To Wake The Dead by John Dickson Carr

WakeTheDeadChristopher Kent, after getting somewhat merry and having an argument with a friend, makes a wager that he cannot make his way from South Africa to London by a certain date without using any of his own money or his family name. He has achieved this with some time to spare and with remarkably little incident but, having burned through the money he earned on his journey, he stands outside his friend’s hotel feeling tired and hungry.

A card flutters down from the sky with a room number written on it and that gives Kent an idea. He goes to the dining room, declaring that he is the occupant of Room 707 and is delighted when the staff begin to serve him breakfast. That delight turns to horror however when he is asked by the manager to return to his room to search for a bracelet left by a guest the previous day. On going into the room he discovers a woman lying dead, strangled, on the floor and no sign of the bracelet. Worried that he will be blamed for this death, he slips through a side door and goes to see Dr. Fell with whom he has had a lengthy correspondence and who he hopes will be able to get him out of this mess.

My approach to reading John Dickson Carr has been a little chaotic, picking titles based on their availability to me rather than based on order of publication or their reputations. I knew coming to this one that it regarded as being a fairly average Dr. Fell story, with it placing as eighth best in JJ’s rankings of the first ten Fell novels and getting a fairly mixed review from Puzzle Doctor. It is however available to purchase as an e-book making it one of the few that it is easy to get your hands on without visiting secondhand book stores or relying on a library sending you their copy.

Coming to this with expectations of a middling title, I was rather delighted to find that I really enjoyed the opening to this novel. While there is admittedly not an impossible crime or locked room to be found here, I loved how tightly controlled the crime scene becomes and the strange little details that point to something odd going on.

For instance, Kent is absolutely certain that when he checked the room that the bracelet that he was sent in there to find was not in the dresser. A few minutes later however the staff enter the room themselves and, in searching that same dresser, find it easily in one of the drawers. Similarly, the various staircases and elevators were under observation throughout the night and the hotel staff were accounted for so who was the man observed in uniform in the corridor around midnight and how did he gain access to the floor?

The other thing I noticed early on in the novel was just how fast the action moves. Once Fell arrives at the crime scene, little time is given over to reflection or to discussing what they have already learned and instead we seem to be learning some new detail every few pages. There is even a rather remarkable interview that takes place at the halfway point of the novel that unexpectedly addresses many of the problems with the case,  suddenly making sense of them, but even that creates further difficulties for our investigators to resolve. Until the murderer is caught and Dr. Fell explains what had happened it really never lets up.

The explanation for what had taken place is, as is typical with Carr, ingeniously plotted and I loved that one aspect of the solution is sitting in plain sight for the reader and yet is easily overlooked. That revelation was, for me, the most satisfying moment of the novel and one that really appealed to my imagination.

I think the killer’s plan is really rather cleverly worked out, even if there is one aspect of it that I found a little less than satisfactory. As always, I am keen to avoid spoilers but I think I can say that it is a case of an aspect of the story that is fairly clued and yet feels like it is a lazy and convenient way to work around an obstacle. I did not personally consider it to be cheating on Carr’s part because I do think it was hinted at beforehand but I know there are plenty of readers who do. I would agree though that it is the least satisfying aspect of the resolution.

Like JJ, I did find however that there is one aspect of the initial setup for the crime that I expected to have greater significance than it actually turned out to do. As in, actually being meaningful at all. And yet because the whole story sort of starts from that small but ultimately quite unimportant plot detail, it is a little hard to just write off as a coincidence as we are later told to do. It didn’t affect my enjoyment of the story – it just is a rare little untidy and out-of-place thread in an otherwise extremely tight work.

I really enjoyed my experience reading this and tore through the book in a single sitting which is always a sign that I was engrossed. I think it boasts a fantastic story hook and while it may disappoint by not being an impossible crime, it is really cleverly plotted and structured in spite of a little clunkiness in one aspect of its solution. Like Nick, I consider this to be underrated and while The Case of the Constant Suicides remains my favorite Carr so far, I enjoyed this about as much as I did the similarly audacious The Problem of the Green Capsule.

This excites me because if I found a book that many think is middling in quality to be this entertaining, I can’t wait to discover some of the books they think of as great.

20 thoughts on “To Wake The Dead by John Dickson Carr

  1. “….it is a lazy and convenient way to work around an obstacle. I did not personally consider it to be cheating..”
    I regard it as a big cheat !
    Also, the hotel uniforms are said to be indistinguishable from ———.. This is highly unlikely !
    Though I enjoyed reading this book, I do not regard it as among his best.

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    1. I can understand but I do think it is clued, even if it is a lazy way of resolving a plot issue. The issue with the uniform I think is explained by how little of it is actually seen by the witness.

      Knowing that there are titles out there by Carr that fans regard significantly higher does make me excited to get to some of them. I just wish that there were more of the Merrivale and Fell stories available to purchase as ebooks. Of the ones available that I haven’t read yet I have The Four False Weapons, Death Watch, The Blind Barber and In Spite of Thunder.

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  2. I’m also excited that you liked this one, as it gives me hope that the other titles will be even better! I’ve a handful of Carr novels left, and hope to be blown away by them. 😊 “Green Capsule” is generally lauded by many, but I think the great premise and good puzzle are let down by the average narrative and the below-average dramatics. 😞 But still a good mystery novel. 😊

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  3. I swear you select the most random Carr books to read! It’s been fun to follow along.

    I’ll vouch for the fact that this is a middle of the road Carr book, which is a testament to just how good he is! I absolutely loved the setup to this one, and although it isn’t a top work, I was certainly pleased with how it played out.

    You’ve listed some excellent books to read next in your comment above. I advocate Death Watch and The Four False Weapons.

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    1. My random reading has really been testament to the super-random publication strategy of the ebooks and whatever I can pick up secondhand! Good to know that Death Watch and Four False Weapons are good choices (I owned the FFW anyway) and that greater heights await me!

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      1. The good thing is – both Death-Watch and Four False Weapons are readily and cheaply available as ebooks under the Murder Room imprint. 😬 For me, I found Four False Weapons convoluted in a way that didn’t impress me; Death-Watch I found to be one of Carr’s very best works. 🤩

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      2. OK, where is this love for Death-Watch coming from? Admittedly I read it an age ago, but it’s dull, hard to follow (if I recall correctly) and contains a massive cheat. Not one I’m looking forward to re-reading. Pretty sure I enjoyed In Spite Of Thunder more…

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      3. I have to say that I am a little surprised too based on the reviews I had read before making my choice. Happy to hear it has fans though – it is always possible I may feel the same.

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      4. I need to re-read Death-Watch to identify the “cheat”; I recall some mention of it in the comments section for Kate’s review of the book. For me, this book contains what I regard to be my favourite scene of all times across all of the Fell novels: there’s a sparring match between Hadley and Fell in the middle of the book that I especially enjoyed. It also didn’t have the dramatics that I didn’t enjoy so much in Green Capsule and Plague Court Murders. In fact, I rank it the second strongest Fell novel I’ve read, and possibly the second strongest Carr novel I’ve read – second to Till Death Do Us Part.

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      5. I gave Death-Watch as a birthday present to a friend who hasn’t read much Golden Age mystery fiction – and he enjoyed it very much. In fact, it made him hunt down other Golden Age titles, especially Carr titles. To date he’s read Hollow Man and Constant Suicides as well, and he still puts Death-Watch at the top of the three titles – which I would concur with.

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  4. I would have thought this a masterpiece had that one he-eeeuge coincidence been resolved with anything like deliberate intent behind it. The flirting-with-impossible baffling actions in that hotel room, the way the entrance of the killer is resolved (so irritated with myself for not picking up on it!), and the general relationship between Kent and Fell is superb…but, aaargh, I wish it has started from a different point, or that starting was part of a plan rather than a nifty hook and nothing more.

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    1. I can understand that. The issue with that unresolved opening thread does bother me but I was appreciative that it at least doesn’t factor into the body of the mystery itself. I do wish though that Carr had thought of some reason for that to happen that was stronger than just coincidence…

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  5. Among the top Carrs, in my opinion, are He Who Whispers, The Judas Window, The Hollow Man, She Died A Lady, Till Death Do Us Part. Have you read any of these ?

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    1. I read He Who Whispers but didn’t enjoy that one much. I have heard radio adaptations of Hollow Man and Til Death Do Us Part and liked the latter more than the former (but enjoyed both). Thanks for the recommendations!

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