The Blind Barber (1934) by John Dickson Carr

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Henry Morgan rushes off of the Queen Victoria as soon as she docks and quickly goes to visit Dr. Gideon Fell. Why? In order to relate to him the extraordinary events that occurred on the ship during it’s voyage from New York City to Southampton.

The first event to occur during the voyage is the theft of a reel of film that was created by the relative of a very important U.S politician. That film contains video of said politician denouncing enough national and international institutions and figures to create several diplomatic incidents, meaning that it must be recovered at all costs. Someone is then bopped on the head by a elusive criminal known as The Blind Barber, who is a well known thief and is believed to be on the ship (they also has a nasty habit of softening people’s heads!). A stakeout is soon held by Morgan, Curtis Warren ( the creator of that scandalous reel), young Peggy Glenn, and a former Norwegian captain named Valvick in order to capture the Barber as he attempts to steal the other half of the film. However – they soon hear a woman calling out Warren’s name and discover her after her head is bashed in. They soon chase who they assume is the Barber after putting the woman to bed and eventually recover a emerald elephant that belongs to a Lord Struton ( a object that the Barber is also on the prowl for).

Upon returning to the cabin were they left the woman, they make a horrifying discovery. The woman has completely vanished and a blood-stained razor is found, leading to a horrible conclusion by most of them. They are soon told that all of the passengers are present on board and that no one has been reported missing, creating the impossibility of the novel. The puzzle is also interrupted by a alcoholic performer, giant marionettes, harsh critics, horrible accent’s, and a whole other batch of strange comedic characters and events.

This is the most derided novel in the Gideon Fell series, and for good reason! Let’s start with the main feature of this book. Not the mystery, but the comedy. This book is around 80% comedic endeavors and line’s while 20% mystery, and while I can enjoy a comedic novel with a light hearted puzzle, this fails completely in that respect. The main things that I abhorred were the accents. Oh how I despised them! There is a horribly written Norweigan man who is paired with a Spaniard to create dialogue that is almost unbearable and made the book a chore to read for chapters at a time. There is also a woman with a accent that I can’t even put my finger on. Perhaps toddler mixed with Cockney?

Most of the “funny” scene’s rely on characters acting completely out of character or being idiotically drunk. Almost everyone here is drunk at some point in the book with random outbursts of singing and wild judgement mixed in to spice things up ( those only succeed in making everything a whole lot blander) making almost everyone there seem ridiculous to the point of disbelief. Maybe all of this was funny in the 30’s, but here in the 2010’s it all seems outdated and cheap.

The novel has an incredibly dark crime and yet no one seems to care at all. They seem to forget that a innocent woman had her throat slit and choose to focus on the most trivial things instead of attempting to solve the murder and actually feel bad about what has happened. The crime and comedy are like oil and water and I honestly feel grief over the fact that such an enticing impossible scenario was squandered on this garbage experiment in humor.

The novel’s pace is also horrible. There are exciting scenes here and there but they often have to deal with completely tedious scenes that do not matter in the slightest and I am honestly sure that I nearly fell asleep several times.

Now for the positives:

All of the scenes featuring Fell are a delight. He produces 16 clues that are beautiful allegories and offer tantalizing hints to the solution of the mystery that showcase how good of a mystery writer Carr still was in some of his worst moments. The mystery itself has a very satisfying conclusion, with the culprit being a big surprise in a way that makes the plot make perfect sense in retrospect. It is a cheat, but after enduring the previous 3.5/ 4ths of the book, I was happy to even get a good conclusion.

The deductions Fell makes from the 16 clues are all decent, with a few being exceptional in presentation and importance. The impossibility of the disappearing woman, which I was really excited about, is a disappointment. The solution is very basic and though it does work and is decent, it in no way lives up to the situation around it.

All in all, this was just a little bit better than what I expected. It isn’t a complete travesty but I dislike it all the same. For a better ship set mystery by Carr look no further than Nine – And Death Makes Ten or Cabin B-13 (the impossibility of which is very similar to this novels with a much better explanation).

A grade of 2.5/5 for this one.

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8 thoughts on “The Blind Barber (1934) by John Dickson Carr

  1. I’ve been reading a lot of Carrs lately and this definitely was one of the poorest. The sad thing is that the book has quite a clever mystery but it is full of ‘comedy’, none of which is funny.

    It’s really weird that this one in avaliable on kindle in front of so many more deserving titles. In fact, almost all the Carrs avaliable as Murder-room ebooks have poor reputation! Does anyone know the rationale behind selecting them?

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    1. The mystery here is so much better than all the drivel that surrounds it, and if placed in a book with less focus on comedy I could see it being decent B to B+ Carr.
      Perhaps the Carr estate didn’t want to sell the rights to his better book’s in lieu of a “better” opportunity coming up for them eventually? I honestly can’t provide rationale that convinces for why the estate would only allow largely bad books to be republished when they could be making so much more money by releasing more of his better books.

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  2. I decided to go back and reread this around the middle/end of August. I’d first read it years ago (15+ at least) and disliked it intensely at tht time.

    The reread was a better experience, but I still had problems with the book. The overall humor didn’t bother me; it reads a bit like a screwball comedy/mystery hybrid.

    However, there are the accents! Those attempts to transcribe colloquial speech always grate with me and this book is an especially bad example of the phenomenon – I quite agree that it renders sections almost incomprehensible due to the sheer tedium if nothing else. I knew what to expect this time and kind of scanned/speed read those parts, but it remained a chore at best and a major pain at worst.

    The mystery buried within the whole thing is quite good and the resolution is satisfying – so this isn’t a terrible book. It is a very weak Carr book though.

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    1. Well I won’t be rereading this one for a very, very, very, very, very long time, so my second opinions will have to wait 😃.
      The accents here are incredibly atrocious. I usually despise any attempt to give a character an accent in Carr’s work as it usually comes off as tedious and annoying to a large degree. Just look at the maid in The Problem of the Green Capsule!
      Your right when saying this isn’t terrible. It has it’s moments but everything is incredibly subpar when compared to what Carr had already produced and what he would eventually produce and it doesn’t live up to it’s premise at all.

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      1. I really wouldn’t argue with your assessment to any extent as it closely matches my own, with the possible exception of my slightly higher tolerance threshold for the slapstick/screwball elements.

        The accent business isn’t confined to Carr though – I’ve never come across a writer who manged to make the technique work in a way that wasn’t intensely irritating.

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  3. Ha, well I don’t remember it being this bad, but then I read it a long time ago and before I had any real insight into Carr and his works. I like the impossibility, though — it manages to lead you astray very adroitly, which I’m always going to enjoy.

    Still, we can agree that Nine-and Death Makes Ten is a superior work…!

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    1. The impossibility was what I was really here for. It’s fascinating and incredibly enticing but the solution in no way lives up to the scenario Carr had created. It has some cleverness to it, but it disappoints overall.
      NADMT is a superior work in all regards (even the comedy is better!) but I think that the most apt comparison to this book is Cabin B-13 which has a very similar puzzle and a much better solution ( somewhat controversial is my opinion that C13 better than NADMT…..).

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      1. CB13 is one of those cases where the medium of telling is simply the perfect choice for the story being told. As a prose narrative it would get too bogged down in melodramatic psychological hoo-haa and be about 8% as good.

        I’d it better than NADMT? Hard to say, but it probably achieves its more limited aim more successfully overall. Ambition counts for a lot, though, and thr relative simplicity of that novel has — counterintuitively, perhaps — oodles of that.

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