The Black Spectacles aka The Problem Of The Green Capsule (1939) by John Dickson Carr

Seeing is believing, so they say, but is there such a thing as a reliable witness?

Marcus Chesney believes not and sets out to prove it. The village of Sodbury Cross has been plagued by a phantom poisoner and Chesney announces that he knows how it was done. He decides to explain all in a roundabout way, by means of a small play where the audience will be give ten questions concerning what they saw. Chesney wagers that the answers will be, for the most part, wrong, and he films the play to back up his arguments.

The play doesn’t have many thrills until a masked man enters and forces a green capsule down Chesney’s throat. Minutes later, Chesney collapses, poisoned, while the man who was expected to play the masked villain is found outside with a fatal headwound. And nobody in the audience can agree on what they saw…

The Black Spectacles was, I thought, the under-appreciated entry in John Dickson Carr’s canon, until it took down The Hollow Man in the semi-final of my recent poll. When I read it a long time ago, it really impressed me with its cleverness (apart from one aspect that I will mention in a bit) and on re-reading it, I’m glad to say that cleverness was still there – the memory didn’t cheat.

There’s so much to like here – apart from the intricate yet actually simple plot, we have Inspector Eliot (from The Crooked Hinge) leading the investigation for the most part, and his affection for Chesney’s daughter, the prime suspect in the village poisoning, is one of the better Carrian possible-romance plots. There’s an often overlooked treatise on poisonings from Gideon Fell, which, while not as extensive as the locked room lecture of The Hollow Man, still makes fascinating reading.

The only thing that lets it down (a bit) is the incident in the car near the end. It looks like Carr was told to put another incident into the narrative – much as he did with the second murder in The Problem Of The Wire Cage – but while that one was rubbish, this one is just… nothing. But do not let that put you off – these few pages are so inconsequential that the mighty JJ, of The Invisible Event, had actually forgotten about them when I asked him about it a while ago – given the quality of the rest of the book, this is perfectly understandable.

This is one of the rarer of the Gideon Fell novels, but it’s definitely worth your while tracking it down. One of his best, along with He Who Whispers and Till Death Do Us Part.

Just The Facts, Ma’am: WHEN – During a performance

7 comments

  1. The business with the car is a teensy weensy bit odd, for sure, and you don’t really need it but to my mind it does arguably serve a (small) purpose from a psychological standpoint. However, it is such a small thing that I am always baffled that it gets singled out. It is the only thing, and as you say a very minor one, in an otherwise basically perfect performance. Absolutely first tier Carr, and that is really saying something. As I recall, it was us chatting about this about 5 years ago that got that initial best of Carr poll off the ground 🙂

    https://bloodymurder.wordpress.com/2014/10/24/the-black-spectacles-1939-by-john-dickson-carr/

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  2. The car scene doesn’t read very well within the narrative, but as an overall bit of misdirection, it works. I’d file it with the policeman scene at the end of The Reader is Warned–wobblily effective.

    This is a marvelous book. Using Eliot’s POV at the beginning was really smart. We get the benefit of witnessing the suspects’ natural banter without ever losing the (essentially) Watson’s lens. I’d pick this over He Who Whispers.

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  3. I’m convinced that there isn’t actually an incident with a car, and that this whole thing is some long con being played at my expense. I’m going to reread it in a few years and finally realise what you’ve all been doing…

    However, the book is a masterpiece, undeniably.

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  4. My first Carr (largely off the back of what you all had been saying about it) and it definitely set a very high standard. I really enjoy the premise and the way it is unpicked is the best of the author – a simple, clear and credible explanation. Like JJ, I don’t remember the car scene so I will have to pay more attention to it whenever I get around to rereading it. My only negative I mentioned in my own review was I didn’t find the little love attraction part of the storyline particularly compelling but I think that is in line with many of the other JDC novels I have read.

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  5. I’m glad to see that this held up, as I still hold it in my mind to be Carr’s most fascinating novel. The poison lecture doesn’t get enough recognition and is somewhat of a preview of the interesting trivia that would accompany later historical mysteries.

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  6. Well, I already said it during the poll, but I consider both He Who Whispers and this one to be Carr’s finest novels.
    The funny thing about the car incident is that it might happen in real life, but it looks weird in a novel. “Truth is stranger than fiction” and all that. I know there’s a reason for the scene, as James said it’s a piece of misdirection and also a “shock intensifier”(those who read it will understand).

    Now imagine a realistic novel in which the detective trips, dies midway and the crime ends unresolved. Or a guy who coughs all the time and nothing major happens to him,or….you might accept that in real life, but it will be frowned upon in fiction.

    If you think about that random scene in realistic terms, it will feel less ludicrous.
    Leaving that aside, the rest of the novel is pure gold. A gripping plot, a perfectly executed crime, nice clueing and well placed pieces of misdirection, and, of course, a shocking conclusion.

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  7. This was the second out of two Carrs that I read so far. And after the disappointment of the Hollow Man (Sorry), I was glad that I really liked this one, in spite of half solving it. (With that I mean that I correctly deduced the Killer but not how they did it).

    The backstory with the dead child is actually pretty grim, and I loved the murder victim as a character.

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