1939, Berchtesgaden. When visiting Hitler’s Eagles’ Nest, Eve Eden’s fiancé seemingly flung himself to his death from a balcony. No one was near him at the time, but questions persisted about Eve’s involvement in his death.
Years later, and Eve is married to actor Desmond Ferrier. She assembles a group at her villa in Geneva, many of who were in Berchtesgaden, but it seems the past has long shadows with dangerous things hidden within it. After a clumsy attempt to murder Eve with a perfume bottle filled with acid, death does strike as someone plummets once again from a balcony with no one near. Brian Innes is desperate to save the woman he has been in love with for years, Audrey, from being blamed for the death – but it will take Dr Gideon Fell to find the truth.
At this point in John Dickson Carr’s career, he was favouring his historical mysteries as opposed to his more traditional detective novels. Gideon Fell had only made one appearance in the 1950s, in The Dead Man’s Knock, and Sir Henry Merrivale’s last appearance was in 1953. Fell would return three more times after this, but the complexity of Fell’s great works is woefully absent from this one. You really feel that Carr’s heart wasn’t in it, especially when you read this.
The set-up is intriguing enough – how could someone fall from a balcony under observation – twice – but it’s only a small part of the plot, and the solution is amazingly weak for Carr, relying heavily on chance and coincidence. The majority of the plot seemed to consist of people arguing until Fell, who is off-page for quite a lot of the book, decides to reveal the not-desperately-interesting truth.
It’s odd, I had memories of enjoying this one the first time I read it, and I’d forgotten almost everything about it (as the first and only time that I read it was at least fifteen years ago). Apologies to anyone to whom I’ve uttered the phrase “In Spite Of Thunder is all right” too. This time, it just came across as tiresome, with people hiding the truth and lying about inconsequential matters just to prolong events. And I found one part of the method of hiding the murderer somewhat lazy – far from unique amongst classic crime writers, but lazy for Carr.
All in all, I’ll have to tag this as a disappointment. I’m a bit trepidatious now about revisiting other late Fell books. I have fond memories of Panic In Box C – I do hope that the memory isn’t cheating there too…