Till Death Do Us Part by John Dickson Carr

A very ingenious locked-room mystery with a tantalising premise, I enjoyed this one a lot, particularly the initial set-up.  

Till Death Do Us Part was initially published in 1944; but the story, which is set in the close-knit village of Six Ashes, actually takes place some years earlier during the run-up to the Second World War. Dick Markham, a moderately successful playwright specialising in psychological thrillers, has just got engaged to Lesley Grant, a relative newcomer to the area. While Lesley has only been living in Six Ashes for the last six months, she has made quite an impact since her arrival, attracting the interest of several local men.

The action really gets going at the village fete when Lesley appears to receive some bad news during her consultation with a fortune teller, the star attraction at the event. While Lesley makes light of the discussion, Dick is somewhat puzzled, having clearly seen her reaction to the mystic’s predictions from the shadows visible through the tent. Shortly after the encounter, Lesley shoots the fortune teller with a rifle from one of the stalls, claiming the incident to be an accident due to her lack of familiarity with guns. Nevertheless, when the victim reveals himself to be Sir Harvey Gilman, a famous Home Office Pathologist, suspicions are duly aroused…

While recovering from the shooting, Sir Harvey confides in Dick Markham, raising doubts about Lesley and her personal history. Lesley, it seems, has been associated with a series of poisonings in the past; and in each instance, the victim was either her husband or lover, discovered in a locked room with a syringe of prussic acid close to hand. All three deaths were judged to be suicide at the time, and no hard evidence has ever been found to suggest the contrary; nevertheless, Sir Harvey remains convinced of Lesley’s guilt, especially given the similarities in circumstances.

In short, Sir Harvey wants Dick to help him in his investigations by setting a trap for Lesley. If she really is the killer, chances are she will strike again with an attempt to poison Dick. Sir Harvey hopes to catch Lesley in the act by observing her movements, thereby gathering the evidence he needs to pursue a conviction.

‘She’s being a fool, of course. But she must play with this bright shiny wonderful toy called murder by poison. It’s got her. She’s obsessed. That’s why she took the risk of shooting at me, and trusting to innocent eyes and general gullibility to have it called an accident. All her preparations are made for somebody’s death. And she won’t be cheated of the thrill.’ (p. 59)

It’s a very compelling premise, but before the plans can be finalised and put in place, Sir Harvey himself is found dead in precisely the same circumstances as the other incidents under investigation. In short, the victim’s body is discovered in a locked room with a syringe of prussic acid nearby – a death by poisoning made to look like a suicide, just as before.

As Martin Edwards outlines in his excellent introduction to the book, the eminently likeable Dick Markham now faces a terrible dilemma. He is madly in love with Lesley but knows little of her background before the move to Six Ashes – a factor that gnaws away in his mind in light of Sir Harvey’s allegations. So, should he trust Lesley and her claims of innocence or is she in fact a serial poisoner, just as the Pathologist claimed? And if Lesley isn’t the murderer, who the devil is?

To assist in the investigations into Sir Harvey’s death, Dr Gideon Fell – an expert on locked room mysteries – is brought in; and, as is often the case in these things, various red herrings and other distractions must be worked through before the identity of the perpetrator is revealed. For instance, who fired a shot into Sir Harvey’s room on the night of his murder? Was someone else trying to shoot Sir Harvey, and how does this relate to the poisoning (the actual cause of his death)? Why is Lesley so secretive about the existence of a safe in her bedroom? What does this box contain? And why does Lesley hit Cynthia Drew with a hand mirror when she finds her in the bedroom? Or maybe Cynthia is lying when she tells Dick about this incident with Lesley? It’s all rather hard to tell!

The solution to the locked room mystery, when it comes, is a very ingenuous one – not something I would have worked out for myself without Gideon Fell’s explanation, but perfectly credible nonetheless. As for the perpetrator and their motive, I’ll leave that suitably ambiguous, just as Carr does himself for the majority of the book – he really does keep the reader guessing on this one.

My only slight niggle relates to Gideon Fell. While there’s no doubting Fell’s skill as detective, I didn’t particularly warm to him as a character due to his slightly haughty demeanour and self-assured air. Also, in terms of style, he’s not the most inclusive of detectives, sharing little of his actual thinking with others as the investigation unfolds – an approach that can leave the reader feeling somewhat detached from the detecting itself.

Nevertheless, the residents of Six Ashes are an interesting bunch and very nicely drawn. Carr does a great job of capturing Dick’s feelings towards Lesley, which are suitably conflicted. Dick desperately wants to believe in his fiancée’s innocence, and yet her alleged association with so many suspicious deaths proves hard for him to square. And to complicate matters further, there’s another potential love interest in the picture – Cynthia Drew, an amiable, level-headed woman who many in the village considered a good match for Dick before Lesley turned his head.

So, in summary, this is a clever locked-room mystery with a highly compelling set-up, albeit with one or two caveats about Fell’s personal style. My thanks to the British Library for kindly providing a review copy of the book – very much appreciated as ever.

18 thoughts on “Till Death Do Us Part by John Dickson Carr

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I haven’t read that one, but it’s considered to be one of his best by all accounts! Till Death… was most enjoyable, and I would definitely recommend it. Fingers crossed that a copy will turn up in your gold mine of a charity shop in the next month or two. :)

  1. gertloveday

    He did love a locked room I remember the barrister Sir Henry Merrivale given to outbursts of temper. My father-in-law’s walls were lined with green Penguins mainly by John Dickson Carr or Carter Dickson. Quite fun but the locked room does pall after reading a few in row.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think they’re best spaced a bit out to avoid fatigue…

      Merrivale’s temperament has been likened to that of Winston Churchill in some quarters, which fits with your recollections of sudden outbursts. He sounds quite the character all told!

  2. mallikabooks15

    This sounds very good. Like Madame Bibi, I too have only read The Hollow Man so far which I very much enjoyed. Many in the group I read it with were not fans of Dr Fell either, especially his mannerisms but I didn’t mind those as much. Carr seems to do locked room scenarios rather well.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think I’m going to have to track down a copy of The Hollow Man, especially as you enjoyed it so much. Dr Fell is an interesting character, isn’t he? I can well imagine him dividing opinion within your group, but I’m hoping to warm to him a little more on repeated exposure!

  3. Simon T

    Oh gosh you make this sound irresistible, Jacqui. And I have so many BLCC books I haven’t read yet already… but now I really want this one too!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Haha! I’m trying to reads one a month at the moment, otherwise they begin to pile up! Plus, they’re so enjoyable as wind-down reads, especially if I’m feeling tired or migrainey, which is often the case…

  4. Julé Cunningham

    Ooh, one I’ve read! A terrific story, but I definitely agree with you about the character of Gideon Fell, not exactly a detective who I was eager to follow along with on all of his cases. And Carr did create all sorts of wonderful characters too. It was fun to revisit this book through your eyes!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I’m glad I’m not the only one who found Gideon Fell a bit off-putting! He’s not the most inclusive investigator, is he? Someone who keeps his cards fairly close to his chest, which leaves the reader feeling a bit detached… Nevertheless, like you, I really enjoyed spending time with all the other characters here, especially Dick Markham and Cynthia Drew. I was secretly hoping they would get together as a couple at some point, just to add a bit of spice to the story! :)

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Cool. I’m very curious to see how you find this one! Despite my reservations about Fell as a character, I actually enjoyed this mystery more than some of Carr’s Bencolin books. The Lost Gallows was a good one (I must have read that at a time when I was up for some ghoulish melodramatics as it definitely hit the spot); but they can be a little too much if you’re not in the right mood!

  5. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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