Saturday, September 19, 2020

John Dickson Carr : The House at Satan's Elbow, 1965


"Reader Beware: SPOILERS"

The House at Satan's Elbow, from 1965, is the third latest novel with Gideon Fell and even if not the last of his production, in my opinion it can well be seen as his Swan Song: in this case, Carr disengages himself. still quite well, and the solution is ingenious enough, although here and there there are signs of fatigue.
Nick Barclay invites his old friend Garret Anderson to Greengrove, the family home.
Old Clovis is dead, and although his relationship with his son Pennington was also stormy, he left everything behind. But one fine day, by an unfortunate event, while they were all in the library, a porcelain vase containing tobacco fell into discomfort and inside they found another copy of a will, later than the first, in which he left something for Pen leaves to his nephew Nick. From that moment Pen has changed, even if Nick, editor and already rich in himself, does not want to deprive his uncle of his residence and that is why he is heading there, to put things right.
While they are on the train that is taking them to Greengrove, Garret receives a note from a woman, who is in a compartment: she is Fay Wardour, the phantom woman he has already told Nick about, whom he met a years earlier in Paris, with whom he had a passionate love affair, but without she later showing up. She confesses to being Pen Barclay's secretary, and at the same time pleads with Garret not to reveal, when he arrives at his destination, that they know each other. Frankly, Garrett just doesn't understand all this aura of mystery and confidentiality (and neither does the reader!).
Beyond this oddity, there is one so to speak of custom: Pen owns three Edwardian dressing jackets, from which he never separates, old and worn, which differ from each other, slightly. Then there is an even more mysterious strangeness, which involved several people: in Greengrove it seems that the ghost of old Sir Horace Wildfare appears, an eighteenth-century ancestor, judge, who, however, had built the residence with the money he had for having addressed some trials in favor of the accused: in particular one, in which the son of a very wealthy landowner had raped a girl and then killed her, getting away with just the judge who had put the accusation in a bad light. However, popular anger had haunted him ever since, and later Fate too had taken it out on him, attacking him with a repulsive skin disease, so much so that he had to appear in public with a black veil over his face where there were slits the eyes. The ghost with the black veil was seen by Pen's sister Estelle and the cook Tiffin wandering around at night.
When they get home, they hear a shot, like a cal. 22, the gun that Pen carries with him: they find him in the library closed from the inside, and from the window they see him suffering, so they break a window and enter. He says that the ghost shot him with his gun, but instead of really shooting him, the shot was blanks: in fact the wad hit him in the belly, but the jacket has no laceration, no blood, no burn if he had shot himself simulating the attack; then the ghost vanished behind a curtain near the windows, but they are all closed from the inside. Dr. Fortescue, the family doctor who lives at the residence because of Pen's heart problems, also claims to have seen a black figure walk away from the house. When the crime happened, his wife Deirdre was strangely not present at the house, reappearing later and saying that he had parked the car at the time.
For what has happened, opinions are conflicting. there are those who support the thesis of the ghost (Fortescue) and those who deviate from it (Estelle) saying that Pen invented everything.
Then another reversal occurs: Estelle declares that she has found in a desk of her father, a secret compartment behind a drawer and inside a large bundle of papers and instructs the family lawyer Dawlish to check them. Dawlish enters a small locker room where the papers are, a sofa, a small cabinet where pen keeps his beloved jackets, and comes out with his briefcase full of documents. Then he will nail Estelle to an attempt at forgery: one of the papers, which turned out to be a codicil in the second will of Clovis Barclay, who has a bequest of ten thousand pounds in Estelle, was forged by her, putting a false signature of Clovis.
Then there's the honey incident: the blessed jar of honey that Estelle has held in her hand for a long time, ever since Pen caught her eating it (a consequence of a Vitamin B2 deficiency). In the end it breaks, smearing Pen's bedroom jacket: Pen will necessarily go and change it. The honey incident will have a very strong bearing on the solution.

Then there is an argument between Pen (about the honey incident) and Estella, so the second takes refuge in her rooms.
Meanwhile, Fell and Elliott arrive (CID deputy commander): the second accompanies the first called by Pen. While the two are wandering around the house, the crime happens: Dr. Fortescue is listening to loud records in the music room, and someone uses the noise to be able to shoot Pen, who is found later, always in the library, again. closed and bolted from the inside by heavy latches, badly wounded in the chest by a .22 cal.
Fell, after answering a series of questions (are there two or three jackets involved in the two attacks on Pen, with blanks and true bullets ?, is the alleged ghost also the bomber or not ?, Miss Wadour, involved previously in the poisoning death of her suitor and employer, is she involved in this case? who did have an interest in killing Pen? Nick and Deirdre, who it turns out they have been in a relationship for over four years, are involved in the attack on Pen Barclay ? Estelle has anything to do with it?), will nail the cunning bomber to his responsibilities.

Let's say immediately that the novel revolves around a double locked room, and a supernatural apparition, which are the pivot of the novel: otherwise, the dedication of Carr's novel to his friend Rawson would not be explained. The rest are only subplots, which have the task of diverting the reader from the solution, which is indeed very difficult to identify.

Here, as in other great locked rooms, this is the result of a highly skilled staging, double in this case: in fact, the staging begins with the first attack, and is perfected in another even more striking one, with the second in Pen; and in both stages the jackets come into play. Carr's ingenuity lies in having made one of them rotate, causing the other two to be used for other factors: the disappearance of the third from the cabinet in the dressing room, and the soiling of honey of the second. But how the jacket enters the solution is a pure act of genius, a sign that the Carr of recent years, undermined by a tumor, was still very present.
The novel turns "like a turbillon, which is a pleasure" and frankly the old Dickson cheerfully takes the reader for the so-called several times: yet the pivot of the matter revolves around the ghost. Is he the bomber? And if they are not the same person, who is it? Once the matter is resolved, most of the questions begin to turn in the right direction.
The basic problem is the murderer, who in a certain sense descends a bit from the sky, because even if present from the beginning of the novel, he has a rather incomplete characterization, whose criminal value is explained in the final solution by Carr, attributing to him very feeble, even if inarguable, clues (which the careful reader would never have interpreted correctly). Frankly, other characters would have had a far more important motive, but this demonstrates Carr's romantic nature to save true love stories. One of the clues he gives to his demonstration of the criminal's duplicity of character concerns Pen's firearms license: the suspect says that he would have preferred that Pen not buy the gun, because he fears his suicide, but at the same time he has no done nothing to prevent Pen from taking the license and using it, even though he could prevent it. Once the failed murderer (because Pen saves himself) is identified, the reader can also put a relationship a certain step, with the identification of Fell as the bomber, which happened much earlier:
not Fell is the reader! The passage, in retrospect, demonstrates how Fell had already identified the bomber, and how he had spoken directly to Elliot, telling him in a certain code, that bringing things to that point, once they got their hands on the killer, his fate would have been sealed, with the hanging, because he Fell knows very well that it is he who shot Pen:

"Dr. Fell said, 'If you were going to commit a murder, Elliot, would you use a
firearm? As the law stands now, you know you wouldn't Stab your victim;
poison him, strangle him, kill him in any way except with firearms; if they
catch you, the worst punishment is life imprisonment, which means a dozen
years. Shoot him and you'll hang. This, my lad, was attempted murder which
missed only by one whistle and the grace of God.'"
Fay, less than wraith-like as she moved closer, stared up with great
" Tn order to take so devilish a risk as that' Dr. Fell said, 'either you must
prove beyond cavil the death was suicide, or else you must provide—provide
what?' 'You must provide a scapegoat,' said Commander Elliot 'And, by God,
this girl was to have been the scapegoat' He meant me, Garret; he meant me."
(chapter 14)

Basically Fell, turning to Elliot, tells him how no one would have used to shoot someone, because according to the laws in force, if one had killed with his bare hands, or with a knife or a razor or a poison, they would have given him the life sentence. (and then he could have gone out even for good behavior one day) but never the death sentence, reserved for those who kill by shooting: therefore whoever had shot, would have had to think of a ploy, that is to mask the shooting with a suicide. And what sacrificial victim could have been identified as suspect # 1 if not Fay Wardour involved in Mr. Mayhew's murder-suicide years earlier?

Furthermore, in some passages, the novel nevertheless demonstrates how old Carr began to fail. Let's analyze them:
Pen is seriously injured, is in danger of life, yet in addition to the assistance of his personal doctor, no emergency calls are made to the hospital, where he would certainly have been better assisted. This strangeness helps us to frame one of the well-known characteristics of Carr's production, which is the timelessness of his novels: the personal doctor who attends the patient in his home is a legacy of the past rather than the present; Fell always appears dressed in the same way despite thirty years have passed, and even the expressions that are used are not relevant to the mid-sixties: it is as if Fell's life time was always the same, even if we talk about events that have happened in the meantime: the Second World War, the retirement of the old Hadley of the CID ;
the jacket soiled with honey: it has a crucial importance in the solution, but ... explaining its use in the second attack, Carr makes a quadruple somersault into the void. If it got dirty before the bomber made the third jacket disappear, Carr's whole solution would turn in the right direction; but this is not the case, because the disappearance of the third jacket, which is closely connected to the honey fouling of another, occurs before the other jacket gets dirty: how would the criminal ever have foreseen that a jacket would be dirty after the disappearance of another made by him? He should have been a soothsayer, which he is not. Carr says precisely this: the bomber would have favored the reappearance of the scorched jacket in Pen Barclay's first attempted suicide, which Pen had placed in the cabinet wearing another one immediately after realizing that his wife had replaced the real bullets in the barrel of the revolver with blanks, stealing the third, and hoping that the other jacket was useless. This is the quadruple somersault ... into the void: a bomber who had fired imagining all this would have to be crazy, because if Pen had not dirty any jacket, he would have worn a clean one that at the time of the shot would have only presented the entered, and the hypothesis of suicide would have fallen. In essence, the shooter fired aiming at the scorched part of the jacket, as a hole would have been compatible with suicide.
Here as in a passage at the beginning, but referring to Pen, and to his purchase of the gun, which even by mistake could have killed someone, with dramatic results for the shooter, we allude to the “Homicide Act of 1957”, which, in following a modification of the applicability of the death penalty, he had established five possibilities in which to apply it, and in the case of murder only that carried out with a firearm was contemplated, as the cause of hanging.
In the construction of the second closed chamber, the shooter is extraneous to it: it occurs by a fortuitous event, not foreseen, which is even more in favor of the suicide hypothesis. In this, this closed chamber is connected with the fortuitous one in Paul Halter's La mort vous invite, or even more closely connected with it, is the novel Det slutna rummet by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.

Pietro De Palma

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