The Architecture of Terror: The Curious case of John Dickson Carr’s Death Watch (1935) and the John Soane Museum – (Part 1)

Ah, what a joy to be back in the midst of Carrian plotting, atmosphere and cunning. In a brief hiatus on the blog to sort out some bits in what we call ‘life’, I have had some time to squeeze in a few marvelous mysteries. And now I am back in the blogging world with the first of a three-parter that I am giving over to another of Carr’s unexpected treasures, Death Watch.

Written in 1935 Death Watch sits between Plague Court and White Priory on one side, and straight after we have The Hollow Man and Red Widow. So Death Watch comes at pretty poignant time in Carr’s career, surrounded by such giants of his work.

I wanted to get to this book specifically after finding such a lovely Penguin copy (pictured above) in Black Gull books Camden on my second hand book walk. And also as Ben from the Green Capsule had peaked my interest when we recorded our Men Who Explain miracles mega-double-whammy podcast episode on the stages of Carr’s career.

To me Death Watch sits curiously in Carr’s ouvre and feels like we have been watching a master magician come off the stage after an amazing show, and then backstage proceed to show you some fresh, intimate, cutting edge tricks he has been working on. Tricks that he wouldn’t put in the main stage show, because they are a little out there and ahead of their time, but that pile on the ingenuity in fresh ways. If that makes sense?…. No? Let’s move on.

I’m going to take a different approach from the normal review. There are some great right ups in the bloggersphere (links at the bottom) if you are interested to see what Death Watch is all about. For this first post of three I’m going to talk about what I believe are a number of internal secrets that I have spotted in a second reading of Death Watch. In particular the use of architecture in the book, and more specifically the homage to one British architect, the great John Soane. Now before you yawn and close your laptop/phone screen stay with me. I propose that this singular relationship to John Soane and his now famous museum in central London, are like a secret backbone, weaved through the book that helps us to see the text in a new light. Let us begin.

The House that John Built.

John Soane (1753-1837) was a British architect most famous for designing the huge Bank of England building and Dulwich Picture gallery, the first art gallery in the world. He was the head of architecture at the Royal Academy and through his life he amassed a huge amount of sculptural, artistic and architectural artifacts which he displayed in a beautiful and intricately purpose built interior, which stretches across two houses, now open to the public and known as the John Soane Museum. If you’ve never been you have to go.

The Museum
One of the many winding interiors housing Soane’s collections

Why is this important? Well, Carr’s Death Watch is set almost entirely in a single, large house. This house is stated in chapter one as being number 16 Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The John Soane Museum is (in real life) situated at number 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Dr Melson, our young, tag along british side kick to Dr Fell in this case, makes direct reference to the museum in chapter one and the chapter is even called An Open Door in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Carr wanted us to notice this.

And there is more. Take for example, one of the first detailed descriptions as we enter the household of Johanus Carver, watch and clock maker of Death Watch. Notably, the staircase. This staircase will be heavily featured, playing vital roles in the tale, and is described by Carr with a beautifully sinister bite:

It was a prim stairway, with heavy banisters, dull-flowered carpet underfoot, and brass stair-rods; it was a symbol of solid English homes, where no violence can come, and did not creek as they mounted it.

It is also described in chapter three as being if a reddish flowered design carpet that runs into the corridors. Compare those descriptions with the main staircase in the John Soane museum (pictured below) and you’ll get where I am going with this.

The main staircase of the Soane Museum

Coincidence? Let’s continue. After this detail the most telling aspect for me is the room in which the victim is found splayed across the threshold. This room is described as being filled with dark wooden book shelves that cover the walls, Morris chairs, a deep leather couch and high backed Hepplewhite chairs. Look at John Soane’s living room and the similarities abound.

One half of the Soanes living room.
Hepplewhite chairs lined up at the back. They feature throughout the book.

At this stage you could say that this is Carr simply referencing or that many houses could have had these items. But Carr takes it a step further. Their is a notable difference in the living room of Soane and the room of Death Watch where we find our victim: the bookshelves are only shoulder height rather than ceiling height. This is because hung above them, Carr tells us that copies of the famous series of oil paintings The Rake’s Progress by the English painter William Hogarth. This is important. Famously the Soane house and new museum contains the entire original eight paintings of The Rake’s Progress in a purpose built room, and this for me is where the comparison gets really interesting.

‘A Rake’s Progress – The Orgy’ – Painting III
‘A Rake’s Progress – The Gaming House’ – Painting VI

Artworks feature heavily in Carr’s works, and by including The Rake’s Progress, Carr takes a step from visual and atmospheric inspiration, to using the structure and meaning of the Soane museum to drive the plot.

In fact I am proposing dear reader that Carr stood in the room of the John Soane Museum where The Rake’s Progress series is hung and the structure of Death Watch was built in his mind.

I say this for two reasons. Firstly The Rakes Progress, and how one encounters these paintings in within the architecture of the John Soane Museum, is essentially linked to the plot of Death Watch.

Secondly, and for me what makes this whole relationship between Soane and Carr so good, is that The Rakes Progress is a narrative set of paintings, a narrative that Carr uses as a bedrock for his characters in Death Watch. I can only say so much here, but the traditional character of the ‘Rake’ (or a ‘Rakehell) and his journey through the paintings is mirrored in a number of the characters and their journey through the plot of Death Watch. Carr’s book is a subtle but powerful nod of thanks to John Soanes, his home and his collection. Interesting right? (Well it’s been fun for me!)

More historical ‘movements’:

Here’s a few more little historical gems that reveal themselves:

The titular ‘Death Watch’ of the book is taken, as Carr states in his very tongue in cheek prologue, from a description he saw in a clock makers reference book: F.J.Britten’s Old Clocks and Watches and their Makers, published in 1932, probably just as he was writing Death Watch. I have since found that book and here are the illustrations of the ‘Death Watch’ itself.

These watches known as Memento Mori watches were made by a mysterious French watch maker known only as ‘Moyse’. The one used in Death Watch was owned by Mary Queen of Scotts, and the same narrative runs in Carr’s story. In real life the watch was given to one of Queen Mary’s ladies in waiting, Mary Seton. The name Seton will jump out to many Carr obsessives, as being the surname of one of Carr’s most vital career characters, Fay Seton from He Who Whispers.

That book is set in a small fictional french town near Chartris, very similar to the french town of Reims where Mary Seton finished her days as a nun, and where the watch was discovered. (I could be reading into things here too much but I’m enjoying myself dammit!)

– Soane had many clocks in his collection, spread out in different rooms, and a number of clocks and the way they are shown in Death Watch match those in the Soane collection.

– In the third painting of The Rake’s Progress, Tom ‘the Rake’ is having his watch stolen by a women at a fancy party. The opening crime in Death Watch is a unsolved murder in which a woman has killed a man and stole a famous watch.

– The pub at which many of the cast of Death Watch hang out is called the Dutchess of Portsmouth. This pub doesn’t exist but the next road on from Lincoln’s Inn Fields is Portsmouth Road, named after Dutchess of Portsmouth, one of Charles the II’s mistresses.

– Charles the II housed the Dutchess in a property on the corner of what is now Portsmouth Road, this house subsequently became famous for being the so called ‘Curiosity Shop’ that features in Charles Dickens famous work Master Humphries Clock, which, wait for it, is a bout a story teller who keeps his manuscripts locked inside an ancient clock. Clocks, watches, time pieces, they are everywhere!

Times running out!

Okay okay, I’m possibly overstating my findings here. But what I love about all these links I am drawing out, is being given what I feel like is a secret window into the mind of the master himself. Where Carr found his inspiration has always been an interest to me as his ideas and settings were so diverse. Here we can imagine him at the John Soane house, surrounded my incredible artifacts, architecture and paintings and the cogs start turning as plot lines and impossible mechanisms fall into place like the beautiful structure of a rare skull-watch.

See you in part two.

From other bloggers:

Ben at – The Green Capsule

JJ at – The Invisible Event

Kate at – Cross Examining Crime

The Men Who Explain Miracles – Episode 8:1 -The Impossible Crimes of Paul Halter

We are back with another episode of TMWEM and very excited for this two parter. Myself and JJ of The Invisible Event are looking at the modern locked room aficionado Paul Halter. As I have read none of Halter’s work, JJ is going to try and convince me over these two episodes get to get stuck in.

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In this episode we discuss who on earth Paul Halter is, what he does and where he is placed in the world of all things impossible.

You can listen to the episode here on JJ’s blog

As ever the comments section is open for debate and furious discussion, so pop over and join us. Enjoy!

The White Priory Murders: Carter Dickson (1934) – Does having an authors entire career before you make reading ‘un-fair-play’?

I continue with my current John Dickson Carr (Carter Dickson) binge, and I have come to the conclusion that I officially love being told that a work by Carr is sub standard. Because every time I then seem to love the book!

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I was told Graveyard to Let wasn’t worth a huge amount of time, and now it’s one of my top locked room works. This also goes for The Problem of the Wire Cage, and Nine and Death Makes Ten. It seems that many of us on the bloggersphere over the last few years have had similar experiences with Carr, and that the works always seen as the top tier are being replaced somewhat by ‘lesser’ titles.

I’m not a fool though. I realise that Patrick Butler for the Defense, when I get round to it, is never going to be a surprise smash hit (although there must be good elements to it right? Somewhere?), and Blind Barber was never going to get any easier to read even with the four month break I took at the half way point. And if Ben’s recent review of Papa La Bas is anything to go by, I haven’t got much to look forward to there. However these books are talked about as simply and objectively bad. But these aside, many of Carr’s works are discussed as if they are missing something, or that they don’t compare to the heights achieved in his ‘masterpieces’. This in recent years has lowered my expectation of certain Carr books, only to have these works unexpectedly reveal something wonderful.

This has got me thinking: when we have an authors entire oeuvre in front of us, does that make reading their works a fair process?

As an example I’m looking at the The White Priory Murders, an early Carr novel and one of his first impossible crime works. In reading about this the main opinion seems to be that it’s a brilliant locked room with an amazing solution trapped in a sensationalist and dragging story. So I was geared up for that. I had held off till I had a bit more time, and at 250 pages it’s one Carr’s longer ones. I was ready for a real wrestle just to get to the solution. But, I ended up having the reverse experience.

It felt to me that each scene made sense being there, characters or dialogue didn’t seem superfluous, and even with the extended page count, each piece fitted together in a gorgeous plot with simple but shocking turns over the chapters that it kept me going at high pace. The glamorous Hollywood Movie Star Marcia Tait has traveled to England to make a new film. Staying at the gorgeous White Priory, she insists on sleeping the night in the Pavilion. A building set in the middle of a huge lake, with only one footpath to reach it. The lake is frozen solid. Both the ice and the path are covered with fresh snow after Tait goes in for the night, and it’s proved that no one went in with her. However early morning comes and Tait is found beaten to death, with no footprints left in the snow. The cast surrounding Tait, her agent, lover, play write and all the other trappings of fame, all wanted to control her, but was she playing a roll or was she the one in control?

A great set up and I couldn’t wait to get to the solution. I had heard it was highly original and a real kicker. But alas it was ruined for me. Another lesser author had stolen the solution for another work, and done it so much worse, which meant that I was onto it from early on. But Carr does it so so well, and the misdirection and the clicking of pieces together by the end is luscious. How the dog keeps coming into play is a particular favourite, and there are large amounts of false solutions and ideas presented. It felt as if Carr at this early stage of locked room writing was saying, “I see your no-footprints solution and I raise you 3 more solutions, all of which are false.”

Seeing the solution coming in the distance was another reason why I had a reverse experience with this book. I wasn’t plowing to get to the end and although many say that the middle drags, I was waiting for that moment but didn’t find it myself. Maybe I was in a good mood, and I’ve got it wrong, I’m not sure. There are certainly some sensationalist parts to this book, some misogyny, and some early Carr verbosity (but not to the level of It Walks By Night), but Carr is dealing with the world of Hollywood meats British academia which in itself is a pretty farcical setup. And he lets the caricatures have their day. Carr also knowingly subverts this; Merrivale making a few comments on how people are talking ‘as if they are in a stupid detective play’, so maybe this is the early stages of his subversion that we would see in the more post-modern breakdowns in the likes of The Hollow Man. With that in mind lets head back to the question of Oeuvre .

I have spoken in mine and JJ’s locked room podcast about how strange it is that we are almost always looking back when reading classic GAD. We are looking back on authors’ entire bodies of work in one go, it’s a unique experience. But being able to stand back from an entire life’s work can have negative effects on how certain works are seen. It is much easier for works to become unfairly mythologised (Hollow Man / Murder of Roger Ackroyd) and become supposedly representative of what the writer was trying to achieve in their entire writing career. My feeling is that by not being there at the time of the release of a book, we miss something about what the writer was trying to achieve in that one work at that time, and not over a whole career.

In a funny way I had built a strange anxiety about reading Carr, in that I wanted each one I read to be ‘the one’. The one I could give to people to draw them into GAD, the one that would be representative of his career, and of the ‘master of the locked room’. But I think sometimes these mythologised titles we give to GAD authors and the context of the ‘masterpieces’ they achieved, is unhelpful in approaching their work. We can miss what gems there are in each work by unfairly laboring them with what is to come.

When myself JJ and Ben did our podcast two-parter on the Ages of John Dickson Carr it opened my eyes to see his work in a totally fresh way. I have stopped trying to look at Carr as a locked room master but as an experimental crime, supernatural and suspense author, who was trying out new things with each work and constantly stretching and challenging the boundaries of his genre.

But in saying all this, I know that as I read these lesser known works I can enjoy a ‘substandard’ Carr more because I know that he wrote even better. I can see the light shimmering in the cracks knowing what is to come. So maybe then it’s not a struggle with contextualising an author in terms of their career but maybe a false contextualising that makes you think that a writer had a certain type of writing focus that they actually didn’t, and therefore reading their books in that context isn’t entirely fair-play to them?

This may come under the huge mental subheading of ‘things that only I think are interesting’ but I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Speak soon friends

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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 – My List!

Last week you had the opportunity to listen (and scrutinise) JJ’s list, and this week it’s all about me. 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 have created out own top 15 lists. And this week you can listen to mine here over an JJ’s blog. 

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Discussion and debate are well and truly underway, so go over and tell me all the wonderful books I’ve left out, the mistakes I’ve made, and what you would have chosen.

And as ever thanks for listening, the response from you all has been so wonderful and we are super super thankful.

Enjoy!

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.

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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!