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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Forgotten Authors – Holly Roth: The Mask of Glass (1957)

I love finding a mystery writer that I have never come across before, which as you dig deeper into this ol’ world of classic crime fiction is sometimes easier than you think. It’s even better to come across one in a second hand bookshop and, for some whimsical reason, to be taken with the title, the cover or description (though I try not to read those too much) and decide to go with it. So begins my relationship with Holly Roth.

HR Final

Very little information exists online about Roth (any experts on her work out there I would love to hear from you), but what I gleaned about her from this 1957 paperback of The Mask Of Glass and other online sources is very interesting. Roth was a highly intelligent woman of the world, born in Chicago and moving between America, England and Europe, she finally resided in New York. Beginning her career as a model she left that for newspaper and magazine work before settling on the mystery and suspense field, publishing 12 novels under three different names and writing a number of television and film mysteries. Her works were serialised in magazines and very much are part of the pulp genre, although with a GAD feel and twist.

Roth composed extremely tightly plotted stories and The Mask of Glass is no exception. Clocking in at only 154 pages and containing really only two main characters this is a pacy, contained piece. The Independent in their forgotten authors series ‘Invisible Ink’, described Roth’s thrillers as ‘high-concept before the term had been created’, and The Mask Of Glass fits that bill perfectly:

Jimmy Kennemore of the US Army Counter-Intelligence Corps, wakes up in hospital to find himself unable to move, bandaged and cast all over, his head wrapped up with a few spaces for eye holes. He has been saved by a Doctor Steinfeld (‘Doc’) a long term family friend, but the Doc doesn’t know what has happened and by the looks of it neither does Jimmy. As he slips in and out of consciousness Jimmy is forced to mentally reconstruct the last few days events, that lead to the intense night of violence he experienced. As each piece of the story unravels it builds into an exploration of corruption, murder and the haunting nature of a shifting identity, as Kennemore decides what action he can take in the wake of this terror.

I find it very frustrating when reviewers say things like ‘I wasn’t sure at first but then it turned out to be brilliant’, but in this case this really sums up my experience with this book. As you begin the writing is deceptively sparse, extremely tight, with absolutely no fuss, and therefore quite quiet in how it initially comes across. But it’s this restraint of description, plot and dialogue that carries you as the reader into a intriguing and refreshing space, and the simplicity in her writing allows the tension to be turned up to high when it comes; something that Roth was also a deft hand at. We follow Kennemore the entire time, each chapter only serves to advance the story, with very little deviation away from stepping forward.

There are some lovely ideas in terms of counter intelligence mixed with detection style deductions and reveals. The cypher and solution to the six pages of stencilled black dots found in a stolen file, and Kennemore’s ability to decipher telephone numbers by listening to the clicks on the dial through the wall are satisfying examples.

The whole book had that feeling (can you relate to this?) where something about it gets under your skin and when you are not reading about it you are thinking about it. Not so much a ‘I must know whats going to happen’ but just something about the precise and stripped back context she has created makes me want to get back to that world and to inhabit it again.

My one objection to Roth’s style is her desire for naturalism in dialogue. The dialogue is not ‘novelistic naturalism’ but reads like actual dialogue you would say or hear, and therefore can be so natural it becomes obvious, unneeded or stilted. But on the other hand this ‘slice of life’ style works well in setting up the atmosphere of New York, and the little instances in cafes, taxi’s and sidewalks serve the narrative well.

Roth came to a tragic and mysterious end herself. In 1964 she was sailing on and living aboard a ketch with her Czechoslovakian husband Joseph Franta, when a large ship hit the boat and sailed on into the night. Roth fell from the side and her body was never recovered. The strangest coincidence here is that in Roth’s book Operation Doctors, written just two years before her death, a woman falls from a boat and loses her memory. Frank Roth, Holly’s brother, a rare coin dealer, said at the time of her disappearance that he hadn’t seen her since she got married in 1960. The Mask Of Glass, written in published in 57, is dedicated to Frank ‘with love’.

The Invisible Ink piece closes with this notable passage:

In the Fifties, female suspense writers proved very popular, and Roth was compared with Mary Stewart, Charlotte Armstrong and Margaret Millar, frequently tackling the kind of Cold War-influenced subjects that have now become a strictly male province. Her books were critically overlooked at the time, and if the plots seem far-fetched, her ability to turn up the tension is unquestionable.

I’m looking forward to reading another Roth, and although much more in the pulp/thriller genre, there was a lot about this little book that won me over, I hear as well that others count Shadow Of A Lady as her best work so I hope to find a copy of that soon.

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A little after thought, I am yet to read any Earl Stanley Gardeners ‘The DA…’ series, but from what I have read from the rest of the GAD community, this tight and sparse beauty of writing and plotting that I see in Roth could be said to be a similar experience in reading Gardener? Many of the ‘DA’ books clock in around the 150 page mark as well. Any thoughts anyone?