Having 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.
I’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.