“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.
No 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.