“Captain Cut-throat.” The title might lead you to believe this is a pirate adventure, but it’s not.
The author, John Dickson Carr, might lead you to expect a murder mystery, but it is not quite that, either. Carr wrote many good old-fashioned detective stories, many of the locked-room variety, but there really is not much of that in this novel.
It is not a particularly realistic novel. The titular character is a mysterious assassin, striking down sentries at an encampment of French soldiers preparing for an apparent invasion of England, spreading panic and mistrust among the emperor’s men. The protagonist is an English spy trying to discern what Bonaparte is up to and send word to his superiors in time. And the main foil for the protagonist is Joseph Fouche, the crafty minister of police serving under Napoleon. Fouche is a wily fellow with a network of spies and a penchant for making others, including Napoleon, mistrust him. As portrayed here, he is perceived as so devilishly clever that no matter how unlikely his schemes seem and no matter how nonsensical his moves seem, people assume it all makes sense somehow but that only Fouche can weave it all together.
That is a convenient thing for an author, of course; if your plot depends on Fouche making decisions that seem so awkwardly wrong that even other characters in the book notice his moves don’t make sense, a bit of authorial misdirection can solve the problem. Just have a character point out that Fouche’s moves are always part of some grand, secret scheme that we lesser mortals can not hope to divine. Fouche, like God, moves in mysterious ways.
Normally, such tactics on the part of a writer annoy the hell out of me, but I forgave Carr on this instance because, frankly, the story was a lot of fun.
Events move swiftly, and there is plenty of cloak-and-dagger and swashbuckling. Captain Cut-throat seems to employ ninja skills, or perhaps supernatural ones. The plot writhes, tables get turned, secret agendas are revealed.
Implausibility is one issue. The hero’s means of reaching the heart of Bonaparte’s encampment to do his spying is unnecessarily risky and based on the premise that Fouche will do something highly unlikely himself. The hero’s plan does not deserve to work, but then again, Fouche makes sure it works anyway — and everyone just assumes Fouche acted in a way that was convenient for our hero for some inscrutable reason of his own. A careful reader will groan a few times, wondering why the hell this or that character did this or that dumb thing.
Despite all that, the book had a lot of upside for me. It reads a bit like an old-fashioned Errol Flynn movie. I could not help but envision Errol and Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone and Maureen O’Hara in key roles. My mental supporting cast included Vincent Price and Christopher Lee. The prose and pace made me think of “Captain Blood” and “Jamaica Inn” and similar old movies I can watch again and again. This novel, published in 1955, hit the nostalgia chord.
The book also managed to pull me along at a rapid clip, so that most of its shortcomings became apparent later, after I was done reading. When reading, I really just wanted to plunge along and find out what would happen next. And the book is quite short, meaning I ran out of pages to read before I became too impatient with characters behaving in weird ways.
Despite its shortcomings, I enjoyed “Captain Cut-throat” quite a bit, and I will be on the lookout for more of Carr’s historical mystery-thrillers.