The Crooked Hinge

crookedhingeAside from The Hollow Man, no other book is more likely to occupy a top 10 Carr list than The Crooked Hinge.  Not only a fan favorite, the book has been ranked highly in some fairly famous lists and polls, even being branded the fourth best impossible crime novel of all time.  And yet, in recent years, the story seems to have fallen out of favor.  Perhaps that’s natural – with everyone heralding The Hollow Man and The Crooked Hinge as the top of Carr’s work, it seems reasonable that they would eventually be viewed with a higher degree of criticism.  It’s like the hit single by that band that you like – everyone knows that track, and maybe it even got you into the band, but you’ve come to recognize that the true gems lie with the more obscure album cuts and b-sides.  Maybe.

I’ve really been looking forward to reading this one, exercising some restraint by placing it well down in my To Be Read list.  Partially, I held off on the book because I was under the impression that I had the ending spoiled for me online.  I was happy to realize midway through that I must have been thinking of some other story; this truly was fresh ground for me.


It’s easy to understand the grand reputation that The Crooked Hinge has garnered.  Plot-wise, it has a lot going for it – covens of witches, a creepy sixteenth century automaton that prowls at night, stolen identities, a riveting impossible crime,…even the sinking of the Titanic!  The story telling is excellent – I’d place the overall feel of the book alongside such classics as The Burning Court, He Who Whispers, and Till Death Do Us Part.  All, as you may notice, well-rounded Carr books.

The story focuses on a claimed case of stolen identity.  John Farleigh returns to England from the States after 25 years to claim his inherited estate.  A year later, another man appears, claiming to be the true John Farleigh, and stating that he has the evidence to prove it.  This simple plot device on its own provides plenty of intrigue.  But then, murder – John Farleigh (I won’t say which one) is killed in the presence of three witnesses – his throat slit multiple times, despite no one being near him.  I’ll go ahead and call this a riveting impossible crime, although I know there are plenty of dissenting opinions regarding the “impossible” nature.

Dr Fell is close at hand to investigate a number of riddles – how was the murder accomplished?  Who is the real John Farleigh?  Is the crime related to a previous murder of a woman living nearby?

Carr lays on the atmosphere thick, at times rivaling the dread of such works as The Problem of the Green Capsule and The Red Widow Murders.  A large part of that dread comes from a creepy automaton that is kept locked in the attic and somehow seems to play into the mystery.  The automaton is an interesting subject of history in itself – you can read more here.  Of course, we know that the automaton isn’t really alive, creeping around, and killing people, but Carr has that expert way of laying the thought in your mind and allowing it to fester.

So is The Crooked Hinge a top 5 Carr book, as reputed?  That’s always hard to say, as I find Carr’s stories to be difficult to truly rank.  Oh, some are definitely better than others, but I find myself arriving more at clusters of books than ordered lists.  The Crooked Hinge does stand in that top tier cluster for me – solid story telling, nicely sketched characters, a gripping mystery (or two), gothic atmosphere, strong pacing, and of course, a stellar ending.  Plus, it has that one extra thing that you so often find in top tier Carr stories.  That plot device that goes beyond the impossible crime and would make the story interesting enough even without the core puzzle.  In this case, it’s the case of stolen identifies that is so woven into the narrative.

Of course, a book this controversial (as mentioned in the beginning of this piece) deserves some attention to the controversies.  For that, I’m going to need a prolonged spoiler section.  I’m going to take care not to give anything blatantly away, but I would encourage you not to read this if you haven’t finished the book yet.

Spoilers

I just have so many things to say about the ending – I absolutely love it.  Yeah, there are some questionable aspects to it, but what Carr endings can you really fully swallow without holding your nose a little?  The White Priory Murders and The Emperor’s Snuff Box?  Maybe Hag’s Nook?  (hmm, this could be an interesting topic on its own…).

The book is typically described as having two different solutions – not uncommon for Carr’s work.  I’ll point out that there is actually a third semi-solution that gets raised immediately after the inquest.  I love how this third solution makes perfect sense, and I actually arrived at it on my own about two pages early.

The second to last solution appears to be the preferred one for some, although there is a bit of controversy regarding “the device” being barely mentioned and nothing that a reader would notice.  I actually noticed the device immediately, as it seemed very out of place and just the type of glossed over clue that Carr would use.  It led me to question if the murder had been committed with a fishing rod, which actually isn’t completely off base, although I would have been disappointed if that had been the true answer.  As an aside – if you want to complain about hidden clues, I think The White Priory Murders takes the cake – needing to actually call out the page number on which an extremely subtle item is mentioned.

This leads us to the true solution – the core criticism here is that “the special nature” wasn’t necessary for the murder to be committed.  Yes, that’s absolutely true.  However, it does play in quite a bit to what witnesses saw.  That is to say, the murder didn’t need to be committed that way, but it was, and that fact led to the various clues and witness accounts.

Speaking of which…I don’t understand how the one witness was able to identify the killer.  If I understand correctly, the Janus mask was worn during the act.  Combine that fact with the altered physical nature during the crime, and I don’t understand how the witness could have understood what they were seeing and identified the culprit.

As has been pointed out by a few other bloggers, what would have been seen must have been absolutely horrifying.  To think of the confusion and horror that the victim must have experienced in his final moments…wow, this is just Carr at his darkest.

There is one more detail that does’t sit quite right with me – the name of the book.   Oh, I love the title, but I didn’t quite get the significance of the object in the story.  Sure, I understand what it is referencing, but it just seemed like a random background detail to fixate on.

End Spoilers

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26 thoughts on “The Crooked Hinge”

  1. I maintain that I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this one — overall I do really like it, but (as I keep saying) I think Carr missed a few tricks in the clewing and setup…but, well, there’s nothing to be done now. I love the method and the real explanation (the false solution had me worried for a little bit, I’ll admit…), and it would probably edit down to a beautiful novella a la ‘The Third Bullet’…though this may be why part of why it’s not so popular with some people, as for a Carr novel of this era there’s fair amount of chaff that doesn’t even really serve as misdirection.

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    1. This one is my favourite Carr title, and I mentioned in my Top Five list “lots of elements that don’t necessarily contribute to the puzzle but further the action”. But chaff is also a good word. I suspect that part of the reason I like this novel so much is that I read it at a very impressionable age (12?) and had nightmares about it. I’d almost be afraid to go back and re-read it at this point because I might learn that my rose-coloured glasses have been misleading me as to its quality.

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      1. I don’t use ‘chaff’ pejoratively to represent my own views, but rather those of people who might consider anything not directly related to the murder to be wasted space. There’s a lot to be said for context, and this is one of Carr’s most context-rich books from this period – I’d argue it’s a good one to reread precisely to appreciate where the plot ends and the extra-marital material begins: he plays a close game here waving things at you that are not supposed to be relevant, and for all its grimness it’s difficult to believe that he’s not enjoying himself in doing so…

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      2. We’re on precisely the same wavelength about “chaff”. Here, it’s masterful. I’ll be delicate and non-spoilery here and say that the solution-related reason for the subplot involving the mechanical hag is so that it connects with what our host above called the “special nature”. I mean, JDC could have achieved that connection in a number of different ways, some of them no more than a paragraph. But the terror of the servant girl, greedy for apples, in the room where the mechanical hag appears to come to life … really one of the finest things in JDC’s oeuvre. There is no “need” for it in the plot, but oh my goodness how much less of a book it would be without it.

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      3. In the case of The Crooked Hinge, it’s precisely the “chaff” that makes it all work. Yeah, it would be a strong work without it, but I know that it is going to be the hag and the “special nature” that stick with me years from now when I think back to the book. I’m not just fine with it, I’m happy about it.
        The Red Widow Murders is another example of a book with plenty of chaff. And it’s that chaff that makes me look back at it as one of my favorite Carr works, despite some disappointing aspects.

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  2. Like Noah, I read this at a young and impressionable age, and I’m not sure if I want to re-read and possibly spoil the true pleasure of that first experience. I think I was even more shocked by the revelation of the coven than the murder. For many reasons, I place this much higher on my list than The Three Coffins. Oh, and I agree with you about the title!

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  3. I read this as a birthday treat but felt somewhat disappointed on the whole. 😦 The narrative felt slightly long-drawn and wordy at parts, but was still enjoyable as it avoided dramatic excesses. But the solution was underwhelming. I usually lower the bar for plausibility when it comes to Carr’s novels, because they often compensate with their ingenuity – but this stretched credibility one or two steps too far even by Carrian standards. Which is, incidentally, my beef with ‘Peacock Feather Murders’ as a strong story with a less-than-strong resolution. The whole point of the sandy surroundings was to suggest impossibility, but the mechanics of the solution clearly had to have left something behind. Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If I recall, no-one ever comments on whether or not there are tracks in the sand. I did find it odd that the sandy path was mentioned multiple times, but there was never any mention of tracks. I assumed it wasn’t discussed because so many people had walked over to the fountain after the murder was committed, and the first to arrive hand’t noticed tracks because it was dark.

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