I recall an interesting debate on a blog about which book would be the best to introduce a newcomer to Carr. Upon the topic being introduced, my mind immediately flashed to classics like The Problem of the Green Capsule and The Judas Window.
This was an obvious reaction – why not start with a story that you’re bound to love? However, as I dug deeper into the comment section, a different position became prevalent. Don’t start with the best and then leave the reader expecting every book to be perfection. Well, I’m probably doing a horrible job paraphrasing the commenter, but the basic logic was that a newcomer should start with a solid story that gives them an introduction to Carr’s writing style, hooks them with a solid impossible crime, and sets the tone for what can be expected with future reading.
As I piece together my thoughts on Hag’s Nook, it strikes me that this might fit the criteria perfectly. Perhaps I’m a bit biased – after all, this was my first encounter with a full length Carr novel. Yet it’s all there – everything that makes a Carr novel great.
Carr lays the atmosphere thick, setting the tale at an abandoned prison complete with an iron maiden and giant rats. Next to the prison lays the Hag’s Nook – a deep pit in which prisoner’s bodies were disposed of after hanging. The setting oozes the type of horror that you may expect from early-year Carr.
Use of historical myth
In many of his best works, Carr uses puzzling crimes from the past to serve as a backdrop for the story. Not only must you solve the present day murder, but you have a series of mysterious deaths in the past to contend with as well.
In this case, the setting of the prison and the Hag’s Nook play a key role. Centuries ago, the warden of the prison died of a broken neck in unexplainable circumstances. Since that time, his ancestors have been stricken with a curse, the males meeting similar fates – death by broken neck.
Some of Carr’s finest efforts lure you in with a mysterious premise of some sort – spending two hours alone in a murder room (The Red Widow Murders), a psychic who kills with thought alone (The Reader is Warned), an unexplainable murder committed in full view of an audience (The Problem of the Green Capsule). In Hag’s Nook, the male heirs to the land on which the prison lies must complete a strange ritual on their 25th birthday – spend an hour alone in the Governor’s Room overlooking the pit. There they must unlock a safe and examine its secret contents. Of course, we know that such ritual is bound to end with murder.
I was reading a comment thread on The Invisible Event the other day that questioned whether Hag’s Nook actually contains an impossible crime. Ok, so technically it doesn’t, but it is close to enough. The male heir carrying out the ritual is found dead with a broken neck. The room in which the ritual was performed was under sufficient surveillance to which the crime feels puzzling enough.
Introduction to key detective
You’re probably going to want a first time reader to have an enjoyable encounter with one of Carr’s key detectives. This rules out some of the later day books, such as She Died a Lady, where Merrivale is reduced to a buffoon. In Hag’s Nook, we get the very first Dr Fell story, and he exhibits all of the personality, lecturing, and gluttony that we’ve come to love.
Oh my, the ending – I love it. As is typical with Carr, the solution involves key details woven throughout the story with such intricacy that you can’t imagine how the man did it. In this case, the author provides an explanation that is laid out so clearly that you don’t have to struggle at all to understand it – unlike some offending books that could really benefit from a diagram to show how it all worked.
Best of all, the solution makes you want to smack yourself due to how simple it is. For a newcomer, this is the perfect introduction to the type of misdirection that Carr employs so successfully.
With that said
So, with all of this considered, I think that Hag’s Nook provides enough of the characteristics of a good Carr novel that I could see recommending it as someone’s first experience with the author. How about some others? Perhaps its easier for me to disqualify some strong books for one reason or another:
- The White Priory Murders – although this features one of Carr’s most brilliant solutions, the book suffers with pacing, and I’d be worried that a new reader might not make it to the end.
- The Judas Window – ok, I’m a hypocrite here because I’ve already given this book to two people as their first Carr. After all, it is the canonical locked room mystery. However, I feel that the setting in the court may give a new reader the wrong impression of what to expect from other books. Maybe I’m over thinking this.
- The Ten Teacups – sandwiched between a stunner of an opening and an abattoir of an ending is a long lull of a midsection.
- The Emperor’s Snuff Box – This would be a perfect first book – frantic pace, sense of danger, and a whopper of an ending. However, it’s lacking two key aspects – impossible crime and a series detective. I can just imagine someone who has read both Hag’s Nook and The Emperor’s Snuff Box mocking me for the disqualification on the basis of of lack of impossible crime, and I’ll admit there is an especially humorous aspect to it.
- She Died a Lady – While an excellent mystery, it lacks some key elements like atmosphere and tension. And, as mentioned above, the reader isn’t given the best introduction to Merrivale.
Of the stronger books that I’ve read, this leaves The Problem of the Green Capsule, He Who Whispers, The Burning Court, and Till Death Do Us Part. So, what do you think? Is starting with one of these too glutinous?