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.

Advertisements

After The Funeral: Agatha Christie (1953)

It’s wonderful to be back in the world of Christie. My last read from the Queen of Crime was Death on the Nile for the Carr vs Christie fists out face off with JJ and Brad (spoiler heavy so watch out!) And I must say that after Death on the Nile I felt a little deflated. It is indeed a wonderfully clever book, but I found the plot to be pretty see-through and easy.

afterfocus_1531941908773

I had gotten therefore into the (oh so false!) mindset that maybe Christie was an easy plotter, and that having now read more in the genre I would now find her books lacking. And then I read After The Funeral… What a fool I have been! This book knocked my block off and it was such a joy to be back in the hands of the Queen.

The story considers the complex inner workings of the Abernethie family as they gather in the country manor Enderby Hall, after the funeral of the infamous Richard Abernethie. That evening the family come together for a tension filled reading of the will and it is then that the well meaning but ridiculous Aunt Cora utters her earth shattering exclamation: ‘but he was murdered wasn’t he?’ 

The book from here explores each family feud and secret, every dark look and false word to their limits. Sucking in many characters on the way this builds into a rich and layered ocean of a plot to explore what Cora’s chilling sentence could have meant, and if it was true, who did it.

After the Funeral has some of the best observed characters in Christies’s books I have read so far. Published in 1953, towards the later end of Christie’s output (although she still wrote 23 books after this one!), Poirot is shown as an ageing figure, totally unknown to the crowd of suspects, and therefore just a ‘ridiculous foreigner’, a status which he uses to his advantage to draw out information from the suspects, and a tool that Christie uses as an acidic piece of satire on 1950’s British values, and the views of other nations.

There is a striking passage that in these unsettling times of Brexit here in the UK seems to be more relevant than ever. At this point in the novel, Poirot is posing as the buyer for a refugee charity looking to purchase the family home, now that Sir Richard has died, to develop it into a post war refugee centre. Here he is talking to the Butler Lanscombe, a man who has seen everything and reflects on the destructive results of war:

“If it has to be an institution of some kind, I’ll be glad to think it’s the kind your mentioning… We’ve always welcomed the unfortunate in this country, sir, it’s been our pride. We shall continue to do so.” 

If only welcoming the unfortunate were still our pride here in the UK.

But what impressed me more than anything with this book was the solution. Oh man the solution! The reason for the murder, the motivations, and the reasons for those motivations are exquisite and relate much to my last post in that as you read the solution – which is gorgeously paced – the depth of misdirection continuously reveals itself and blows you away.  It’s one of those books that you can bask in the memory of as you think back to it. Very excited for my next Christie when I get to it. Crooked House or Death Comes as The End are on the Horizon!

How a Solution Becomes a Story – The Curse of the Bronze Lamp: Carter Dickson (1945)

A stone cold classic set-up for a stone cold classic work from Carter Dickson, aka John Dickson Carr. Clearly inspired by the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, the story centres around an ancient Egyptian lamp bearing a curse: anyone who tries to take it out of Egypt will be ‘blown to dust’.

1A0A6955
Love this old 1950s hand painted cover from Pan-books

This threat is made to the young Lady Helen Loring, a fiery, hyper-intelligent woman travelling back from Egypt to England after a 1930s, world famous archeological dig. Helen is told that she will not make it home to her room, and that before she arrives she will dematerialise.

Helen is seen walking into her house by two witnesses, the bronze lamp in hand, ready to prove the curse wrong. Someone on the inside hears her arrive, her footsteps making echoes on the flagstones of the lobby. But the footsteps suddenly stop, the sound disappearing. Two others arrive in the lobby seconds later to find the bronze lamp laying on the floor and no sign of Helen. There are no hiding places in the house (we are repeatedly shown) and every single exit – whether window or door – was watched, there being many hired hands working on the grounds of the house at the time.

A really unique set up – and, it was great to read a disappearance / dematerialisation / impossible set up from Carr. In a dedication written by Carr to Ellery Queen at the beginning of the book, this ‘miracle-problem’ of a person vanishing is, in his own words, ‘perhaps the most fascinating gambit in detective fiction’. He then goes on to say ‘I will do no more than make cryptic reference to Mr James Phillimore and his Umbrella. You have been warned.’ A gorgeous and enticing dedication, and fans of Sherlock Holmes may know that this character of Mr James Phillimore of whom Carr refers, is taken from a line by Dr John Watson in the Sherlock Holmes story, The Problem of Thor Bridge. On talking about cases in his overflowing files that he has not yet the time to write up he states:

‘Among these unfinished tales is that of Mr James Phillimore, who, stepping back into his own house to get his umbrella, was never more seen in this world.’

There are mixed opinions about this book, but I enjoyed it a lot. It seems that it is simply Carr enjoying himself, playing with ideas and characters and having fun with them, at a solid time in his career. Either side of this book we see top rating novels like Till Death do Us Part, He Wouldn’t Kill Patience and He Who Whispers, arguably some of his greatest works. He was certainly in his stride, and although this book doesn’t have the pace, terror or complexities of plotting that these surrounding books have, you can see and feel he his enjoying the exploration of this (at the time I guess) very current subject matter, and the myths surrounding it, while also dedicating a huge amount of time to observing the snapping nerves of the characters as the days go by and Helen isn’t found.

And the solution to the disappearance? How did I feel about it? Well… to be honest I was unsure… At first. But, as things moved on and more elements slotted into place, the plot tightening to it’s extreme, I grew to love it. Those final three chapters served to take the single line that untangled the mystery and expand it into new regions of thought and forehead slapping.

And this got me thinking. I kind of knew this subconsciously, but hadn’t thought enough about it – namely, that the solution in a mystery novel is not just an answer, but is itself a narrative tool and piece of plotting. In a funny a way I had thought that the plot ended at the beginning of the ‘reveal’ and then from there it was the solution until the end, which unravelled the ‘plot’, a separate, distinct element from the solution. But when you look at a writer as good as John Dickson Carr, you realise that this is not the case.

Carr, and many other brilliant writers, use the solution itself as a plotting tool. They pace the solution out to reveal things at just the right moment for the reader, to be the most impactful and meaningful, and they vary these solutions as much as the mysteries they set out at the start.

Take for example the last few chapters of Nine and Death Makes Ten. The solution absolutely blows your mind for how much it reveals to you that you missed, and actually strengthens everything preceeding, re-contextualising all of it. Another stone cold classic Carr The Crooked Hinge has simply a four word reveal to blast open everything. But when you first read them, they seemingly make absolutely no sense, as it takes the whole mystery and all that you think you understand in to a completely different direction. As these four words are expanded in the final chapters the horror and instability that unfolds is wonderful, which reinforces the macabre nature of the story built by the mystery up till that point. It’s in these kind of examples that Carr has incredible fun with the steady revealing and piecing together of the solution, in many cases still misdirecting you and throwing you read herrings even as he reveals what has occurred.

Of course there are many works that subvert the whole idea of the solution, or where the entire plot is a solution, or multiple solutions as with The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkley. But in this instance I am talking about the more ‘traditional’ mystery set up, with a solution that shifts all that you have just read.

Maybe that’s what a solution is, a ‘re-contextualising’ of everything that has come before. A piece of plotting that shifts all previous plotting into a new lens of viewing. Maybe this is obvious to everyone but me, but I find that my appreciation of these works has grown, thinking about how a writer uses a reveal as a narrative tool. A tool not exclusive to mystery fiction, but pushed to it’s limits by the genre.

And often, as I am taken slowly through the reveal by the author, I grow to love the solution even more.

So tell me friends, what works have some of your favourite and uniquely written reveals? And keep it spoiler free!

The Short Stories of Edmund Crispin – Part 2: The Later Works

Back to Crispin’s ingenious and oft-neglected short stories. Last time I looked at Crispin’s early short works and this week I will look at the collecting in Fen Country, which spans the later period of his writing from 1952-1979.

afterfocus_1528480161334
Love these 70’s covers with the painstaking composition or real objects. Including in this case a stuffed cats claw.

A tiny acknowledgements page at the back tells us that Fen Country is compiled of three different collections. Firstly, many of the 26 stories on offer are from the period between 1950 and 1955 where Crispin was writing stories for the London Evening Standard (oh, to have this back again!). Two stories are taken from editions of Ellery Queens Mystery magazine, and two are taken from a collection called Winter’s Crimes, a series that I have heard a little about but would appreciate more info from those in the know. The first volume is on sale on ebay currently at £103, so it’s a rarity now?

As with Beware Of The Trains each story takes one simple problem, or one very clever and specific idea and uses that as a fulcrum for the tale. I was told by my good friend JJ of The Invisible Event  said he felt that the stories here in Fen Country didn’t contain as good plotting, but the ideas were amazing. And that is a really good way to describe it. The shockingly rigorous plotting of Beware of the Trains is not at play here, but it seems like Crispin was having a huge amount of fun, and being much bolder in experimenting, with the central concept used for each tale. There is a focus on the modernist, meta experimentations that Crispin was so good at with his novels, but pushing them to the limit. One story plays with the idea that Crispin himself is the main characters, and plays with your expectations in the reader/author relationship.

afterfocus_1528480564532

Here are my tops tales from the collection:

Who Killed Baker – (1950)
Simply a genius piece of work. This is the first in the collection and kicks things off so well as it shows where Crispin had got to in terms of manipulating the form and subverting the form. Crispin was clearly having a lot of fun here, and I’m sure this story might ruffle a few feathers. I can’t say too much more but the whole piece revolves around the simple statement ‘Who Killed Baker?’ (Geoffrey Bush?)

The Hunchback Back Cat – (1954)
‘Were ALL superstitious… whether we realise it or not. Let me give you a test’. This is Gervase Fen’s opening gambit in a story that again could have made a full novel with all that is crammed into it. It tells the story of the Copping family, a family who, due to parricidal tendencies and tragedies, there are only two left of. The murder of one of them in a locked tower (very reminiscent in description of the room in Jonathan Creek’s The Grinning Man), leads to a wonderful set of double and triple bluffs that I never saw coming. How the superstitious angle closes the case is extremely clever.

A Case in Camera – (1955)
Detective Inspector Humbleby, Crispin’s series detective inspector in the Gervase Fen stories, is keeping a case open against his superior’s wishes. His intuition has convinced him, for the moment, that the suspects statements are a little too consistent. Their alibi rests on a single photograph which places them elsewhere at the time of a brutal murder. How Fen catches them out is such a lovely idea, and again feels like one of those simple happenings that Crispin saw or experienced in day to day life, and sculpted it to be a tale of crime. This type of writing feels very Carrian, and as I have mentioned elsewhere Crispin was inspired to take up the mystery field after reading Carr.

afterfocus_1528481392043

The Pencil – (1953)
When discussing this collection with fellow blogger JJ, this was the story that came to mind for him, and it’s no surprise. Spy thriller in style, The Pencil opens with a contract killer, known only as Elliot, being kidnapped by two assailants, all of which he know would happen and so has planned accordingly.  It has an absolute kicker of an ending and in four pages does more than some novels manage to do!

Death Behind Bars – (1960)
A longer, non series piece, Murder Behind Bars considers how a man being held on suspicion of murder is killed in his locked cell. There is no way of approaching the cell in the time specified, and the murder weapon is no where to be found. Although in ,many ways you can see the solution coming, I really loved it, and it has been used a lot since (and maybe was before). I even saw it in a recent episode of The Dr Blake mysteries even though it wasn’t a locked room scenario. And the motives are especially well spun in this one. But what makes this story even more brilliant is the form that the piece takes, and how that brings everything home to you as the reader, but I’ll let you experience that for yourself.

We Know You’re Busy Writing, But We Thought You Wouldn’t Mind If We Just Dropped in for a Minute – (1969) 
A deliciously dark story, clearly based on the frustrations that Crispin experienced being a writer. The setting is a small, isolated cottage in Devon which is exactly where Crispin lived and worked. The story tells us of one Mr Bradley a writer of adventure stories who has a deadline to meet, but keeps receiving endless interruptions of all kinds at his lonely cottage. The characters here are superb, and the way that Bradley desperately tries to remember the line he was writing as he is interrupted is hilarious. The closing line however, is one of the most chilling you’ll read in a short mystery.

Those are my top stories. I highly recommend this collection. Although they are a mixed bag, I think much of this was down to restrictions in time and word count, especially for the Evening Standard pieces. This struggle for deadlines is something that Crispin showed in full in ‘We Know You’re Busy Writing…’, maybe it was a confessional piece of sorts? If you see this on your travels pick it up!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Men Who Explain Miracles – Episode 5: Our personal top 15 Locked Room Mysteries – JJ’S List

The fan’s gave spoken! You asked for it, and we made it. Off the back of our 3 parter podcast on the infamous top 15 locked room mysteries list, as complied by Ed Hoch in 1981, we bring you our own personal favourites. You can listen to part one here on JJ’s blog.

TOP15-JJ

Over the next two episodes of our podcast myself and JJ of The Invisible Event will take you through 30 locked room novels in rapid 30 minute delivery. We hope you get some great recommendations, and that you enjoy listening as much as we enjoyed making it.

Onwards!

Mr Splitfoot: Helen McCloy (1968)

Psychologist, and consultant to the DA’S office Basil Willing, and his wife Gisela are travelling in New England for a skiing holiday when a vicious snow storm cut’s off their journey. Sliding along on perilously icy mountainside roads, there car breaks down and they take to their skis to find help at the nearest town. When Gisela slips in the snow storm and breaks her ankle, they are forced to seek help at the nearest house they can find in this remote landscape.

afterfocus_1520502087801
I love this old edition I found in London. Paper back with red pages.

They receive a strange welcome at a place called Crow’s Flight, where a party of guests are having a not altogether peaceful family gathering. The snow coming down so hard there are all stuck together for the night, but the house being full there are apparently no spare rooms to offer the Willings. That is until one unthinking member of the party offers the room at the top of the stairs. But, of course, that room has been locked for years, as many moons ago it was the sight of three, horrific and demonic impossible deaths. Anyone who stayed in the room over night was subsequently found dead the next morning. With no marks to be found on the bodies, from the conditions of the corpses the doctors at the time could only say one thing, that these people had died from fright. The horror story has clearly had an effect on many of the family, particularly 15 year old Lucinda. A few suggest that the only way to break this curse is for someone to stay in the room overnight. Casting lots, one goes in, with a book to keep themselves awake, and bell to ring incase of trouble. The door is watched the entire time from the bottom of the stairwell. And no one can enter from any other side. But when that bell inevitably rings what the others find is scary to say the least.

The first thing that I’ll say about this book is that I am glad I had a break before writing about it. I actually read this book a few weeks back, and since then it has grown on me more and more. I am realising that McCloy has a subtlety of writing that in many ways only makes sense upon reflection, after it has a chance to settle. This writing style won’t be to everyones taste (what writing style would?) but this is certainly a book that has grown on me the more I reflect on it.

And when McCloy hits her stride in Mr Splitfoot, she hits it hard. The best parts show off what she was really good at: horror, atmosphere and character, alongside wonderful clewing and misdirection. The set up of the historical impossible murders and the subsequent present day one is pure terror. This is one of those books that you shouldn’t read late at night, or you’ll be seeing things in every shadow.

However, there are few times in this book where McCloy’s subtlety gives way to a dragging pace of writing. This is for a number of reasons. Firstly a large amount of the book is written from the perspective of the 15 year old girl Lucinda. This is surprisingly authentic and believable, Lucinda’s rambling thought processes really feel like a 15 year old brain. The problem is that these authentically meandering reflections make these sections terribly slow going. Pace and atmosphere is lost in the rambling thoughts of the teenage mind. McCloy ironically does herself a disservice in pacing by authentically observing a young character.

In this same context is the misplaced use of psychological reflection in the narrative. I don’t mean that a detective novel or impossible crime story should not have these kinds of psychological angles, but it’s that the novel that McCloy is giving us doesn’t seem to require them. Basil Willing is of course a psychologist and in Cue for Murder, which I read an reviewed last year, there are incredibly intelligent and understated discussions on psychology, and the mind of the killer. And why they acted the way that they did is worked in a totally natural way that forwards and develops the plot, and therefore the solution. With Mr Splitfoot however, this just isn’t a psychological murder case, McCloy just doesn’t give us that. Instead she gives us impossibility butting head to head with horror, within a classic manor house/who-dun-it frame work, and does it well. Therefore the psychological reflections, feels lost, and heavy-handed, slowing the book down again.

I think this book would have worked much better as a stand alone work, without a detective, or with a local officer on the case instead. And the claustrophobia she paints would have been more believable and impactful if we just had this small cast of characters without an outsider coming in.

The final thing that makes elements of this book drag is McCloy’s propensity to over explain clothes, rooms and furniture. She does set a scene very well, and has a deft way with descriptive verse. But, for example, there is a section in the centre of the book when things are hotting up and Willing finds himself in the house of a nearby neighbour. The difference in class from one house to other is explored through the description of the furniture, but oh man you just want to get moving forward! The subsequent scene then acted out is not exciting enough to balance out against the lengthy description.

However, the locked room, and the solution to the impossible death I really liked. In the ranks of ‘rooms that kill’ or ‘rooms where you always die’ this one is up there for me. What takes the solution to the next level, and again this shows McCloy at her best, is that not only is it brutal, and horrific, but the revelation fit’s in totally with the plot, with the atmosphere, and with the nature of the killer. A terrifying method to an equally terrifying book.

So when all is said and done here, Mr Splitfoot has a huge amount going for it, and I would recommend putting in on your to-be-read pile. I look forward to reading more of her oeuvre to see what she was capable of. But there are certainly those dragging moments in this book. It may be to your taste, it may not, but the reader is warned!

 

The Men Who Explain Miracles – Episode 4: The top 15 locked room mysteries of all time (part 1)

It is with pleasure that I announce that the forth and a very special episode of our locked room mysteries podcast The Men Who Explain Miracles is now online. Started by myself and JJ of The Invisible Event, the series explores locked room mysteries and impossible crime fiction.

You can listen to the episode over at JJ’s blog here

Top15_Blog_Image

This episode is the first in a three parter exploring the (so called) top 15 locked room mysteries of all time. This list, compiled by Ed Hoch in 1981, was created when Hoch asked 17 experts to give there suggestions for what would be the best of the best of impossible crimes.

Over the next three weeks we are going to look at all of them. 5 books per episode, all spoiler free, to see if they stand up to the test of time, and if these really are the top 15. You can see the full list here at Mystery File.

This episode we discuss:

Invisible Green (1977) by John Sladek
Too Many Magicians (1967) by Randal Garrett
He Wouldn’t Kill Patience (1944) by Carter Dickson
Through a Glass, Darkly (1950) by Helen McCloy
The King is Dead (1952) by Ellery Queen

To hear previous episodes of The Men Who Explain Miracles you can visit our sound cloud here (while we work to transfer everything over to WordPress). Enjoy, and join you over at JJ’s blog for debate and discussion galore!