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: