The Black Spectacles (1939) by John Dickson Carr – a re-read

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 life-threatening head-wound. And nobody in the audience can agree on exactly what they saw…

Better interject here and point something out – this isn’t just a re-read, it’s a repost of the old review, as I still agree with pretty much everything I said the first time. And I’m a bit busy at the mo. Now where were we?

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.

Oh, you know what, this bit really annoyed me this time. It’s just so pointless. Good thing the rest of the book is so good.

This is one of the rarer of the Gideon Fell novels, but it’s definitely worth your while tracking it down. Ah, it’s obviously much easier to find now, thanks to the British Library. One of his best, along with He Who Whispers (hint hint, British Library) and Till Death Do Us Part (which they’ve already released!)

One comment

  1. Yes, the bit with car is a bit overcooked, though at the time I seemed to think it provided a psychological clue. But the details escapes me now 😁 it’s a small thing really, as you say, and the book really is a classic of it’s kind. Great release from the BL. Hope there are plenty more coming from them.


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