This classic Golden Age detective story tends to get a little lost among the multitude of enthralling mysteries that John Dickson Carr was producing at such a prodigious rate at that time. It begins with a superb set piece in the tent of a fortune-teller at the end of a village fete that is being enveloped by thunder and lightning. Before long a shot is fired, a recently engaged couple find their happiness under threat and Gideon Fell has to investigate a complex locked room mystery. As a reader, I couldn’t be happier …
“This woman,” said Sir Harvey clearly, “is a thorough going bad hat. The sooner you get used to that idea, the sooner you’ll get over it. And the safer you’ll be.”
The playwright Richard Markham lives in a very small village not too far from Hastings and has just got engaged to Lesley Grant, who only moved there a few months earlier. This caused a few ripples in the community as many assumed he would be marrying Cynthia. The star attraction at the village fete is the fortune-teller who, as gossip has it, is really renowned home office pathologist Sir Harvey Gilman, who is on his holidays incognito. Lesley goes to get her future told but exits shortly after, clearly upset at what she has been told. Richard marches in to find out what happened, at which point the other man is shot through the canopy and collapses! Lesley had been holding a target rifle from one of the other stalls and her arm was apparently jogged. Later that evening the local doctor asks Richard over to speak to him at the cottage rented by Gilman, who only suffered a flesh wound. He tells Richard that Lesley is not who she claims to be but is in fact a notorious
poisoner who killed two men she was previously married to and another who discovered her secret, dispatching them in such a way as to avoid prosecution – all three apparently injected themselves with prussic acid and died in a locked room. Richard refuses to believe it, but so many of the details provided by Gilman about Lesley are true (including her mysterious safe) that he starts to doubt her. This is exacerbated when Cynthia senses that something is up. Early the next morning Richard received an anonymous phone call and races over to Gilman’s house, arriving just as a gun is fired at the house – the same gun Lesley had held but which had afterwards gone missing. Inside the house, with doors and windows locked, is the body of the fortune-teller.
“Damned queer show altogether. Because, d’ye see, somebody fired that bullet at just about the same time – more or less the same time, certainly – when he was injecting the poison into his own arm!”
Gideon Fell is referenced several times by Gilman and the local doctor, who fetches him from nearby Hastings after the murder. Thus Fell only appears at the halfway mark – and right away smashes all our assumptions, with Carr delivering one of those plotting master-strokes that are designed to leave a detective story fan with a gigantic grin on their face.
Well, I’m going to stop right there. There is much more to follow, including another murder, and a terrific finish. With it’s ingenious locked room mystery, a hero caught between two women, and a very cleverly hidden murderer, this is just a superb example of Carr at his very best. If you want to know why he is held in such high regard here at Fedora, then start with this book, you won’t be disappointed. But don’t just take my word for – see also what JJ had to say about it at, The Invisible Event; the Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel; Martin Edwards at Do You Write Under Your Own Name?; and Moira of Clothes in Books.
In 1997 the BBC broadcast a two-part adaptation of the book as part of its Gideon Fell series starring the late Donald Sinden – these were all produced and directed by Enyd Williams and dramatised by Peter Ling.
- The House in Gallows Lane, part 1: The Fortune-Teller (8 October 1997)
- The House in Gallows Lane, part 2: The Point of a Pin (15 October 1997)
In adapting it, Ling made a number of small cosmetic changes to keep the series consistent, including giving a more prominent role for Hadley (the books adapted for the series were nearly all chosen from the ones in which he originally appeared). While the book was probably meant to be set in 1937 (Carr is not specific), the radio version is set in 1936 and begins with Fell on the case. Indeed, the most obvious changes relate to his role, which makes sense of course in the context of a continuing series. Thus, Fell is there pretty much from the beginning and appears now in most of the major scenes that previously only featured Markham on his own. And Michael Cochrane gets a nicely expanded role as Lord Ashe while a couple of subsidiary roles are dropped for convenience (each episode is only 41 minutes long).
“Just a minute. Did you hit her?”
But apart from a few changes, this is a faithful and entertaining adaptation with Richard Todd having an especially good time as the fortune-teller, while Sinden is growing on me as Fell. This two-part serial has now been released on CD by the BBC in a box set, Dr Gideon Fell: Collected Cases: Classic Radio Crime, which like the earlier release on cassette tape, brings it together with their version of The Hollow Man. It is also available for download. Hopefully the rest of the series will soon follow.
The Dr Gideon Fell Mysteries (BBC Radio, 1997-2001):
- The Hollow Man 2 parts (26 March – 2 April 1997)
- The House in Gallows Lane – 2-parts (8-15 October 1997), a re-titled adaptation of Carr’s novel, Till Death Do Us Part
- To Wake the Dead – 2 parts (22-29 October 1997)
- The Blind Barber (5 November 1997)
- The Black Spectacles (9 May 1998)
- The Mad Hatter Mystery (3 July 1999)
- He Who Whispers (25 March 2000)
- Below Suspicion (20 January 2001)
The House in Gallows Lane / Gideon Fell (BBC Radio Four, 8-15 October 1997)
Director: Enyd Williams
Producer: Enyd Williams
Scriptwriter: Peter Ling
Cast: Donald Sinden (Fell), John Hartley (Hadley), Robert Portal (Dick Markham), Richard Todd (Sir Harvey Gilman), Alison Pettitt (Lesley Grant), John Woodnutt (Major Price), Rachel Atkins (Cynthia Drew), Christopher Wright (Dr Minster), Brian Parr (PC Miller), Michael Cochrane (Lord Ashe)