When Dr Sanders was asked by Marcia Blystone to see if her father was all right, he never expected what would happen next. Entering the flat on Great Russell Street, he finds all four party guests, all poisoned with atropine. Three of them are fighting for their lives, but the fourth, the host Felix Haye, is beyond help – he has been stabbed through the heart. As the remaining three recover, they are all confident of one thing. There was absolutely no way that the drinks, the only thing they consumed, could have been poisoned.
Felix Haye collected criminals – thieves, arsonists, murderers – and kept the evidence at his solicitors, sealed in five boxes. On the same night as the tragedy at his flat, however, the boxes were stolen. With the mysteries deepening, and a second murder to contend with, Superintendent Masters and Sir Henry Merrivale find themselves up against a cunning – and desperate – murderer.
“I’m the old man. You trust me and everything will be all right, in spite of what Masters tells you.”
John Dickson Carr (aka Carter Dickson) published four novels in 1938. One, To Wake The Dead, is perfectly fine, but is never mentioned in the same breath as his best work. Two more, The Crooked Hinge and The Judas Window, are usually, wrongly and rightly respectively, cited in his top ten works. However Death In Five Boxes is often overlooked and rarely gets a mention.
The reason for this may well be the impossibility of the crime, which was probably more miraculous in 1938. The thing necessary to achieve the effect was rare in 1938, unlike today, so I think it’s much more guessable for the modern reader. However writing this book off for that element is a mistake, as this is a magnificent mystery.
John Dickson Carr was renowned for his locked rooms and impossible crimes, but that wasn’t his only talent in crime writing. I’ve been musing on this for a while, and I have a simple question. Was there any author who was better at hiding the villain than him? I’ve mentioned this before when I reviewed Til Death Us Do Part, but Carr doesn’t go for the least likely suspect approach. He has a number of tricks up his sleeve, but the net result is to make the reader overlook the murderer as a viable villain, despite piling the clues high for the reader to completely miss.
This is a fantastic example of this. You can see this as possibly a response to Christie’s Cards On The Table, with a very closed circle of suspects, assembled because of their villainy, one of whom murders the host who has a hold over them. This takes the story in an entirely different direction, with Carr filling the tale with multiple misdirections to baffle and bamboozle the reader, while still taking the time to flesh out the suspects in a sympathetic manner.
Cynical readers might take issue with the number of times Merrivale says he’s going to explain something before a distraction causes that explanation to be deferred. I suppose it’s one way to explain why the sleuth keeps things close to himself – in this case it’s not for lack of trying, but he really doesn’t try very hard.
“We are going to be married. Whee!”
The one real failing is in the character of Marcia. Not because she and Sanders are one of Carr’s twenty-four hour romances – at least they aren’t cousins in this one – but she does do a couple of things, such as pinching evidence from the crime scene, for no clear reason other than that’s what women do. It’s a shame, as the other primary female character is much more interesting.
All in all, I think this is an overlooked little masterpiece. Yes, the impossible poisoning isn’t great and the impossible disappearance just… isn’t, really, but as a mystery, this is first-rate. Merrivale’s explanation of how he, and the reader, should have spotted the killer makes perfect logical sense. And I guarantee you won’t work it out for yourself. Here’s hoping this sees a reprint one day…