After a nearly 10 year gap following Below Suspicion (1949), John Dickson Carr’s best series detective Gideon Fell returned for a final run of five novels starting with The Dead Man’s Knock in 1958 and stretching through Dark of the Moon in 1967. Consider that a similar span of time towards the beginning of his career would see the author produce three times that many Fell novels, and you can kind of sense that Carr’s heart wasn’t with the great detective.
Well, obviously. Carr had spent the past decade going all in on the historical mystery genre, and his few contributions to the contemporary impossible crimes on which he had built his name feel more like something he was nudged into by his publishers. The Dead Man’s Knock isn’t worth reading. Panic in Box C is passable, but a chore due to all of the tangents Carr goes on. Dark of the Moon is a meandering mess that at least features an interesting impossible crime and a somewhat shocking reversal of expectation. His historical mysteries from the same period are actually pretty good, with the exception of Scandal at High Chimneys (released a year before In Spite of Thunder). But the contemporary stuff? Nah.
So… I wasn’t exactly excited to get back to 1960s contemporary Carr, but it makes up a third of what I have left to read. I had hopes for In Spite of Thunder though. It’s the second book in the run (earlier means better… right..?) and I’ve seen a number of reviews that suggest that it’s actually Carr’s final quality novel to feature Dr Fell.
Aged actress Eve Ferrier is well past her prime (she’s in her forties after all…) and living out her dotage in Geneva, Switzerland. She’s haunted by whispers of a scandal from seventeen years earlier: at the height of her career, she had visited Adolph Hitler at The Eagles Nest (as one does), and her fiancé inexplicably plunged to his death from a balcony. No, the scandal isn’t about rubbing elbows with Hitler, but instead involves the rumor that Eve murdered her fiancé, despite multiple witnesses claiming that nobody was near the victim before he went over.
What better way to dispel such a rumor than to invite those who were at the scene of the past crime (sans Hitler) to a house perched on the edge of a cliff… Well, it’s no surprise when Eve inexplicably plummets to her death in front of several onlookers, despite nobody coming near her.
I’ll tell you, Carr got me with the hook on this one. 1960s Carr isn’t writing those story intros that grab you immediately like, say To Wake the Dead or The Sleeping Sphinx – rather you get some blandish characters and muddled drama – but man, come the two impossible crimes, it’s hard not to go all in. It’s vintage Carr, with that mysterious crime from the past intersecting with an equally inexplicable crime of the present. This is one of those all too rare stories that I just couldn’t stop thinking about while I wasn’t reading it. I had air-tight solutions in my mind (which ended up being miles off) and all sorts of wild theories on plot twists that lay ahead (also wrong). What more could you want from a mystery?
Well, you could want it to payoff in the end, and unfortunately In Spite of Thunder misses by a mile. Past the midway point, the story slips thoroughly into end-of-career-Fell-novel territory. I’ll start with some nits that a virgin Carr reader might not pick up on: all dialogue is shouted, characters annoyingly describe their actions to each other in ways that take you right out of the story (“Stand just where you are, here at the foot of the stairs”), and there are passages of dialog where Carr seems to forget that he isn’t writing a historical mystery set in the 1600s (“In candor and honesty, very well”).
What’s worse though is that the solution is a total dud. I was hoping for a brilliant solution to the defenestration a la Paul Halter’s The Demon of Dartmoor, but Carr served up something waaaaay different. Given the type of impossibility that was posed, the solution was such a bland turn of direction that I won’t be surprised if I don’t remember it a year from now. But a bad solution to a promising impossibility I can kind of forgive (I’m looking at you The Red Widow Murders). With In Spite of Thunder, Carr commits the cardinal sin in that the entire denouement doesn’t offer a single dab of satisfaction. It’s all a bunch of jumbled psychology built on character traits in the vein of “Steve must have committed the murder because he enjoys spicy food.” There’s a bit of a twist of expectations that I don’t think a modern reader would even consider a twist, and I’m sure Carr meant that as the big head spinner. I flipped through the final 20 pages with a dour look on my face and didn’t get a speck of satisfaction.
Worst of all, apparently every character in the book except the point of view character (and hence the reader) seems to have known exactly who committed the crime and how, with some of them even anticipating the murder before it occurred. As such, the book could be best described as some jackass storming about shaking women while every other character wonders why the police haven’t made an arrest yet.
So yeah, In Spite of Thunder is a dud in the end, but I’ll tell you, for a hundred or so pages, Carr made me believe. He captured that sense of wonder that I got from his better works, and with only five of his novels to go, I know it will be one of the last times. So I don’t completely fault the book. It’s easily the best of post-1950 Dr Fell novels, although I still have The House at Satan’s Elbow to go.
I ended up reading a 1961 Bantam edition, which was interestingly issued just a year after the novel first came out. My alternative was a 1987 Carroll and Graf edition, which I skipped over due to inferior form factor and typeface. The Carrol and Graf cover practically screams out “Get a hold of yourself, woman!”, which unfortunately matches the overfraught tension that Carr put into the novel.