Admit it, you didn’t see this one coming. No one expects The Hungry Goblin. Neither, truthfully, did I. After all, this is a difficult book to track down. Well, not exactly difficult – you can pick up a copy on eBay fairly easily if you’re willing to drop a decent amount of money. But why would you? There seems to be a unanimous agreement that this is hands down the weakest of all 70+ novels published by John Dickson Carr. The book stands as a punchline in many a clever joke in online discussions of Carr’s career.
A strong and prolific writer throughout his life, common consensus is that Carr’s talent waned in his later years. We could do entire posts debating when the shift happened, but an oft-mentioned landmark is the stroke he suffered in 1963. From this point forward, he published only six books, one of which I’ve read – Panic in Box C. Although nowhere near the height of Carr’s work, it was an enjoyable read and featured a mystery that was better than its reputation suggested.
Of his final six novels, there are three that appear to be universally despised – 1968’s Papa La Bas, 1971’s Deadly Hall, and, of course, his swan song – The Hungry Goblin. The first two of these titles were easy enough for me to pick up cheap in a batch purchase. The Hungry Goblin has been much more elusive. To my knowledge, there is only the first edition, although different dust jackets exist for the UK and US versions. In other words, to even read this book, I’d have to be willing to shell out money on a first edition hard cover – not something I’m likely to do for a read that’s all but guaranteed to be a disappointment. I’ve prowled eBay and other sites for a while, searching to complete my Carr library. The Hungry Goblin typically fetches at least $25, typically running in the $45-75 range. Imagine my surprise then when I stumbled upon a pristine copy for $10.
The book that I thought I may never read – the book that I’ve always known with certainty would be my absolute last encounter with Carr – was in my hands. Up to the top of the reading list it went. I mean, why not? I’ve had a good run of reads lately and if I bomb out on a duff title, I have well stocked pantry to fall back on. Plus, it would be fun. I’d make somewhat of a diary of my encounter. A chronicle of my chapter by chapter descent into pure agony and boredom.
And then, as I started to read, I experienced something that my imagination had never anticipated – it was just a normal John Dickson Carr novel. Not one of the greats by any means, but very much along the lines of his other historical mysterys.
You see, Carr’s work mostly falls into two categories – his namesake impossible crimes and his historical novels. The first category is probably familiar to you – The locked rooms of The Hollow Man, The Judas Window, and The Ten Teacups; the lack of footprints in The White Priory Murders, The Plague Court Murders, and The Witch of the Low Tide; the simply unexplainable of He Who Whispers, She Died a Lady, and The Reader is Warned.
On the flip side, we have the historicals – novels set in faraway pasts. A mystery is always present, although typically not as air tight of an impossibility as Carr’s normal work. Instead, the novels tend to be action packed romps, steeped in nuances of the culture of the time. The stories are typically more elaborate in nature, with less of a focus on the detective element. The best analogy to a “classic” Carr novel would probably be The Nine Wrong Answers – a story much focused on the experiences and tribulations of the point of view character and not as wrought in investigation of a crime. Fans of the typical impossible crime may be tempted to shy away from the historicals, but I can attest that if you’re an admirer of Carr’s overall writing style, there’s a lot to be savored in each of these adventures.
Taking place in the fall of 1869, The Hungry Goblin firmly fits into the conventions of the historical category. The story follows Kit Farrelll, a UK native returning after a decade in the war-torn States. The London that he finds himself in is filled with mystery and fraught with danger. Everyone that he knows is acting mysteriously – the woman that he loved refuses to explain her disappearance years earlier, old friends seem to avoid him, and a bullet narrowly missing his head announces that someone is trying to kill him.
The core mystery introduced in the early chapters is… just… well… mysteriousness. Pat Denbigh, a woman with whom Kit had a romantic encounter in the States, professes that she has a great secret, but refuses to disclose the details for 48 hours. Kit’s friend, Nigel Seagrave, claims a deep love for his wife Muriel, but is convinced that she’s been replaced with a doppelgänger. A number of additional minor mysteries eventually culminates in a seemingly impossible crime – Nigel is shot by a vanishing intruder while in a conservatory with the only exits under watch.
I wouldn’t say that the impossibility is anywhere near Carr’s normal quality – in fact, my brain’s very first thought turned out to be the solution to the puzzle. Yet, like other Carr historicals, the impossible crime in The Hungry Goblin is downplayed for other plot elements. In this case, much of the story focuses on Nigel’s insistence that his wife isn’t who she appears to be. Carr’s writing is interesting enough to carry the plot forward, but the answer to the mystery of identity is anything but earth shattering and most readers will probably jump to the eventual conclusion almost immediately.
While the mysteries are fairly weak, it is the journey in Carr’s historicals that tend to be the reward. The Hungry Goblin is on par in this regard, although I’ll admit that towards the 3/4 point my mind was somewhat tiring of being pulled along. Anyone who has read a handful of Carr’s work beyond the classics will recognize the author’s tendency to promise answers, only to push them time and time again out of reach. The typical symptom is a character on the verge of offering up a clear explanation to a key point in the puzzle, only to be interrupted and the subject discarded for many chapters.
The Hungry Goblin is almost out of control in this regard. Numerous characters have various answers to each puzzle for nearly the entire book, but one thing or another leads to a lack of disclosure. The most outrageous example involves a character who camps out for hours in front of Kit’s hotel, waiting to provide him with key details to the mystery. Upon finally encountering Kit, he informs him that they have much to discuss, but it is late at night, and so he departs on a 40 minute carriage ride back home…. only for the conversation to actually happen one page later when the book jumps forward to the next day.
The biggest affront, harkening back to Panic in Box C, is that the entire impossible shooting could have been explained immediately if one character hadn’t been interrupted multiple times. This is particularly agonizing, because that same character has about 200 more pages in which they could provide relevant testimony at any time the wished, but just didn’t seem to think it was worth doing so. Oh, plus, Nigel, who survived said impossible crime despite being shot near the heart, is out of bed the next morning and running around London for the rest of the book.
So, I’ve bagged on The Hungry Goblin for a bit, and it definitely deserves it, but honestly, it wasn’t the train wreck I was expecting. The overall style of writing is what you would expect from Carr. Just as I was surprised by the quality of his prose in his first novel, It Walks By Night, I was just as taken aback that his most disparaged work had the same flourish that you expect from his writing. All and all, there is really only one atrocious passage, in which a man arrives at the scene of the shooting with no information and somehow guesses that an unexplainable shooting has taken place:
Detective: “I tell you only that there has been a most unfortunate accident.”
Man just arriving outside of house: “Accident with firearms, was it? Ah, I thought so! Somebody shot?”
Detective: “Mr Seagrave’s wound, though not fatal, is of sufficient seriousness to make rest and quiet imperative.”
Man just arriving outside of house:“He was shot, then. Any suggestions of the supernatural, for instance?”
Click, would go the handcuffs if I was the detective. This really is the only heinous bit that matched my expectations going into The Hungry Goblin. For the most part, the book read much the same as historical works like The Demoniacs or Fear is the Same. Perhaps the historical details weren’t as rich, but the overall progression of the book was nothing outside of the norm.
Don’t take my comments as a recommendation by any means. If you’re looking for a solid Carr mystery in the vein of He Who Whispers or Till Death Do Us Part, The Hungry Goblin isn’t going to provide what you’re looking for. But, if you’re a fairly seasoned Carr vet, I want to clear the air that this isn’t quite the train wreck that you may be expecting. It was an engaging enough read and its reputation may have caused me to hunt for more flaws than I would have noticed otherwise.
There are some gems in the story as well. In place of an investigator like Fell or Merrivale, we get Wilkie Collins, the real life author of The Moonstone. Provided the conduit of a mystery writer playing amateur detective, Carr is able to voice some insights into his approach for writing.
“Be fair with your readers; tell ‘em everything. But don’t tell ‘em everything in a simple minded way. First decide what the average reader will suspect – anticipate it, and fool him. Then decide what the clever reader will suspect – anticipate it, and fool him. Thus, all openly, you prepare your thunderbolt for the end.”
Such a statement from one of GAD’s most heralded authors is fitting for his final work. And in some ways, the whole of The Hungry Goblin feels like it ties up Carr’s career in a sort of send off. We have the title of the book, which harkens back to the passage from the Tom o’ Bedlam’s Song line first referenced in Carr’s second novel, The Lost Gallows. Then there is a scene at Madame Tussauds wax museum, with references to the guillotine from The Red Widow Murders; Newgate Prison from The Bride of Newgate and multiple other books; the stabbing of Morat from both The Corpse in the Waxworks and The Demoniacs. Tie that in with one last impossible crime, and we have a fitting farewell for a legend. Yeah, he didn’t go out on a note as high as The Judas Window or The Problem of the Green Capsule, but The Hungry Goblin isn’t the catastrophe that you may expect.
“From the hag and the hungry goblin, that into rags would rend ye…”