The Bowstring Murders by Carter Dickson (1933)

My first review (on Twitter) of The Bowstring Murders left something to be desired…

Trying to write a review for this is making me as “half-cracked” as Lord Rayle! Oh hell! Ingenious impossible crime. Very interesting sleuth in Gaunt. Lacks the energy and atmosphere I crave from Carr. Needs a map! There…done…whew!”

So today, on John Dickson Carr Day, I’m back to try again.

American Dr. Michael Tairlaine is bored with his staid life, but he has no idea what awaits when his friend Sir George Anthruster takes him to Bowstring Castle to meet the eccentric, Lord Rayle. Arthruster’s warning that “sooner of later something mad and ugly and dangerous is going to blow up in that place” acts, not as a deterrent, but as a catalyst that “set working his dry, curious, insatiable brain. 

Housed in an armory hall of the castle is Lord Rayle’s obsession, is his priceless collection of medieval arms and armor. This collection was the thing in which his “whole heart…was bound up.” So it will come as no surprise that Rayle is later discovered in the armory, strangled, with the bowstring of a crossbow tied around his neck. The murderer has apparently vanished from a room to which all the doors and windows are sealed, and outside of which Tairlaine sat, the door in his view the entire time. An impossible murder, for which John Gaunt, “the greatest criminologist genius England ever had”, is brought in to investigate.

Let me start off by saying that this is my first deviation into Carr’s non-series books. So far it’s just been mostly Fell, with a couple Merrivale thrown in. The Bowstring Murders was a very different Carr for me. That’s not to say that it isn’t good, because it is, just in a different way, and to a slightly lesser degree.

The castle provides a fitting background for the events that take place, but the sense of atmosphere that you get with dark, gothic spookiness wasn’t there. Any uneasiness and foreboding that could have been conveyed through the narrative as missing well. At times the story felt short of energy and almost languid, there was little tension to spur the ready on.

But it’s failings were almost made up for in other ways. The murder is kinda-sorta locked room, with the caveat that there was someone else there…sorry…mini spoiler. The solution is ingenious, surprising, and as usual it caught me off guard. But to come to the solution the reader really needs a detailed map of the castle…which is not provided, although I don’t think it would have helped me at all.

Carr has also created an interesting cast of characters. In addition to Lord Rayle, there is Bruce Massey, his secretary, who is constantly trying to keep the erratic Lord in line; Lord Rayle’s son Francis, who fears that he has inherited his father’s tendency towards madness. And then we get into some interesting, but more melodramatic characters, such as Patricia, Lord Rayle’s daughter, a fragile beauty who spends her time upset, frightened or fainting, whenever she isn’t trying to meet in secret with – Larry Kestevan, film star and personal guest of – Lady Rayle, the much younger wife, a rather vicious woman who loves to torment – Doris, the superstitious housemaid – who Dr. Mannerly treats for hysteria and finds her to be pregnant; plus the odd servant or two.

And now, let’s talk about John Gaunt. Those of you who know more about Carr than I, please correct me if I’m wrong, but this has the appearance of Carr experimenting with his sleuth character as he transitions from Bencolin to Fell and Merrivale. Not having read any of the Bencolin’s yet, I can’t speak regarding that character, but in Gaunt Carr seems to have gone for something that was the antithesis of Fell and Merrivale.

Other than that of being a brilliant detective, the impression that you get of Gaunt is far removed from Fell or Merrivale. The first hint of that is in the name, John Gaunt. In John Dickson Carr: A Critical Study (1990), S. T. Joshi associates the name with historical figure John of Gaunt (which is actually a bastardization of Ghent, where he was born), using the fact that Carr did not clarify the association as an example of “one of the many things wrong with this confused and shoddily written work.” I don’t see it as Carr making a comparison between the historical figure and his sleuth. I see the name as a huge clue to the individual that is Gaunt. Think of the word, gaunt, otherwise known as thin, lean, haggard, skeletal. Plus, and again correct me if I’m wrong, but weren’t Carr’s historical interests more geared towards the more romantic and swash-buckling Jacobean and Georgian periods? If he ever wrote anything about the Plantagenets I’m not aware of it.

There is no way one would associate “gaunt” with Dr. Fell or Sir Henry. Where Fell and Merrivale are both large and famously fat, Gaunt is described as a tall, thin man.

There was the long head with high cheekbones, and the silvering hair brushed straight and long from a high forehead. The gray eyes, under black brows, were drowsy, dull, and almost kindly. That mustache and tuft of whisker in the middle of his chin made him resemble a Franz Hals cavalier grown thin.”

So, other than the “eyeglass on a black ribbon” no resemblance what-so-ever. 

Gaunt often appears indifferent to what is occurring around him, then is stirred from his apathy to provide brilliant deductions. He is melancholic and alcoholic, every so often feeling the need to indulge in a bit of self-pity.  S. T. Joshi labeled Gaunt, and the book, “spectacular failures.” He really did not like this book! And I have to disagree. While I found Gaunt to be a character that I would not want to engage with on a regular basis, he is definitely interesting enough that I’m disappointed Carr did not return to him in later works.

I wouldn’t rank this at the top of my Carr list, but thought it was a satisfactory and entertaining mystery. So, I very happily recommend it, just don’t make it your first Carr, or your second, or your third. 

My Judgment – 3.75/5

Prior Rulings – The Green CapsuleAh Sweet MysteryThe Grandest Game in the WorldJustice for a Corpse

Murder Mystery Bingo – Weapons: Gun, Crime Scene: Bedroom, Clues and Cliches: Clock heard striking, Red Herrings: Locked room, A second weapon

4 thoughts on “The Bowstring Murders by Carter Dickson (1933)

  1. This was the first Carr I “took a risk” on — i.e., it wasn’t a recent reprint from the Rue Morgue Press, and wasn’t one that people had talked about at all: I just found a secondhand copy and bought it on name recognition alone — and I honestly loved it. Gaunt does feel like a bit of a halfway man in terms of moving onwards and upwards with sleuths, and he certainly doesn’t impose himself in the way Bencolin had or Fell and H.M. would go on to, but I liked his slightly broken, quiet nature.

    No doubt, a map would have been handy. I found one made by a fan on a mystery forum several years ago and it was freakin’ huge — they would have needed a sort of centrefold-esque setup to fit it in anything close to a normal-sized book. But, I can’t deny, maybe a few isolated sketches of the various wings of the castle or something would have been a lovely inclusion.

    1. My copy was actually a free one…sent by mistake when I had bought an entirely different book (and author) on ebay, and the seller told me not to bother sending it back!

      I believe that maybe I need a “scoring” system just for Carr. Or maybe I shouldn’t give them scores or grades because it’s just so damn hard.

      1. Well, if you’re gonna get a free book, it might as well be a Carr.

        And how would one rate Carrs? I mean, what’s the metric — a baffled shrug? A grain of atrophine? A facepalm?

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