Sunday, August 13, 2023

John Dickson Carr : "As Drink The Dead" , from The Haverfordian ( 1926, March )in "The door to doom and other detections", Harper & Row, 1980





Carr's story that leads the way to the entire collection of short stories, pastiches, radio plays and essays contained in The Door To Doom is  As Drink The Dead , The Haverfordian 1926. It is an extraordinary story, which mixes supernatural atmospheres, impossible crimes and historical research.

Two men are talking in a hall: one, with a shaggy beard, thin and bony, whom people called "the Old German Gnome", is a man of letters; the other with white robes and white hair, is a holy man. From the windows you can admire a typically Italian countryside landscape.

The man of letters wants to finish his novel which will deal with the Borgias, but to do so he needs to see the Trebbia Cup, one of the two which according to legend would have been filled with poisoned wine, causing the death of Pope Alexander VI Borgia and his son the Duke Valentine. The cup has been owned by the Monsignor for generations. He reiterates to his guest that the two died not because they had been poisoned, but by the direct will of God who would have punished them for their sins. In fact, when their death occurred, nearby was the very person who had created those cups, the alchemist Garcini Della Trebbia, mad with love for the daughter of the Pope and sister of the Duke, Lucrezia Borgia. The cardinal, at whose castle the two had arrived and who was unaware that the wine was intended for him, witnessed the atrocious deaths of father and son. And thinking that Garcini himself had poisoned them, he forced him to drink the supposedly poisoned wine from the two goblets, which he did placidly. Yet nothing happened to him. That is why Monsignor, at the end of the guest's story, attributes their death to divine intervention.

Monsignor calls a servant and orders him to bring the cup. The servant is terrified, because a minute ago he saw the old saint upstairs lying on the bed with four lighted candles (dead?) and now he finds him alive below. Stumbling out, von Arnhim will name the devil.

Shortly afterwards, in the presence of the Trebbia Cup, Monsignor, to refute the Guest's thesis that the cup is cursed, pours the wine they were drinking placed on the table, and drinks. Shortly afterwards, Von Arnhim understands how the Borgia pope and his son had been killed, but does not have time to save Monsignore, who dies before his eyes.

The story demonstrates in its entirety how Carr at the age of 21 already had that innate literary vein that would have allowed him to become one of the cornerstones of the mystery genre. In fact, the plot of the story is well conceived: first of all there is a mysterious atmosphere that surrounds two strange characters, one opposite to the other, one with a leaden aura, the other sparkling. Then there is a historical tale, which recreates a bygone era, which speaks of atrocities, loves, crimes. Then there is an inexplicable double death by poisoning: Pope Borgia and his son, who were supposed to kill a cardinal who was an obstacle to them, right at his house, happens they drink by mistake the poisoned wine that was reserved for their guest. Then there is an equally impossible explanation of the poisoning not by human but by divine hands. Finally there is an impossible death in the temporal plane of the present, while the solution of the case is rendered by the Gnome. The time lag of the past and the present, in a continuous jump from one to the other, convinces the reader that something will happen in the present connected to the past. And indeed this happens.

Carr's ability to blend fantasy and historical or presumed truth is absolutely disconcerting, if compared to the young age of the writer: this is the first absolute case of historical mystery, the one that Carr will then bring to the level of a masterpiece with The Velvet Devil and Fire!, Burn. Even there, the time lag creates the conditions for a story bordering on the incredible, but in which the impossible/possible is always around the corner.

The impossible poisoning can already be understood before how it is then explained, if one pays attention to what Garcini Della Trebbia does when he is forced by the cardinal to drink from the cup: by what he does, and by what the two victims do , one can already guess how the poison was dispensed. The impossibility is then explained, however not in time to save the last of the Borgias from death.

However, the story is not only the first text of a historical thriller that is linked to the theme that will become peculiar to Carr, that is, the impossible crime. It is also a story with supernatural implications, or supposedly so: Carr's ability however lies "not in defining what is supernatural or not", but in leaving more doors open, more solutions, including the supernatural one, but which might not even be: the fact that the terrified servant saw the master in another part of the house, lying on the bed, very white, between four candles, while later finding him alive and well elsewhere, could be explained by a simple hallucination of the servant ; or, and here is the supernatural possibility, that perhaps the devil has hinted at the end of the old man before it happens. In fact Von Arnhim will murmur as the servant leaves stumbling in the door: "The devil". Unless Von Arnhim himself is the devil himself, and has caused his guest to be tricked into seizing the goblet, and pouring wine into it, and then dying. It is no coincidence that the two cups of Garcini della Trebbia, of which the one in the Monsignor's possession remained, were called The Devil's Grail.

The Halverfordian tales formed the basis of much subsequent writing. We have also seen it for The Legend of the Cane in the Dark, but the cases are countless. And even in this case, in my opinion, there is a filiation between this and a subsequent story.

This is the case of The Adventure of the Black Baronet in EXPLOITS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, the Collection of short stories written in collaboration with Adrian Doyle (son of Conan), which earned both the Edgar Award.

Also in The Adventure of the Black Baronet, even if the story is completely different, the death, by impossible stabbing, because the stab came from the bottom up when the victim was drinking from a cup, at the head of the table, comes directly from the story many years ago. And absolutely the same is the trick. Even if the final weapon, in the past the poison, here the dagger, are different.

Again, the solution is perfectly rendered. Indeed, in Sherlock's apocrypha, there is also a double ending, because the murderer is a victim in turn, driven to kill by the wickedness of his victim. A sort of reversal of the parts, typical by Carr.

The last consideration is for the narrative part: the story of the past of As Drink the Dead is a very clever mix of truth and lies: Garcini Della Trebbia never existed, but his lover Lucrezia Borgia did; the Trebbia cup, is also an invention but the way in which Alexander VI and his son died was not, even if this story too is double: the most accredited story, but not unequivocal, attributes the death of the pope to a heart attack due to malaria-induced weakness, while his son would survive him by 4 years, later dying of syphilis; then there is another version, more fictionalized, credited to Guicciardini, and it was from this that Carr drew inspiration for the story, which wants the death of Pope Borgia by random poisoning, together with his son: having decided to kill the cardinal who lived at Villa del Cornetto, with a poisoned cup of wine, exhausted from the journey and thirsty, they drank the same poisoned wine they should have kept for their guest.

Love for drama, creation of perfectly explained impossible situations, creation of atmospheres bordering on the supernatural, tireless historical research, and a narrative made up of skilful descriptions and psychological atmospheres: this was Carr.

Pietro De Palma