The Bowstring Murders by John Dickson Carr (as Carr Dickson)
Originally published in 1933 under the pseudonym Carr Dickson (some later reissues change the author’s name to Carter Dickson, the pseudonym the author would use for his Merrivale series).
Dotty old Lord Rayle doted on his priceless collection of medieval battle gear at Bowstring Castle. But some ironic knave who didn’t give a hoot about chivalry donned a mail glove and strangled him with his own bowstring. When the dastard also struck down two of Lord Rayle’s armor-bearers, things really came unhinged!
Enter John Gaunt
The boozy-but-brilliant sleuth picked up the gauntlet thrown down by the crafty challenger. The clues weren’t linked and the facts didn’t mesh – but this champion was determined to find the chink in the murderer’s armor!
Bowstring Castle is said to contain one of the country’s best collections of medieval armor and weaponry, housed in the building’s armory. The castle is owned by Lord Rayle, a somewhat eccentric and forgetful man, whose strangled body is discovered within the armory by his daughter. There were just two possible entrances to the space, one observed at all times by Dr. Tairlaine, the other covered in a thick layer of dust, so how did the killer manage to commit the crime?
The Bowstring Murders was published at a transitional moment in John Dickson Carr’s career. It was written a year after the penultimate Henri Bencolin novel (he wouldn’t write the final one until 1937) and one year before he introduced Sir Henry Merrivale in The Plague Court Murders. Meanwhile he had recently published the first two Gideon Fell mysteries – Hag’s Nook and The Mad Hatter Mystery.
This book therefore seems to herald a move from the Grand Guignol-style of the Bencolin stories set in France to something more puzzle-focused and comedic with an English setting – in other words, the formula for Carr’s Merrivale tales. I think you can see Sir John Gaunt, the sleuth in this story, as embodying that transition as the text references he mentions that he has just returned from France himself when he is brought into this case.
Carr’s growing interest in English tradition and history seems to be reflected in the design of Bowstring Castle, the setting for this story. Not only is this clearly meant to be a historic building, inhabited by members of the British aristocracy, but it is something of a museum – particularly the wing of the Castle in which the murder will take place which houses a collection of armor and medieval weaponry. While such a setting might seem suggestive of a gothic atmosphere, Carr never really takes it in that direction. Instead he focuses on the history and the eccentricity of the space.
In addition to these physical elements of the past, there is also some discussion of how the world is changing and not, Carr seems to say, for the better. One example of this might be the discussion of how the cinematic hero had changed with Francis bitterly reflecting that Larry Kestevan is successful because he is surly and suggesting that while a hero’s masculinity used to be shown by having them punch a villain, in those days they were more likely to punch the heroine.
I think though that the strongest clues to the importance of this theme to Carr lie in the character of his sleuth – John Gaunt. The name, of course, recalls one of the most important figures from England’s Middle Ages, Sir John of Gaunt, from whom all of the kings would be descended until the War of the Roses. Shakespeare would depict John of Gaunt in his play Richard II in which he makes the famed ‘Scepter’d Isle’ speech and so his name has these strong historical and cultural connections with England’s past.
This is coupled with the notion that Gaunt, who is shown to possess a brilliant mind, has rejected working with Scotland Yard because of their insistence on utilizing modern, scientific methods rather than deduction. They, in turn, disapproved of his heavy drinking and how he has exercised his own judgment in the past to allow a murderer to get away. In other words, he is an eccentric individual in a world that no longer prizes those qualities, preferring conformity. A theme which Carr would return to again and again in the years to come.
I quite enjoyed getting to know Gaunt and was rather disappointed to realize that this would be the character’s only outing. While he is less colorful than H. M., I enjoyed following his thinking as he broke the case down and explained the connections between the multiple murders. Though he enters the story midway through the novel, Carr employs one of his favorite devices of having characters discuss him repeatedly before he does (as he would do with Dr. Fell in Till Death Do Us Part) which gives that moment greater impact and helps us feel that we get to know him by reputation.
Lord Rayle himself is shown to be an eccentric figure, though in his case the depiction is intended to be comical. Much of this worked for me, such as the nonsensical approach he takes to trying to safeguard some of his possessions and his foggy, disconnected dialogue with his guests where he seems to lurch from one topic to another. He makes quite a big impact in just a few pages to the point where, once he is murdered, there is a sense that the novel loses a little of its playfulness and eccentricity. None of the other characters, except perhaps Gaunt himself, feel anywhere near so large.
Happily the puzzle is quite a good one which goes some way toward making up for this. The circumstances of that crime, given that it takes place in a room in which another person is present who says that they didn’t see anything, are intriguing and the barriers to using those two exits are explained quite effectively. I was certainly baffled as to what had happened and will confess that I did not come anywhere near the solution beyond guessing the identity of the murderer.
That solution has some rather ingenious elements and I could appreciate, once it was explained, how it came together so neatly. If I had a complaint it was that I felt that, though Carr’s descriptions are pretty good, the book would have benefitted from a plan of the armory area. This is actually referenced within the story itself as a character talks about how confusing the space is and a map is made for their benefit. While I do not think that seeing a map would have resulted in me working out the solution, it might have led to me understanding some relational geography a little earlier.
I do have to commend Carr though on many other aspects of his solution. There not only are some pretty interesting ideas used to help explain some oddities in the three deaths, I particularly appreciated that this is one of those cases where perspective proves to be quite important. Aspects of the crimes are mystifying when seen from the detective’s perspective but once you understand the sequence of choices from those of the killer everything comes together very tidily indeed.
What keeps it from being perfect is not then the solution but what comes before it. There is some sloppiness in some early parts of the investigation, particularly the lack of consideration that the other character in the room might be the killer. After all, that would be the simplest solution and there is never really any explanation given for why the police do not take that possibility seriously (particularly given the weakness of the first victim).
The other weakness for me was that the killer’s identity seems quite apparent from very early in the novel. I don’t know if that is because I recognized some behavior on their part as being the sort of thing Carr killers often do or if it reflects that it is hard to take any of the other suspects seriously.
Still, while I think the novel has a few flaws that keep it from being a top-tier Carr, I still found it to be a thoroughly engaging read. It’s a very solid puzzle with a few ingenious features that I enjoyed quite a bit more than the other, more lauded Carr title from that same year.
The Verdict: Offers up a rather good puzzle with some ingenious features, though a few aspects of the investigation feel underdone
Ben @ The Green Capsule describes this as an ‘interesting but brief chapter in Carr’s career’ which I think is a nice way of summing it up. I agree with everything he put in his spoilers section at the bottom of his excellent review.
Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World also admires the ingenuity of the solution here and makes a good point about the dodgy dialect employed for the servants. The comparison with an Anthony Boucher sleuth makes me interested to try some of those stories!