“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.
The 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?
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!