Monday, July 4, 2011

Death in Five Boxes - Carter Dickson

Here's another greatly under appreciated book in the Sir Henry Merrivale series.  This has -- flat out -- the best opening of any of the books in the series. The first three chapters whiz by and are as action-filled as one of the dizzying comic book hero movies that are flooding the cinemas these days.  A young girl runs out of the rainy darkness into the arms of a passing doctor, pleading with him to go inside the building across the street and rescue her father only to discover a roomful of drugged people and one stabbed corpse. Oh, and I shouldn't forget the bloodstained umbrella-cum-swordstick that comes bouncing down the staircase as the two race up before they even set foot in the room. You just can't stop reading there, can you?  Of course not.

And there are impossible situations in abundance here.  Who drugged the guests in Felix Hayes home?  How was the poison administered when the cocktail shaker that contained most of the drinks had not a trace of poison in it?  How did the murderer escape the building when the rear entrance was locked?  What is the meaning of the five boxes sent to a lawyer's office that were then stolen only a day later?  There are these and many other puzzles that will baffle even the most astute reader.

In the process of unraveling all the baffling elements of the crime and the discoveries at the scene of the crime it is learned that the four drugged guests found in Felix Hayes' apartment all have one thing in common - they apparently have all committed a crime that escaped detection and prosecution. Was Hayes blackmailing them all and did one of them do him in to prevent the secret form being publicized?  It's a bit more complicated than simple blackmail.

I would count this book as one of Top 10 of the Carter Dickson books.  I'm surprised not much is written about it.  I found it to be a perfect example of what Carr/Dickson did so well. Create an impossible situation, complicate it with lots of odd behavior, throw in numerous red herring bizarreness and deliver a walloping surprise. Yes, I gasped.  I was reminded of my stunned reaction to Ellery Queen's The Greek Coffin Mystery. It's a corker for sure.

And just for the heck of it below this paragraph is the cover of the Belmont Tower reissue paperback version of Death in Five Boxes.  The illustrations have absolutely NOTHING to do with the story.  I'm positive this publisher lifted their artwork from other books and slapped it on their books without regard to the story's content. There is no bearded men with a German Luger. There is no Gothic looking castle. What are those five ghostly figures loating beneath the castle? Are they children? Mannequins? Dead bodies?  If you own this copy and have yet to read it rest assured the cover is one huge illustrated non sequitar.


  1. I have fond memories of reading this particular title as it was a present I received not long after the truth had dawned on me that he was my favorite mystery writers, but I don't think it would fit in a top 10 of H.M. novels. Not that it's not deserving of a place, but just that 10 spots aren't enough to cram all of my favorite H.M. novels in – let alone his other books!

    On a side note, And So to Murder and The Cavaliers Cup are the only H.M. novels I haven't read yet. :( I wish could discover his books anew with no previous knowledge of their plots.

  2. Not long ago I bought a copy of this one. (Not, fortunately, the awful Belmont Tower version shown in your review.) Since I haven't read a Merrivale tale in quite a while, I guess I should put "Five Boxes" near the top of my to-be-read pile. In the past, I've been put off by HM's often over-ripe antics. But I've found that my favorite Carr books come from the 1938-1945 period--after Carr had worked through some of his youthful exuberance, but before any of his plotting genius had waned. So maybe this middle-period work fits that bill.

  3. I kid you not, I had my edition (the BT one you have) off the shelf and was just about to sit down and read it!! I'll get back to you after the last page ...

  4. I like this book a lot (although I did figure out how the poison got into the drinks fairly easily-that particular idea has been ripped off quite a bit since publication). As you said, though, there are so many mysteries and ideas in this book that I didn't mind figuring out one of them before the last page.

    I presume that the Belmont hated the idea that Sir Henry was a tubby Winston Churchill lookalike, and so replaced him with the beardy gunslinger. I'm quite fond of the covers, mostly because said beardy guy resembles my brother-in-law (although he doesn't solve impossible crimes or brandish German handguns),,,