Friday, 1 June 2012

Forgotten Book - The Reader is Warned

The Reader is Warned, by John Dickson Carr writing under his alias Carter Dickson, is my Forgotten Book for today. First published in 1939, it features Sir Henry Merrivale, a formidable sleuth whom some prefer to Carr’s other great detective, Dr Gideon Fell. There is more humour in the Merrivale stories than in those about Fell, and to some extent one’s reaction as a reader depends on how appealing one finds that humour.

The premise of this story is fascinating. A mysterious chap called Herman Pennik turns up at a country house party hosted by a writer and her husband. He claims that he can influence events by “thought waves” and is provoked into predicting the death of the host before dinner. When Sam Constable duly dies, and without a sign of violence upon him, it seems to some that he may have been killed by the power of the mind alone.

The average mystery reader will be reluctant to accept this conclusion, of course. But what exactly is the murder method, if not “Teleforce”? When the deceased’s wife dies mysteriously, again after a prediction by Pennik that she will die, there is a tabloid sensation. Pennik becomes a media celebrity; these passages are the wittiest in the book.

The revelation of what was really going on left me in two minds. I admired Carr’s ingenuity, but felt that the motivation was rather slender, and not entirely convincing. The problem was that there are too few suspects other than Pennik, and to an extent the story seems like an expanded novella in comparison with some of Carr’s other work. All the same, I enjoyed this book, and I think that others who like outlandish plots in the Carr tradition will enjoy it too.

5 comments:

Jerry House said...

Merrivale was patterned after Winston Churchill, while Gideon Fell was patterned on G. K. Chesterton. Both characters were far more playful than their counterparts and were perfectly fitted for Carr's peculiar plots.

I fondly remember The Reader Is Warned. I loved it. Thanks for posting this, Martin!

Puzzle Doctor said...

One of my first Carr reads and one of the ones that converted me, but when I re-read it recently, it didn't read as well as Carr's simpler books such as Til Death Us Do Part and She Died A Lady. But what do I know - I'm don't think The Hollow Man is that great a mystery...

Sextonblake said...

I re-read this recently, and absolutely loved it. It is such a clever advance on the traditional 'locked-room' style mystery. Most traditional crime stories take place in a sort of bubble, whilst this one shows the events spreading out into the wider world. The solution is enormously ingenious. I can understand your reservations about the motivation, although I've heard far sillier motivations in cases of true crime. We tend to be far more exacting about fiction being likely than we are about reality being likely!

John said...

For some reason I tend to prefer the Merrivale books over the Dr. Fell books. The farcical humor and bizarre criminal aspects when Carr is writing as "Carter Dickson" seem to speak to me. I liked this one. I reviewed it last year. Link is here.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, as always, for these interesting comments. Thanks for the link, John.