To Wake the Dead – John Dickson Carr (1938)

“You keep that for always.  Then nobody will try to wake the dead.”

towakethedeadThere’s alway a somewhat James Bond-esque moment for me when the title of a book worms its way into a narrative.  It may be clumsy, it may be elegant.  Whether it’s Timothy Dalton slipping in “the living daylights” or the cheesy forcing of “view to a kill” into the script, I think everyone probably does a half-hearted smirk and remembers the moment.  With John Dickson Carr, we rarely get a title reference and when it happens I geek out – “The Black Spectacles” had my hair on end, “She Died a Lady” weakened my knees, and “Below Suspicion” practically had me leaping to my feet to cheer.  So forgive me while I once again swoon over a title reference in 1938’s To Wake the Dead.

This book has always inhabited somewhat of a no-man’s land for me – you rarely see any references to it.  I recall long ago (like, a year back, if you can fathom such a stretch) reading that it doesn’t involve an impossible crime (it doesn’t) and that it involves a rare Carr cheat (it does).  Since then this book has sat somewhat out of mind, situated in my TBR pile based on whatever mad logic I applied when I last jostled the stack around several months ago.

And yet, I’ve been cautiously looking forward to it.  After all, To Wake the Dead was released in 1938 – the same year as The Four False Weapons, Death in Five Boxes, The Crooked Hinge, and The Judas Window.  Just contemplate that for a moment.  JDC is basically on a masterpiece writing rampage from 1937-1939 and there’s this mysterious little nugget sitting there unnoticed.  After enjoying the hell out of 1939’s The Problem of the Wire Cage, I’m not going to be put off by even the slightest criticism of a book from this era.  Yet somehow my primitive brain can’t get past the fact that my copy of the book doesn’t have fantastic cover art…

10 pages in and I’m in love.  Late 30’s Carr knows how to seed a plot with a bang and he reeled me right in with this one.  Well-off writer Christopher Kent has traveled to London from his home in South Africa under laborious circumstances.  He’s made a bet with a friend that he can make the trip with nary a dime in his pocket and without taking advantage on his good name.  When he turns up at the Royal Scarlet Hotel in London weeks later, he’s worn down and starving.  Posing as a guest from room 707, he sits down to a hot breakfast.  To his horror, he soon finds himself in hot water when a hotel attendant insists that he’s been summoned up to the room he claimed he’s occupying.  Arriving under escort, Kent finds a sign posted on the room door, reading “Dead woman inside”.  Reluctantly slipping inside, his worst fears are confirmed.

I’ll leave the rest for your own enjoyment (we’re two pages into chapter 2), but we’re left with one of those deliciously sticky situations that Carr creates in titles like The Problem of the Wire Cage, The Judas Window, or The Emperor’s Snuff Box.  For the next few chapters, the author launches a barrage of clues that seemingly make no sense, somewhat reminiscent of the bewildering crime scene of The Four False Weapons.  We’re left buried to our necks in evidence that we know is relevant, but we’ve no grasp of how to put it all together.  All of this and we still have 2/3rds of the book to read.

This is when To Wake the Dead separates itself from the rest of the pack in terms of mystery.  We get discovery – lots of it.  Carr doesn’t sit back and force the reader to grind through 15 chapters of Inspector Hadley and Dr Fell slowly interviewing suspect after suspect.  In the spirit of titles like Till Death Do Us Part and The Corpse in the Waxworks, Carr allows his detectives to flat out solve the mystery.  Well, a major portion of it anyway.  We still have some key questions remaining, but just on the verge of midway through the book, the author has blessed us with that prize we seek above all others – some form of resolution.

In this case, I feared Carr might have gone to far.  A significant portion of the key questions had been answered, and the remaining puzzles were actually the least interesting on the surface.  My fears were alleviated mere chapters later when we’re treated to a false solution (no spoiler there – the chapter title states it plainly).  The rest of the book marches on with adequate pace, chapter-ending revelations, and additional mysteries.  A highlight is a late chapter where Dr Fell lists out 12 key questions that will explain everything that happened – each of which is eventually proven to be important for a reason that you can’t anticipate at the time.

You can probably tell that I liked this one quite a bit.  It is by no means brilliant – as noted, it does include a bit of a cheat – but I would gladly read any comparable book.  In fact, there is a highly comparable book by JDC – 1935’s Death Watch.  In both titles, we’re treated to an intriguing mystery despite lacking any form of impossibility.  In both cases, we’re blessed with a heavy dose of Dr Fell in full uproarious tankard-swilling fashion.  And, perhaps most importantly, both boast a pleasantly drawn out 30 page unraveling of an incredibly densely woven puzzle.  Yes, both feature a form of a cheat, but they also feature a solution that in hindsight is much more complex than the surface level puzzle implies.  If you like one, I have to think you’ll love the other.  If you find fault with one, you’re probably going to dislike the other for the same reasons.  In my case, I liked them both enough that I anticipate listing them in an “under-appreciated Carr” list.

Of course, I can’t end my review without mentioning that there is a map.  A map that seemed so vital at first, and then slowly faded from my mind.  A map that I flipped back to at the end of the book with wild eyes before bursting out an oath.  No, nothing quite as good as the It Walks By Night variety, but it may take second place.

Now, onto some spoilers.  I’m not going to directly discuss any of the solutions to the many mysteries, but I will be making comments that would expose too much to someone who hasn’t read the title.

Spoilers

I totally got lured in by the false solution.  I thought I was so clever by suspecting the one character who would fly under the radar, and it’s beautiful how Carr made everything fit so perfectly.

As for the cheat – yeah, that was a bit disappointing, although I had suspected the culprit (along with every other character, mind you) and the solution of a hidden passage was actually better than what I had expected – Carr claiming out of the blue that the character was a master at lock picking.

Speaking of locks, I love the solution to the locked linen closet because it involves the reader looking at the problem from the wrong direction.

Lastly, I have to call out the cover of my book, pictured at the top of the post.  This illustrates such a key scene in the story and it exposes a number of tell tale clues (the uniform and the arm at the side.)  How stuff likes this makes it onto the cover of a book is beyond me.

End spoilers

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15 thoughts on “To Wake the Dead – John Dickson Carr (1938)”

  1. Long time since I read this one and I don’t remember much beyond the initial setup. Having said that. I do recall coming away with a good feeling at the end, meaning I must have liked it overall. The fact that specific details have escaped me indicates it probably is firmly entrenched in medium Carr territory, but that’s by no means a bad place to find oneself.

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  2. I loved ‘Death-Watch’ – my second favourite Carr title, after ‘Till Death Do Us Part’. So I’m looking forward to this one! Thankfully, it’s readily available on Kindle. 😀

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  3. I recall reading this at the same time I first saw the film [i]The Young Philadelphians[/i] on TV. It features Robert Vaughn in his Oscar-nominated performance as a military vet who has lost an arm — and something about the character being in jail linked up in my mind with the character who’s in jail in this one.

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  4. (SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t read To Wake the Dead) Have you read Carr’s essay “The Grandest Game in the World”? It was written for a never-published anthology of what Carr considered the ten best detective novels ever written. As well as a general survey of detective fiction, it also includes tributes to the ten authors of the chosen novels. Now, two of these authors were Ellery Queen and Agatha Christie. In the Queen section, Carr mentions Queen’s trick of having the murderer turn out to be someone you and the characters don’t pay much attention to because he’s got some official connection with the case, such as working at the establishment where the murder was committed. In the Christie section, he mentions her trick of diverting attention from the murderer by having him be someone who you and the characters don’t even think of as a suspect, because apparently it would have been entirely impossible for him to commit the murder. I wonder if Carr was thinking of these tricks when he created the false and true solutions to To Wake the Dead.

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    1. Spoilers That’s an interesting point. Carr definitely used the “least likely” suspect in a number of books. In all cases I can think of, it was a form of backwards impossibility because the killer seemingly couldn’t have possibly committed the crime. I’m dying to list some classic examples, but of course that would ruin them if you haven’t read them.
      The Queen angle hadn’t struck me, although I can actually now see that pattern in some of the Queen books that I’ve read. I can only think of Carr using this technique a few times and the examples that come to mind were early in his career. I’d list them, but again…

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