Hags Nook: John Dickson Carr (1933)

Back to another Carr. This one is from his early years and the first novel to feature one of Carr’s titanic series detectives Dr Gideon Fell.

Love this Penguin cover, the illustration is lush and has a great balance of story telling while not giving away too much

Hags Nook concerns the terrors of Chatterham Prison, or rather it’s ruins, that stand on the site of the Starberth family home. The Starberths have the history of being governors of the ancient prison, but they also have the history of all being found dead from broken necks. Chatterham, that was built by the hands of prisoners that were to die there, has below it’s faceless main wall a huge and endlessly deep pit cut out of the ground, known as The Hag’s Nook. It was into here that witches and heathen’s were thrown from a balcony above, a noose slipped over their head, the drop deep enough to allow their neck to break if they were lucky.

The Starberth family have another historical haunting to their family line. To inherit the estate, the eldest son must spend one night at Chatterham Prison, and at an appointed time they must open the safe in the governors room and look at what ever is inside. The contents of the safe are unknown to anyone except the family lawyer.

Against the rest of the more modern Starberth families’ wishes, the eldest son takes on the tradition. Dr Gideon Fell is called in to make sure all goes as suspected, and the room is watched from the outside the whole time. But when the light in the window goes out too early panic sets in, and when they find the eldest son below the balcony, his neck broken on the edge of the Hag’s Nook, it’s just the beginning of the terrors.

As you can tell from just this bare plot outline Hag’s Nook is absolutely soaked in gothic macabre. It’s still those early bright eyed days of Carr where he is riding on the back of his love for Poe but has surpassed the more heavy handed and overwritten prose of It Walks By Night, and the plotting, misdirection and sheer breadth of ideas that would make his later novels absolute masterworks of the genre are starting to shine through.

It was very interesting to read Hag’s Nook in the light of myself and fellow blogger JJ’s most recent podcast two parter, where Ben from the Green Capsule set out a new way of looking at the career of Carr. As I mentioned at the start Hag’s Nook is the first novel to feature Dr Gideon Fell, the series detective who would go on to be the lead in some of Carr’s most famous works like The Hollow Man and The Problem of the Green Capsule. Ben brought out in our podcast how different the early Fell character and the developed Fell character are, and how Fell almost switches places with Sir Henry Merrivle, Carr’s other series detective (under his Carter Dickson pseudonym) in terms of the types of characters. Those who have read any of the best Merrivale works like The Judas Window, She Died a Lady, The Reader is Warned or Nine… and Death makes Ten will know Merrivale as a blusteringly brilliant comic figure filling any page he appears on. But in Hag’s Nook, Fell is so much like later career Merrivale it’s uncanny. We even see Fell’s home, meet his wife and hear of his obsession with the study of drunkenness in every culture – all of which are points of comedy fodder that have the finger prints of Merrivale all over them.

Having said that I have just finished The White Priory Murders (review to come soon), the second Merrivale novel, and although the humour is there, there is a more refined and satirical edge to it than is apparent here in Hag’s Nook. Again you can see in this book that Carr is beginning to work everything out including his use of humour.

To come back to the plot – and I feel like I say this kind of thing a lot – but just go an read it! It’s bloody brilliant! I love the kind of solution that Carr weaves with Hag’s Nook. Not the main deception and misdirection of the crime – although that is brilliant and I can imagine even then it might be a fairly original idea for the time, and it has been copied to death since – but the way the deception is carried out in the face of difficulty and complexity for both the killer and the victim. There is a nice link to be made to the solution(s) here and some of what Hake Talbot was trying to do with the impossibilities in The Rim of the Pit.

What I also loved about this book was the real terror that Carr draws out. Carr does macabre very very well, but genuine terror is less of a feature. But it’s here in spades, enough to send genuine chills down your spine. The setting and the build up of tension is superb and there is one description of a character trying to pick up the victim at the edge of Hag’s Nook and feeling his broken neck in his hand which I will never ever be able to forget. Interestingly the first Merrivale story The Plague Court Murders is also properly terrifying. Carr liked to set his detectives off with a strong dose of fear, you could even say the same for Bencolin… another post maybe.

Hag’s Nook is certainly early career Carr so for those who have read his best you will see the gaps and issues here (although a lower tear Carr would still beat most other detective books hands down), but you still won’t be disappointed. Watching the early days of the master at work is such a joy to behold.

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17 thoughts on “Hags Nook: John Dickson Carr (1933)”

  1. I liked this one – thanks for the review. 😊 I recall finding it atmospheric and interesting. If I had a criticism, it would be that the number of suspects is slightly too small for the final solution to be staggeringly surprising? But I still enjoyed it – more than “Red Widow Murders”, which seems to me to have similar elements to its puzzle.

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  2. OK, it’s not quite the finished article as far as Fell is concerned, nor the author himself when it comes right down to it, but it is a very enjoyable book and there’s honestly not much wrong with it at all.
    I love the heavy Gothic-influenced atmosphere that Carr blended into his early books and references to horrible make-believe pasts are a real delight.
    I think the solution is neat too and it all winds up in a satisfactory way.

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    1. I agree that the melding of reality and macabre fiction is beautifully handled, it’s a great book to read early on to see how effortlessly these elements formed a constant background to the more attention-grabbing narrative.

      However, I think you do feel Carr’s callowness here; he joins it all together with a Macguffin of nonsensical blandness, and the eventual scheme is sadly lacking in creativity after the loopiness of the Bencolin books. I can see contemporary readers wondering what this Fell fella was going to turn into, and wondering if the halcyon days of Henri were behind them. What a time to be alive!

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      1. That’s an interesting point of view, and in some sense I agree. The solution itself was brilliant but felt maybe a little underwhelming in the context of how it was presented?

        Love the idea that there were big Bencolin fans left upset, not knowing what was the come!

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    2. I love these ‘make believe pasts’ like you said. And Carr handles it so well, what should be a ridiculous premise, particularly with the tradition of staying on the prison over night, is so believable and terrifying in the context.

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      1. The chained historical crimes that you get in the likes of Hag’s Nook, The Red Widow Murders, and Dark of the Moon are some of my favorite elements of Carr’s writing, and similar to what enchanted me about Halter’s The Mad Man’s Room and The Demon of Dartmoor. There’s this stunning puzzle about how such a series of unexplainable murders could be linked over time. How are the deaths related to each other? How did the present day murderer learn the secret of the past impossibilities? If you really give in to the fiction of those questions then it is incredibly enjoyable.

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  3. I’m really enthusiastic about Hag’s Nook and feel that in some ways it captures all of the best characteristics of Carr. In my mind this entry stands apart from the rest of the early Fell novels – it feels in a sense like an early Merrivale, at least in terms of the heavy gothic hook. My opinion may be tainted – it was my first JDC novel and I didn’t grasp the landscape of his career at the time that I read it. Of course the fact that it was my first Carr also meant that the misdirection left my jaw hanging on the ground.

    I’m just as excited to hear that you finished The White Priory Murders – I have to know what you thought about that one!

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    1. I forgot that this was your first Carr. I have been thinking a lot about how original and gobsmacking the solution was at the time, and reading it early on in your GAD obsession and as your first Carr you have the closest experience to reading it at the time.

      As I said above I feel like the solution and variations have been done to death since.

      White Priory was very good, and I enjoyed it a lot. I’m a very annoyed though as I guessed the no footprints solution and its trappings because the bloody Queens stole it for one of their shorts (not a good one either) that I had already read. But Carr used in so much better, and the plot reversal is magical.

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      1. That The White Priory Murders was ruined for you is a crime. The moment the true solution was alluded to was the most earth shattering experience in my GAD reading to date. I hope you still post a review of it, I’m curious to see your thoughts.

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      2. Yeah man so so aggravating as I feel I would have bit smashed over the head by it otherwise! Yes I will write something about, generally thought it was another great book. So many awesome ideas, like how the dog features for example and the washbowl in the bedroom. Anyway I have said to much!

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  4. This is indeed early Carr at his best and remember being amused when Dr. Fell badmouthed my country for bringing tea into England in 1666. You’re welcome, you tea-guzzling, stiff-upper-lipped twats. 😉
    Anyway, I actually wanted to re-read this one ever since coming across Christopher Bush, because remember that the book (plot-wise) is pretty close Bush. Right down to the use of a clever alibi-trick. I want to take a second look at The Mad Hatter Mystery for exactly the same reason.

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  5. I love the reversal that the solution of Hag’s Nook creates. It’s something so unexpected and yet so perfect that I wanted to laugh as soon as I read about it.
    The atmosphere of the novel is delicious and the family curse and secret is something that kept me enthralled throughout the book. The culprit was quite obvious ( I seem to have a problem when it comes to figuring out the murderer’s in the Dr. Fell books) but the scene where the butler chases down the someone (the killer? I’m a bit hazy on the exact details) after a movie is pure entertainment.

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    1. That butler scene is magical! Such a great little side character, wonderfully observed. And I love that laugh out loud moment, as I have said a few times here I wonder how original it all was for the time. Its one of those solutions, similar to Nine and Death Makes Ten that makes you realise just how much you missed.

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      1. Gotta love Carr for being able to make you feel both stupid and amazed at the same time in multiple books 😄.
        Hope you enjoyed WPM, the book itself drag’s a bit, but the impossibility is more than worth any effort put in.

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