Christopher 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.