The Man Who Could Not Shudder by John Dickson Carr

manwhocouldMartin Clarke has purchased and refurbished a historic home with a reputation for being haunted. As you might expect, he decides to throw a haunting party in which he invites some friends and a few experts in their fields to spend the weekend and see if they observe any ghostly apparitions or paranormal phenomena.

Several centuries earlier the owner of the house had died at the precise moment the grandfather clock stopped and more recently an aged butler was crushed by a chandelier after apparently swinging on it. Soon after the party arrives, an equally strange and improbable death is added to the list as a gun appears to have leapt off its wall mount and shot someone. And that is just one of the strange things that takes place in Longwood House that weekend.

I didn’t have much in the way of expectations coming to this novel having heard precious little about it. My reason for reaching for it now is that I read in the incredibly helpful guide at Justice for the Corpse that my planned next read to feature Dr. Fell spoils a key twist in this one. That book, The Case of the Constant Suicides, has now been shelved until later in the month. Also I should take a moment to suggest you check out that guide before reading this because the novel does spoil the solution to a famous Agatha Christie story.

While the story could lend itself to quite an atmospheric, gothic style it is remarkable just how little atmosphere Carr creates in this piece. This is actually quite appropriate given his choice of a more skeptical character to narrate the tale and the composition of Clarke’s party, favoring open-minded but skeptical guests. However, it may well disappoint those who were hoping to see the characters more affected by the prospect of a haunting.

There are some nice touches along the way and the murder, when it does come, is appropriately bizarre and does take place in some intriguing circumstances. We have a shooting occur in a room with just one person present in the room yet the doors and windows and all under observation within seconds of the shot being fired. When the weapon is identified, there are no fingerprints to be found at all and not even any telltale signs of the handler wearing gloves. While the witness’ claim that the gun moved by itself off the wall and shot seems incredible, it is at least partly confirmed by the physical evidence of the room.

While this seems to be one of the most baffling setups for a story I have read to date in a Carr novel, I expected that the investigation would focus more tightly on the mechanics of how the crime was committed. Instead a substantial part of the narrative focuses on trying to work through some contradictory accounts to discover the killer’s identity.

There are some good moments along the way, not least the explanation of the significance of a key, and I did appreciate that the story boasts its fair share of “how on Earth did I miss that” revelations. When the explanations come however I was left with mixed feelings, being struck both by the comparative simplicity of the solutions but also the convoluted way in which they are worked.

And then there is the second crime. While not as ludicrous or frustrating as the one in The Problem of the Wire Cage, I felt it served less of a purpose in the story other than to string the investigation out for a little bit longer.

So far I have only read a handful of Carrs and I am still getting to know the author. I can say that of the four novels I have read, this is the one I found least entertaining though it is still an interesting read. While I liked some elements of the story a lot, I feel it misses some opportunities that its setting and plot might have afforded.

For those interested in reading some different takes on the novel, I would suggest these reviews from Puzzle Doctor, The Green Capsule and Pretty Sinister Books all of whom are more enthusiastic. And while he doesn’t have a full review on his blog, JJ lists the book as one of his Five Carrs to Try. Clearly I am odd man out on this one but hopefully I will enjoy Constant Suicides much more.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Reference to a man/woman in the title (What)

12 thoughts on “The Man Who Could Not Shudder by John Dickson Carr

  1. Thanks for the review. 🙂 I quite liked this title, though I definitely think “Constant Suicides” is the stronger novel of the two. So you’re in for a treat!

    If I recall correctly, “Constant Suicides” refers to an event at the end of “Shudder” – but doesn’t specifically reveal aspects of the solution.

    Could I ask which Christie novel does “Shudder” spoil? I can’t seem to remember…

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    1. Happy to hear that CS is a good one! I will look forward to reading it. As for the Christie spoiled here, it’s the killer’s identity in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

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  2. This was an early Carr for me, and while I imagine I may rate it slightly less well these days I nevertheless loved every word of it back when I read it — not least for the audacity of the revelation of the killer where that shooting is concerned (matched only in my reading of Carr to date by a moment in He Wouldn’t Kill Patience). Possibly the lack of atmosphere might bother me more these days — a lot of people seem to comment on it, though I don’t doubt that’s deliberate on Carr’s part — so don’t feel like too much of an outsider on this one; that’s the beauty of subjectivity!

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  3. I will say that this is an odd choice for your fourth Carr novel, as he has at least forty books better than this one. That isn’t to say this one is bad, it is more that the others are really really good.

    This is a decent enough book, but I felt that the first half dragged a bit, which certainly wasn’t helped by a haunted house plot completely lacking in atmosphere. The end is pretty fun though and I love the revelation about the killer.

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    1. It was something of a panic read I’m afraid. I received a copy of Constant Suicides on interlibrary loan but it has to be returned by the end of the month and cannot be renewed. I noticed the note that it spoiled part of this one (I had been frustrated when The Witch of Low Tide spoiled The Mystery of the Yellow Room which I had meant to read soon). Rather than risking my experience with this one I decided to wedge it into my schedule but on balance that may not have been the best choice.

      On Tue, Apr 3, 2018 at 11:23 AM, Mysteries Ahoy! wrote:

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  4. Thanks for the shout-out! It’s true that Constant Suicides spoils a plot development rather than part of the solution to Shudder, but I’m very glad I read Shudder first, and I think the spoiler is worth warning people about. And you’re really in for a treat with CS.

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  5. This is one of Carr’s worst books. The gimmick is obvious and unworthy. It’s so bad that even saying it is that bad is almost a spoiler.
    Try The Judas window, or if you can find it The Black Spectacles.

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    1. I was not too impressed either, though I did enjoy the playfulness of the situation. In a weird way though I appreciate that you think this is one of Carr’s worst because, while I was disappointed, it was at least quite readable. I do need to read The Judas Window but I worry that, a little like The Hollow Man, its reputation may set my expectations too high…

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