CARTER DICKSON. He Wouldn’t Kill Patience (1944).

19 Nov

The Royal Albert Zoo, an enclave located fictitiously in Kensington Gardens, provides the backdrop for most of the action in this dazzling tale from the prime of John Dickson Carr’s tale-spinning life. (The Carter Dickson pseudonym, of course, in no way obscures the unmistakable stamp of Carr’s authorship.) But in a broader sense, the backdrop is the wild kingdom that extends across the war-wracked skies over London. Set during a three-day period in early September 1940, the events in this novel of domestic murder unfold as German bombers begin their decidedly international assault on Britain’s capital. In several scenes, the haunting drone of aircraft sounds overhead. In one scene, smoke from fires in the East End wafts over the West End, offering a preview of the horrors that will come as the blitz advances over the whole city. And in a pivotal early scene, an air-raid warden on his rounds peeks through a window that should be blacked out, but isn’t, and spots a prone body on the floor.


The body belongs to Edward Benton, director of the zoo. By all accounts, he was a harmless-enough fellow, driven primarily by an obsession with maintaining his large and exotic menagerie amid the challenges and privations of wartime. He was also a man of independent wealth, and a brother of his who might inherit that fortune hovers about the Royal Albert grounds. Otherwise, it’s hard to discern who had a motive to extinguish the zookeeper’s life. But attention here focuses less on motive than on means. Somehow, and for some obscure reason, the killer lined the edges of every point of egress in the murder chamber—from the sills of windows to the bottom of the room’s only door—with adhesive-backed paper. Benton, in other words, drew his last breath in a thoroughly (and not just metaphorically) sealed room. It’s a perfect case for Sir Henry Merrivale, who, by the serendipitous logic of Carr’s world, happens to be at the Benton residence on the evening of the crime.

As noted, the circle of suspects is almost alarmingly small: The reader must ask not just “Who committed the murder?” but “Who even might have committed it?” Despite that handicap, Carr manages to work a kind of surprise in the whodunit department. For Sir Henry, though, pinpointing a killer and proving the killer’s guilt are discrete endeavors, and in this instance court-worthy proof eludes him. So Old H.M.—a man who is largely innocent of patience—confronts the killer in the zoo’s Reptile House and forces the issue in a starkly cold-blooded way.


Posted by on November 19, 2017 in British, Novel, Puzzle


5 responses to “CARTER DICKSON. He Wouldn’t Kill Patience (1944).

  1. thegreencapsule

    November 21, 2017 at 8:09 AM

    I’m saving this for one of my final Carr reads. It’s one of the three remaining “unanimous classics” that I have left, and so I want to spread those out. The other reason, though, is that I spoiled the ending for myself.

    A while back when I was just flirting with the genre of locked room mysteries, I thought it would be easier to just read a few plot summaries. I was just interested in learning how the tricks had been done, and didn’t realize that I’d be spoiling a gem of a reading experience.

    Unfortunately, “how” the impossibility in this book was accomplished still sticks in my mind. And, I suspect, understanding the “how” is going to mean that I can easily figure out the “who”. Which is unfortunate, because this seems like one of Carr’s cleverest tricks.

    Oh well. I’m sure that I’ll still enjoy the overall reading experience since I’m a fan of Carr’s writing. Who knows, there may be some things I don’t see coming…

    • Mike

      November 21, 2017 at 10:02 AM

      The solution to this locked-room puzzle is, in fact, one of my favorites. I like solutions that have an elegant simplicity, a hiding-in-plain-sight quality. (The solution in “Wire Cage”—a book that you and I both like—has that quality as well.) Some impossible-crime problems have complex, jerry-rigged solutions that are clever but hard to enjoy. (The solutions in “Three Coffins,” as I recall, suffers from the condition.)

      For what it’s worth, I find that a spoiled ending doesn’t really spoil a good book. Before I read “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” and “Murder on the Orient Express,” for instance,” I had learned or intuited the basic trick in each book. Although I missed that thrown-for-a-loop feeling that you get from a true surprise ending, I still enjoyed observing how Christie had turned each trick.

      • thegreencapsule

        November 21, 2017 at 11:08 AM

        Alas, the solution to Roger Ackroyd was ruined for me by Carr himself in The Man Who Could Not Shudder, when Dr Fell gives away the end of the book. I actually had RA on the top of my To Be Read pile at the time, which was a painful blow… I’ll still get to it eventually and I’m sure I’ll enjoy it still.

  2. Cavershamragu

    December 1, 2017 at 12:28 AM

    I really love this book, just one of the best Merrivales out there in my view :)

    • Mike

      December 2, 2017 at 2:26 PM

      Thanks for dropping by, Sergio. Although I’ve read only a handful of titles from the Merrivale canon, I’m inclined to agree with your assessment.


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