The Black Spectacles (Gideon Fell 10) by John Dickson Carr

Why do Golden Age criminals keep poisoning chocolates??

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Inspector Andrew MacAndrew Elliot of Scotland Yard has been sent to the village of Sodbury Cross to look into a case that has baffled the local police for some months. Several people who had bought chocolates from the local sweet shop one day had fallen ill, and one child died. It transpired that some of the chocolates had been poisoned. The local gossip has fixed on Marjorie Wills as the guilty party – the young niece of a local peach farmer, Marcus Chesney. The local police don’t object to this suggestion but haven’t been able to find any evidence that Marjorie, or anyone else for that matter, switched the chocolates in the shop. When Elliot arrives in Sodbury Cross, he discovers that he has met Marjorie before, or seen her, at least, while on holiday in Pompeii, and he’d developed a bit of a fancy for her. So that gives him an added motivation to find the real culprit… assuming Marjorie is innocent. Marcus Chesney, meantime, thinks he’s worked out how the chocolate switching was done, and sets up a dramatic performance to prove his theory to his assembled relatives and friends. It all goes wrong when, during the performance, Chesney dies – poisoned! Everyone involved in the case was watching at the time, but they all saw different things…

While this is mostly a howdunit, there’s plenty of interesting characterisation and focus on the psychology of poisoners to stop the how aspects from making it too dry. The initial poisoning appears to have been completely random – anyone could have bought and eaten the poisoned chocolates. This suggests insanity on the part of the murderer. However the second poisoning, of Chesney, suggests a much more intricately planned and deliberately targeted murder, more indicative of a sane, intelligent mind. Along the way Carr has his characters discuss many real life cases as they try to get at the root of what is behind the crimes and whether the murderer is insane or not, and this is an added interest although some of the cases he mentions, which were probably well known at the time this book came out in 1939, have faded from the public consciousness now – or my consciousness, at least! But he gives enough information about each of these cases for the reader to be able to follow the discussions about them.

The howdunit aspect is more interesting than I usually find them. It depends less on fantastical devices and crazy methods than most “impossible crimes”, which made me quite happy! Instead the focus is on the unreliability of witnesses, sleight of hand, misdirection, etc., and, while it’s all a very complex way to commit a crime as howdunits usually are, it actually makes sense once all is revealed, for once. And because it’s not about widgets that miraculously open windows when an arrow is shot up a fireplace at the moment the clock strikes a quarter past nine (yes, I do get fed up with that kind of nonsense in Golden Age howdunits!), but instead is about what people have seen as opposed to what they think they have seen, it’s quite possible for the reader to follow along with the various theories and revelations.

Elliot is a likeable detective, although his decision to hide his pre-existing attraction to the chief suspect is a bit morally dubious. However, he reveals all to Gideon Fell, who happens to be in the neighbourhood. I haven’t quite got my head around who exactly Gideon Fell is. The police seem to use him on a semi-formal basis as some kind of consultant, but is he an ex-policeman? Or a private detective? Or simply a gifted amateur? The two or three books I’ve read so far don’t seem to clarify this – one day I might have to read the first in the series to find out. Anyway, everyone seems quite happy to have him involved. His personality in this one is rather less annoying than sometimes, and again I think that’s because the psychology is more important than the widgetry on this occasion.

John Dickson Carr

I enjoyed this one a lot. While I always admire Carr’s writing, especially his ability to create a tense, sometimes creepy, atmosphere, I sometimes find he gets too bogged down for my taste in the how at the expense of the why, which always interests me more. This one focuses about equally on both aspects, allowing me to admire the intricacy with which he plots while also having a proper mystery around motivation and psychology to keep me interested. I still feel his criminals could find much simpler methods to commit their crimes, but I know lots of people love the puzzle aspect of his books. I love him much more when, like here, the questions of who and why are at least as important as how.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

Amazon UK Link

32 thoughts on “The Black Spectacles (Gideon Fell 10) by John Dickson Carr

  1. You know I have to agree, too, about the chocolates, FictionFan! What did they ever do to deserve that reputation? In any case, I do like JDC’s writing, although it’s good to hear this story isn’t as convoluted as some of his others. ‘Impossible’ crimes can be fun, but I think they can get too complicated. Like you, I like it when the characters are interesting, too, and not sacrificed, if you will, to call attention to the plot.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The problem is all that talk of chocolate always makes me want to eat some, poisoned or not! We all have to go sometime, and what better way than while eating chocolate… 😉 He’s really great when he puts in a real plot with motives, etc., rather than concentrating too narrowly on the puzzle aspect. I got off to a bad start with the first couple of Gideon Fell books I read, so I’m glad the last couple have restored my faith in him!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Poor chocolates! But another Fell title to add to my endless TBR. I’ve only read The Hollow Man with him, and while some in the group I read it with was irritated with him, I didn’t mind, and I did love the puzzle aspect of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Hollow Man was one of the couple that have been too puzzle-focused for my taste – I can appreciate his skill but I’m never much interested in these elaborate howdunits. But when he balances it with some good characterisation complete with sensible motives, like in this one, then I think he’s one of the best!


  3. I have several of Carr’s books on my wishlist, but have yet to add any to my TBR. Maybe I should remedy that! (this one isn’t available in Kindle yet here)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Poisoning chocolates? What kind of sicko are we dealing with here, how dare they?

    Aside from the obvious mistake of choosing beloved chocolates as the poisoning vehicle, this sounds like a fun read. I much prefer mysteries that have a somewhat explainable solution too (unlike the arrow shooting up the fireplace, which I suspect must have actually come up in one of the books you read!) hahah

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know! There should be a special punishment for chocolate-poisoners!!

      Haha, I can’t remember if there was an arrow, but I definitely read one that involved a clock, a mysterious window fastening, a chimney and a lethal weapon of some kind! They drive me up the wall – why would anyone do all that when you can just hit someone over the head with a brick?? 😂


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