Hag’s Nook

hagsnookI 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.

hagsnookbackAtmosphere

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.

Ritual

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.

Impossible crime

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.

Ending

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?

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17 thoughts on “Hag’s Nook”

  1. I completely agree about the atmosphere andthe setting — it’s a weirdly spooy and disquieting bookin its own way, and in terms of pure tone shows a marked improvement from the books that preceded it. It’s also the point where Carr really starts juggling different tonal accents, too — Fell goes from bumbling hilarity to sudden hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck focussed, we swing easily from the cosy domestic bliss of the Fell household to the overbearing oppression of the prison…it’s mosty pretty seamless stuff, too, and brilliantly written. I don’t love the Macguffin, it’s a bit hoary, but so much here is so good, and it lays a foundation for the Fell books that makes it lear even at this stage why he abandoned Bencolin and moved on to someone with a bit more scope.

    I’m going to take issue with your allowing a “close enough” impossibility, though — if the situation is merely close enough to an impossibility, that’s not an impossibility. This is why impossible crimes are so fabulous: they’e bloody hard to write, and as soon as the criteria are diluted to include something that doesn’t quite fit…well, then you’re moving away from what makes them such special plots to begin with. There’s a distinct and important difference between “wow, this is going to take a lot of figuring out on the current information” and “wow, this actually was not possible on the current information”. It’s a bugbear of mine that books without a real impossibility are increasingly getting lumped into the “impossible crime” bracket — it’s because it’s the cool club everyone wants to be in, but you’ve gotta actually earn the membership in the first place!

    As for first Carrs…I just last night leant someone Till Death Do Us Part as their first proper detective novel. I think it’s a good place to start, because it’s awesomely constructed and does most things damn-near perfectly, yet it’s not like there’s nothing else in Carr’s output to touch it (She Died a Lady, He Who Whispers, Green Capsule, Hollow Man, Constant Suicides, Plague Court, etc) and plenty of stuff that by common consent falls just below and would provide excellent entertainment should one wish to explore Carr further (Bowstring Murders, Mad Hatter, Death-Watch, Red Widow, Ten Teacups, Four False Weapons, Death in Five Boxes, Crooked Hinge, etc, etc). It also has Fell at probably his most pure, devoid of too much distraction, and with his inestimable powers near their peak, so I think it covers all the bases. Or, I’ve maintained for some time, Constant Suicides is a brilliant place to start — hilarious from the first page, compact, baffling, brilliantly setup and motivated, with a perfectly hidden villain and a stupidly clever impossibility… Frankly, how nice to have so much choice 🙂

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    1. Yeah, that’s a fair criticism on the impossibility and I’ll own up to it. On those grounds, it probably disqualifies Hag’s Nook from being a “first Carr”. That’s not to say that it isn’t a fine book, but I suppose that a first encounter should feature a strong impossibility of some sorts. I’ve give The Problem of the Green Capsule twice and The Judas Window twice for first reads, but of course, those are sure hits.
      I’m excited by you ranking Plague Court, Bowstring, Mad Hatter, Four False Weapons and Death in Five Boxes so highly. I’ve heard enough good things about Plague Court to anticipate it being a top read, and had a feeling that the others would be excellent. You hear so much about the obvious top 5-10 Carr books that it isn’t always clear about the gems that lurk right below the surface. I actually anticipate reads like this more than the classics. I’m just eyeing The Unicorn Murders in my reading stack…

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      1. Unicorn Murders is the one I can’t find to connect goether my long runs of early Carr — I have everything up to and a lot of stuff on from that, but that one eludes me still!

        Plague Court is a great piece of atmosphere. There’s one chapter of olde timey documente toe givee thye backgrounde which got on my nerves, but I’d skip that the next time I read it as it’s thoroughly inessential. The impossibility is again a piece of sheer audacity.

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  2. Unicorn Murders is perfectly entertaining, but is actually a bit rubbish. There’s a feel of The Punch and Judy Murders about it, also fun but not when you think about it, but it’s still streets ahead of the later Merrivale books.

    Going back to the introduction books idea – She Died A Lady may have Merrivale as a buffoon in parts, but you could make a case that this is his general characterisation. He may start off more serious in Plague Court, but the silly behaviour occurs more often than not. And I converted at least one person to Carr with that book. I think it’s one of his finest books of all.

    As for what I’d start someone on… Constant Suicides is a good one, as is Till Death (probably as it’s the closest thing to Christie that he wrote hence it’s a gentle transition). But any book can do it – it was Panic In Box C for me, of all things.

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