Carr Dickson/Carter Dickson: The Bowstring Murders (1933)

Lord Rayle, that more than half-cracked master of Bowstring Castle, enters the armour hall, to which all entrances are sealed or under observation. This does not stop someone from strangling him and apparently vanishing. Retired detective John Gaunt takes a break from drinking himself to death long enough to investigate…

A few weeks ago, The Green Capsule did a review of Poison in Jest. I commented that it and the first four Bencolin novels were Carr’s apprentice works: good solid mysteries, but in an overwrought style that differentiated them from his mature books.

I just re-read The Bowstring Murders and though the writing is more restrained, I think I’m also going to file this one under “he was still learning his craft”. Which may seem strange, because it follow the pattern of many other Carrs to come: an isolated, spooky setting; a varied group of suspects; an impossible murder; a great detective who makes his entrance partway through the story. So why didn’t I find it as satisfying as, say, Nine – And Death Makes Ten or The Case of the Constant Suicides?

Well, for one thing, while I enjoyed Lord Rayle during his brief time onstage, the suspects are a rather lifeless lot. We’re supposed to laugh at brainless pretty-boy Larry Kestevan and be repulsed by pretentious Lady Rayle, but they’re too bland to be much fun; Carr would do a lot better with similar efforts later on. John Gaunt is okay, but if an unknown Carr novel were to somehow turn up, I’d prefer it be about Dr. Fell or H.M. Viewpoint character Dr. Tairlaine is an improvement over Jeff Marle, though, created before Carr had settled into a pattern of telling the story through the eyes of the juvenile lead who gets the girl.

At one point in the story, Gaunt says he knew who the murderer was an hour after he first set foot in the castle. For all the complications Carr throws the reader’s way, I have to say that in this case I was about equally quick to spot both the murderer and the secret of the locked room. Which still leaves the lifetime balance heavily in Carr’s favour!

The Bowstring Murders was published the same year as Hag’s Nook and The Mad Hatter Mystery. I suspect it may have been written first, as the characters in those other two novels are a lot more sharply defined. Might it have been an earlier “trunk book” that he managed to sell to a new publisher? (Update: Since I wrote this post, I reread Douglas Greene’s John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles for the first time in decades, and the actual backstory is that Carr churned this one out faster than usual because he needed money in a hurry.)

The book was originally published by William Morrow as by “Carr Dickson”; when Harper & Row, Carr’s other publisher, objected, further editions were as by “Carter Dickson”. Then in the 80s, Zebra Books came out with a paperback reprint that was again by “Carr Dickson”. Not sure why.

3 thoughts on “Carr Dickson/Carter Dickson: The Bowstring Murders (1933)

  1. This was the first non-famous Carr book I read, and I remember loving it lock, stock, and barrell — sure, a reappraisal is probably due, since I was very much in my nonage at the time, but I retain a huge fondness for it based on very little specific beyond sentiment and a general air of having been thoroughly hornswaggled come the close. I would have loved a map, too, but I guess Bowstring Castle is a rather vast place…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a definite bridge between Poison in Jest and Hag’s Nook. There’s a bit of that intangible sense of the Bencolin books, but the locked room mystery mixed with country house plot feels very much at home with where Carr was headed (although he really didn’t do that much country house).

    The scenes with Lord Rayle are one of the few times I’ve ever found myself laughing out loud during a Carr book – the other examples being The Case of the Constant Suicides and Seeing is Believing. The scene with the dictaphone recording had me chuckling for sure.

    I applaud you for figuring this one out. I definitely had heavy suspicions on the killer, but never came within a mile of how the trick was actually pulled off.

    You raise the interesting premise of “if an unknown Carr novel were to suddenly turn up,” which I must sheepishly admit has crossed my mind from time to time. I actually have a blog post in the works which, although not focused on this question, will touch upon it.

    Liked by 2 people

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