Aside 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.
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.