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.

The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories edited by Martin Edwards

CCC
The Christmas Card Crime and 
Other Stories
Martin Edwards (ed)
Originally Published 2018

I may have mentioned this before but I am terrible when it comes to adhering to schedules. For this reason my week of Christmassy reads is beginning with less than a week to go.

Whoops.

The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories is the latest British Library Crime Classics anthology of seasonal short stories. Last year I reviewed Crimson Snow which I found to be an entertaining and varied collection of stories, albeit one that was a little inconsistent in terms of quality. I am happy to report that I found this to be an even more satisfying collection.

There were a lot of things for me to love about this collection, not least that it features so many authors that are new to me and who write in a variety of styles. There are several inverted stories, a heist tale, an impossible crime or two as well as some more traditional detective stories. It is a good mix of stories!

Some of my favorites from the collection include Selwyn Jepson’s By The Sword which is a clever, dark story with a fun kick and Cyril Hare’s Sister Bessie which manages to go even darker. I also really enjoyed the title story for the collection The Christmas Card Crime which packs a considerable amount of incident into a small number of pages.

The disappointments here are few. Usually if a story doesn’t work for me it is because of their length – there are several which are just a few pages long. The only two that I think failed were Lorac’s A Bit of Wire Pulling and Carr’s Blind Man’s Hood which I just couldn’t get into. In the case of the latter there is an argument to be made that my expectations may simply have been too high.

Overall I considered this collection to be a delight and had a wonderful time reading it. The book feels really well balanced and there are several stories in the collection that I can imagine returning to when the season rolls around again. I consider this to be one of the best anthologies the British Library have published to date and highly recommend it.

Continue reading “The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories edited by Martin Edwards”

A Graveyard to Let by Carter Dickson

GraveyardtoLet
A Graveyard to Let
Carter Dickson (aka. John Dickson Carr)
Originally Published 1949
Sir Henry Merrivale #19
Preceded by The Skeleton in the Clock
Followed by Night at the Mocking Window

Frederick Manning is a successful and respectable businessman but his children have become concerned that he is acting erratically and may be keeping a mistress. There are even rumors circulating that he may be embezzling money from his charitable foundation. When they confront him about it he says he will reveal a secret at a dinner to which he has invited Sir Henry Merrivale with the promise that he will perform ‘a miracle’.

At dinner he upsets them by talking about how little he wanted children though he says he will make some provision for them and implies he will be disappearing soon. Then the next morning as the Police sirens approach he calmly dives into the swimming pool fully clothed and when the party look for him in the pool they find he has vanished leaving all of his clothes behind.

Up until now I have stuck tightly to those novels that John Dickson Carr published under his own name because of how much I have enjoyed the character of Dr. Gideon Fell. I never doubted I would get around to trying some of the Sir Henry Merrivale stories but there was always some book I wanted to get to first.

The reason I have deviated from this approach comes down to the premise of this story that grabbed my imagination from the moment I heard Dan describe it on an episode of the impossible crimes mystery podcast The Men Who Explain Miracles. The idea of a disappearance from within a swimming pool seemed an entirely novel take on the idea of someone vanishing from inside an observed room and I was really curious how Dickson would manage it.

Since learning about this novel I have, as it happens, encountered a short story by Ed Hoch with a similar premise albeit that has someone appearing out of a swimming pool. Both stories are excellent and make good use of this concept to create striking moments that appeal to the imagination. I did have a moment’s worry that the solutions might be similar too but I was very happy to discover that they take create distinctly different answers to these challenges.

I really admired the way Carr sets a mood and builds up a sense of anticipation in the novel’s early chapters. By opening the novel in a moment of conflict we are thrown right into the story and have to make judgments about the characters involved. I certainly was curious what could be driving Manning to be so blunt and cruel to his children and wanted to know more about their relationships with him.

The moment in which he disappears is wonderfully theatrical right down to the detail of his underpants bobbing up to the surface. It is perhaps not one of Carr’s trickier puzzles – the method used is quite simple and may occur to some readers pretty quickly – but it is logically worked through and clearly explained at the end.

Even if the reader can work out the way in which the vanishing was worked they will still have plenty of details to pick up on while we may also wonder where he has gone and what he is planning. While the second half of the novel is much less flashy than the first it can be just as exciting and mysterious, packing in some very enjoyable reveals.

I also found the novel to be really quite funny, though I do acknowledge that humor is highly subjective. Not every joke hits and a few of them, such as his reason for visiting Washington, may be predicted but there are amusing moments spread throughout the narrative.

One of my favorite sequences comes near the start of the novel where Sir Henry messes with a police officer near the turnstiles in a subway station by suggesting that he can use a voodoo incantation to walk through turnstyles without paying the fare. It is not only amusingly written, there is a puzzle there that readers may ponder about how a trick was pulled off. That method wouldn’t work today but I could still appreciate the cleverness of the idea and the grudge the officer holds is referred to at several later points in the story with amusing effect.

While I can understand why this story isn’t more highly rated, given its simpler solution, I found the case to be thoroughly enjoyable. The scenario is bold and imaginative and I enjoyed my time spent with these characters. It is certainly one of the most entertaining experiences I have had reading Carr and I would happily recommend this to anyone who comes across an affordable copy.