Authors: John Dickson Carr
Tags: #General Fiction
Born in 1906, John Dickson Carr was an American author of Golden Age ‘British-style’ detective stories. He published his first novel,
It Walks by Night
, in 1930 while studying in Paris to become a barrister. Shortly thereafter he settled in his wife’s native England where he wrote prolifically, averaging four novels per year until the end of WWII. Well-known as a master of the locked-room mystery, Carr created eccentric sleuths to solve apparently impossible crimes. His two most popular series detectives were Dr. Fell, who debuted in
in 1933, and barrister Sir Henry Merrivale (published under the pseudonym of Carter Dickson), who first appeared in
The Plague Court Murders
(1934). Eventually, Carr left England and moved to South Carolina where he continued to write, publishing several more novels and contributing a regular column to
Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine
. In his lifetime, Carr received the Mystery Writers of America’s highest honor, the Grand Master Award, and was one of only two Americans ever admitted into the prestigious – but almost exclusively British – Detection Club. He died in 1977.
JOHN DICKSON CARR
Originally Published Under Pseudonym
THE LANGTAIL PRESS
This edition published 2010 by
The Langtail Press
The Problem of the Green Capsule © The Estate of Clarice M Carr, Richard H McNiven, Executor
DETECTIVE INSPECTOR ANDREW ELLIOT, an expert who knew when it was time to call a better expert.
DR. GIDEON FELL, the
There are no words to describe him.
MARJORIE WILLS, Marcus Chesney’s beautiful, willful niece and ward.
GEORGE HARDING, her fiancé—a very presentable young chemist.
MARCUS CHESNEY, wealthy peach fancier, who delighted in proving that people are lousy witnesses. He was unorthodox and hard as nails.
DR. JOE CHESNEY, his brother, was much more popular. He went around town like a roaring bull.
WILBUR EMMET, a tall and spectacularly ugly young man. He managed the Chesney orchards.
PROFESSOR INGRAM, a better observer than Marcus Chesney woud have guessed.
MAJOR CROW, head of the local police, who said: “We’ll get that damned, murdering——if it’s the last thing we ever do.”
MRS. TERRY, a nervous shopkeeper who did not make a practice of selling poisoned chocolates to children.
It began, as a certain man remembered it, at a house in Pompeii. He never forgot the hot, quiet afternoon; the silence of the Street of Tombs broken by English voices; the red oleanders in the ruined garden, and the girl in white standing in the midst of a group in sun-glasses, as though in the midst of a group in masks.
This man who saw it had been in Naples for a week on business. His business there does not concern this narrative. But it took up all his time, and it was not until the afternoon of Monday, September 19th, that he found himself free. He was leaving that evening for Rome, and thence back by way of Paris to London. For that afternoon he was in the mood for a little idle sight-seeing, and the past had always fascinated him as much as the present. That was how, in the quietest part of the day, under the quiet of a blazing sun, he found himself in the Street of Tombs.
The Street of Tombs lies outside the walls of Pompeii. It leads from the Herculaneum Gate, descending a shallow hill like a broad trough of paving-blocks between a footway on either side. Cypresses stand up over it, and make this street of the dead seem alive. Here are the burial-vaults of the patricians, the squat altars hardly yet blackened to ruin. When this man heard his own footsteps there, he felt merely that he had got into a neglected suburb. The hot, hard light shone on paving-stones worn to ruts by cartwheels; on grass sprouting in cracks, and tiny brown lizards that darted before him like an illusion of moving shadow in the grass. Ahead of him Vesuvius rose beyond the mausoleums, dull blue in a heat-haze, but no less large in the mind because it was half a dozen miles away.
He was warm and half drowsy. These long streets of gutted shops, these glimpses of painted and pillared courts, were having a disturbing effect on his imagination. He had been wandering for over an hour; and since he entered the town he had seen not a living soul except one mysterious party, with a guide, which had suddenly appeared at the end of the Street of Fortune and then vanished in ghostly fashion amid a rattle of small stones.
The Street of Tombs brought him to the end of the town. He was debating whether to call it a day, or to turn back for more exploring, when he saw the house among the tombs. It was a large house, evidently a patrician’s villa which in the heyday of Pompeii had stood at a soothing distance out into the suburbs. He climbed the stairs and went in.
The atrium was gloomy and damp-smelling, less well kept than the re-touched town houses he had already seen. But beyond it lay the garden of the peristyle, closed in by pillars, with the sun pouring down into it. The garden was overgrown, full of red-flowering oleanders and with Asiatic pines round a ruined fountain. He heard a swishing in the long grass, and he heard English voices.
By the fountain, a girl in white stood looking in his direction. And he saw not only beauty, but intelligence. Her dark brown hair was parted and drawn back behind the ears into small curls at the nape of the neck. She had an oval face with small, full lips, and wide-set eyes that expressed good-humour despite the gravity of her expression. They were grey eyes, rather heavy-lidded and thoughtful. Her pose was easy; she smoothed the white frock idly. But she was nervous; you saw it even in the arch of the eyebrows.
Facing her stood a dark-haired young man in a grey flannel suit, who was holding up a small ciné-camera with his eye pressed to the view-finder. The ciné-camera began to hum and click. With his cheek against the side of it, the young man spoke out of a corner of his mouth.
“Well, do something!” he urged. “Smile or bow or light a cigarette or anything, but do something! If you just stand there, it might as well be a photograph.”
“But, George, what on earth can I do?”
“I’ve told you. Smile or bow or——”
The girl was evidently afflicted by that self-consciousness which people feel when they know any movement they make will be recorded. After looking preternaturally solemn, she managed a guilty smile. She lifted her white handbag and waggled it in the air. Then she looked round for an opportunity to get away, and concluded by laughing in the face of the camera.
“We’re using up film,” howled the young man, rather like a studio-executive.
To the observer in the doorway, only a dozen feet away from that group, there came a sudden conviction. He knew that this girl was in a dangerously nervous state of mind, that her healthy complexion was a sham; and that the insistence of the clicking little camera was beginning to affect her like the nightmare of an eye.
“Walk about, or something. Move over there to the right; I want to get those columns in behind you.”
Another member of the group, who had been watching this with his fists on his hips, uttered a kind of snort. This was a brisk little man whose dark glasses partly masked the fact that he was much older than his holiday attire indicated. You saw the withered skin along the side of his jaw, and the edge of his whitish hair under the brim of a down-turned Panama hat.
“Trippers!” he said with withering scorn. “That’s what you are: trippers. You want to get the columns in behind her, eh? You don’t want a picture of Marjorie. You don’t even want a picture of a Pompeian home. What you want is a picture of Marjorie in a Pompeian house, to show you’ve been there. I call it disgusting.”
“What’s wrong with it?” inquired a thunderous voice. This proceeded from a taller and burlier man with a short ginger beard, who stood at the other side of the offending couple.
“Trippers,” said the man in the Panama hat.
“I disagree with you entirely,” said the burly man. “And I do not understand your attitude, Marcus. Every time we go to a place where there are some sights to see, you want to stay away from them (if I understand you) solely because they
the sights. May I inquire what in the hell”—he made the word thunder through the garden—”is the good of going to a place unless you do see the sights? You object that thousands of people go to see them. Does it ever occur to you that, if thousands of people go to see a place for thousands of years, it may just possibly be because there is something worth seeing?”
“Behave yourself,” said the man in the Panama hat. “And stop yelling. You don’t understand; you never will. What have you seen, for instance? Where are we now?”
“It’s easy enough to find out,” said the other. “What about it, young fellow?”
He turned round to the dark-haired young man with the camera. The latter had reluctantly stopped taking pictures of the girl, who was laughing now. Replacing the camera in a case slung round his shoulder, he took a guide-book from his pocket and conscientiously turned over the pages.
Then he cleared his throat.
“Number thirty-four, two stars. Villa of Arrius Diomedes,”
he read, with conscious impressiveness.
“Though so-called only because
“Nonsense,” said the burly man. “We saw that one ten minutes ago. Where they found all the skeletons.”
“What skeletons?” protested the girl. “We didn’t see any skeletons. Doctor Joe.”
Behind his own dark glasses, the face of the burly man grew more fiery. “I didn’t say we saw any skeletons,” he returned, settling his tweed cap more firmly on his head. “I said it was the place where they found all the skeletons. Just down the road: don’t you remember? The hot ashes trapped the slaves there, and they found ’em there later; right bang all over the floor, like a set of skittles. It was the house with the pillars painted green.”
The little, brisk old man in the Panama hat folded his arms and cradled them. There was a faintly malicious look on his face.
“It may interest you to know, Joe, that they weren’t.”
“Weren’t what?” demanded Doctor Joe.
“Painted green. Over and over again I’ve proved my contention,” the little man resumed, “that the average person, you—or you, or you—is absolutely incapable of reporting accurately what he sees or hears. You don’t observe. You can’t observe. Eh, professor?”
He turned and glanced over his shoulder. There were two other persons who completed the group, and these two men stood in shadow just inside the columns of the peristyle. The watcher was hardly conscious of them; he did not see them in the same way he saw the four others in sunlight. He noticed only that one was middle aged, the other young. With the aid of a magnifying-glass they were examining a piece of stone or lava which they seemed to have picked up from the balustrade of the peristyle. Both wore dark glasses.
“Never mind the villa of Arrius Diomedes,” said a voice from beyond the balustrade. “Whose house is this?”
“I’ve got it now,” volunteered the young man with the camera and the guide-book. “I was on the wrong page before. This is number thirty-nine, isn’t it? Right. Here we are.
Number thirty-nine, three stars. House of Aulus Lepidus the poisoner.”
There was a silence.
Up to this time they had seemed an ordinary family-or-friendly group, with the tempers of the elder members a little upset by heat or the wear of travel. By a certain family resemblance, no less than their tendency to snap at each other, it might be deduced that Doctor Joe and the little man in the Panama hat (addressed as Marcus) were brothers. The girl called Marjorie, too, was some relation to them. All as usual.
But, at the reading of the words out of the guide-book, there was a change of atmosphere as palpable as a chilling or darkening of the courtyard. Only the young man with the book was unconscious of it. Everyone else half turned round; and then remained very still. Four pairs of sunglasses were turned towards the girl, as though she stood inside a ring of masks. Sunlight gleamed on the glasses, making them as opaque and sinister as masks.