Saturday, June 11, 2011

What people look like

On my free Kindle reading jag, I've also reconnected with John Dickson Carr, great mystery novelist of an earlier generation and master of the locked room puzzle. But even if the corpse is found in an impregnable room, locked from the inside, there are still people outside the room, and they all have to look some way or other. Or at least some of them do. In The Plague Court Murders, young Halliday, who calls the narrator in to consult on the mystery, has no trace of humor in his low chin, high forehead, and high-muscled jaws. I'm not exactly sure what young Halliday looks like, given that, but at least I know something of his state of mind. And I guess he's sort of handsome and aristocratic--more so than if he had a low forehead. The narrator, Blake, and young Halliday go to see Masters of Scotland Yard, who has a bland, shrewd face, And grizzled hair combed carefully to hide the bald spot.
This is pretty good stuff -- a face that's both bland and shrewd, certainly an asset to a cop. But a little vanity to balance his blandness (and portliness). Blake continues, "His Jaw looked heavier and his expression older since I had last seen him -- but his eyes were young." Carr is now two for two on jaws, or two more jaw descriptions than young Tad would have thought of. And we really are starting to get a sense of Masters. Here's the rest:

Masters suggests the Force, though only slightly: something in the clump of his walk, the way his eyes go sharply from face to face, but there is none of the peering sourness We associate with Public Protectors.

This, of course, is not the Force you get from Yoda or Obi-Wan Kenobi; Blake merely means that Masters looks sort of, but not overbearingly, like a cop. There are two good description gambits here: describe through action (the eyes that go sharply from face to face), and describe people in terms of what they don't look like -- in this case, a typical cop. But to come with a phrase like "peering sourness" you just have to be really good.

Anyway, Masters looks enough like a cop to inspire confidence, but not so much as to be a stereotype. In fact, Halliday immediately unbends and feels at ease before his practical solidity. But Carr has laid some nice groundwork here -- Masters is enough of a typical cop to be thoroughly baffled by a thoroughly baffling case, which means his clumping practical solidity will have to give way to the unorthodox genius of Sir Henry Merrivale.

But more about Sir Henry later.

As we go on, there may be some spoilers, which may not be a serious issue considering that this is a nearly 80-year-old book, but on the other hand, if you're just getting.a kindle, it's free, and it's good, so why not give it a read? In which case, watch out for spoilers.

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