Deadly Hall by John Dickson Carr

Deadly Hall
John Dickson Carr
Originally Published 1971

Deadly Hall was one of John Dickson Carr’s historical novels, published towards the very end of his career. I would say that it seems to have a fairly poor reputation but that would imply that it is a topic of conversation. In fact remarkably few blogs I read have reviewed it and when it is mentioned it is usually in passing or as part of a list.

My expectations therefore were fairly low but there were a few parts of the scenario that gave me hope of a good read. Firstly, the New Orleans setting can be a rich source of gothic tension and dread which we all know Carr can do so well. And secondly the mention of a treasure hunt seemed quite promising and offered a different sort of mystery than my previous experiences of the author have provided.

The novel is set in 1927 which, though historical at the time of writing, was well within the author’s own lifetime. Jeff Caldwell, an author who has emigrated to France, receives a letter from a childhood friend asking him to visit the home that friend has inherited in Louisiana. He does so and we learn about a treasure of some gold that is supposedly hidden on the property that no one has been able to find. We also hear that some years earlier a man died in the middle of the night apparently falling to his death while walking up the staircase with a metal tray.

Another death will take place but since it happens exactly at the halfway point in the novel I do not intend to provide any details of that event except that it takes place in a locked room. This is rather a late point for a first death to occur in a novel and I do think it reflects that the novel suffers from some awkward pacing and structural issues. More on that in a moment.

There are two problems that the reader is tasked with solving. Firstly, is there a treasure, what is it and where is it hidden? Second, who or what is responsible for the deaths?

The first question was, for me, the more entertaining of the two though because I had been treating that element of the novel as being something of an afterthought or a bit of narrative color it came as a surprise to me. It is in this aspect of the story that I feel the author pulls off a rather wonderful trick that is simple but imaginative and had this been a short story focused on that part of the plot I would be full of praise.

Unfortunately the second question suffers because of the pacing of the novel. While Carr primes the pump by giving us some background on the historical death, the characters are existing in a rather aimless state. Even with the promise of a treasure hunt, they mill around talking about the fate of the house but there is little movement or action. Until the death happens, this strand of the narrative offers little to excite the reader.

Things improve once the body shows up but even then the investigation feels a little dry and long-winded. Accusations are made and we get some further background on the family but the crime lacks the genius or appeal to the imagination of Carr at his best. This is a shame because when the time comes to explaining how the thing was managed, Carr presents us with a pretty clever solution. Had the setup and execution of the investigation been a little tighter it is easy to see how this story might have had more impact.

Beyond the problems with the scenario itself, I feel the quality of the characterizations is also disappointing at times. While Jeff and Penny shared some amusing interactions and back story, the other characters often seemed a little flat. Being set in the South, the book also features some inelegant and misguided attempts to write African-American dialect for the servant characters that will grate on some readers.

The book works a little better as a historical, though it is far more self-conscious about making its references to events and aspects of the time than my previous experience of a Carr historical novel. There is a tendency for characters to predict historical developments that would take place within a few years and while those comments certainly help to place the action within a timeframe, they also have the unfortunate effect of making everyone seem very prescient. On a more positive note, I thought that the journey down the Mississippi by paddle steamer was very evocative and did a fabulous job of setting the mood, as did the references to prohibition.

Deadly Hall is not a great Carr by any means but I don’t want to suggest that it is without merit. There are some good ideas here which is remarkable given the author had been active for about forty years by this point and I think with a little reorganization and change of emphasis the story could have been tightened and improved.

While it may be a little lacking as a murder mystery, I do think the way Carr resolves the mystery of the hidden treasure very cleverly and for that trick alone I give him props. It shouldn’t be anyone’s first Carr read. I wouldn’t even suggest getting to it as early as I have done in your exploration of his work but it shouldn’t be discounted too quickly either. Even a lesser Carr work is still quite readable!

The Case of the Constant Suicides by John Dickson Carr

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

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 Witch of the Low Tide by John Dickson Carr

The Witch of the Low Tide
John Dickson Carr
Originally Published 1961

After having two very positive early experiences with John Dickson Carr’s work, I was keen to get back to him quickly. I decided however that I wanted to mix things up a little by selected one of his novels that didn’t feature Dr. Gideon Fell to get a better sense of his range as a writer.

Unfortunately as many of you will be aware, the selection of Carr titles available is patchy at best and of the few ebooks available this was the one that seemed most promising. The Witch of the Low Tide is a standalone historical mystery, which is a style I tend to enjoy, and features not just one but two impossible crimes.

The first is an attempted strangling that takes place in the home of a friend of our sleuth. When the would-be strangler is interrupted they run down into the cellar which they lock from the inside. In spite of there being no exit however when the cellar is searched the strangler is found to have mysteriously vanished.

The second crime is also a strangling and takes place in a pavilion located on a stretch of wet sand. Our hero discovers the body there but is struck by how there have been no footprints left in the sand. The Police quickly jump to the conclusion that his lady friend, Betty, is responsible so he decides that he will play detective and find the killer himself.

This setup of a male taking responsibility for proving the innocence of a female character seems to be a common theme in Carr’s work from the little of it I have enjoyed so far. The Problem of the Wire Cage featured its male hero trying to cover up for his love interest and having to solve the crime himself while The Problem of the Green Capsule had a detective character fall in love with a female suspect.

While each of those stories featured a younger male fulfilling that role, the romantic lead here is an older analyst who has formed an attachment to a much younger widow. What makes that situation more intriguing is that near the start of the book that character is told by Inspector Twigg that the object of his affections may have a scandalous secret, setting up an antagonistic relationship between the two men that runs throughout the novel.

That antagonism was, for me, one of the most successful parts of this novel and I think it is a very effective source of tension in its second half and makes both characters more interesting. Certainly I think Garth, the analyst hero, becomes more interesting once he has an adversary to pit his wits against and we see his resourcefulness come through.

The mysteries themselves however feel a little unfocused and I felt some of the explanation given at the end did not make sense to me. Looking at the spoiler section of the review at The Green Capsule, I see that I am not alone in feeling that it did not make a lot of sense that the two crimes would play out the way they do.

While I think that explanation left something to be desired, I did generally enjoy the journey to get to that point. I particularly appreciated Carr’s attention to little period details that gave a strong sense of its historical setting. Some of those details are introduced in quite splashy ways but others feature more subtly such as the general lack of knowledge about psychoanalysis and the work of Freud. It is these sorts of touches that I think make this a genuine historical mystery rather than just a mystery that happens to be set in the past.

Though I enjoyed the interactions between Garth and Twigg, I did find one aspect of them to be very frustrating. This novel significantly spoils The Mystery of the Yellow Room, revealing the killer’s identity and how the victim was killed. While I understand Carr’s interest in having that book provide inspiration for a theory of how these crimes happened, it is annoying to have an ending spoiled. Guess I won’t be reading that next week like I planned then…

So, where does that leave me overall? I think The Witch of the Low Tide has some interesting ideas and I did enjoy the setting but I felt that the different elements didn’t come together quite as tidily as I wished, particularly in that conclusion. Still, I did enjoy the journey and would certainly be interested to try some of the other stories that Carr did without his series detectives. I may just pop back to Dr. Fell for another impossible crime or two first though…

The Problem of the Wire Cage by John Dickson Carr

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

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…