The Mad Hatter Mystery by John Dickson Carr

The Mad Hatter Mystery
John Dickson Carr
Originally Published 1933
Dr. Gideon Fell #2
Preceded by Hag’s Nook
Followed by The Eight of Swords

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.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Title with a literary allusion in it (What)

Further Reading

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.

21 thoughts on “The Mad Hatter Mystery by John Dickson Carr

  1. The map is very helpful, but what’s even better is going to the Tower and seeing it all for yourself — I made a trip shortly after reading this, and had a wonderful time match up locations with events. And then when I came to read The Devil in Velvet — which terminates in the Tower — and it was even more delightful and charming as a result.

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  2. This review matches my own memory of the book remarkably precisely. (Although that memory isn’t fresh enough to recall what that final-chapter event is — time to reread!) This stays in mind as one of the good Carrs, lots of mystery, humor that works, a distinctive atmosphere, no stylistic irritations (none of that interruption of people in the middle of a sentence which would have revealed something helpful, as in the late books), satisfying and fair solution — but exactly: “the middle third turned out to be a bit of a slog.” (Not a huge slog, it’s not long enough for that, but… “a bit.”) And I kept a bookmark on the map.

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      1. I just pulled my copy (the 1965 Collier paperback) off the basement shelf. One thing I have repeatedly kicked myself about is that when people mention this title I usually find that I first think of the plot of The Arabian Nights Murder. Because there’s a prank element in both, I guess. I correct myself soon enough, of course.

        One thing about this edition (I hope that others were better in this respect) is that the map, crucial though it is, is maddeningly hard to read. I had to search around for over five minutes before I was sure I’d found all 8 numbers.

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  3. As I mentioned in my review, I have a great Berkeley edition of this with what I think is the best cover. The only problem is that it didn’t have a map!!!! I’m so jealous reading all of the comments about consulting the map, because I wasn’t even aware there was one at the time.

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    1. It seems to me that the solution would be to borrow a copy with the map, photocopy it and then read your gorgeously covered edition! Come to think of it, I am not entirely sure why that didn’t occur to me to do while I was reading it myself…

      I do think that without the map I probably would have been lost here. Unlike JJ I didn’t manage to solve it myself but I could certainly see the logic once it was explained!

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  4. I keep imagining that early editions must have had the map in a larger size and better resolution. I had cataract surgery last January, and the new lenses give me the best eyesight I’ve ever had… and still I need a healthy squint to discern those numbers on the map. However, I’ve done it now. On to the reading!

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    1. I have several editions of this one, plus the new Penzler reprint, and the map is pretty darn small in all of them. Small formats and the desire not to split it over two pages, I guess…

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  5. OK, Aidan, I just finished it. Despite your certainty, I’m really not sure which “event” in the final chapter you’re talking about. And I guess we can’t discuss it here! But there is something wonderful in the last part of the book, and it’s something Carr pulls off pretty regularly, when he’s on peak form. We think we understand the crime, we can feel that the book’s drawing toward a close, and then Carr gives the kaleidoscope a quarter turn, and all the pieces form a new and better relationship (including one element we’d assumed to be true from the start, that wasn’t). Brilliant.

    And as for the “bit of a slog” in the middle… it’s not so bad, it really is just “a bit” as we said. For me it’s really just about the scenes with Sheila, which seems to go on rather longer than it has to, especially as neither she nor Fell is as diverting (in their different ways) as Carr seems to think in these chapters. In fact this is a good example of what I’ve said elsewhere (maybe on this blog), that the better Carr mysteries seem not to have “middle sections” at all, in the sense of stretches after the crime when we go on interrogating suspects & bystanders, and accumulating evidence. Instead, we gather the initial information, and just as that finishes up, we discover that the solution is starting to be revealed. This whole story occupies an exceptionally short time frame, and that’s only one of its agreeable features.

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    1. (Anyone who wants to avoid anything that may suggest a spoiler should skip over this comment)

      Being as general as I can be without getting super spoilery, it relates to a choice that is made at the end of the novel. Hopefully that suggests the thing that I mean – if not feel free to get in touch with me through the comments form and I can be specific. 🙂

      I agree with everything you say about that reveal. It takes the plot and suddenly reveals layers of complexity that as you say are new and better than anything we may have assumed up to that point.

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  6. (More spoiler-adjacent material follows. Those who don’t want to guess anything at all, skip this comment too.)

    Yes, that was my best guess as to what you meant. It’s a choice that Carr made on several occasions, if memory serves, and at least once (not here) I recall the circumstances being highly questionable for it. By comparison, Christie opted for this only once or twice and (according to some accounts) regretted it afterward.

    When Carr is mentioned, the subject of locked-room or similarly impossible murders generally comes up, and certainly he did those often and well. But for me, his greatest brilliance appears in this sort of solution, in which our assumptions get a jolt and are replaced by something better that has been fairly foreshadowed the whole time. (This doesn’t happen in one of his most famous titles, whose solution, though ingenious, is the antithesis of “elegant simplicity.)

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    1. (Possible spoilers continue)

      Yes, and that was what I meant when I said about it being earned. I could understand the detectives having that response to the crime based on the situation as it was laid out where there are other stories where I feel it is a more problematic development, even if it is dramatic.

      The pleasure of Carr for me lies in his ability to make the complex simple. Impossible crimes are an extreme form of that but the trick is essentially the same – to make the reader make an incorrect or misleading assumption as they start to build their house of cards only to pull that card dramatically and send the whole construction tumbling.

      The reason I think this story sags a little in the middle is that there is no piece of appealing misdirection to draw the reader in and make them obsessive about. The trick remains thrilling once employed though!

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  7. (Getting less spoilery now….)

    Yes, that’s it exactly. He’ll be building up a solution that fits, and I the reader am silently agreeing that it seems to account for everything, while not feeling quite satisfied about it, and then… poof! one new turn, and it’s not what I was thinking, but much better, and it locks in place perfectly.

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    1. I think there are Carr stories where the false solution is more appealing to the imagination than this one which is the issue I have with this particular example. That perfection in the actual solution here though is wonderful and worth the journey imo.

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  8. “More appealing” because of the putative murderer being less sympathetic, so less disturbing, that sort of thing? Or do I misunderstand? Because I do find the perfection (your word) in the actual solution enormously appealing.

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    1. I think it is a blend of a less interesting candidate for the murderer (in the fake solution) along with a less mechanically interesting method being discussed. Where I think the fake out works best is when the reader thinks they have outsmarted Carr by devising their own audacious solution only to find he was still an extra step ahead and has something even cleverer up his sleeve.

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      1. Ah, I understand. When he really makes it work, there’s almost a 3-level solution: the one that seems to be evident, after some digging; the one that then is “proved” that covers all the evidence; and then the actual one, which is both the simplest (once you know) and the cleverest.

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      2. Exactly! You almost believe the one that is proved in that situation because it comes after the evident solution until the detective points out the logical flaw in that situation utilizing a piece of evidence we had all along but completely discounted.

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