The Mad Hatter Mystery

MadHatterThe second Dr Fell novel, The Mad Hatter Mystery finds us in fog-soaked London.  Ted Rampole (previously in Hag’s Nook) reunites with the doctor as they investigate a string of hat thefts plaguing the city and confounding the police.  We’re also introduced to Chief Inspector Hadley, who will go on to be the Fell equivalent of Merrivale’s Chief Inspector Masters – a likable investigator lured to false conclusions by the clues of the crime, only to eventually be shown the light by the omniscient series detective.

The stolen hats go beyond just simple theft – someone is snatching hats from people in positions of powers and placing them in conspicuous places.  On top of that, we have the theft of a rare manuscript by Edgar Allan Poe – a lost story featuring the first appearance of detective Auguste Dupin.  All of this in the first chapter of the book, plus one more thing – murder.

A man is found in the foggy depths of Traitor’s Gate at the Tower of London, pierced through the heart with a crossbow bolt.  Atop his head sits an ill-fitting opera hat – a hat stolen from his aristocratic uncle days before.  Despite the Tower of London being a prime tourist spot, the dense fog has kept many visitors away and obscured the vision of the few who were on the scene.  As such, no one can account for the circumstances of the murder or how the killer may have slipped away.

For a Carr book, we’re off to a decent start – three fairly different puzzles thrust on us, one involving murder.  And yet, there isn’t that air tight puzzle that you may expect; no impossibility, no locked room.  As perplexing as the scene of the crime is, seemingly anyone could have done it and they would have had ample opportunity to escape unnoticed.

Of course, this is Carr, so you know it isn’t going to be that easy.  Evidence at the crime scene points to a defined circle of suspects, and as the interviews progress and the facts surrounding the case become more defined, the range of possible events seemingly becomes tighter and tighter.  Eventually we’re left with an almost certainty of what must have happened, and yet an odd feeling that the pieces don’t quite fit.

Yet, I feel like I’m over selling it.  Sure, there was mystery, and it was engrossing, but it relied a bit too much on the “whodunnit” angle.  Yes, that’s always an important aspect of this type of book, but with Carr, I’m also looking for the “howdunnit”.  Although the how was never quite apparent, it just seemed a little too open ended.

Fortunately, the book does a good job in the whodunnit department.  Carr offers a respectable cast of suspects and deftly casts suspicion across them throughout the story.  While my gut instinct honed in on the true culprit immediately, by the end of the book I was trading back and forth between several other suspects.  Never did I have a whiff of what had actually happened.

And what did actually happen is quite surprising.  That’s Carr’s talent and I’ll leave it at that.  I wouldn’t call the solution particularly memorable, but it definitely ran counter to anything that I would have seen coming.

The Matt Hatter Mystery finds me reconsidering the role that impossible crimes played in early Dr Fell novels.  My experience here is thin – I’ve read the first Fell, 1933’s Hag’s Nook, and then my next encounter with the detective is 1935’s Death Watch.  Beyond that, my experience doesn’t really pick up until 1938, a period drenched in classics like The Crooked Hinge, The Problem of the Green Capsule, and The Case of the Constant Suicides.

Perhaps I jumped to conclusions regarding early Fell novels – the Merrivale titles of the time are bursting with mind bending impossibilities.  It seemed natural that the Fell tales would be as well.  Yet that isn’t my experience so far.  Hag’s Nook and Death Watch both feature excellent puzzles and yet fall short of any type of impossible crime.  1933’s The Mad Hatter Mystery feels at home with both those titles, although it doesn’t feature the atmosphere and historical intrigue of the former, nor the cleverness of the latter.

Similar to Death Watch, The Mad Hatter Mystery would really benefit from a map.  The Tower of London is a sprawling location, featuring many towers and halls that become hard to keep track of by name alone.  I had gone out of my way to purchase the gorgeous Berkley edition featured above and was left mapless.  Imagine my horror when JJ at The Invisible Event mentioned in passing that all of his editions have a map.  My first instinct was that JJ was brilliantly trolling me, but a quick internet search showed him to be right.  So – you are warned – the edition shown above is bereft of a map.

Where The Mad Hatter Mystery does excel is its plotting and the gentle humor you expect when Dr Fell is involved.  We get copious beer consumption, roaring debates, and the typical odd behavior from the doctor.  The highlight is several scenes in which Fell grills suspects who are under the impression that he is Chief Inspector Hadley.  We also get some background on the doctor – apparently he was a real inspector at one point, and an intriguing passage provides a blurred glimpse of the past cases that he solved.

The Mad Hatter Mystery was a mixed bag for me.  I finished it and thought “I don’t know what to say about this.”  I enjoyed the ride and yet I was left somewhat wanting.  The book has a fairly good reputation, and perhaps I was expecting something more in terms of the mystery.  Overall, the pacing is good, the characters are well fleshed out, and the plot is enjoyable.  I do have a few more comments, but I’ll have to save those for spoilers.  I’ll try to keep things fairly generalized, but I’m about to divulge more than you’ll care for if you haven’t read the book.


I definitely enjoyed how much the actual turn of events differed from what the reader is lead to believe.  Carr did a good job setting the stage so that you think that things are confined to a certain box, when really the box has nothing to do with anything that happened.  In that regard, the solution is an absolute success.

What I didn’t like about the solution though is the means with which the killer, ahem, deposited the body.    We’ve just gone through 150 pages trying to figure out how the killer stealthily murdered the victim and left him in the well of Traitor’s Gate.  Timelines and accounts have led us to a nearly impossible situation where the victim must have been killed in a tunnel with witnesses at each side.  Then, to have the actual solution be something that would have drawn so much attention…?  I mean, wouldn’t someone have commented “oh yeah, it’s worth mentioning, there was a **** in the vicinity of the crime scene not long before the body was found?”  And, if the reason that no one stated this is because no one witnessed (or heard) it, then we’ve a rather loose mystery on our hands already, don’t we?

End Spoilers

21 thoughts on “The Mad Hatter Mystery”

  1. I agree with you, there’s some blurry lines around exactly how the body moved around. Of course I expect the author to be trying to fool me, but … this is close to the knuckle.
    Recently, I re-read this and what that occurred to me is that in this novel, Carr was taking the first steps into learning how to write a book with tragedy and comedy, and to balance the two. There’s a certain grotesque element to it, like the corpse in the overlarge top hat, and the idea that Dr. Fell doesn’t really want to expose the murderer. I think here he was trying for a kind of ironic overtone but later in other books moved into a more polarized mixture of farce and horror.

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  2. I had a similar experience with this book, and I’ve read it twice. I liked it for its use of atmospheric location and the reasonably solid whodunit. But while there is a decent mystery it does lack a certain mystique. It’s the kind of book you can enjoy without ever feeling really satisfied.

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  3. I find this a fascinating book for how much it reveals about Carr’s progress as an author: we’re a couple of short years on from the Bencolins and he’s already playing around with tone and setting in a way that is leaps and bounds ahead of the heavy Gothic symbolism of Henri & Co. The Traitors’ Gate is the perfect setting, too — I’ve been at the tower in the early morning mist, and it’s a deeply creepy place, which is perfect for the way Carr uses it.

    I find it odd that this appears on a lot of “Best Fells” lists, largely because, while very clever and with a decent mystery (though, yeah, there are issues) it’s probably the most conventionally staid of the Fell novels from Carr’s career up to about 1950 (I haven’t read many Fells past that). Maybe people are fond of convention, but I always see Carr and Fell (especially Fell, moreso than Merrivale) as the pair who would really thoroughly push the genre in weird and marvellous ways, and so harping on about the least adventurous of the books seems to sort of miss the point as I see it. But maybe that’s just me.

    Oh, and as if I’d ever troll someone over something as important as crime scene maps. The nerve…

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    1. See – I have the same perception as you – Fell was pushing the genre more so than Merrivale. I’m questioning now how much that applies to the earlier work though. The Merrivale novels from the time feature some amazing puzzles and interesting elements for a detective story (Plague Court, White Priory, Red Widow, Unicorn Murders, Ten Teacups,…). The Fell books that I’ve read from the early period (Hag’s Nook, Mad Hatter, Death Watch) feature excellent stories, but nothing amazing in terms of puzzle. I haven’t read The Blind Barber and Eight of Swords yet, but my impression leads me to believe these may fit that trend. If so, this means that Fell wasn’t really involved in the impossibilities that I associate him with until 1935’s The Hollow Man. Perhaps I’m stating a well known fact, but it is certainly a point of realization for me.


      1. Blind Barber is an impossibility in that it’s set on an ocean liner out at sea and a dead body turns up that can’t be a stowaway and yet no-one has disappeared from the crew or passengers, but Hollow Man was the first Fell locked room, yeah.

        Don’t be mistaken in thinking that Fell could only innovate if he was in an impossibility, however. The setups for the Fell novels are far more diverse and varied than the Merrivales, with White Priory, Red Widow, and Plague Court being undeniably great puzzles that simply put a spin on the Country House Murder. Contrariwise, something like Eight of Swords takes the Country House Murder and turns it inside out.

        Which is not to knock the Merrivales for their lack of imagination or anything — they’re still aweome novels — but I think Merrivale is more the Marple to Fell’s Poirot: Fell offers more scope for the type of puzzle that can be explored, since he fits more easily into a variety of situations. I seriously think this is probably how Carr determined which would be Fell novels and which would be Merrivale: getting the Old Man involved is often harder work than fitting Fell into pretty much any circumstance except as a practising barrister (henne The Judas Window). In fact, Merrivale doesn’t really fit in those first few books of his — his presence is quite difficult to swallow in a couple of them, because Carr hadn’t quite got the differences between his sleuths sorted yet.

        But that’s a point for another time.

        Liked by 1 person

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