Although not the sort of “locked room” puzzle at which Carr excelled, The Problem of the Green Capsule (originally titled The Black Spectacles) is a tip-top example of Carr writing at the peak of his powers. Written in 1939, the story has aged quite well, and is a fine example of the “Golden Age” detective story by one of its best and most fiendish practitioners. With the skill which made him true grand-master of the detective novel, Carr spins a tale of murder and mayhem with remarkable cunning, which comes to an entirely satisfactory conclusion.
The village of Sodbury Cross has suffered several poisonings thanks to a handful of strychnine-laced chocolates left in the village sweet-shop. The police have been baffled and resigned in frustration. When the local inhabitants of Bellegarde, the peach-magnate Chesneys, are abroad on holiday in Italy in an attempt to escape the stifling local atmosphere of accusation and menace, they are observed by Scotland Yard Detective Inspector Elliot, who is then surprised to encounter the family, including their lovely niece, Marjorie, when he is assigned to the re-opened case. Marjorie has been accused of involvement in the poisonings, but steadfastly maintains her innocence.
On their return from abroad, Marcus Chesney has announced that he knows how the poisonings were done, and stages a bizarre performance to prove his point, inviting the renowned Dr Gideon Fell to observe his deductions. The performance will even be filmed using a small ciné camera. Fell is unable to attend, and Elliot arrives too late to stop the re-enactment, which results in Chesney’s death from cyanide poisoning. But the cast of possible murderers shrinks gradually, throwing suspicion in turns on the laboratory chemist Harding, on Dr Joseph Chesney, and even on family friend Professor Ingram. When Dr Fell is brought in by Elliot, even he is baffled at first by some of the clues, including the film. The conclusion, however, is a satisfying resolution to the whole affair.
If you’ve already read some of Carr’s works (or novels written as his alter-ego, Carter Dickson), The Problem of the Green Capsule is one that you will certainly enjoy. The red herrings aren’t particularly unfair, and the padding which afflicts a few of Carr’s books is notably absent, in large part. If you are new to Golden Age writers, then you’re in for a treat with Carr, with the added bonus being that if you enjoy this tale, there are quite a few more to follow. Although there are a few references to previous cases of Dr Fell’s, I haven’t found that it is necessary to read the books in order, which is fortunate, as some are more difficult and costly to locate than others. If it is not the absolute perfect example of the writer at work (and a half-star is subtracted until I do find the “perfect” Carr novel), this one is very near, and highly enjoyable. Four and a half stars – heartily recommended.
Originally reviewed 10 June 2015.
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