Originally Published 1933
Dr. Gideon Fell #2
Preceded by Hag’s Nook
Followed by The Eight of Swords
At the hand of an outrageous prankster, top hats are going missing all over London, snatched from the heads of some of the city’s most powerful people—but is the hat thief the same as the person responsible for stealing a lost story by Edgar Allan Poe, the manuscript of which has just disappeared from the collection of Sir William Bitton? Unlike the manuscript, the hats don’t stay stolen for long, each one reappearing in unexpected and conspicuous places shortly after being taken: on the top of a Trafalgar Square statue, hanging from a Scotland Yard lamppost, and now, in the foggy depths of the Tower of London, on the head of a corpse with a crossbow bolt through the heart. Amateur detective and lexicographer Dr. Gideon Fell is on the case, and when the dead man is identified as the nephew of the collector, he discovers that the connections underlying the bizarre and puzzling crimes may be more intimate than initially expected.
Of all of the American Mystery Classic releases to date, none have excited me quite so much as The Mad Hatter Mystery. It wasn’t just the prospect of owning a shiny, fresh hardcover of a Carr work (a novelty after their being out of print for so long) but also a reflection of how appealing I found the blurb.
The Mad Hatter Mystery promises a lot. We get a strange murder at the Tower of London, a curious spate of hat thefts and the missing manuscript of the very first Poe detective story (predating The Murders in the Rue Morgue). The cover of the Penzler reprint even alludes to Carr’s reputation for impossible crimes which may set a false expectation since this novel really doesn’t fit into that category of crime fiction.
Before I discuss whether it lived up to those expectations I should probably go into a bit more detail about the setup…
London has been terrorized by a prankster who has been dubbed The Mad Hatter. This individual has been stealing hats off the heads of Londoners and putting them in odd places. Among the newspaper reporters following this case is Phil Driscoll who is the man found dead in the mist at Traitor’s Gate, a crossbow bolt through his heart and his uncle’s oversized top hat pulled over his head.
The guards at the Tower have quietly detained all of the visitors to the Tower that day for questioning but no one appears to have been near or seen what happened clearly through the heavy fog. Fortunately Dr. Gideon Fell is on hands to work through the various accounts and make sense of this baffling crime.
I really appreciate and admire how novel and imaginative the circumstances of this crime are. The idea of a hat thief terrorizing London society makes me smile and I think the question of why the hatter would have placed a hat on a corpse (or possibly killed the man themselves) is a really strong hook for the story.
The initial batch of interviews only makes the circumstances of the murder more baffling. The problems lie in tracking various suspects’ movements around the Tower and throughout London and the ways that information affects their alibis for the crime. I particularly enjoyed a evasive interviewee who lived in the same building as the victim and learning more about their reasons for being at the Tower.
The problem with these interviews is that the more information we receive, the harder it becomes to keep in your head exactly who is where and when. I ended up having to switch from the ebook copy to reading the print edition to make it easier to refer back to the map regularly (perhaps the first time I have really found a map to be essential in following the action of a case) and rereading sections to make sure I was sure I was remembering those movements correctly.
As I noted above, readers should be prepared that this is not one of Carr’s impossible crime stories. The case reads more like an unbreakable alibi story where no one who could have committed the crime would have done and those who might have a motivation can be shown to be away from the Tower at the time of the crime. As an example of that type of story, it is fairly solid but the complexities of the case can make it a surprisingly heavy read at times.
Carr does try to keep things light by incorporating quite a lot of humorous scenes and elements into his story. Some of these moments land quite well such as the grouchy Police doctor who has the misfortune to share his name with a famous fictional character and the interrogation where Fell decides he needs to project the image of what a lawman is expected to be through some elements of costuming to be taken seriously but others can fall a little flat or might be more entertaining if they could be seen rather than described. For the most part I would describe it as a gently amusing rather than hilarious read.
Though I do have issues with the middle investigative section of the novel, I do think the conclusion to the mystery is really quite cleverly thought out and, after such a complicated investigation, surprisingly simple. I do wonder if one of the reasons that this story seems to be pretty fondly remembered is the cleverness of this resolution.
A revelation shifts our understanding of the basic facts of the case and it is the sort of thing that the reader does have a fair chance of beating the detectives to. I don’t happen to love the way we get to that moment, in part because it relies on an unpredictable external event, but I was at least satisfied that Dr. Fell had basically solved the thing prior to that, keeping it from frustrating me too much.
I think the other reason that this story is fondly remembered relates to an event in the final chapter that feels organic and earned. It is, of course, the sort of thing that you can’t discuss without spoiling it but I think anyone who has read the book will know the moment I am referring to. It is the type of moment that defines a character and I think it gives us a very clear sense of who exactly Fell is not only as a detective but as a man.
Where does that leave me overall? Well, I liked moments from this story a lot and I certainly liked the ideas but the middle third turned out to be a bit of a slog. I am glad that further Carr stories are getting reprinted, both by Penzler and the British Library, so that this isn’t the only of his stories that is widely available as I would not suggest this as a first outing as it is hardly Carr at the height of his powers. Those who have already read and enjoyed books by the author will find there to be enough here to make it a worthwhile and solid, middle-of-the-road sort of read.
The Verdict: An imaginative crime story that gets bogged down in suspect and witness interviews. Worth a read but there are better Dr. Fell mysteries.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Title with a literary allusion in it (What)
Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World describes the novel as one of the best in concept, characterization and execution of the Fell novels.
The Green Capsule’s review is pretty mixed, praising some of the humor and appreciating the bit of background we get about Fell but noting that the case is a little too open ended and underwhelming on the question of how the murder was done.
The Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Mystery shared his views of this book, noting that it didn’t quite match up to his fond memories on a second reading.