The Arabian Nights Murder by John Dickson Carr (1936)

A cookery book and two sets of false whiskers, one white, the other black. A curved blade, and two photographs, one of a set of tracks, one of a large black mark on a wall. All these sit on a table in Dr. Gideon Fell’s library. They are exhibits in a case of murder which the three men gathered with Fell have, each in their turn, investigated, and failed make an arrest. 

‘[W]e’re going to go over this mess of nonsense again. You’re going to sit on the flying carpet whether you like it or not. Each of us is going to tell his story in turn and supply the explanation of the previous man’s problem. At the end of it, you’re going to suggest what in blazes we’re going to do about it. That is, if you can see anything: which I doubt.”

And so, Detective Inspector John Carruthers, Assistant Commissioner Sir Herbert Armstrong, and Superintendent David Hadley begin their statements. 

The story is told in three parts, each narrated in turn by Carruthers, Armstrong, and Hadley. Much like Scheherazade sat before the sultan, each sits before Fell and spins a tale that is left unfinished, ending with a tantalizing twist, leaving the audience on edge, wanting more. Each part builds on the previous one, revealing new facts, providing explanations of events, and raising new questions to be answered in the following part.

Each narrator sees events and characters in a different light, and therefore provides a different tone to their portion of the tale. Part I, as told by Carruthers, details the events surrounding the murder, and introduces the characters. “Carruthers here had the first blast of the lunacy, the murder and the situation which nobody on earth seemed able to explain.” And as peculiar events, bizarre clues, and conflicting stories abound, there is a whole lot of information to take in.

Armstrong’s narration of Part II is filled with humor and eccentric characters, including Armstrong himself, with his blustery meanders.  The character of Dr. William Augustus Illingworth is inspired, “a stiff, well-mannered, kindly, foggy dodderer who is capable of suddenly doing a great sprint after his duty, and landing in the soup.” His part in the tale is a comedic adventure. 

What, therefore was I to do? In a situation fraught with extreme peril, should I attempt to make my escape with one wild dash though these cut-throats, and alarm the Flying Squad? You will perceive that such a course would have been useless…in that time of craven fear there rose within me a sensation to which hitherto I had been a stranger. I found my pulses beating with some wild strain of hither-to forgotten Highland blood, which awoke and rioted in the hour of danger. Should I tamely allow Mr. Wade to be robbed and some inoffensive stranger butchered by these villains? No! By heaven, No!”

By the time of Hadley’s involvement in the case, many of the the events have been explained. He therefore sees things in a very different light. He sees all of what preceded as logical and quite ordinary. The resultant retelling of events in Part III was very procedural, and rather dry. At times I had the feeling that I was listening to Joe Friday’s narration on Dragnet, “This is the city–Los Angeles, California.” “I carry a badge.” “My name’s Friday.”

The weather was still raw and rainy, and a fire had been lighted in my office. Those brown-distempered walls are never very cheerful; they look less so with the rain whipping the windows. I let the girl wait on a bench outside will I ran through my correspondence…Then I had them bring her in.”

And then, once the three narratives are complete, Fell appears and provides them with the solution. He picks up the strands that have been overlooked or misinterpreted, and comes to a conclusion that will surprise the narrators, and the reader.  As Fell only appears in the prologue and epilogue, some readers may be disappointed by his absence in the telling of the story. But, as in the Blind Barber, he is the armchair detective, the oracle, the magician pulling a rabbit from the hat. 

The strength of this book is in Carr’s ability to combine humor, misdirection, and interesting characters. I really enjoyed The Arabian Nights Murder. It is an amusing read, filled with great characters, humor, and a puzzle that will defy the reader. And now the but. But it just didn’t capture my attention the way my previous Fell reads have (yes, I’m such an expert after only 7 books!). Don’t get me wrong! It’s great, but someone always has to be last, and for me this one goes to the bottom of my Fell list. 

My Judgment – 4/5

Prior Rulings – The Grandest Game in the WorldThe Green CapsuleThe Invisible EventGAD Detection

3 thoughts on “The Arabian Nights Murder by John Dickson Carr (1936)

  1. I’m pleased that someone else found David Hadley’s section a bit dull — good heavens, after the brilliance of that middle part where all the themes and actions cross and uncross with often wonderful results, the have Hadley’s stolid, uninspiring take on events finish it all off really did spoil this for me. In that way it’s Carr’s Five Little Pigs: brilliant in concept, and superbly clever, but in serious need of about a third of it being ripped out…!

    1. YES!!! But when I said that it didn’t capture my attention, what I should have said is that it captured my attention up until Part III. Prior to that was wonderful stuff…the little man dancing around the box, dark marble halls, Armstrong digressing about apple trees in bloom, snarky Popkins with his summing up and his list! And then to have it all brought down flat like that…it was like being told that the dessert would be the most decadent of chocolate cakes…but to be presented with boxed banana pudding.

  2. Pingback: The Problem of the Wire Cage by John Dickson Carr (1939) – Bedford Bookshelf

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