Seeing Is Believing by Carter Dickson aka John Dickson Carr

A simple experiment in hypnotism to prove that you cannot make someone act against their nature. A woman is hypnotised and given a gun that she believes is real and asked to kill her husband. As expected, Vicky Fane cannot pull the trigger. She is then given a knife that she knows is made of rubber and, knowing that it is harmless, plunges it into his chest… except the knife, that no-one had been anywhere near during the experiment, has miraculously turned into the genuine article, and Arthur Fane is lying dead on the floor… Luckily for the household (apart from the murderer, that is), one of the guests knows a man who is currently undergoing a peculiar form of torture – ghost-writing the autobiography of a certain Sir Henry Merrivale.

So, after resurrecting the Ellery Queen bibliography, it’s time to turn to the Henry Merrivale one. Seeing Is Believing was published in 1941, a time when, in my humble opinion, Dickson Carr’s hit rate was beginning to take a turn for the worse. Certainly in terms of the Merrivale series, the only genuine classic still to come was She Died A Lady (although others do rate The Curse Of The Bronze Lamp…) and there is an issue with this one that we’ll come to. My memories of the first time that I read it were that it was OK, nothing special, so what about the second time round?

Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way first – the trick that Carr pulls early in the book. I’m going to be vague about it, otherwise it’s a massive spoiler to the uninformed, but I know that it intensely annoys some people as to whether it’s fair or not. Carr does the same sort of thing on a much grander level in The Nine Wrong Answers, but in that book, it’s made clear that he’s doing it. Is it fair? In this case, I think that it is.

You see, I think the murderer in this book is one of the most obvious killers in Carr’s work. Which means that Carr needs some sort of misdirection to make you look the other way, so the question becomes, “How can X be the killer, given that…” and that is one of the things that the armchair sleuth must get round. The issue is presented in an artificial way, but the only other way it could be introduced is if it came from the killer, which would make them even more obvious.

Now on to the other difficulty – the impossible knife switch. And, you’ll be pleased to here, if you’ve read the book before, I’m not defending that one. Completely impossible to do with a heavy knife with any degree of success at all, and the chance that no-one would see it is remote. But, to be fair on that last point, it’s very clear that the murderer is bat-guano crazy from one of their later actions, so that’s not so much of an issue.

But with the exception of the impossibility, there’s a nice straightforward mystery here. Not very taxing, mind you, but putting it all together takes a bit of thought. The characters are stronger than usual as well, with Merrivale on fairly restrained form – not much of the physical comedy here, apart from one pratfall, his humour coming instead from the contents of his unpublishable memoirs. Carr wisely introduces two potential romances between the younger characters, meaning that the reader, expecting a happy ending between two young lovers in these sorts of books, will have their suspicions drawn towards which one probably won’t work out. It’s a nice trick (if that’s what it was) which helps obscure the armchair sleuth’s focus.

So, overall, I was pleasantly surprised with this one. The impossibility’s implausible, but the central mystery’s well put together, if a little straightforward. It’s worth noting that even Inspector Marsters works out the identity of the killer! I think this would work well as an introduction to the series for younger readers – a shame it’s not available as an ebook.

It’s not a classic, but it’s an enjoyable read, nonetheless. Recommended.

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About Puzzle Doctor

I'm a mathematician by nature and as such have always been drawn to the logical side of things. Hence my two main hobbies being classic mysteries and logical puzzling. Oh, and cats. No logic there, I'm afraid.
This entry was posted in Carter Dickson, Challenges, John Dickson Carr, Locked Rooms and Impossible Murders, Old Author October, Sir Henry Merrivale. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Seeing Is Believing by Carter Dickson aka John Dickson Carr

  1. HE WOULDN’T KILL PATIENCE is a bit of a classic in my book actually and many really rate SKELETON IN THE CLOCK too. However, I’m saying nothing because this is story as it is one of only three Merrivale books I have kept in reserve for a rainy day so apologies for my apparent lack of engagement … but next time it rains I’ll be back

  2. Skywatcher says:

    Actually, Cavershamragu, you’re in for a couple of good reads. They’re both enjoyable (with MOCKING being the better book). I actually think that A GRAVEYARD TO LET is a pretty terrific piece of Carr, although I don’t see a lot of people agreeing with me. There are still a few Carrs that I’ve left in reserve, although in some cases it’s because I haven’t actually got a copy.

  3. Skywatcher says:

    I don’t think that CRIMSON BLIND is particularly brilliant, but I thought that it was OK. Funnily, the only one that I haven’t finished is THE UNICORN MURDERS. I expect that it’s a far better plotted book, but I found it a bit dull. It’s the only Carr that I really didn’t enjoy.

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  5. Pingback: The Puzzly – The ISOTCMN Book of the Month – October 2012 | In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

  6. Noah Stewart says:

    I agree with you about the ridiculous nature of the “impossible knife switch”. Ordinarily Carr/Dickson uses methods that are barely possible, although frequently improbable (Murder in the Submarine Zone and The Ten Teacups come to mind). This one is just silly and not even adequately foreshadowed — I would have expected to see the murderer practicing, or experimenting. But I’m a hypnotist who’s done little shows for his friends very much like what we see in this novel and have to say that this set of details the author got right, which is extremely pleasant in a field that is crowded with silly errors and unfounded assumptions about how hypnosis works.
    For the folks who are husbanding their last few Carr/Dickson novels for a rainy day — you might try to find a copy of “Drop to His Death”, the novel Carr wrote with John Rhode. It’s not great, but it’s better than “Cavalier’s Cup” and “Crimson Blind”.

  7. Pingback: Seeing is Believing | Complete Disregard for Spoilers

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