Below Suspicion by John Dickson Carr (1949)

Joyce Ellis sits in Holloway Prison, accused of murdering her employer. Elderly hypochondriac Mildred Taylor died of antimony poisoning and Joyce was the only other person in the house at the time. It’s possible Mrs. Taylor took the poison accidentally, but it seems unlikely. Patrick Butler, K. C., things she’s guilty, but since he prefers his clients to be guilty, he takes on the case.

One month later Richard Renshaw dies, also due to antimony poisoning. The only person with him at the time was his wife, Lucia Renshaw, who just happens to be Mrs. Taylor’s niece. Butler believes she’s innocent, but since he’s so enamoured with Lucia, he takes on the case.

The majority of the plot is given over to Butler, who is not your typical Carrian protagonist. Arrogant, strutting, he sees himself as a man’s man, and irresistible to women. In short, he epitomizes the term “cock of the walk.” And his investigation is rather meager, consisting of a few questions to a private enquiry agent, and a brawl in a pool hall that spills over into a nightclub. While Butler comes up with part of the solution, it is up to Fell to put all of the pieces together, make sense of it—and explain it to Butler.

And while Fell does step in and out of the story, seemingly playing only a supporting role, Carr makes it clear that he is still the more dominant character. As when he and Butler meet for the first time…

“The presence of Dr. Fell in this room—or, in fact, any room—could have gone unnoticed only by someone wearing mental blinkers.”

I’m having a hard time with this drab, cynical world that Carr continues to move toward with his writing. Satanic rituals, covens, thugs, smarmy lawyers—or should they be lumped in with one of the former? The atmosphere feels stark, grimy, and morose. And every episode feels as if it takes place under cover of darkness. The setting, of 1947 London, is a time of significant change in England. Carr makes these changes a recurring theme in the story—rationing, an unpopular government—that results in a dreary world, one in which people have become like automatons. 

At each side of the theater doors, and then bent back along the side of the building, stretched an endless three-abreast queue of those waiting to get into the cinema. They did not speak. They did not move. They waited patiently, dull-eyed in the aching cold, for the hour or hours before they could scramble inside for some escape—any kind of escape!—from grey life.”

While the identity of the culprit is fairly apparent, the solution to how the deaths occurred is not. The answer, as usual with Carr, is so simple, yet I couldn’t see it. I should have bruises on my head for the number of times I’ve smacked myself over his solutions.

Oh well, so definitely not a Fell to put in my top 5…or 10…or 15. With only five books left of twenty-three we’ll have to wait to see where this one ends up.

My Judgment – 3.25/5

Prior Rulings – Ben @ The Green Capsule, Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World

Vintage Mystery Extravaganza – 2020 – Vintage Mystery Extravaganza –Commandments/Rules/Common Devices: #11 There must be no love interest

Calendar of Crime – February #3 Primary action takes place in this month 

3 thoughts on “Below Suspicion by John Dickson Carr (1949)

  1. I’ve not read this one, but I did read the later Patrick Butler for the Defence. I would like to say it is a significant improvement but my nose would probably shoot throw the wall. Man alive Patrick is annoying lol

    1. Oh he’s beyond annoying. I don’t know if I’ll be able to stand him when I read PBftD. What was JDC thinking when he created him? As I get to the end of the series I’m finding his protagonists to be more mature, world weary, and cynical, but PB is such an outlier, it’s hard to explain.

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