I am never entirely sure how best to approach dipping into the works of a classic author. I can certainly see the appeal of selecting their most famous or successful books at first but then what do you have waiting for you once you’re done?
After starting out with the wonderful The Problem of the Green Capsule, my next few experiences of Carr’s work were of books generally reckoned to be second or third tier works. Some, such as The Problem of the Wire Cage, exceeded expectations while The Witch of the Low Tide felt messy and left me disappointed and underwhelmed. It was time to go to a safer choice…
I am pleased to say that The Case of the Constant Suicides is the best work I have read so far from Carr. It manages to balance its humorous and mysterious elements perfectly to create a book that is as entertaining as it is perplexing.
The story begins with members of the Campbell family being summoned to Scotland following the death of Angus Campbell who seems to have jumped out of a window at the top of a tower and fallen to his death. It turns out that he has very little wealth to speak of but did take out several heavy life insurance policies whose combined payouts ought to add up to a very healthy sum for the inheritors.
The problem is that if Angus did commit suicide those contracts would be voided and the estate would be worthless. The family want to believe that he wouldn’t have committed suicide, knowing the financial pressures it would create for the family, but the alternative of murder seems inconceivable – the tower being too tall and the room being thoroughly locked – so what caused Angus to take the plunge?
It’s a cracking good start for a story and Carr does a superb job of constructing the rules of the locked room, stating the facts clearly. Since starting this blog I have learned that the concept of a mysterious string of identical historical deaths will always grab me and here is no exception.
I knew from early on that this was the book for me when we first see Alan and Kathryn encounter each other on the train. Carr gives the two characters a delightfully entertaining backstory and seems to relish throwing them together. They bicker and spar, make pointed comments and soon it becomes all too clear that they are attracted to each other.
It should be pointed out that these two characters, while related to most of the different suspects, are external characters. This is different from the approach Carr takes, for instance, with Brenda and Hugh in Wire Cage, where they become involved in the case and so need to present evidence and track down the real killer. Some may feel that this subplot is then tacked on, contributing little material evidence, and yet I found it immensely enjoyable and I think it works brilliantly as a device for the family to come together and to share pertinent information with our heroes.
The bulk of the sleuthing however is carried out by our old chum, Gideon Fell. As usual, he manages to see right through some of the noise of the case to find its key points. I think what interests me most about the character is how amoral he is shown to be. There is a moment where he tells the family that, should he find it was suicide, he will sit on the story and find a way to persuade the insurance companies.
Another aspect of the novel that I think bears closer scrutiny is Carr’s decision to write in dialect for his English readers. Should you have read my review of Lament for a Maker another Scottish mystery set in an old castle, you will be aware of just how much I can dislike authors doing this. Carr escapes that trap because it’s only used in short bursts and typically the meanings are easy to infer from their context.
Some may grumble at all the ‘we’re in Scotland’ tropes happening here but I found them to generally be quite charming and amusing. The jokes aren’t mean-spirited in tone which I do think helps keep things light and they are not so frequent that you can’t ignore them.
Towards the end of the novel Carr stacks several other murders on top of the first death, a move which I have found to be the undoing of some of his other works. I am happy to say though that this was something of an exception with one of the secondary crimes more interesting to me than the main case in terms of how it was executed. When the explanations are given for each death, I was suitably impressed by the ingenuity on display and on the way the remainder of the story holds up.
Overall, I was extremely impressed with this Carr read and I look forward to spending more time with Dr. Fell in some of his further adventures. Hopefully it won’t take me quite so long before I come across another top-notch read. As always, I’d be grateful for suggestions shared (I may not have reviewed them but I have experienced The Hollow Man and Til Death Do Us Part).
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: An academic (who)