Harry Carmichael Essay - Critical Essays

Leopold Horace Ognall


The more than three dozen novels by Harry Carmichael featuring the insurance assessor John Piper and the reporter Quinn (his first name is not used) are most significant for plots that generally keep the basic events hidden from the reader, who is misled (along with the police) by the wiles of the criminals.

Murder by Proxy

The characteristic elements of a Carmichael plot appear in one of the best of the series, Murder by Proxy (1967), in which Piper meets his second wife, Jane Heywood, and falls in love at first sight. In this novel, Richard Armstrong, sentenced to jail for over a year for fraud involving the theft of more than twenty-five thousand pounds, escapes from the police surveillance initiated after he has served his sentence. The novel deals extensively with Armstrong until near the end, when he dies in a fire, but the main criminal is his partner, who has coerced Armstrong’s wife into framing Armstrong. This plot has the wife and partner arranging an insurance fraud with Armstrong as the goat. The reader is brilliantly misdirected; even the money Armstrong is convicted of taking has never been taken.

Aspects of this plot are typical of the series. Armstrong is the victim and is eventually murdered, but he deludes himself (and the reader) that he is cheating, indeed ruining his partner. This complicity of the victim, who is at least as criminal or morally corrupt as the murderer, is Carmichael’s favorite pattern. It occurs in False Evidence (1976), with the self-righteous and vicious reaction of Dr. Ainsworth to his wife’s seducer, as well as in Stranglehold (1959), in which the victim has been plotting to kill the murderer. Again and again, the reader is misled. In Death Counts Three (1954), a mystery solved by Piper without Quinn, Walter Parr, who presumably runs off with his employer’s money, has been murdered and buried by his employer. Such ironic reversals keep the mysteries sufficiently involved so that the murderer’s identity is well hidden—even in the novels of the 1970’s, books in which Carmichael limits the field of suspects.

This reversal of the “truth” of the action is central to the mystery and detective genre, as the title of a work of criticism on mystery stories indicates: What Will Have Happened: A Philosophical and Technical Essay on Mystery Stories (1977), by Robert Champigny, analyzes what many critics have noted about such stories. Once the mystery is solved, past actions must be reinterpreted, sometimes necessitating long explanations by the detective, as in the Dr. Thorndyke series by R. Austin Freeman, where the concluding explanations are long and technical. The Carmichael stories, however, emphasize the “false” plot to an extraordinary degree, while arranging the endings in a way that makes long explanations unnecessary. The earlier stories often include a final meeting between criminal and detective in which the truth is revealed. Thus in the Piper story Justice Enough (1956), the truth comes out in the concluding visit by Piper to the hospital room of Mrs. Eastwood, who with her lover had planned the murder of her husband. As she had been almost killed herself in the disposal of the body, she appears to be a victim, not the instigator of the crime. The chapter gives a detailed explanation, although the dramatic nature of the scene makes it effective enough.

Naked to the Grave

More typical of Carmichael’s endings, especially in the later stories, is the lack of virtually any explanation, the story being laid out so clearly that the reader can apprehend the real situation. For example, Naked to the Grave (1972) has an entirely simple crime: A gardener, hearing of a woman’s gambling winnings, kills her for them and later kills a...

(The entire section is 1567 words.)