The Case of the Constant Suicides

caseofconstantsuicidesJohn Dickson Carr has some books where the title alone draws you in – The Nine Wrong Answers, The Reader is Warned, The Four False Weapons,…  The names suggest that the reader is going to be played with – presented with a set of clues that promise to be false.  Amongst these ranks, we find The Case of the Constant Suicides.  The title suggests deaths – multiple of them – and they’re going to look like suicide.  But this is Carr, so we know it’s not going to be that easy.

This is a classic that I’ve been holding onto for a while.  For one, I simply had to get a copy with the best cover.  Second, this is one of the handful of Carr works that I have left that are unanimously considered among his top works.  I’ve come to learn that I enjoy Carr in general, even if I’m not dealing with the more popular works, but I’ve also come to appreciate that with many of those revered stories, everything just snaps into place.

This is one of those.  Everything is just perfect – the story, the pace, the humor, the mystery, the depth of character.  The best analogy that I can make is Till Death Do Us Part.  Maybe He Who Whispers, The Crooked Hinge, or The Burning Court.  These are all Carr works where I was acutely aware that I was reading something different than the rest of the catalogue, purely in the way that all of the dimensions of his story telling come together.

In the interest of those who haven’t read this, let me start with the impossible crime.  A castle in Scotland features a high tower, with the only way up being a spiraling staircase.  In the top room, a man goes to bed behind a locked door, and is found in the morning – dead from a fall – at the base of the tower.  Upon inspection, the only possible conclusion is suicide.  The room was completely locked, there are no hidden entrances, and the tower can’t be scaled even by a skilled steeplejack.  Ah, but there is money on the line, as a substantial life insurance policy had been taken out just weeks earlier.

Well, that’s the first impossible crime.  In The Case of the Constant Suicides, there are multiple “suicides”, and each one thoroughly classifies as a locked room.  This is pretty exceptional for Carr.  I’d say about half of the books that I’ve read by him feature a second murder, but in almost all cases, the second death is just a witness getting bumped off in a fairly straight forward manner.  You don’t know who the killer is, but the mystery never verges on impossibility.  Looking back at the books I’ve read, I think only The Burning Court features two strong impossibilities.  The Reader is Warned and The Man Who Could Not Shudder certainly have some “how did it happen?” aspects to their secondary crimes, but I wouldn’t classify them as impossibilities.  Of course, I know about The Hollow Man, but I haven’t read that yet.

So here I sit, very happy with The Case of the Constant Suicides, because it beats the count in The Burning Court, and the impossibilities are quite interesting.  I won’t go beyond detailing the first “hook” impossibility, as part of the fun is stumbling upon these additional puzzles.

Now, I can’t talk about The Case of the Constant Suicides without talking about the humor.  From that perspective, this has to be Carr’s masterpiece.  Pure, simple situational humor.  No vaudevillesque slipping on a banana peel (The House in Goblin Woods), no crashing an out of control motorized wheelchair into a bar (She Died a Lady).  Here, Carr provides us with more subtle humor purely out the the uncomfortable nature of the situations that the characters find themselves in.  I won’t explain the source of the comedy, as the surprise is part of the fun of reading the book, but I was definitely laughing out loud and squirming.

The pace of the book is excellent.  I have a hard time gauging the relative length of Carr novels, as I have versions from so many different publishers, and you can’t rely on page count alone.  As with Till Death Do Us Part and The Emperor’s Snuff Box, I blazed through this book, being shocked in the end that it was already over.  Maybe these are really just shorter stories, but I get the sense that in his best works, Carr pulls all of the right elements together to create a story that you just can’t put down.

It’s easy to see why this book is so popular, and why some even recommend it as a first Carr.  You get a variety of locked room situations and solutions.  You get nicely fleshed out characters and a solid representation of Fell as one of Carr’s series detectives.  And then you get those intangibles that don’t make their way into all of the author’s works – the pace, the tightness, the humor.

25 thoughts on “The Case of the Constant Suicides”

  1. A good one although I don’t rate it quite as high as many do. I liked it better for some reason when I reread it a year and a half ago. The setting is good, the atmosphere is enticing and the crimes are intriguing. For me though, the humor isn’t quite as successful – I think you’re right that it is of the uncomfortable variety and that doesn’t always work with me.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s one of the worst-kept secrets of this century that I love this book probably far beyond all reason. And while the excellent use of humour (I now there’s that extended piece in the middle, but even the fierst chapter is cp,edy gold in many regards) is absolutely a part of this, I think you’ve hit what I tae away from it most: the pacing. Our young couple arrive in Scotland and overhear a conversation detailing the first suicide — it’s a helluva narrative gimmick, considering Carr could easily have introduced various characters over a couple of slow chapters and then got on with the impossibilities once everything was fixed in the mind.

    I feel that so much of what I read from more modern authors is stuffed with so much irrelevant information — I’ve just read a book published in 2016 where nothing that happens the first 22% (thank you, Kindle) could’t have been missed out — that it’s always such a pleasure to come back to Carr and see how propulsively he paced his work up until the early 1950s. And Fell is at his absolute best here, too: belligerent, grumpy, irritated at the inability of others to see what’s right in front of them — plus there’s that wonderfully casual moment when he reveals a spoiler of sorts for The Man Who Could Not Shudder and I (having not read that book at the time ) just roared with laughter.

    Delighted to see you enjoyed it as much as you did. Will you be joining us with The Ten Teacups/The Peacock Feather Murders next week?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It is an excellent book. The bickering historians is an amusing idea, fairly well executed, and the mystery is first class.


  4. I read this in 1970 and still remember it fondly – it had all the virtues you’ve named and was a flat-out fun read. BUT …

    Spoilers follow
    A key plot point hinges on the fact that Carr apparently thought carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide were one and the same. And they ain’t.
    That is, if I’m recalling it correctly. After all, it’s been nearly 50 years.


    1. I made an edit to your comment to point out that it contains minor spoilers in case anyone else stumbles upon it having not read the book.

      I’m amazed that you still have such a fine recollection of this title some fifty years later. I can only hope to be so lucky. Or…should I hope to forget it completely so that I can enjoy it again some time in the future…

      It really is a fun read. The situational comedy is pure gold and the whole premise of the crimes seems unique in Carr’s library.


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