Wednesday, July 18, 2018

In The Mind To Suffer

"Paris in the fall, the last months of the year, at the end of the millenium. The city holds many memories for me, of music, of cafes, of love, and of death."
"Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars"

As people may have noticed, I'm not a big fan of John Dickson Carr. Not that I dislike his works, but unlike other authors with similar reputations I never really caught the virus. I liked The Judas Window a lot for example, and I think The Hollow Man has some great moments (it's a bit too contrived at times though), but I never felt the urge to read all of Carr (or certain series), while I did have that feeling of wanting to read more and more with Christie's Poirot and Ellery Queen. In fact, I can't even see what people prefer in Carr over early Queen in terms of pure mystery plot (I can see the point if we're talking about story 'fluff', but in terms of the core mystery plot...). I might read some Carr whenever I come across them and most of the books I read have some okayish-to-good ideas and concepts in them, but for some reason I never get that "I need to read more" epiphany. So I usually average out on maybe one Carr review once every two, three years...

After her divorce with cheating and ne'er-do-well Ned Atwood, beautiful Eve Neill got herself engaged with Toby Lawes, of the respectable Lawes family. The Lawes lived right across the street from Eve in the city of Paris, which is also the reason why Eve was scared to death when one night Ned appeared in her bedroom, with the helpf of a spare key he had kept. Unable to give Eve up, Ned pleads with Eve not to marry Toby, and to come back to him, but Eve rejects him vehemently, but with her in-laws right across the street, she's afraid to make a scene, as being seen with her ex-husband in her bedroom late at night probably doesn't look good. Ned refuses to give up however, and even threatens her sexually to prevent her from marrying another, but as he notices that Sir Maurice Lawes, father of Toby, is in the study, he walks over to the windows to draw attention to him and Eve. Eve tries to stop him, but the two see a horrifying scene. Sir Maurice has been bashed on the head, and it's obvious he's not among the living anymore, and Ned even spots someone leaving the room at that very moment, though he's not willing to share the identity of the owner of the brown gloves with Eve. Eve tries to get Ned out of her house as quickly as possible, fearing the police and her in-laws will come as soon as the murder is detected, but pushes Ned off the stairs in her haste. Ned manages to leave the premise with a bloody nose and a bump on the head, but this turns out to be a grave mistake, as Eve is later suspected as the murderer on Sir Maurice, as the police found blood on her clothing (which we know is Ned's), as well as a shard of a snuff-box once owned by Napoleon, which has just been purchased by Sir Maurice that night and which had been smashed into pieces at the crime scene. And to make things even worse: the fall on his head resulted in a concussion for Ned, and he's been unconcious for days, unable to collaborate Eve's story. Luckily for Eve though, a certain doctor is able to find a way out for her.

The Emperor's Stuff-Box (1942) is, as far as I know, widely considered as one of Carr's finest works, and interestingly enough not even a locked room, or impossible mystery. It felt in my eyes a lot like a Christie-esque story in fact, with a focus on psychological misdirection. Which granted, Carr also liked to use, but with a thriller-like set-up, the relatively simple murder (no 'dressing up', but just a corpse lying in the study with quite a few bashes on its head), the members of a single family at the crux of the problem and rather limited setting, The Emperor's Stuff-Box felt surprisingly familiar to me as someone who has read much more Christie than Carr. Christie's 4.50 From Paddington (1952) dates from later than this novel, but uses a similar opening scene by the way, with someone witnessing a murder through the window (in Paddington's case, it's someone seeing a murder happening in a train that's running parallel to the one the witness is riding). The idea of a window literally serving as a window into a world of (possible) murder is probably best known from Hitchcock's Rear Window, my guess would be.

So no over-the-top, mystical magic tricks in The Emperor's Stuff-Box, though obviously, psychological misdirection is part of any good magic trick. And what's done in this novel is quite brilliant. What happened in Sir Maurice's study is essentially really nothing more but one of the most basic of magic tricks, combined with another very common mystery trope, but it is pulled off in a very convicing way here. To be honest, I figured out quite early on what was going on, because once you recognize the pattern, you'll realize you'll have seen dozens of variations of the same idea in other mystery stories, but knowing what was going on made my reading experience an educational one, as I saw more clearly why some things happened. For example, I am normally a bigger fan of the short story format, and at first, I also felt this story might've worked better as a short story (more on that later), but I realized what was going on, I understood why this misdirection worked much better in a full-length novel, as it has more time to settle. The misdirection also works on more levels than just the story-level (in fact, it works outside the book itself!), but it also needs the room a novel offers to fully work. It's interesting that the misdirection starts even before the first page of the story, in a way, but it'll remains quite fair towards the reader. Simpler variations of the same idea can often be found in courtroom drama mystery, now I think about it.

In fact, I am inclined to say that this piece of psychological misdirection is an especially fair one. In general, I think psychological clewing is a hard to do in a truly fair way in mystery fiction. When we get to "He may have felt X, so that's why he believed Y", I feel (hah!) there's too much uncertainty. Sure, the writer can repeatedly say character Z has this or that character trait, so there was no doubt Z would do that, but still, these explanations can feel a bit forceful. The Emperor's Stuff-Box however makes good use of its medium (a book), as well as the fact that part of the misdirection is not only aimed at a certain character in the book, but also at the reader at the same time. The reader who is fooled until the end will thus not feel "cheated" by the explanation about the psychological misdirection in the denouement, as very likely, they'll have been victim of that same idea too.

I am a fan of logic school mystery fiction and there human psychology is usually reduced to one easy-to-remember rule: any character is to act in their own best interest, given the knowledge they have at that moment. That means a murderer might take actions that seem strange, but they make perfect sense considering the knowledge they have at that very moment. There is less uncertaintity about human psychology and the things they might do there, as it's mostly based on self-preservation and knowledge flow.

I do really have to point I really disliked most of the characters in the book. There are very few nice people here. Most of them are actually quite nasty, and to be honest, I found it quite a chore to read the book because each scene was filled with characters who I really didn't like talking in melodramatic ways. And part of that might be design, but man, it's been a while since I read a novel with basically no likeable characters.

So in short, I found The Emperor's Stuff-Box to be an entertaining mystery novel, that manages to take an otherwise a very common, and basic trope from both stage magic and mystery fiction and use it in a very effective manner, with a novel that is clearly built around this certain piece of psychological misdirection. It's an excellent example of using craftmanship to make much more of a simple and common idea. That said, the characters are definitely not the main attraction here.


  1. The Hitchcock movie Rear Window was based on the Cornell Woolrich short story "It Had to Be Murder" which appeared in Dime Detective Magazine in Feb. 1942. So it seems to be contemporaneous with this novel.

    1. Interesting! Wonder if there was some real-life incident of an accidental witness of murder from across the street at the time!

  2. I have been following your blog for a few days, and wow, it is amazing and everything I ever needed to delve into the chaos that is detective fiction. Thanks for the amazing write ups.
    Did you get a chance to play Kamaitachi No Yoru: Rinne Saisei?
    Also, have you ever played the visual novel series 極限脱出 (Zero Escape), as known in the west. I think you will enjoy that, as it served as an inspiration for ダンガンロンパ. If you haven't, the Nonary Games Collection (which includes the first two games) is available or steam or vita.

    1. Glad you like the blog!

      No, I never got around to Rinne Saisei. I have played both the SFC and the PSX versions of Kamaitachi no Yoru, so to be honest, the actual character art instead of the usual pale-blue silhouettes didn't really appeal to me :P I see this version has one new original storyline (+ one from the iOS version), but that's not enough to get me overboard ^^'

      I've played Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, but I never really got into it actually! I played it after having played most of Chunsoft's other novel games, and 999 was just never as fun as those games, I thought, so I never bothered with the sequels.

      And did the developers of Danganronpa actually mention that they were inspired by 999? Because there's not even one year between the releases of both games, which means Danganronpa had to in development long before 999 was released in Japan. Considering the time-frame, I doubt that 999 could've had much influence on Danganronpa. Danganronpa's Kodaka also worked on the DS game Detective Conan & The Kindaichi Case Files by the way, and one can recognize some thematic and gameplay similarities between those games.

    2. -Ah, that's fair. I recently finished Trick x Logic 2, and I was going to read Kamaitachi, but was confused due to the existence of a remake. The reviews seems to be alright, and they haven't touched the story, so I guess I'll go with the remake for my Vita.

      Some tips/plug if you ever wanna give 999 another shot in the future (no pressure, it's your life), if you haven't completed it:
      - The steam/vita remaster adds voices (which are very good imo) and a flowchart "jump" mechanic to make this *multi-route* mystery more streamlined.
      - Don't let a bad end mislead you into thinking that the whole story is poorly written. (Bad ends tend to be unsatisfying).
      - The escape the room segments get more spaced apart as the plot picks up.
      - The second game, imo, is superior to this in every way (and utilizes more natural logic in writing), but DON'T play that before this.
      - The story is a mind-f*ck. Easily one of the best stories I have ever experienced.

  3. I don't know... I feel it's a bit unfair to characterize what makes Carr worth reading over others (especially Queen, at least in my opinion) as 'fluff'. To me, he has the great advantage that his novels actually read like novels, unlike a lot of other orthodox mystery fiction - which could as easily be a summary of a setting, a bullet point list, and a paragraph to wrap it up. Then again, de gustibus.

    1. Oh, I know very well it's a your-mileage-may-vary thing. I myself adore early Queen, while I know most people consider those novels incredibly dry, contrived and slow.

    2. There has to be a Philo Vance-like limerick for Queen too. If not, somebody has to come up with one.

  4. 'Emperor's Snuff Box' was my fourth foray into Carr - the first three being 'Plague Court Murders', 'Green Capsule' and 'Judas Window' - and I think it was the very first novel that I enjoyed fully. Even though I thought the puzzles in 'Green Capsule' and 'Judas Window' were stronger, I thought 'Snuff Box' worked best as both a mystery and a novel. Glad you enjoyed it!

    1. I think that one of my earliest Carrs was The Plague Court Murders(perhaps my second), but I have to admit I remember absolutely nothing about it >_> Maybe I should re-read it sometime...

    2. Personally, I didn't like 'Plague Court Murders' - at all. I think I once described it loosely to be akin to putting cheese graters to my eyes. >.< But that's just me...