After having two very positive early experiences with John Dickson Carr’s work, I was keen to get back to him quickly. I decided however that I wanted to mix things up a little by selected one of his novels that didn’t feature Dr. Gideon Fell to get a better sense of his range as a writer.
Unfortunately as many of you will be aware, the selection of Carr titles available is patchy at best and of the few ebooks available this was the one that seemed most promising. The Witch of the Low Tide is a standalone historical mystery, which is a style I tend to enjoy, and features not just one but two impossible crimes.
The first is an attempted strangling that takes place in the home of a friend of our sleuth. When the would-be strangler is interrupted they run down into the cellar which they lock from the inside. In spite of there being no exit however when the cellar is searched the strangler is found to have mysteriously vanished.
The second crime is also a strangling and takes place in a pavilion located on a stretch of wet sand. Our hero discovers the body there but is struck by how there have been no footprints left in the sand. The Police quickly jump to the conclusion that his lady friend, Betty, is responsible so he decides that he will play detective and find the killer himself.
This setup of a male taking responsibility for proving the innocence of a female character seems to be a common theme in Carr’s work from the little of it I have enjoyed so far. The Problem of the Wire Cage featured its male hero trying to cover up for his love interest and having to solve the crime himself while The Problem of the Green Capsule had a detective character fall in love with a female suspect.
While each of those stories featured a younger male fulfilling that role, the romantic lead here is an older analyst who has formed an attachment to a much younger widow. What makes that situation more intriguing is that near the start of the book that character is told by Inspector Twigg that the object of his affections may have a scandalous secret, setting up an antagonistic relationship between the two men that runs throughout the novel.
That antagonism was, for me, one of the most successful parts of this novel and I think it is a very effective source of tension in its second half and makes both characters more interesting. Certainly I think Garth, the analyst hero, becomes more interesting once he has an adversary to pit his wits against and we see his resourcefulness come through.
The mysteries themselves however feel a little unfocused and I felt some of the explanation given at the end did not make sense to me. Looking at the spoiler section of the review at The Green Capsule, I see that I am not alone in feeling that it did not make a lot of sense that the two crimes would play out the way they do.
While I think that explanation left something to be desired, I did generally enjoy the journey to get to that point. I particularly appreciated Carr’s attention to little period details that gave a strong sense of its historical setting. Some of those details are introduced in quite splashy ways but others feature more subtly such as the general lack of knowledge about psychoanalysis and the work of Freud. It is these sorts of touches that I think make this a genuine historical mystery rather than just a mystery that happens to be set in the past.
Though I enjoyed the interactions between Garth and Twigg, I did find one aspect of them to be very frustrating. This novel significantly spoils The Mystery of the Yellow Room, revealing the killer’s identity and how the victim was killed. While I understand Carr’s interest in having that book provide inspiration for a theory of how these crimes happened, it is annoying to have an ending spoiled. Guess I won’t be reading that next week like I planned then…
So, where does that leave me overall? I think The Witch of the Low Tide has some interesting ideas and I did enjoy the setting but I felt that the different elements didn’t come together quite as tidily as I wished, particularly in that conclusion. Still, I did enjoy the journey and would certainly be interested to try some of the other stories that Carr did without his series detectives. I may just pop back to Dr. Fell for another impossible crime or two first though…