The Sleeping Sphinx – John Dickson Carr (1947)

sleepingsphinx“The sand, the lock, and the sleeping sphinx”

I went into The Sleeping Sphinx knowing very little.  It’s not a famous work within Carr’s library, but it’s positioned at an interesting spot in his timeline.  The previous two Dr Gideon Fell novels – Till Death Do Us Part (1944) and He Who Whispers (1946) – are considered by most Carr fans to be among the author’s best work.  The next entry in the series – Below Suspicion (1949) – is criminally under-rated in my opinion.  Given the strength of this run, I was curious to see what The Sleeping Sphinx would hold.

Don Holden returns from WWII under unusual circumstances.  Involved in espionage during and after the war, he was sent on an assassination mission in Italy and declared dead as part of his cover.  He returns to a home that thinks he ceased to exist.  The beginning of the story is fairly engrossing as we watch Holden reunite with his old life and attempt to rekindle a relationship put on pause for seven years by the war.

The woman that he left behind, Celia Devereux, is hounded by accusations of insanity.  Her sister Margot died six months earlier and Celia swears it was suicide.  Nobody wants to listen – not to Celia’s claims about a vanished bottle of poison, nor to her swearing that Margot had made a previous attempt on her life some months earlier.  Instead, Margot’s death is accepted as natural cause and quietly swept away.

Holden won’t accept that.  He wants to prove Celia’s sanity and get to the bottom of the mystery.  He has a different theory though: Margot was murdered.  Similar to He Who Whispers, we’re dealing with the investigation of a crime that occurred in the past.  This isn’t an impossible crime though – Margot was found poisoned in her sitting room early in the morning.  There aren’t any factors that really constrain the crime – anyone could have delivered the poison, and any suspect would have the reasonable alibi of being asleep at the time.  There are some unusual elements at play – a missing bottle of poison, a wet bathroom, an odd change of clothes by the victim – but nothing that puts this even remotely in the “bizarre crime scene” category that Carr provided with the likes of The Four False Weapons, The Eight of Swords, or The Punch and Judy Murders.

What’s probably more interesting than the circumstances of the crime is what transpired beforehand – a game of Murder.  You know – a household of well todo guest don the authentic death masks of infamous criminals, turn off the lights, and then try to guess which one of them “killed” a selected victim.  Standard Friday night fare.  I recall this game coming up before in Carr’s The Ten Teacups (sans masks), and the Douglas Greene biography suggests that Carr himself was a massive fan of the game.

Carr’s series sleuth Dr Fell eventually shows up to poke around and annoyingly has the entire case solved in about two minutes.  Annoying because we still have another hundred pages to go, and the solution will be on the tip of Fell’s tongue numerous times, only to have an interruption such as a phone call inexplicably push the resolution further out.

SleepingSphinx2No matter though – the plot is packed with drama, the mansion setting is one of Carr’s best, and the author has another trick up his sleeve – an impossible crime.  Well, I’m not quite sure if it is a crime, but it is impossible.  The Devereux family burial vault is opened in order to exhume Margot’s body for an autopsy.  The last person in the tomb six months earlier was actually Dr Fell himself (long story…), who spread a layer of sand on the floor and then sealed the lock of the tomb with putty and then marked it with an unforgeable seal.  The seal is still intact, but when the vault is opened, the coffins have been flung around the room, despite there being no footprints in the sand.

Despite presenting a Paul Halter worthy impossibility, Carr never fully capitalizes on it and leaves a few obvious questions unexplored.  The weaknesses start to build up from there.  For one, I was certain I had this entire thing figured out midway through the book.  The identity of the killer was painfully obvious, and after a handful of chapters I had figured out the solution to the impossibility as well.  Now, I turned out to be dead wrong about the identity of the killer, but a mystery can suffer when a reader feels so positive that they have it all solved.

Despite being completely blindsided by the identity of the killer, there wasn’t that much meat on the bone throughout the entire 30 page denouement.  Carr typically has me slapping myself and exclaiming “wow, that is beautiful”, but there was none of that here.  Instead I was being given forty tiny little clues that all stitched together a larger misdirection, but on their own felt a bit weak – each akin to “remember, it was pointed out that John has really long arms, and so of course only he could have gotten the key from atop the cupboard.”

The Sleeping Sphinx is a bit of a riddle.  As a pure story, it may be one of Carr’s better efforts, which makes sense given the period in his career it came from.  If you’re an Agatha Christie fan, the plot, writing, and characters may appeal to you.  As a mystery though I felt it suffered – the crime in the past is intriguing at first, but starts to feel both muddled and obvious as more details come out.  There are also some passages about psychology and spousal abuse that will make any modern reader cringe.

Of all of Carr’s work, I think The Sleeping Sphinx may be most comparable to My Late Wives – a Carter Dickson novel published the year before.  In both books, Carr eschews his typical puzzle oriented plotting for more conventional mystery fare.  Unfortunately Carr doesn’t deliver completely in either case, with both having somewhat obvious solutions.  At the same time, both books have strengths when it comes to the plot – My Late Wives winning in terms of the setup, and The Sleeping Sphinx coming out ahead with a tight overall story.


Some more minor notes.

The Sleeping Sphinx was one of the most difficult Carr novels for me to get my hands on at a good price.  Part of it could have been that I already had 80% of his books at that point, so I was very focused on picking up a few specific titles, instead of seizing whatever opportunity came along.  After struggling to finally get my hands on the book, I unintentionally acquired a second copy while buying a five pack of books in pursuit of another title.  I ended up reading the 1985 IPL edition featured at the top of this post.  My 1958 Bantam edition picked up new interest midway through reading when I realized that it featured one of the death masks from the Murder game on the cover.

Although The Sleeping Sphinx doesn’t include any direct spoilers, it does elude to elements of the resolution to The Case of the Constant Suicides and Death Turns the Tables.

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13 thoughts on “The Sleeping Sphinx – John Dickson Carr (1947)”

  1. You mustn’t have many Carr novels left unread by now! I knew the title of this one but never seen much written about it. I find the setup for this one very intriguing. It’s a shame its full potential was not reached.

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    1. I have fifteen novels left. I suppose that’s a lot for a typical author, but for one as prolific as Carr it seems like it really is dwindling. Only a handful of those novels are especially well regarded, so the rest will be somewhat of a gamble. It’s cool though because quite a few of them are more under the radar titles similar to The Sleeping Sphinx.

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  2. I think you put your finger on the reason this one didn’t work for me as well as most Carr/Dickson novels from the late Forties – Dr. Fell certainly convinces me that [name redacted] had to be the murderer, but there’s no real “eureka!” moment in the solution. And the impossibility of the coffins was clever, but it felt pasted in, something to help pad the book out to novel length.

    There was also one thing the murderer did that I think would have left physical traces, despite Dr. Fell telling us it didn’t.

    That Bantam cover with the mask and the smiling woman is a beauty – orders of magnitude better than the cover of my Berkley Medallion paperback from a decade or so later (with the medicine bottle and the sleeping/screaming woman).

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    1. It’s funny that I’ve had a little run of Carr novels now that are fairly good but disappoint in the end. First it was The Eight of Swords – absolutely brilliant until the halfway mark, and then it kind of putters to a stop. Then there was The Punch and Judy Murders – a hilarious blast of a read for 5/6ths of the book, and then it kind of coasts to a mediocre investigation finish. And now there’s The Sleeping Sphinx – while I was reading it I was thinking “damn, this is why I read Carr!”… and then I got towards the end and it was just predictable and messy psychology. It’s funny because all three reads were quite good overall, but not strong mysteries. That I read these mostly in a row is just some odd luck.

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  3. Thanks for this Ben. I have a gorgeous hardback copy of this which I was very lucky to find in London for £10 (the second highest price I have paid for a GAD mystery, first being Department of Queer Complaints for £15). Despite your struggles the positives of your review have still really pulled me in, and I knew nothing about this title either. Look forward to getting to it.

    You said you worked out the impossible coffins idea (which sounds very Halterian as you described, I’m thinking of Dance of the Dead), but the premise of that impossibility sounds awesome. Does it hold up as an impossible element enough? Even if it is a bit padded?

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    1. As to the impossibility – it was similar to something I had seen elsewhere although in a very different context. It would have been great to have experienced The Sleeping Sphinx first, as I’m positive I wouldn’t have figured it out. Although it is a nicely set up impossibility, it kind of plays a minor role in the story in that the characters don’t really focus on it that much. I much prefer when Carr beats the reader over the head with just how impossible a situation is. Instead, in the Sleeping Sphinx the characters are wowed for a moment and then move on to focus on other drama. In that sense I suppose this is somewhat similar to later era historical Carrs where the impossibility tends to be downplayed in favor of melodrama.

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  4. “The Sleeping Sphinx” doesn’t have a spectacular impossibility or dramatic reversal forcing you to reinterpret everything that’s happened, but it’s a traditionally structured fair-play mystery with a closed circle of suspects (“closed” not because of the circumstances of the crime, but because Fell says so) and a well-hidden killer. The hero returning from the dead is a great opening hook, and the dramatic tension is kept up throughout by the question of what’s going on with Celia: is she mad or lying? and if lying, why?

    I’m confident that the mystery is fair play because I was able to figure out the solution by spotting the multiple tiny clues and putting them together. Stopping at a particular point in the narrative to look various things up also proved helpful.

    I agree that it was a shame that the impossibility wasn’t better integrated into the narrative. It would have had more impact in a book with a more consistently Gothic atmosphere. And some of the author’s efforts to persuade the reader that it is in fact an impossibility were unconvincing: since Fell neglected to take a photograph of his seal, the “CIA Flaps and Seals Manual” explains how to defeat it; and the lack of footprints means nothing since whoever moved the coffins would have had plenty of time to erase them.

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    1. Good job figuring out the killer in this one. I was throughly fooled by a red herring. The impossibility was fairly easy for me, although that may be because I had seen a similar trick before. I like your point about how it would have worked better in a book with a more consistent gothic atmosphere. It could have been chilling in one of the 1930s works – think Hag’s Nook, The Lost Gallows, etc. It also may have fooled me into focusing on other solutions.

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