John Dickson Carr : The Wrong Problem, 1936

The Wrong Problem, at the production of short stories by John Dickson Carr, is one of his peaks: it was written in 1936. From it Carr drew the subject for a radio play,”The Devil in the Summer House”, which aired in wartime, to the BBC, 14 October 1940, in an episode of an hour; after, the radio drama was reduced to half an hour, and presented at the radio series “Suspense”, but deprivated a character of Gideon Fell.

The place of the story is a summer house, at which takes place an impossible crime.

Both versions were later published as part of a collection of short stories by Carr, introduced by Ellery Queen: Dr.Fell, detective, and other stories (Mercury, New York, 1947). In addition to these two of his works, they were also: The proverbial murder, The locked room, The hangman will not wait, A guest in the house, Will you walk into my parlor ?, Strictly diplomatic.
Gideon Fell and the Chief Inspector of C.I.D. Hadley are walking, when they get near a lake which overlooks a villa, and in which, on a tiny island, there is a pergola of bamboo. Nearby is a little man dressed in black, his eyes slightly almond-shaped and a long white hair and a white cloth hat.

The little man, as soon as he sees them, asks if they see a swan on the water, a dead swan with its throat cut; but the two don’t see it. It’s the beginning of a story whom that man tells to two occasional guests, chanced in the properties whose owners are not present for a long time: the tragedy of a family formed by father Harvey Lessing, eye doctor and dentist, and his four children, of which three born from the first wife (died in 1899) and another acquired, already seventeen, with his second marriage in 1901, a family in which death was already facing twice before, with the death of two wives of the head of the family, yet.

The elder half-brother was called Brownrigg and was dentist, as the father had the physique of an athlete, always smiling and fond of nuts; the second brother’s name was Harvey Junior: he was dynamic, sociable, sympathetic; the third son’s name was Joseph, and he worked as a technician in optics in a large jewelry; finally, the fourth was a girl named Martha. Joseph and Martha were the same age and feelings in common, even though she was in love with such a Sommers of which Joseph was confidant, who was finishing his military service.
The fact is that after all that family was happy. But on August 15 of a certain summer, something happened that changed the atmosphere and harmony of the children: while the old Lessing, using a canoe, after lunch he went to make the nap under the pergola on the small island, someone killed him, violating the space of water without anyone seeing him, despite the surface of the water had remained flat, without anything or anyone plowed the waters: in the ear pointed a stuck object that pierced the inner membrane of the ear , piercing the brain and determining death.

The only two to suspicion were Joseph and brother Junior, while Brownrigg he claimed had been alone in the dining room and Martha had gone with a friend. Also the gardener swore that no one had pluwed the waters of the lake direct to islet. Junior knew steering a boat, and Joseph knew how to swim, but it seems that none of them could have been. The fact is that strangely was blamed one between the two, who exculpated and not to be accused by others, blackmailed them with the only weapon with which he could keep them under control: their mother had died mad, so … Besides that came to know this, the family would fall into disrepute and the career of the dentist would be cut short.

The days passed tired, in a sort of non-aggression, in an apparent calm until occurred the second impossible murder: Martha, was in his room, apathetic, straight out of an illness, when, at the same time the arrival of the lawyer’s family suddenly she went up in the tower that overlooked the house, such as being chased by someone or something invisible and locked herself in there: it was a square room, with no furniture, used to see in the distance, given its highest position of other windows in the house whose only openings were the barred window and the door. The maid runs after her, but remained outside. As soon as she entered the room, they heard a cry and creepy, entered the room, they found the girl dead, with an eye pierced by something that was not found that had reached the brain: a death similar but not the same as another. No murderer in the room, no chance for he to pass through the door, because it was guarded outside by the maid.

One of the three brothers was formally accused about the double murder and to save himself and to force the brothers to swear falsely, that the killer’s mother was crazy and not theirs: so he avoided the hanging.
After this telling, the little man, one of the brothers Lessing vows not know who has been to make the double murder. So?
Analyzing the clues, Fell will discover the truth and will give a name to the murderer. He is ….

The title of the story does not refer to a wrong deduction, but to a question that it is justified only in the sick mind of the killer: why is it possible that a mother crazy procreates healthy children and a healthy mother procreates a crazy son? That is why did he committ the double murder? Fell will explain the genius of the solutions adopted so that the crimes happen apparently by the hands of an unknown person and in seemingly impossible conditions. But also why was swan killed cutting its throat? In fact after the death of Martha, both Junior and Joseph while they are walking on the shore of the lake, in the back of the islet, they note among some rushes ashore a swan with its throat cut by something sharp, as if someone or something wanted to kill even the swan.

The story, which is one of the most famous by Carr, in the case of the second murder is derived from another previous story, Terror’s Dark Tower, that is of 1935.
It is memorable by the atmosphere that pervades it, and it is affected, as other works of the same period, by a certain underlying melancholy, which approaches to other works such for example to She Died a Lady. We note also the hint at a certain inevitability of evil (which is not noticed in other carrian works), to the underlying causes of evil and for which even those who commit it can steal his fate: as if to say that also the ‘ murderer is the puppet in a game that is much bigger than him.

However many hints, I think, convince Fell about the madness of killer, who: is not really aware of what he did; he can not even explain because he committed the two murders (the first for economic reasons perhaps: the will), the second for reasons of betrayed love (jealousy and rage). I think, however, that the first murder can also be configured as a revenge, because his son had seen anything confusing in the conduct of his stepfather at the death of his mother, perished in the tower room: he would not say that in fact she was dead “..in a special situation

The fact that the little man swears, first, he’s not the murderer and then he reiterates this statement, when Gideon Fell already has accused him about it and also explained how he killed without others could see him commit the murders, and then soon after he admits to be the murderer, also demonstrates a duplicitous soul and mind, a split personality in two entities completely opposite, one innocent and one culprit, one conscious and the other unconscious, by the way of Mr. Hyde.

What he says in the last page of short stort is symptomatic of this state of alienated mind: “You do not understand. I never wanted to know who killed Dr. Lessing or poor Martha”. The speaker is the unconscious part of the murderer, who does not know (but supposes) if other his half killed or not. Then, a few lines later, the same character, his conscious part, will say: “..But that is not the point. That is not the problem. Their mother was mad, but they were harmless. I killed Dr. Lessing. I killed Martha. Yes I am quite sane. Why did I do it, all those years ago? Why? Is there no rational pattern in the scheme of things and no answer to the bedeviled of the earth? “. In other words one character but split into two characters, a personality split in two, one conscious and one unconscious.

Basically what you get is the dubt also the reader has if the murderer, when he committed the murders, was conscious or unconscious. Surely, however, the fact that he sees constantly even after, on the surface of the lake, the dead swan with its throat cut, which does not exist in reality, reveals a schizophrenic state, hallucinations, dissociation from reality; but also it reveals that in that man, with deep and blacks eyes, there is still consciousness that goes in that disturbed soul, the remorse that evil that is (was) inside him, it has let him to kill harmless people : the swan, symbol of purity and safety, for him is a haunting memory, in a strongly symbolic work as this, because refers Martha, in the disturbed mind by the killer, always dressed in white.

In my opinion, there’s also another indication that Carr puts in the story, a psychological clue: the little man is dressed in black buthe wears a white hat. In my opinion this is another indication of the psychological duplicity of the wearer: good and evil, consciousness and unconsciousness.
In some ways it is the work that most approaches Carr to his most famous heir, contemporary with us, Paul Halter, in whose novels the theme of madness often overlooks.

The story is still memorable for the atmosphere that pervades it, for the unsurpassed mastery, to be able to create a pathos with a few strokes. Before Carr describes the idyllic places, or almost: the villa in a small valley between the hills, the artificial lake overlooked, the summer house on a small artificial island in the middle of the lake, the rustling of leaves, the well trated green carpets. Then it introduces a note that is more sad, like a harmonic modulation in minor that portends something sad that you are gathering, “the last light showed that all the windows of the house..”: the dusk, during which the sun dies, and it gets the dark. In that moment “dusk had almost become darkness when two men came down over the crest of hill. One was large and lean. The other, who wore a shovel hat, was large and immensely stout, and he loomed even more vast against the sky line by reason of the great dark cloak billowing out behind him”. First they see a small man. Then he speaks about a dead swan that does not exist. Then he tells a story, and while he is talking, the sunset gives way to darkness: three men are sitting in an iron bench, and two feel the other to tell a story of murders and madness. And as the dark story winds until its end, the light of sunset is replaced by darkness, and the epilogue takes place almost in the darkness, illuminated by the light of a match: as attested by the end of the story, in which it was reported that “the match curled to a red ember, winked and went out”.

The final is unforgettable, because it ends not with a bang but with an implosion, which gives a strong melancholy emphasis to history: “Then….got up from the chair. The last they saw of him was his white hat bobbing and flickering across the lawn under the blowing tree” . Yet, it had been announced with another emphasis: “This murder was incredible. I don’t mean merely that it was incredible with regard to its physical circumstances, but also that there was Martha dead-on a holiday”.

Pietro De Palma

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