Death Watch

deathwatch2Having been slowly working my way through the top 1/4 of Carr books, I’ve decided to become a little more adventurous.  In part, this was due to accidentally reading Fire, Burn (a typically low rated Carr work) and enjoying it.  Another influencer was JJ, over at The Invisible Event, who included both Death Watch and The Man Who Could Not Shudder in a list of Carr books to try.  The recommendations seemed unusual – both of these books have a somewhat diminished standing on review sites.  When first building my reputation-based list of Carr novels to avoid, both of these titles were in heavy consideration for inclusion.  Death Watch in particular is regularly panned in reviews, but I stumbled upon several other blogs that positioned it as a worthy read.  As such, I’ve been mixing up my To Be Read stack a little, and recently took on Death Watch instead of Till Death Do Us Part.

Death Watch revolves around the murder of a detective who was investigating a brazen killing in a crowded department store.  The detective is found dead, stabbed in the neck with an unusual weapon – the minute hand of a clock.  He has seemingly been lured to a clockmaker’s house under the pretense of receiving evidence exposing one of the inhabitants as the killer from the department store.  It is at this house that Dr Fell discovers the crime scene and Carr introduces us to a cast of suspects.  Immediately, we get the sense that not all is as it seems – something is clearly being hidden and it isn’t hard to detect that nearly every character’s account is laced with lies.

First off, this is not an impossible crime, much less a locked room mystery.  Similar to The Emperor’s Snuff box, we are presented with an interesting puzzle, but it could have been done by any number of people in any number of ways.  Ah, but that is how Carr traps you – as the story progresses and more and more clues and alibis present themselves, the puzzle becomes more suffocating.  As with The Emperor’s Snuff Box, the pacing is excellent and you never sense a lull or a predictability in where the story is going to go next.

The book opens with Dr Fell stumbling upon the crime, and then follows his subsequent investigation.  Unlike other tales where Fell comes in and out of the story, he is a central character throughout.  You get plenty of the detective, and it is Fell at his best.  If you love the jovial nature, beer swilling, and wheezing on two canes, you’ll get that throughout.  It also means that Carr can throw a dizzying array of puzzles and reveals at you, as the detective always seems to be making progress towards a solution.

deathwatch1I’ve seen complaints that the story is “just a bunch of people talking.”  Yes, it is, but for that matter, so is The Judas Window.  I find many parallels with that novel.  We start with an interesting crime and the remainder of each book is a sequence of reveal after reveal.  You always feel like you’re learning some game changing fact, even when you have 3/4 of the book still to go.  To me, this is Carr at his best – allowing the reader to feel as if they are making tremendous progress, while at the same time winding the trap tighter and tighter.  By the end, the story almost does become an impossible crime, just one that you didn’t realize was there all along.

So, how does it rate?  For me, there are a few considerations.

  • If the criteria is a consistently engaging story, I’d place this in the top of Carr’s work, inhabiting a space alongside the two previously mentioned novels – The Emperor’s Snuff Box and The Judas Window.
  • If we’re rating this across Carr’s work, a heavy factor for me is going to be the impossible crime element.  As mentioned above, this isn’t an impossible crime, although I still had no clue how the murder had been committed.

The benefit of the first factor ultimately outweighs the lack of the second, and I’ll definitely rate Death Watch highly in future lists.

38 thoughts on “Death Watch”

  1. as the story progresses and more and more clues and alibis present themselves, the puzzle becomes more suffocating

    I think this is one of the things I liked most about this — it’s an insanely dense puzzle, with the first half just spiralling more and more wildly out of control to th point that I was worried the eventual resolution would just throw in a bunch of unconnected explanations as a way of justifying everything (hey, ti was an Early Carr for me, I didn’t yet grasp how awesome the man was!). And yet now, looking back on it, it still makes perfect sense, and can still piece everthing together and see where every thread leads and comes from…as a piece of pure plotting (and, yeah, there is a lot of talking, isn’t there?) I think it’s an absolute masterwork.

    Comapre this to a lot of Carr’s early work, and they all have a similar structure: the first half is spent setting up the problem, so that at pretty much the exact 50% point you have some massive headache over what happened and how (cf. Walks by Night, Poison in Jest, Bowstring, Plague Court, White Priory, Red Widow). The advantage that this has over something like Red Widow Murders is that every sentence to that point has contributed directly to the puzzle — no historical dalliances to add a bit of atmosphere, no comical asides a la Blind Barber — and you have this immensely dense puzzle that is then stripped away layer by layer over the second half, rather than a smattering of clues and a final reveal. Past 1934 his structure begins to loosen up a bit, he starts to play around with the nature of the build-up and the reveal, and in my opinion Death-Watch is the book that had the most effect in this happening, because it was the point where Carr started deliberately mixing up what he did and finding out if it would work.

    It’s also worth noting that, after 1935, the book that most fits this style of structure is Four False Weapons, which is a return to his first sleuth Henri Bencolin…I’ve wondered for a while now whether he abandoned Bencolin because he (Carr) found that he (Bencolin) would only really work in these types of structures and wanted to continue stretching himself. Dunno. But it’s fun to speculate!

    Anyway, I’m extrememly pleased that you enjoyed this. Keep up the great work with the blog, it’s wonderful to hear about someone discovering and enjoying their Carr 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Golden Age of Detective Fiction

Detective Fiction of the 1920's & 1930's

Solving the Mystery of Murder

Investigating how classic crime writers plot their mysteries.

A Crime is Afoot

A Random Walk Through Classic Crime Fiction

Long Live The Queens!

About Ellery Queen and other GAD authors

James Scott Byrnside

Author of impossible-crime murder mysteries

Countdown John's Christie Journal

A review of Agatha Christie's crime novels and short stories from beginning to end

Dead Yesterday

Classic Mysteries and Domestic Suspense


The annex to John Grant's *A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir*

Justice for the Corpse

Reviews of classic fair-play mystery fiction - spoiler-free unless otherwise noted

Composed Almost Entirely of Books

Books read, books written, books I just spotted and covet like an ox

Mysteries Ahoy!

Detecting Great Crime Fiction

Only Detect

Book Reviews, Mostly

%d bloggers like this: