How a Solution Becomes a Story – The Curse of the Bronze Lamp: Carter Dickson (1945)

A stone cold classic set-up for a stone cold classic work from Carter Dickson, aka John Dickson Carr. Clearly inspired by the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, the story centres around an ancient Egyptian lamp bearing a curse: anyone who tries to take it out of Egypt will be ‘blown to dust’.

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Love this old 1950s hand painted cover from Pan-books

This threat is made to the young Lady Helen Loring, a fiery, hyper-intelligent woman travelling back from Egypt to England after a 1930s, world famous archeological dig. Helen is told that she will not make it home to her room, and that before she arrives she will dematerialise.

Helen is seen walking into her house by two witnesses, the bronze lamp in hand, ready to prove the curse wrong. Someone on the inside hears her arrive, her footsteps making echoes on the flagstones of the lobby. But the footsteps suddenly stop, the sound disappearing. Two others arrive in the lobby seconds later to find the bronze lamp laying on the floor and no sign of Helen. There are no hiding places in the house (we are repeatedly shown) and every single exit – whether window or door – was watched, there being many hired hands working on the grounds of the house at the time.

A really unique set up – and, it was great to read a disappearance / dematerialisation / impossible set up from Carr. In a dedication written by Carr to Ellery Queen at the beginning of the book, this ‘miracle-problem’ of a person vanishing is, in his own words, ‘perhaps the most fascinating gambit in detective fiction’. He then goes on to say ‘I will do no more than make cryptic reference to Mr James Phillimore and his Umbrella. You have been warned.’ A gorgeous and enticing dedication, and fans of Sherlock Holmes may know that this character of Mr James Phillimore of whom Carr refers, is taken from a line by Dr John Watson in the Sherlock Holmes story, The Problem of Thor Bridge. On talking about cases in his overflowing files that he has not yet the time to write up he states:

‘Among these unfinished tales is that of Mr James Phillimore, who, stepping back into his own house to get his umbrella, was never more seen in this world.’

There are mixed opinions about this book, but I enjoyed it a lot. It seems that it is simply Carr enjoying himself, playing with ideas and characters and having fun with them, at a solid time in his career. Either side of this book we see top rating novels like Till Death do Us Part, He Wouldn’t Kill Patience and He Who Whispers, arguably some of his greatest works. He was certainly in his stride, and although this book doesn’t have the pace, terror or complexities of plotting that these surrounding books have, you can see and feel he his enjoying the exploration of this (at the time I guess) very current subject matter, and the myths surrounding it, while also dedicating a huge amount of time to observing the snapping nerves of the characters as the days go by and Helen isn’t found.

And the solution to the disappearance? How did I feel about it? Well… to be honest I was unsure… At first. But, as things moved on and more elements slotted into place, the plot tightening to it’s extreme, I grew to love it. Those final three chapters served to take the single line that untangled the mystery and expand it into new regions of thought and forehead slapping.

And this got me thinking. I kind of knew this subconsciously, but hadn’t thought enough about it – namely, that the solution in a mystery novel is not just an answer, but is itself a narrative tool and piece of plotting. In a funny a way I had thought that the plot ended at the beginning of the ‘reveal’ and then from there it was the solution until the end, which unravelled the ‘plot’, a separate, distinct element from the solution. But when you look at a writer as good as John Dickson Carr, you realise that this is not the case.

Carr, and many other brilliant writers, use the solution itself as a plotting tool. They pace the solution out to reveal things at just the right moment for the reader, to be the most impactful and meaningful, and they vary these solutions as much as the mysteries they set out at the start.

Take for example the last few chapters of Nine and Death Makes Ten. The solution absolutely blows your mind for how much it reveals to you that you missed, and actually strengthens everything preceeding, re-contextualising all of it. Another stone cold classic Carr The Crooked Hinge has simply a four word reveal to blast open everything. But when you first read them, they seemingly make absolutely no sense, as it takes the whole mystery and all that you think you understand in to a completely different direction. As these four words are expanded in the final chapters the horror and instability that unfolds is wonderful, which reinforces the macabre nature of the story built by the mystery up till that point. It’s in these kind of examples that Carr has incredible fun with the steady revealing and piecing together of the solution, in many cases still misdirecting you and throwing you read herrings even as he reveals what has occurred.

Of course there are many works that subvert the whole idea of the solution, or where the entire plot is a solution, or multiple solutions as with The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkley. But in this instance I am talking about the more ‘traditional’ mystery set up, with a solution that shifts all that you have just read.

Maybe that’s what a solution is, a ‘re-contextualising’ of everything that has come before. A piece of plotting that shifts all previous plotting into a new lens of viewing. Maybe this is obvious to everyone but me, but I find that my appreciation of these works has grown, thinking about how a writer uses a reveal as a narrative tool. A tool not exclusive to mystery fiction, but pushed to it’s limits by the genre.

And often, as I am taken slowly through the reveal by the author, I grow to love the solution even more.

So tell me friends, what works have some of your favourite and uniquely written reveals? And keep it spoiler free!

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24 thoughts on “How a Solution Becomes a Story – The Curse of the Bronze Lamp: Carter Dickson (1945)”

  1. My favorite crime fiction reveal comes in A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin. It is split into three sections, each told in different styles. The first is an inverted section but we never actually learn the name of the killer. In the second we follow a sibling of the victim as she tries to identify the man responsible but Levin does an exceptional job of misdirecting the reader. This is revealed right at the end of that section. I was completely taken in!

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    1. This sounds totally wonderful, and I like this idea of still misdirecting right to the end, even in the reveal.

      This is what I mean about solutions being more than just the answer but can still be a ploy device right to the last page. What you said also made me just think of how good the format of the solution is in And Then There Were None, my edition also has a few blank pages between the last chapter and the solution to push that further.

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  2. Great topic! There are definitely a few titles where the reveal of the solution fundamentally transforms the entire plot. Five Little Pigs, Tour de Force, The Nine Wrong Answers, Hag’s Nook, The Emperor’s Snuff Box, The Reader is Warned, The Mad Hatter Mystery, The Unicorn Murders, Castle Skull, Below Suspicion, Dark of the Moon, and yes, Nine – And Death Makes Ten (hey, I even got a few non-Carr titles in there!) The favorite that I’ll highlight is The White Priory Murders – not only does the solution come as a jaw dropping “how could I be so stupid” moment, but it causes you to playback everything you’ve read up until that moment and re-evaluate the fundamental plot.

    Now, I will say, I find it somewhat odd that you bring up this glorious topic during a post on The Curse of the Bronze Lamp. I really didn’t see the solution to that book as shifting any lens, although I’m happy if it did the trick for you. The second crime/solution in particular wasn’t satisfying in anyway and felt somewhat tacked on.

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    1. That list is wonderful for examples. Yes I agree Bronze Lamp isn’t one of those fundamental plot shifting solutions but more hits on the other aspect of what I was thinking about with this post, namely the slow layering of the reveal chapters that take you on a narrative journey to tie everything up. Lots of mini reveals that build into an overall power punch. Its these slow reveals that tend to stick with me.

      And with the Bronze Lamp the impossible solution isn’t exactly ground breaking, but I grew to like it more and more as the solution to everything else (motives, misdirections etc) slowly build up around it.

      Agreed on the second crime for sure – and it almost gets forgotten about I felt!

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  3. The Tokyo Zodiac Murders takes the cake for best solution imo.The solution is so heavily flaunted in your face and it has basis in one of the oldest and most obvious tricks in the book-and yet you still won’t solve it before the end.The reveal just completely blew my mind with how simple and beautiful the entire crime was and it’s fairly obvious as to why TTZM is considered a classic of the crime genre.
    Black Aura comes in close second with the solution to a impossible church disappearance being so laughably obvious and perfect when put into the big picture of the crime.
    Fun Fact:Carr listed TCOTBL as one of his four favorite novels along with Till Death Do Us Part,He Who Whispers and Fire,Burn.

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    1. Totally with you here Bekir, it’s one of those solutions that I remember at least once a week and still revel in it. The challenges to the reader are pretty powerful too, and the way Shimada gives a little extra before the solution (the short section where the detective has slept rough) is a super nice way to build into the final reveal.

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    2. I feel like I always check in here just to leave random comments, but nonetheless I persevere! 😉 Bekir, if I may ask, where does Carr list Bronze Lamp, Till Death Do Us Part, He Who Whispers, and Fire, Burn! as his four favorites? Not doubting you, I’ve just never seen that. I can certainly understand HWW, a rightly-heralded masterpiece of plot, character, and above all atmosphere. Till Death is also one of Carr’s neatest jobs—no major plot flaws, the likeliest way this kind of locked-room mystery would actually be done. I don’t think it’s the best, but again it probably has the fewest flaws.

      Fire, Burn! is fun, but I’m surprised he didn’t choose The Devil in Velvet—maybe because there’s something up with the latter’s ending? (Does anyone have any details on whether he re-worked the ending at the last minute? Something really seemed off to me about it, at least to me.) I would have chosen more of his historicals, most of which I think are excellent.

      Sadly, not as big a fan of Bronze Lamp as the majority here. I’d seen the solution before, in several places (including before Bronze Lamp), and I found the [SPOILER] lack of a murder and lack of the villain’s getting his comeuppance [/SPOILER] to be very disappointing.

      Anyone else for posting a Top Five (I know he choose four, but five seems a better, if not rounder, sum)? No need to rank them.

      He Who Whispers
      The Red Widow Murders
      The Devil in Velvet
      The Crooked Hinge
      The Bride of Newgate

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      1. Persevere away! Your comments are always insightful and valuable.

        My top 5 Carr’s (at this moment in life)

        Till Death Do Us Part
        A Graveyard to Let
        The Red Widow Murders
        The Problem of the Green Capsule
        The Reader is Warned

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      2. Very late to this, decided to look back at this post and noticed the comment.
        The list of his favorite novels is found in Doug Greene’s biography and was taken from a letter Carr wrote to a (Swedish?) fan who asked him the question.
        A few other tidbits from the biography :
        > Carr challenged Ellery Queen to solve TCOTBL and to his chagrin – he did.
        > The short stories he considered his best where The House in Goblin Wood and The Gentleman from Paris ( Both collected in The Third Bullet!)
        >TDDUP had what Carr considered to be his best solution to a locked room murder, ( though I think Terror’s Dark Terror takes that cake)
        > Doug Greene actually considered Fear is the Same to be the best historical novel by Carr

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  4. The Ace Attorney games can be good for this, since a lot of the games are based on the idea of “turnabout,” of reversing how everyone is looking at a situation. There are a bunch of minor examples of this, but my personal favorite is from the fifth game’s second case, “The Monstrous Turnabout.” There’s a certain fact that everyone in the case takes for granted, and it’s only on the second day that anyone really sits up and says, “Wait a minute….” resulting in a complete reversal of what everyone assumed and leading into a pretty neat solution to a locked room mystery.

    (The DLC “Turnabout Reclaimed” has another great moment of introducing a fact that clears up a lot of confusion about the case’s backstory, but it’s not really a reversal from what I recall.)

    Fun games, but since everyone in the mystery blogosphere is a Luddite barring blogging (including me), only Ho-Ling has actually played them.

    There’s also a more recent example in Edward D. Hoch’s “The Theft of the Bronze Letters,” which does a really good job confusing you aabout why anyone would want to steal letters, and when Hoch shows the reason I almost clapped. Not really a reversal though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This sounds great! Just had a look at some videos of the game and it looks wild. Just love the idea that solid locked room, and GAD plots are being written for games in the land of the rising sun. They really are committed to the form!

      I have not read enough of the Nick Velvet stories by Hoch but have loved everyone I have. Is this one in a collection?

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      1. They really are excellent games, and the first three at least have been released for everything under the sun, so you could probably find them (although they aren’t as audacious as the later games, but they come close and frankly are more down to earth), and worse comes to worse you can just do what I’ve had to do for the more recent ones and watch them on YouTube. I’m working on a summary of the impossible crimes in this series for my own blog, I was going to do something else but I suppose I can bump it up a bit. 😛

        The Hoch story was in The Spy and the Thief, which contains some Rand (spy) stories as well. The Thefts of Nick Velvet and The Velvet Touch are the only other two Velvet collections that I know of, and TomCat has reviewed the former.

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  5. Thanks for the review, which whets my appetite for the novel. 😀 I think I have the same edition of the novel as you do; the cover looks familiar. I recently read ‘Thou Shell of Death’ by Nicholas Blake, and it was only at the very end that I decided that the mystery was clever – thanks to the reveal that turned things on their head.

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