Deadly Hall was one of John Dickson Carr’s historical novels, published towards the very end of his career. I would say that it seems to have a fairly poor reputation but that would imply that it is a topic of conversation. In fact remarkably few blogs I read have reviewed it and when it is mentioned it is usually in passing or as part of a list.
My expectations therefore were fairly low but there were a few parts of the scenario that gave me hope of a good read. Firstly, the New Orleans setting can be a rich source of gothic tension and dread which we all know Carr can do so well. And secondly the mention of a treasure hunt seemed quite promising and offered a different sort of mystery than my previous experiences of the author have provided.
The novel is set in 1927 which, though historical at the time of writing, was well within the author’s own lifetime. Jeff Caldwell, an author who has emigrated to France, receives a letter from a childhood friend asking him to visit the home that friend has inherited in Louisiana. He does so and we learn about a treasure of some gold that is supposedly hidden on the property that no one has been able to find. We also hear that some years earlier a man died in the middle of the night apparently falling to his death while walking up the staircase with a metal tray.
Another death will take place but since it happens exactly at the halfway point in the novel I do not intend to provide any details of that event except that it takes place in a locked room. This is rather a late point for a first death to occur in a novel and I do think it reflects that the novel suffers from some awkward pacing and structural issues. More on that in a moment.
There are two problems that the reader is tasked with solving. Firstly, is there a treasure, what is it and where is it hidden? Second, who or what is responsible for the deaths?
The first question was, for me, the more entertaining of the two though because I had been treating that element of the novel as being something of an afterthought or a bit of narrative color it came as a surprise to me. It is in this aspect of the story that I feel the author pulls off a rather wonderful trick that is simple but imaginative and had this been a short story focused on that part of the plot I would be full of praise.
Unfortunately the second question suffers because of the pacing of the novel. While Carr primes the pump by giving us some background on the historical death, the characters are existing in a rather aimless state. Even with the promise of a treasure hunt, they mill around talking about the fate of the house but there is little movement or action. Until the death happens, this strand of the narrative offers little to excite the reader.
Things improve once the body shows up but even then the investigation feels a little dry and long-winded. Accusations are made and we get some further background on the family but the crime lacks the genius or appeal to the imagination of Carr at his best. This is a shame because when the time comes to explaining how the thing was managed, Carr presents us with a pretty clever solution. Had the setup and execution of the investigation been a little tighter it is easy to see how this story might have had more impact.
Beyond the problems with the scenario itself, I feel the quality of the characterizations is also disappointing at times. While Jeff and Penny shared some amusing interactions and back story, the other characters often seemed a little flat. Being set in the South, the book also features some inelegant and misguided attempts to write African-American dialect for the servant characters that will grate on some readers.
The book works a little better as a historical, though it is far more self-conscious about making its references to events and aspects of the time than my previous experience of a Carr historical novel. There is a tendency for characters to predict historical developments that would take place within a few years and while those comments certainly help to place the action within a timeframe, they also have the unfortunate effect of making everyone seem very prescient. On a more positive note, I thought that the journey down the Mississippi by paddle steamer was very evocative and did a fabulous job of setting the mood, as did the references to prohibition.
Deadly Hall is not a great Carr by any means but I don’t want to suggest that it is without merit. There are some good ideas here which is remarkable given the author had been active for about forty years by this point and I think with a little reorganization and change of emphasis the story could have been tightened and improved.
While it may be a little lacking as a murder mystery, I do think the way Carr resolves the mystery of the hidden treasure very cleverly and for that trick alone I give him props. It shouldn’t be anyone’s first Carr read. I wouldn’t even suggest getting to it as early as I have done in your exploration of his work but it shouldn’t be discounted too quickly either. Even a lesser Carr work is still quite readable!