Today would have been John Dickson Carr’s 110th birthday and JJ, over at his blog, The Invisible Event, is celebrating the great writer’s work. So I thought I should chip in, as Carr is my favourite Golden Age detective story author of all time, after all. This was the book that marked the debut of Dr Gideon Fell, the longest-serving of all of Carr’s detectives, ultimately appearing in 23 novels between 1933 and 1968 as well as a handful of short stories and radio dramas too. Set in Lincolnshire in 1930, this clever detective story is also a love letter to the English character, its history and its landscape, as experienced by a young American.
I submit this review for Bev’s Vintage Mystery Challenge.
“If you see any ghosts, save them for me.”
The American author was in fact only 26 when he wrote this novel and had just got married and moved to the UK, so this is a book positively brimming with youthful zest, packed with a love of life and excitement. Having said that, this is to be found in a typically Gothic Carrian plot involving the rat-infested ruins of an abandoned prison, a seemingly cursed family, three murders as well as assorted ghostly goings on at the eponymous promontory jutting out some fifty feet over a death pit where witches were once hanged.
“O Lord! O Bacchus. O my ancient hat. This won’t do.”
Shortly after arriving in England, young American Tad Rampole meets and promptly falls in love with Dorothy Starberth, whose brother Martin is about to go through a centuries-old family ordeal. To claim his inheritance he will have to pass the night in the ‘Governor’s Room’ in the derelict old prison his family used to run and learn the secret held in its safe. But that night, as with two ancestors before him, including his father just two years before, he is found dead of a broken neck beneath Hag’s Nook and no evidence can be found of what was in the safe – was it an accident or was he killed? And is there a connection with the death of his father? And where is his brother Herbert? And what is the significance of the fourth key, the handkerchief in the pit, and the grandfather clock telling the wrong time? Gideon Fell is sure that something terrible is happening …
“Come in, children,” Dr Fell said, scarcely glancing at the door. “I confess I was reassured when I knew it was you.”
Told with lashings of atmosphere but a bit less of the characteristic Carr humour, this is a superb mystery with a really well disguised villain. And indeed this points up to something that is too often overlooked when talking about Carr – he is rightly celebrated as the master of the locked room mystery, coming up with incredibly ingenious miracle problems that are always solved at the end, but he is also a genius when it comes the reveal of a murderer that usually no one can foresee. When I first read this one, thirty years ago, I recall that I did almost manage to crack the case before the reveal, but I am obviously not nearly as sharp as I used to be as this time I was completely bamboozled by Carr. It’s a great story, very well told, and makes for a marvellous introduction to Gideon Fell, one of the great detectives of the Golden Age – don’t miss it!
A I mentioned above, I first read this decades ago, in an Italian translation, This copy, the IPL edition featured at the top of the review, was a gift from my chum Colin, wrangler of the unmissable Ride the High Country, for which many thanks – about time I read it in English!
For details of all the author’s novels, including the twenty-two other Fell mysteries, check out my dedicated John Dickson Carr microsite here.
I submit this review for Bev’s 2016 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt in the ‘moon’ category:
Fun review of a fave novel, Sergio, but you might want to proofread the post’s title.
Thanks John – I’m blaming my auto correct! Thanks chum 😉
Isn’t this a good ‘un, Sergio? I feel the same way that you do about the reveal, too. He was much more skilled at that than a lot of people think of when they think of Carr. I also happen to like the characters in this novel. Tad Rampole and Dorothy Starberth appealed to me, if I can put it that way. And again, Carr’s not always renowned for his character development. But I liked them.
Thanks Margot – and it is nice that the characters got married. I actually think he was surprisingly good at portraying strong women – Well, only surprising if you assume he was a conventional crime author of his day but then I think he was among the best . 😉
Glad you enjoyed revisiting this one, Sergio, it is a fine little book. It was when I read it fro the second time myself that I realized how well crafted the whole thing was – the cleverly concealed villain, the setting, the faux-antiquarian stuff, and the persistent hint of the supernatural. He still had a few rough edges to file of the character of Fell at this stage, which is hardly unusual, but you can see how the seemed to know he had hit on a detective he could build books around.
Thanks Colin, lovely to read this in the original. It is a bit overdone in places as you say but it reads so well – and he was 26! Will definitely want to read a Carr at Christmas!
Do so. A fine old tradition, whoever came up with it.
That would be you chum, I am fairly sure of it 🙂 Now the joy of deciding which one … Lots of fun posts about Carr today, very nice to see his work being celebrated again.
Must take a look around and catch up with some of those posts. The good thing about Carr is that, even with some weaker works, there’s such a range of material to choose from.
Well, quite – I can;t think of any Carr novels published between 1930 and 1950 I wouldn’t want to re-read and most of the other would be absolutely great too. I wish new editions were more readily available though. I wanted to buy some new ones for my niece and it was really limited!
Yeah, that lack of availability in new and/or affordable editions is a pain which impacts on name recognition, which in turn gives publishers pause, and so the vicious circle proceeds.
Anyway, it’s always nice to see days like this when a greater number of people are posting taking about the books – sure much of it preaching to the converted but it gets the attention of a few others too and every bit helps.
One can but hope, I agree. And its weird how some, like CASE OF THE CONSTANT SUICIDES, seem incredibly easy to find, and others are so many rare and expensive now.
Yes, I’m not sure how that works myself – some of the Carter Dickson stuff, for example, is tough to locate for anyone just starting out – although you could argue that it adds a little to the mystique surrounding authors when a portion of their work is strangely rare.
True, certainly it is a bit closer to what the situation would have been when you and I started reading his stuff, having to hunt around ins hops hoping to find second hand copies, but at least new paperbacks were coming out in the 80s and 90s …
Thanks so much for the review, and it’s interesting to reader a different perspective. In short I think I was more critical in tone than in the number of stars, and you were more favourable in tone than in the number of stars. Then again, I would also have given 3.5 stars if Amazon allowed me to. 🙂
I respect the fact that you came close to cracking the mystery when you first read it. Despite the restricted handful of suspects, I simply couldn’t derive the culprit from the clues.
Anyway, I’m glad that the cover for my copy of the novel was more palatable though. Almost forgot about the rat infestation!
Thanks! I think that as a teen I probably applied the least likely person algorithm and ignored the water tight alibi 😉
A great pick, Sergio! Hag’s Nook is often (unjustly) overlooked, because Carr would go on to write some genuine classics of the genre. But this one foreshadowed what was yet to come and absolutely loved the atmosphere of the haunted, rat infested prison. I also adored Dr. Fell’s condemnation of my people for introducing tea to the English.
That comment from Fell did make me laugh! Thanks TC – it was a real pleasure to re-read this after so long. Carr was just so good!
A very nice review, Sergio, and that cover is very nice. I really will get around to reading a book by this author in 2017.
Cannot imagine how you have held off this long Tracy!
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Yes, this is quite a good mystery with a tinge of the supernatural and great atmosphere, though I feel that the atmospheric description was overdone. I agree with your rating of 3.5
It is the next Dr. Fell, The Mad Hatter Mystery, that I regard as really brilliant and would place it in Dr. Fell top 5.
Thanks Santosh – may re-read HATTER over Christmas in fact 😆
That wouldn’t be a bad choice at all – haven’t decided what to go with myself yet – but I don’t know if I’d rate it just as high as Santosh does. The mystery is probably stronger, a bit more complicated or trickier but it doesn’t have quite the atmosphere of Hag’s Nook, and I am most definitely a sucker for heavy dollops of atmosphere.
Annoyingly, after positive comments here, went to see if I have MY LATE WIVES in English and I don’t – I remember borrowing it from a library and actually being a bit disappointed but really want to try again so I’m buying a copy, which may sway me …
I don’t believe I’ve ever read My Late Wives myself now that you mention it. Actually, I was leaning towards The White Priory Murders as I think there’s snow involved – trying to be seasonal here, although I often get those things back to front, reading about blizzards when its baking hot outside and the like!
Was thinking of PRIORY for the same reason. I’ll be in Oz for the new year so …
I imagine the chances of seeing yer real, actual snow are exceedingly slim in that case.
Carr improves on reality 😀
Indeed! Reading about snow and the like is infinitely preferable to experiencing the wet, cold stuff first hand!
Well let’s not get carried away – certainly edits out the boring bits though 😉
Well that’s what good storytelling is all about anyway, right?
It’s nice to have such a choice of material to sit and mull over, and try to match up the seasons like this. We’re spoiled I tell ya!
Makes up for a lot of not good stuff, it really does 😎
Okay, your fabulous review convinces me that I need to read this again especially when I can’t remember the first time I read it. So it will be like new. 🙂 My only problem with Carr’s work (and this only bothers me now that I’m older, when I was younger I know I loved everything about Carr’s books) – the big reveal, instead of clearing things up, usually just confounds me and I have to reread it a couple of times before I can figure out what the heck was really going on. I guess I prefer things a little bit simpler now. But then, I shouldn’t go to John Dickson Carr for simple – right?
I know what you mean in some cases Yvette – solutions that involve complicated mechanics usually make squirm a bit, but what I love about Carr is that the reveal of the villain is usually superb – the mechanics but I don;t mind having to ponder over as I consider it just a bit of extra greatness 🙂
I’ve been reading and re-reading Carr/Dickson since I was 14, and that’s a very long time ago. I actually have all of them, the Rhode collaboration excepted. At some stage I made an interesting discovery about the identity of the one who dunnit. (Spoiler alert!) In very many cases this was not the most unlikely person, but it was a character who had quite a prominent role, and was referred to often in the course of the book, yet appeared surprisingly infrequently in actual person. (This does not apply to my favourite Carr, a choice that has defied the decades and the general consensus, The Crooked Hinge.) I’ve never been greatly impressed by a readers’ favourite, The Mad Hatter Mystery, so I’d better pick that up tomorrow and see how I feel about it now, and whether it fits this pattern.
Thanks Anne. I do know what you mean but Carr was genius at covering his tracks (still stunned by what he managed in THE BLACK SPECTACLES (aka GREEN CAPSULE) for instance). Yes, I don’t remember much of HATTER either …
For some reason I thought I’d re-read this recently, but no I haven’t, and you’ve really whetted my appetite for it. And I very much agree – Carr’s women are much more real than those of many of his male contemporaries. They are strong women with their own ideas, and with a keen interest in sex. Very much ahead of his time.
Thanks very much Moira – hope you really enjoy this one (our leading in this one is a tad more conventional though, it has to be said. but then, so is her leading man!)
Somehow or the other after the absolutely stunning and brilliant Burning Court, I haven’t as yet found a Carr novel that I really enjoyed. Both Black Spectacles and Crooked Hinge flattered to deceive. But your glowing review of this makes me feel this might be the novel I am looking for.
I hope you like it – I think that his SHE DIED A LADY and THE EMPEROR’S SNUFF BOX might be ever more to your taste ( if I may presume …) 😀
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