To Wake The Dead by John Dickson Carr

WakeTheDead
To Wake the Dead
John Dickson Carr
Originally Published 1938
Dr. Gideon Fell #9
Preceded by The Crooked Hinge
Followed by The Problem of the Green Capsule

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.

The Case of the Constant Suicides by John Dickson Carr

ConstantSuicides
The Case of the Constant Suicides
John Dickson Carr
Originally Published 1941
Dr. Gideon Fell #13
Preceded by The Man Who Could Not Shudder
Followed by Death Turns the Tables

I am never entirely sure how best to approach dipping into the works of a classic author. I can certainly see the appeal of selecting their most famous or successful books at first but then what do you have waiting for you once you’re done?

After starting out with the wonderful The Problem of the Green Capsule, my next few experiences of Carr’s work were of books generally reckoned to be second or third tier works. Some, such as The Problem of the Wire Cage, exceeded expectations while The Witch of the Low Tide felt messy and left me disappointed and underwhelmed. It was time to go to a safer choice…

I am pleased to say that The Case of the Constant Suicides is the best work I have read so far from Carr. It manages to balance its humorous and mysterious elements perfectly to create a book that is as entertaining as it is perplexing.

The story begins with members of the Campbell family being summoned to Scotland following the death of Angus Campbell who seems to have jumped out of a window at the top of a tower and fallen to his death. It turns out that he has very little wealth to speak of but did take out several heavy life insurance policies whose combined payouts ought to add up to a very healthy sum for the inheritors.

The problem is that if Angus did commit suicide those contracts would be voided and the estate would be worthless. The family want to believe that he wouldn’t have committed suicide, knowing the financial pressures it would create for the family, but the alternative of murder seems inconceivable – the tower being too tall and the room being thoroughly locked – so what caused Angus to take the plunge?

It’s a cracking good start for a story and Carr does a superb job of constructing the rules of the locked room, stating the facts clearly. Since starting this blog I have learned that the concept of a mysterious string of identical historical deaths will always grab me and here is no exception.

I knew from early on that this was the book for me when we first see Alan and Kathryn encounter each other on the train. Carr gives the two characters a delightfully entertaining backstory and seems to relish throwing them together. They bicker and spar, make pointed comments and soon it becomes all too clear that they are attracted to each other.

It should be pointed out that these two characters, while related to most of the different suspects, are external characters. This is different from the approach Carr takes, for instance, with Brenda and Hugh in Wire Cage, where they become involved in the case and so need to present evidence and track down the real killer. Some may feel that this subplot is then tacked on, contributing little material evidence, and yet I found it immensely enjoyable and I think it works brilliantly as a device for the family to come together and to share pertinent information with our heroes.

The bulk of the sleuthing however is carried out by our old chum, Gideon Fell. As usual, he manages to see right through some of the noise of the case to find its key points. I think what interests me most about the character is how amoral he is shown to be. There is a moment where he tells the family that, should he find it was suicide, he will sit on the story and find a way to persuade the insurance companies.

Another aspect of the novel that I think bears closer scrutiny is Carr’s decision to write in dialect for his English readers. Should you have read my review of Lament for a Maker another Scottish mystery set in an old castle, you will be aware of just how much I can dislike authors doing this. Carr escapes that trap because it’s only used in short bursts and typically the meanings are easy to infer from their context.

Some may grumble at all the ‘we’re in Scotland’ tropes happening here but I found them to generally be quite charming and amusing. The jokes aren’t mean-spirited in tone which I do think helps keep things light and they are not so frequent that you can’t ignore them.

Towards the end of the novel Carr stacks several other murders on top of the first death, a move which I have found to be the undoing of some of his other works. I am happy to say though that this was something of an exception with one of the secondary crimes more interesting to me than the main case in terms of how it was executed. When the explanations are given for each death, I was suitably impressed by the ingenuity on display and on the way the remainder of the story holds up.

Overall, I was extremely impressed with this Carr read and I look forward to spending more time with Dr. Fell in some of his further adventures. Hopefully it won’t take me quite so long before I come across another top-notch read. As always, I’d be grateful for suggestions shared (I may not have reviewed them but I have experienced The Hollow Man and Til Death Do Us Part).

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: An academic (who)

The Man Who Could Not Shudder by John Dickson Carr

manwhocould
The Man Who Could Not Shudder
John Dickson Carr
Originally Published 1940
Dr. Gideon Fell #12
Preceded by The Problem of the Wire Cage
Followed by The Case of the Constant Suicides

Martin Clarke has purchased and refurbished a historic home with a reputation for being haunted. As you might expect, he decides to throw a haunting party in which he invites some friends and a few experts in their fields to spend the weekend and see if they observe any ghostly apparitions or paranormal phenomena.

Several centuries earlier the owner of the house had died at the precise moment the grandfather clock stopped and more recently an aged butler was crushed by a chandelier after apparently swinging on it. Soon after the party arrives, an equally strange and improbable death is added to the list as a gun appears to have leapt off its wall mount and shot someone. And that is just one of the strange things that takes place in Longwood House that weekend.

I didn’t have much in the way of expectations coming to this novel having heard precious little about it. My reason for reaching for it now is that I read in the incredibly helpful guide at Justice for the Corpse that my planned next read to feature Dr. Fell spoils a key twist in this one. That book, The Case of the Constant Suicides, has now been shelved until later in the month. Also I should take a moment to suggest you check out that guide before reading this because the novel does spoil the solution to a famous Agatha Christie story.

While the story could lend itself to quite an atmospheric, gothic style it is remarkable just how little atmosphere Carr creates in this piece. This is actually quite appropriate given his choice of a more skeptical character to narrate the tale and the composition of Clarke’s party, favoring open-minded but skeptical guests. However, it may well disappoint those who were hoping to see the characters more affected by the prospect of a haunting.

There are some nice touches along the way and the murder, when it does come, is appropriately bizarre and does take place in some intriguing circumstances. We have a shooting occur in a room with just one person present in the room yet the doors and windows and all under observation within seconds of the shot being fired. When the weapon is identified, there are no fingerprints to be found at all and not even any telltale signs of the handler wearing gloves. While the witness’ claim that the gun moved by itself off the wall and shot seems incredible, it is at least partly confirmed by the physical evidence of the room.

While this seems to be one of the most baffling setups for a story I have read to date in a Carr novel, I expected that the investigation would focus more tightly on the mechanics of how the crime was committed. Instead a substantial part of the narrative focuses on trying to work through some contradictory accounts to discover the killer’s identity.

There are some good moments along the way, not least the explanation of the significance of a key, and I did appreciate that the story boasts its fair share of “how on Earth did I miss that” revelations. When the explanations come however I was left with mixed feelings, being struck both by the comparative simplicity of the solutions but also the convoluted way in which they are worked.

And then there is the second crime. While not as ludicrous or frustrating as the one in The Problem of the Wire Cage, I felt it served less of a purpose in the story other than to string the investigation out for a little bit longer.

So far I have only read a handful of Carrs and I am still getting to know the author. I can say that of the four novels I have read, this is the one I found least entertaining though it is still an interesting read. While I liked some elements of the story a lot, I feel it misses some opportunities that its setting and plot might have afforded.

For those interested in reading some different takes on the novel, I would suggest these reviews from Puzzle Doctor, The Green Capsule and Pretty Sinister Books all of whom are more enthusiastic. And while he doesn’t have a full review on his blog, JJ lists the book as one of his Five Carrs to Try. Clearly I am odd man out on this one but hopefully I will enjoy Constant Suicides much more.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Reference to a man/woman in the title (What)

The Problem of the Wire Cage by John Dickson Carr

WireCage
The Problem of the Wire Cage
John Dickson Carr
Originally Published 1939
Dr. Gideon Fell #11
Preceded by The Problem of the Green Capsule
Followed by The Man Who Could Not Shudder

I am really looking forward to this Saturday.

A couple of months ago JJ announced that he and Ben would be reading The Problem of the Wire Cage for an in-depth, spoiler-filled discussion. This weekend it should be going live and I am really interested to hear what each made of it.

The novel concerns a seemingly impossible murder taking place on a clay tennis court. Frank is a rather odious young man who seems destined to marry Brenda. Doing so will meet the terms of a will which would make the pair tremendously wealthy. Unfortunately young lawyer Hugh is in love with Brenda and is seeking to convince her to abandon talk of an engagement to be with him instead.

There is plenty more background but let’s skip ahead to the details of the impossibility. After a doubles game of tennis the players go their separate ways but Hugh returns later that night to find the court open and, on investigating, finds that Frank is dead, strangled by his own scarf, on the court while Brenda is nearby. Her footprints are the only ones other than the victim’s on the clay yet she insists that he was already dead when she ran to investigate his body. In other words, we have a dead body on a surface that would show footprints yet, if we believe Brenda, there are no signs that anyone else stepped foot on the court.

Much of what follows seems absolutely tailored to my taste, not because this is actually an inverted crime but because structurally it plays out similarly. If Brenda and Hugh did not have committed the crime, the natural evidence of the scene points squarely at their culpability and so they try to manage the evidence and stage the crime scene. While we will see the Police investigation at work and hear some of the deliberations, most of those moments take place from their perspective.

This sequence of the book is not only entertaining, I felt it was really very cleverly constructed. The pair works under considerable pressure to explain themselves, particularly once a character notices one of the things they are up to, and they find themselves needing to make decisions in the moment that they will then need to weave together into a convincing story. They do so incredibly well, casting evidence in a different light. When they realize that another person will be blamed for the murder based on the facts they have suggested they must conduct their own shadow investigation to confirm that those facts are accurate.

In short, what we have here is a case of two groups of characters responding to these events. The actions of the first group are to minimize their own involvement while seeking to find the real culprit (assuming it is not one of them). In doing so however they present the second group with a tampered field of evidence. This not only produces some wonderful tension and a few glorious comedic moments such as the tennis net testing sequence, the need to find a way to the real murderer that might fit with the tampered evidence is itself an intriguingly different take on the mystery story.

In addition to its strong structure, I also appreciated the characterization in these early chapters. There is no doubt that Frank is a pretty unpleasant guy and would make a poor match for Brenda. Given we share Hugh’s perspective as he comes across the body we can dismiss him from consideration yet I think Carr does a wonderful job of making Brenda someone we can believe and yet still harbor some doubts about. Not to mention the handful of other suspects we may consider. For what it’s worth, I settled on the wrong person far too early and was so certain that I was right I overlooked a little evidence that should have pushed me in a different direction.

The question of how the murder was carried out is even more important to the story than the identity of the killer. Here I think the ground becomes a little shakier because, as Puzzle Doctor points out, the method utilized requires us to accept an unusual level of stupidity on the part of the victim. While Carr attempts to convince us with a little harrumphing from Fell that we ought to consider the sequence of events credible because of the personalities of the people involved, I struggled a little with believing that although I did appreciate the mechanical cleverness of the solution.

On the other hand, things take an unfortunate turn in the final third of the novel with the introduction of a half-baked secondary murder that feels both insufficiently clued and explained. While I would agree with some who say that this part of the novel feels clumsily grafted on to the plot, the bigger problem to me is that the method by which the victim is despatched feels ludicrously unlikely and dramatic. I simply could not buy that the person who performed the killing would have conceived of or executed that plan, nor did I feel that the solution to it was fairly clued. In short, this whole sequence derails an otherwise tight, if extremely contrived, crime with little benefit beyond boosting the page count.

Finally I should mention the role, or rather the lack of one, provided for Dr. Fell. I have read some comments that the character really is treated as an afterthought here and that Hugh is intended to be the real sleuth. While I acknowledge that the character’s role is certainly limited, I strongly disagree with the inference. In my opinion, Fell is given a limited role because he is there to explain the impossibility and he gives instant credibility to that solution. I believe his limited role reflects that the impossibility, while serving as the hook for the novel, is not actually the author’s focus.

It seems to me that Carr’s interest here lies in playing with the manipulation of the crime scene and how those manipulations affect the police investigation. Fell cannot be the focus because we have to believe that he can see through Hugh and Brenda’s actions and so he falls into the background while the less rigorous Hadley takes the lead. In short, I think if Carr had made Fell a greater focus in the novel then it would have either made Hugh and Brenda’s initial successes unbelievable or been to the long-term detriment of the sleuth’s character.

So, where does that leave me overall?

I found The Problem of the Wire Cage to be a highly enjoyable read in spite of the flaws in its final third. There are some good ideas here but, more importantly for me, the characterization really sells the story and its structure. Carr provides us with some wonderful moments, some of them funny like Hugh’s conversation with his father, while there is a rather special surprise reveal at the end of Chapter Eleven that really came out of the blue for me.

Unfortunately I cannot judge the novel against Carr’s other works – I have read far too little, though I hope to rectify that in the next few months – but I think it is of interest in its own right and I look forward to reading what others made of it over the next few days.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Death by strangulation (How)

The Problem of the Green Capsule by John Dickson Carr

GreenCapsule
The Green Capsule (aka. The Black Spectacles)
John Dickson Carr
Originally Published 1939
Dr. Gideon Fell #10
Preceded by To Wake the Dead
Followed by The Problem of the Wire Cage

The Problem of the Green Capsule is the first book I have read by John Dickson Carr although it is not my first encounter with the character of Dr. Gideon Fell. Recently I had listened to the BBC Radio adaptations of several Carr stories in which the role of the famed amateur sleuth was played by Donald Sinden.

Going from adaptation to the original source material was an interesting experience and it’s usually one I try to avoid. Not because I believe that the book is always better but because once you hear or see a character performed it can be hard to see the character as originally envisaged. It was certainly hard not to hear Sinden’s voice in each of Fell’s pronouncements and interjections though I think that may just reflect that he was well cast in that role.

Having enjoyed the character I was keen to explore him further and so I set about finding one of the Carr stories and quickly settled on this one based on its rather striking premise. The crime here is quite audacious and certainly captures the imagination.

When the story begins there has already been a murder that apparently involved poison being placed in chocolates that were sold in a confectionery and tobacconists shop. No one can quite figure out how this was done yet Dr. Marcus Chesney has an idea and, after lecturing his family on how eyewitness accounts are unreliable, he decides to stage a theatrical production to prove his point.

Inevitably the fake murder ends up becoming the real thing. When the police arrive they soon realize that the only viable suspects were all in the audience and are able to give each other alibis. At about the halfway point in the narrative Dr. Fell is called in and begins to review the evidence to find the way the seemingly impossible murder was carried out.

Part of the reason I found this mystery so impressive is that it has such a small set of possible suspects to work with and the scenario is so well constructed that suspicion is able to fall equally of each of those characters.

The solution as to how this particular crime was worked is quite ingenious while playing quite fair with the reader. While I did not manage to identify every element of how the trick was worked, when the explanation is given I could see exactly where I went wrong in how I was looking at the case and how I fell for a red herring.

Though the characters are generally pretty solid, one aspect of the story that didn’t quite work for me was the police detective’s attraction to one of the characters involved in the murder. While I certainly don’t mind romantic elements in a story, I am not sure that their inclusion did much to advance a theme or complicate the investigation.

As for Fell himself, I found the character to be thoroughly entertaining. Carr holds back his entrance to the midpoint of the novel, essentially enabling him to seem all the more brilliant when he arrives and starts to deduce some of the mechanics of how the crime was achieved. He is a methodical and practical character and while he will occasionally make a short jump of reasoning, those moments generally feel credible.

Overall I think I picked a good story to start with and I certainly plan to continue dipping into these stories and some of Carr’s other works. Highly recommended.

Do you have any suggestions for which Carr works I should seek out next? I’m considering starting at the beginning with Hag’s Nook but I’m willing to be persuaded into trying something else…