The Dead Man’s Knock – John Dickson Carr (1958)

deadmansknock“Fly open, lock, to the dead man’s knock”

The Dead Man’s Knock marks a return of John Dickson Carr’s series detective Dr Gideon Fell following a nine year hiatus.  Carr had published Fell novels on at least a yearly basis throughout the 1930’s, and almost as reliably in the 1940s, aside from a smattering of gaps.  Below Suspicion (1949) marked an end to the detective’s run, as the author took a detour into historical mysteries starting in 1950 with The Bride of Newgate.  It’s interesting to note that although Dr Fell had been abandoned, Carr’s other contemporary series detective, Sir Henry Merrivale, would still feature into a smattering of books up until The Cavalier’s Cup in 1953.

At that point, Carr was pretty much focused exclusively on the historical mystery genre.  While locked rooms and other impossibilities would make fleeting appearances in each book, the stories were more plot driven swashbuckling adventures soaked in historical trivia – not something that appeals to me on paper, but with Carr at the helm they hit the spot.  Interestingly enough, only one contemporary mystery was published between 1952 and 1958.  Patrick Butler for the Defense (1956) was a spiritual sequel to Below Suspicion, but didn’t actually feature Dr Fell.

The Dead Man’s Knock has been somewhat of an enigma to me.  It’s one of those titles that flies below the radar, and yet what popular opinion I could find suggested it wasn’t very good.  Why then is the book featured in 99 Novels for a Locked Room Library – a list of 99 top impossible crimes?  Is it possible that we have a hidden gem on our hands?

In short words, no.  The Dead Man’s Knock is easily in the bottom 20 percent of Carr’s work and one of his least memorable novels.  It’s an interesting stumble given that Carr had released what is arguably his best historical mystery the year before with Fire, Burn (1957), and had at least one solid novel ahead of him – 1961’s The Witch of the Low Tide.  So what went wrong?

Well, the plot is a bit of a mess.  I don’t even know if it is worth explaining.  Although the book was published in 1958, the story itself is set in 1948 – exactly one year following The Sleeping Sphinx.  We find ourselves transported from England to Virginia, with the story taking place at a small college.  A prankster has been carrying out some pretty weak pranks on campus – painting a luminescent portrait on a gym wall and filling a drained swimming pool with water.  It’s hammered into the readers head that these pranks are highly scandalous and several faculty members suspect they may lead to murder.  Of course, none of this is reported to the police.

A woman eventually winds up stabbed to death in a respectably set up locked room – sealed windows, door locked from the inside, and all that.  Unfortunately it’s lost in an avalanche of melodrama.  Characters huff around, speaking cryptically and squawking about scandals that they never bother to fully explain.  Nobody acts rationally.  As an example, let’s look at how the actual impossible crime plays out.

Three men happen upon each other at 6am on a Sunday morning, outside of a bungalow with lights on and the door wide open.  One of the men immediately suggests that the woman who lives there committed suicide, while another man abruptly insists that his wife didn’t kill the woman.  Bear in mind – no evidence of a crime has occurred yet.  Indeed, they do find a victim within a locked room, and after spending chapters bickering about what to do, they decide to tell the police that it was a suicide even though they all agree it was murder.  Reasoning?  They want to save the college from scandal.

The men then devise a whopper of a plan – two of them will flee from the crime scene while the other calls the police.  The one who remains openly tells the police that all three men were there when the body was found.  Despite that, one of the men is never even interviewed by the police for the entire course of the novel.

Yeah, we’re on those grounds.  It’s really such nonsense that it isn’t worth going into more detail.

Is this seriously the author who published the excellent Fire, Burn one year earlier?  No, it’s the author who published Scandal at High Chimneys one year later.  I realize this is an obscure comparison, but The Dead Man’s Knock and Scandal at High Chimneys are remarkably similar books.  Both have the melodrama turned to eleven.  There’s no sense to either of them – just characters running about playing out cryptic dramas.  I suppose some of it makes sense in the end, but it never comes close to making up for what the reader is put through.

There is a sliver of interest buried in all of the crap.  The novel’s title comes from a key plot piece involving a lost manuscript by Wilkie Collins.  Collins supposedly exchanged some letters with Charles Dickens about a locked room mystery that he planned to write, titled The Dead Man’s Knock.  The actual title phrase is lifted from R. H. Barham’s The Ingoldsby Legends.  According to Douglas Greene’s biography, Carr was such a fan that he recycled the title for both a 1948 radio play for Cabin B-13, as well as a 1955 radio play for Appointment with Fear.

The Wilkie Collins manuscript comes into play because the lead character is an expert on the nineteenth century mystery author, and is in possession of the letters exchanged with Dickens.  The letters hint at a setup for a locked room murder, and the circumstances of the core crime suggest that someone has figured out the missing solution.

Unfortunately, there’s only a whiff of this promising premise.  The rest of the novel is entirely forgettable.  The solution to the locked room may have been interesting, but it swerved dangerously close to another book that I can think of.  I won’t mention the relationship (and please don’t bring it up in comments below, as that would constitute a dreaded two way spoiler), but I imagine the seasoned reader might glom onto the solution.  Certainly not a worthy candidate for 99 Novels for a Locked Room Library.

In terms of later year contemporary Carr novels, this may be one of the worst.  Panic in Box C certainly has more going for it, and although Dark of the Moon shares much of the nonsense melodrama, at least it delivers a neck snapping twist in the end.

DeadMansKnock2The Dead Man’s Knock does make me consider how Carr was changing as an author at the time.  Perhaps his post 1950’s work is heavy on melodrama but it melts into the historical stories because of the foreign nature of the past settings – the different manner of language and social norms.  Take some 1750’s characters in powdered wigs and have them squabble on about honor and scandal and it may feel to the modern reader that this is just an insight into a culture gone by.  Transport that same scene to 1948 Virginia and it just feels like everyone is acting strangely.

Or, maybe I’m making excuses for Carr and reaching for patterns that aren’t there.  Out of Carr’s early historical works, the only one that felt over the top in terms of melodrama was Scandal at High Chimneys.  The rest were engaging reads throughout.

The Dead Man’s Knock features another carry over from Carr’s historical fiction – the point of view character has evolved.  In the author’s earlier works, the story is experienced from the point of view of an everyman who gasps in astonishment as the series detective pulls back the curtains of misdirection.  In the historicals, as well as The Dead Man’s Knock, the main character is capable of solving mysteries on their own, although typically the final tipping point is triggered by help from an outside expert – in this case Dr Fell.  This also tends to mean that the point of view character hides some level of information from the reader, since the solution can’t be revealed too early.  That can get kind of annoying.

I still have two late era Carr novels left featuring Dr Fell – The House at Satan’s Elbow and In Spite of Thunder.  Popular opinion (if you can call it that) suggests that the former is a dud and the later has some redeeming qualities.  I’m curious to find out – what was the last great mystery novel featuring Dr Fell?

My editions

There aren’t really any great covers for The Dead Man’s Knock – the best that I can think of features an accurate reflection of Dr Fell in my mind.  I found myself with two editions – a 1987 Zebra Mystery and a 1967 Bantam.  The Zebra is part of a run of Bencolin/Merrivale/Fell editions with nicely illustrated covers, although in my mind Dr Fell simply isn’t large enough.  It also has a dreadful font, and so I elected to read the Bantam.

Bantam had quite a few nice covers in this series, but this isn’t one of them.  I imagine that the publisher’s instructions to the artist in this case were “draw a random man’s face on the cover.”  There’s also a nude victim pictured, even though the deceased in the book is fully clothed.  Ah, the scandal!

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11 thoughts on “The Dead Man’s Knock – John Dickson Carr (1958)”

  1. Glad to see that we hold the same opinion on this book. Heavily melodramatic, paper thin characters, with the only redeeming quality being a somewhat interesting impossible crime that isn’t given nearly as much development as it could have gotten.

    As for the last truly great Fell novel, I nominate In Spite of Thunder. Perhaps not in his tip tier of work, it’s still very solid, and it has one of my favorite solutions to a Carrian impossibility in the form of a impossible defenestration! Then again, it was a early, and very nostalgic read, so I’m in all likelihood very biased 😄

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    1. Douglas Green comments that Carr’s contemporary mysteries always sold better than his historicals and there may have been some pressure by the publishers to release something more modern. I’ll note that this is a very “traditional” locked room set up, which Carr hadn’t really done in my mind since He Wouldn’t Kill Patience in 1944 (one could argue that Patrick Butler for the Defense, The Cavalier’s Cup, and Night at the Mocking Widow feature locked rooms, but I’d say it is in a much lesser sense). Perhaps the publishers wanted Carr to go back to the goldmine. The could explain the reintroduction of Dr Fell as well, although he doesn’t play that prominent of a role in the book.

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  2. Said you: “The rest of the novel is entirely unforgettable.”

    For the wrong reasons, I assume.

    🙂

    I haven’t reached this one in my re-read yet – I still have several of the 40s Fells left to get through first, which is positive. This one is actually forgettable to me, because I don’t remember much, even after your description above.

    I remember “Panic in Box C” as a fairly good one, so I’d probably nominate that one for the last good Fell novel.

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    1. Gah, you caught a typo on my part. That was supposed to be “entirely forgettable”!

      As for Panic in Box C – it is decent enough, but a bit rambling. Plus there is an element of the crime revealed at the end that was pretty frustrating.

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  3. Interesting comparison with Scandal at High Chimneys, one of my least favourite Carrs. For me, both books are full of characters I found it hard to care about.

    One thing I find interesting about TDMK is that Carr’s short story “Invisible Hands”, although it has no relation to the novel beyond also having Dr. Fell in it, does have several character names in common: there’s a Brenda in both, a Lestrange in both, a Toby in both.

    When I first read TDMK, I thought the secret of the locked room was pretty good, and I agree with you that it was unfortunately buried in a lot of nonsense. If it had been in a short story without all that other stuff, that story might have been a classic. The curse of the Cavalier’s Cup strikes again!

    And that final page… just silly. “We believe in justice.” It might have worked all right in a historical novel, but not in a book set in 1948.

    I did find young rotter Frank Chadwick a memorable addition to Carr’s gallery of creeps. He reminded me of Frank Dorrance from The Problem of the Wire Cage. Did Carr have a grudge against someone named Frank?

    The House at Satan’s Elbow is… not without points of interest,.. but yeah, in general it’s just not very good. I can’t get into my main problem with it without committing a spoiler, so I’ll wait to say more until you’ve read it! In Spite of Thunder is not my favourite Carr, but it’s the more successful of the two as a detective story.

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    1. Yeah, that entire end thread of The Dead Man’s Knock that you mention is utter nonsense. I’ve seen similar things pulled off in other books successfully, but in this case my reaction was “what?!?!?!”

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  4. Good review. I found The Dead Man’s Knock worth reading but irritating because of the way the characters behaved. I liked most of the scenes with Dr. Fell, especially the one in which he explained why the death couldn’t have been a suicide and the police knew it; at least he didn’t suffer H.M.’s descent into slapstick. But as you say, he doesn’t play a prominent role in this book. I thought the murderer’s identity was pretty good, and there’s a nice twist about the victim’s private life. The setting was interesting to me, since my earliest memories are from when my family lived in that part of Virginia in the early 1960s (we then moved near the setting of The Burning Court, though regrettably I never met any non-dead people there). But characters who were supposed to be intelligent kept saying and doing idiotic things and having shouting matches (even when it was important they not be overheard). This was a common affliction in Carr’s later books.

    I think He Who Whispers was Carr’s last great Dr. Fell book (I liked The Sleeping Sphinx, but it has some problems; Below Suspicion is a good book but I wish it had more Dr. Fell and no Patrick Butler). I read The House at Satan’s Elbow about 35 years ago and remember it as being so-so, but I think I’ve seen a couple of positive reviews (at least suggesting it was the best of Carr’s later years, which may not be a high standard). In Spite of Thunder has a character I found particularly irritating, but it has its moments.

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    1. The identity of the murderer was well done. It’s weird how Carr is able to pull that off with a cast of this size. As a reader, you suspect every single person, especially the least likely. And then it comes to the reveal and you’re like “huh, I didn’t see that coming.” Which is of course strange, because I naturally suspected the culprit in the first place.

      You’re definitely right that He Who Whispers was the last truly great Fell novel, but I think Below Suspicion deserves a consideration because it’s actually really good in spite the hate for Patrick Butler’s character. I’m crossing my fingers that your recollection of The House at Satan’s Elbow reviews is reflective of the quality. I have to say I’m not holding my breath after reading The Dead Man’s Knock, Panic in Box C, and Dark of the Moon.

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