certain bizarre je ne sais quoi.

The loopiness comes in many forms.  For one, Penny was a constructor of bizarre plots that involved the classic locked room/impossible crime format.  But his mysteries always have a strained air of “constructedness”, where the plot must go in odd and unbelievable directions and the characters strain credulity in order to generate the situation where the corpse is found in that impossible situation.  John Dickson Carr, the acknowledged master, did it with a whiff of the supernatural and determinedly ordinary people caught up in circumstances beyond their control.  Penny, I suspect, started with the end and worked his way back to the beginning as best he could.

Another major source of loopiness is the novels’ determination to present England, the land of stiff upper lips, hearty matrons and “jolly hockey sticks”.  The novels are so embedded in the English milieu that they frequently veer over the line of inadvertent parody; what a friend once described as the “three pen’orth of chocs a fortnight come Michaelmas” school of writing.  Penny is constantly trying to present character through word choices in dialogue, usually a good idea, and one needs to be a master of the English idiom to follow some of the nice distinctions he is making in social class and education.

And the loopiness extends to the further reaches of the more unusual formats of publishing detective fiction.  Penny novels frequently have maps, charts, and diagrams, and the conceits extend to the inclusion of an Ellery Queenian “Challenge to the Reader” in each novel, whereby the action stops, the fourth wall is broken, and the reader is invited to agree that at this stage of the game he has enough information to conclusively solve the mystery.

So, with the imperfectly-described quality of oddity in place, this offering takes place against the backdrop of a quintessentially English prep school.  An unusual technique is employed, in that the murder is delayed until perhaps the middle of the book; the first half is spent establishing the territory and the characters.  I have to say, it is not time wasted.  I am occasionally the type of reader who wishes that an author would quit with the precious description of the countryside and just get on with the bloodbath, but here, as always with Penny, I was content to enjoy the quotidian workings of a veddy Briddish prep school and enjoy the plot’s knots constricting slowly.

To boil it down: the headmaster has a favourite boy, a rather senior one in the school’s hierarchy, whom he forgives offences and defends against criticism by other masters and students.  The Head is himself no prize (he’s a petty martinet), nor is the slovenly school, and the staff members have a number of legitimate axes to grind against management and organization.  The favourite boy is a greedy brat who stuffs candy into his mouth at any and every opportunity, and the reader is not surprised when he is found dead beside a poisoned block of chocolate-covered marzipan.

There is much who-would-have and who-could-have in the next chapters, but it becomes obvious that the crime is quite impossible; those with motive have no opportunity, and vice versa.  Inspector Beale must work out the crime that was supposed to have happened before he can truly understand the murder that occurred, and when he does so, the murderer confesses and the book is over.  Some will call this a “trick”; to my mind, it’s the kind of thinking that would be needed in a situation like this, that is elevated above the Miss Scarlet in the Conservatory with the Lead Pipe type of problem.  Essentially, something went wrong with a clever plot, and this unusual thought process is what would be required in the real world to solve such a problem.  Admittedly, there are the trappings of unreality, but the core of this book is perhaps what would actually happen if the police were confronted with a situation as unusual as this.

I suggest that you’ll find this book extremely satisfying if (a) you are an aficionado of the Golden Age puzzle mystery and are running out of new masters whose work you can enjoyably explore; (b) if you like a good old-fashioned British mystery where the aristos frolic immorally and the lower classes tug their forelocks, until the clean-limbed Scotland Yard man saves the day; (c) if you like really difficult mysteries that you can actually solve, rather than just guess at the answer, and (d) if you want to be the envy of your bibliophilic friends for not only having heard of this little-known author but actually reading his work.  It will help you to have the ability to suspend your disbelief even more than average.  Other than that, I cannot recommend that you spend your money here; it’s rather like ancient Scotch or Nova Scotia Malapeques, an acquired taste.

Notes For the Collector: There are only nine Penny novels and, before the reissue of most of them by Ramble House recently, reading more than half of them would have been the effort of a lifetime due both to scarcity and sheer expense. Years ago, a couple of times I paid outrageous prices to purchase a Penny novel only to sell it in as soon as I’d read it a couple of times; I literally couldn’t afford to keep it.  Ramble House, a very interesting publisher, has brought out trade paper editions of most of Penny.  I purchased my copy of Sweet Poison directly from Ramble House a few years ago and recall that after exchange, Customs tariffs and delivery charges, it worked out to be about $30 (Canadian).

I note that there are two copies available on, starting at about the same price, and an original Australian paperback using the White Circle marks at, wait for it, $250US.  And as for the first edition hardcover?  Fuhgeddaboutit. I can’t even tell you what one would bring these days, but the last time I saw a good Penny first for sale, it was in the $750 range.  Essentially the old paperbacks are worth what many first editions are worth, and the first editions are worth — your firstborn or thereabouts.  Now that most of these are available in Lulu-based editions, they really are the price of a current best-seller first edition at a bookstore, which is a significant achievement in making this author available to a wider audience.  Those of us who are fans of good old puzzle mysteries have good reason to thank Ramble House for this and a whole lot more.

My experience is that any copy of a Rupert Penny novel is worth pretty much what you have to pay for it (that is, if the pages aren’t actively falling out, etc.).  If you are a bookseller, believe me, it may take a few years but someone will always come along and give you twice what you paid for it.  And if you merely like to read good old mysteries, you will have the pleasure of knowing that for once in your life you will be able to sell the book when you’re finished for at  least what you paid for it and probably more, if you are in touch with a knowledgeable bookseller or know your way around the internet.

Diagnosis: Impossible — The Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne, by Edward D. Hoch

ImageTitle: Diagnosis: Impossible — The Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne

Author: Hoch, Edward D.

Publication data: 1996. A collection of short stories written between 1974 and 1996, collected by Crippen & Landru, ISBN 0739418963 in hardcover, 1885941022 in paperback.

Edward Hoch is famous as a writer of short stories, and he was a very, very prolific author.  Amazon says he’s known for several novels and over 950 short stories. Apparently Crippen & Landru collected a bunch of themed ones in various series, which was good of them; it’s hard to find outlets for short stories these days.  As I understand it, Hoch had a short story in every single edition of EQMM for decades.

Dr. Sam Hawthorne is a series character in 1920s New England who solves impossible crimes and locked-room mysteries, etc.  Now, I am well-known for having been fanatical about such stories in my youth: John Dickson Carr/Carter Dickson, Ellery Queen, Clayton Rawson, etc.  I’ll suggest that this gimmick — for gimmick it is — works best at the novel length because it allows the remainder of the story to swirl around this central premise.  All the above-named writers had the knack of posing the impossible problem and then distracting the reader from its premise by dint of furious and often bizarre action.

In the short story format — well, even with my well-known enthusiasm, I cannot muster up much for the stories in this collection.  This may well be a function of age and familiarity having bred contempt, because I find myself increasingly unable to return to Queen, Carr et al. as once I could easily do. But really, I felt during this volume like I was watching an earnest eight-year-old do card tricks.  Literally, it’s all about the trick.  Everything in the story is subsumed by the need to progress towards the solution, and you know that things like plotting and characterization are secondary.  Indeed, if there is characterization, you know it’s in there because it contributes towards the solution.  If a character is described as stingy or old-fashioned, it’s because if he were not stingy or old-fashioned, the central trick probably wouldn’t have worked.  (Without giving anything away from this volume, think of Dorothy L. Sayers in Busman’s Honeymoon, who needed the victim to stand in a certain position at a specific time every night overlooking a radio console overshadowed by a hanging cactus plant, and thus made him obsessive about hearing the evening news.)

The most interesting story, to me, was the first in the series, “The Problem of the Covered Bridge”.  The central trick seemed to grow organically out of the story and be based on realistic characters.  The rest are merely trick stories, by and large.  It’s as if Hoch thought to himself, “Hmm, how can I kill someone in a voting booth?”  and went from there, rather than starting with characters and coming up with the voting booth as a result of their interactions.  I’m not saying that one creative path is more correct than another, but in this case the path is really painfully obvious, and that makes the stories the literary equivalent of Sudoku.  Which I dislike.

There is usually only one character in each story who’s fit to be the murderer.  Most of the time, it’s someone unpleasant, and the rest of the time it’s someone nice who got into a bad position through no fault of their own.  And quite often the trick would not work without the active participation of the victim. So once the trick is described, you simply have to create a logical chain of events between victim and murderer. I don’t regard myself as especially brilliant for having worked out most of these before the end of the story; honestly, all I had to do was stop for a minute, make a cup of coffee, and think about it a little bit.  I suspect that most readers do not approach these stories in this way but instead prefer to race to the solution and assure themselves that, yes, they could have figured that out if they had bothered to give it a shot.

I enjoyed “The Problem of the Old Gristmill” more than the others, mostly because the central trick was inventive and unexpected. With quite a few of these solutions it was impossible that there could be more than one path to the answer because of the boundary conditions — the victim is seen going into the voting booth and is under observation the whole time — but this particular story had an interesting ambiguity about it.

I would certainly recommend this collection to aficionados of impossible crime stories and locked-room mysteries, although it may well be already known to them.

Notes for the Collector: I have to say that I tend to think of volumes like this, from Crippen & Landru, as collectibles, which means that there is usually a premium to get a copy.  And I note that the lowest price for this on Amazon, used in hardcover, is $10.25 which is quite a bit more than I paid for my volume.  Is it worth the $20 it’s likely to cost you to get it to your home?  Not as much as similar volumes, I suggest, unless you are a devotee of the “Five-Minute Mystery” school of literature or a fan of short stories over novels.  I am neither.  This may be a function of age or taste; your mileage may vary.