The Black Spectacles by John Dickson Carr – Review

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By Sarah Morgan

Looking at the title of this novel, you might imagine that it features someone who wears Buddy Holly or a Harry Palmer-style Michael Caine pair of glasses. But you’d be wrong.

Instead, the spectacles carry a different significance, as Carr himself writes: “All witnesses, metaphorically, wear black spectacles. They can neither see clearly, nor interpret what they see in the proper colours.” In other words, everyone sees an event differently, from their own perspective. If you want a more literal title, then opt for the novel’s US moniker – ‘The Problem of the Green Capsule’.

Originally published on the eve of war in 1939, the story begins abroad, where Marjorie Wills is holidaying with her uncles, Marcus and Joe Chesney, Marcus’s assistant Wilbur, family friend Professor Ingram and her newly acquired fiancé, George Harding – the group has left their small English village of Sodbury Cross to escape rumours that Marjorie is behind a spate of poisonings in the town, and Elliot is trying to figure out if there could be any truth in them. Keeping an eye on them from a distance is Scotland Yard detective Andrew Elliot.

Unfortunately, his judgement is somewhat impeded by the fact he’s fallen madly in love with the possible murderess, which makes things even more difficult when, on their return home, she also becomes a suspect in the death of her Uncle Marcus. He’s killed after swallowing a poisoned green capsule during a bizarre stunt, an event he designed himself to test the observational skills of his nearest and dearest.

the black spectacles john dickson carr review cover“Safe hands”

With Elliot far too close to the proceedings to provide an objective viewpoint, and other members of the authorities clearly being completely useless, he turns to Dr Gideon Fell for assistance.

Fans of John Dickson Carr will already be familiar with Fell – he was the American author’s regular detective. What may surprise them about The Black Spectacles, however, is that he doesn’t appear until around halfway through the story. Once he does turn up, we know we’re in safe hands and that the mystery of who was behind the poisonings, as well as who killed Uncle Marcus in the most convoluted way possible, will eventually be revealed.

Carr wrote many memorable crime novels during the years he spent living in Britain, including The Hollow Man and It Walks By Night, the majority of them being locked room mysteries. The Black Spectacles isn’t among his best – I found the final explanation by Fell far too long and complex to be convincing – but fans of the Golden Age of Crime will still find much to enjoy, while the hint of romance is a pleasant diversion.

As usual, genre expert Martin Edwards provides an informative forward to the tale, which is being republished as part of the British Library’s Crime Classics series, which should not be skipped over.

‘The Black Spectacles’ by John Dickson Carr is published by the British Library, £9.99


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