Deadly Hall – John Dickson Carr (1971)

Deadly Hall was John Dickson Carr’s second to last novel and its reputation is best captured by a nickname I’ve seen thrown around online: Deadly Dull.  And yet, for all of the joking, I’ve seen few actual reviews.  There are several Carr novels with seemingly rotten reputations that I’ve really really enjoyed – The Problem of the Wire Cage and Below Suspicion being prime examples – and so I try not to let the negative comments jade me too much.  The year that the book was published on the other hand…

Carr’s last great mystery was probably The Nine Wrong Answers in 1952.  You’ll see people sling mud at Patrick Butler for the Defense (1956), but it’s an enjoyable read; the solution to the impossible crime is just disappointing.  The real descent for Carr’s mysteries began in 1958 with The Dead Man’s Knock and lasted for his remaining contemporary mysteries featuring series detective Dr Gideon Fell.  In parallel, Carr was still publishing fine work in the historical mystery vein (heavy on historical and a bit light on mystery), but even that plunged in quality starting with Papa La Bas in 1968.  The historical work became plagued by the same malady that had inflicted the late contemporary work: meandering stories that focus on everything but the core mystery; characters going on and on about some vague danger without ever simply describing what they’re worried about; every ounce of dialog unnecessarily playing out as a tense shouting match.

And so you can imagine that I wasn’t exactly enthusiastic to pick up Deadly Hall.  A post over at Mysteries Ahoy a few years back though caught me off guard when it made it sound actually interesting and sporting some decent puzzles.  Could it be?  Well, my own experience with Carr’s final novel, The Hungry Goblin, suggested that these ill reputed books aren’t always the nightmares that people make them out to be.

So the verdict?  It’s not that bad.  Deadly Hall is easily the best Carr novel to be published after 1964’s Most Secret (granted I haven’t read The House at Satan’s Elbow), but I realize that’s not exactly the best sales line.  Instead I’ll offer this: when I wasn’t actively reading the book (living life and stuff, ya know), I actually thought about the plot and was interested in getting back to it.  And honestly, that’s what matters.  I’ve read my share of dud books, and I think the best measure of when you’ve encountered one is that it’s completely out of mind when you’re not actively reading it.

Deadly Hall rambles in places, to be sure, but it pulled me along with the interesting backstory of missing Spanish gold.  A fleet of boats loaded with gold and bound for Spain were lost in a Caribbean storm, and it’s rumored that the gold was salvaged and stashed somewhere in a New Orleans mansion (which itself was transported brick by brick from England – yeah, it’s a stretch).  Despite being searched exhaustively, the mansion has never given up its gold, and the reader is assured that all of the obvious hiding places have been ruled out.  Well, that’s a MacGuffin if I’ve ever seen one, but I’m a sucker for that sort of thing (see Hag’s Nook, Policeman’s Evidence, etc).

There’s an apparent murder from the past (an athletic man who fell down a staircase – because athletic men can’t possibly lose their balance, right?) and the circumstances of the death are somewhat repeated in the modern day (a woman falling out of a window from a locked room).  There you have the core of the mystery.  I was thoroughly into it, but damn, Carr sure made me work for it.

Starting around the time of the Dead Man’s Knock, Carr started jamming his stories with all sorts of facts and oddities that he had researched.  That approach blended well in the historical novels, since the setting was somewhat foreign, but in the more contemporary work (Deadly Hall takes place in 1927, and could kind of be viewed as a historical, but Carr published his first novel a few years later) it sticks out awkwardly.  Here we have Carr bashing you over the head with the fact that the terminology used at sea (port, starboard, etc) does not apply to riverboats.  Because that’s somehow important, right?  Then you have these needless passages discussing the difference between English and American pronunciation and how that’s changed over time (despite the whole cast been American…).

“They said Candish in Thackeray’s time; we have Thackeray’s testimony they did.  In London today, if you asked the way to Cavendish Square and called it Candish, they’d either correct you or ask which square you meant.”

What’s worse though is the whole amorphous cloud of mystery thing that Carr always does in his later novels.  Every character is acting suspiciously or afraid of some unknown danger, but even when confronted directly about it, they never explain what the issue is.  It gets absolutely ridiculous in Deadly Hall, and almost becomes a running joke where the point of view character is never going to find out anything.  And of course, in the end, when the answers come, it’s all a bunch of worthless drama that could have been cut from the story.  And get this: at the end of the book when everything has already been explained, one character actually – I’m not making this up, mind you – complains that their own suspicious behavior hasn’t been explained yet.  And then the book ends without them even explaining it!

So yeah, you have to swallow the bad with the good, but there is some good.  The solution to the missing gold is incredibly clever and easily the highlight of the book.  As for the murders, well, the solution is definitely novel.  It also feels heavily unnecessary, and if you think about some of the elements of the effort, it’s kind of silly.  As clever as the solutions are, the denouement wasn’t really that satisfying.  It’s the kind where everything is explained in long winded fashion, and you’re like “I guess that kind of explains that”, but you don’t feel that sense of enlightenment that I think we’re all looking for at the end of one of these mysteries.

So yeah, I didn’t love you Deadly Hall, but you weren’t that dull.  This is a lesser work than the fifty-odd novels that gave Carr the reputation he rightly deserves, but if you want to dip into the “bad” end of his career, this captures all the weaknesses while still being an enjoyable read.  There’s enough of the author who wrote, say, The Gentleman from Paris (1950), shining through that I think you’ll make your way through it.

12 thoughts on “Deadly Hall – John Dickson Carr (1971)”

  1. I was fascinated to see this crop up on my feed and to see what you made of it (thanks for the link btw). I have relatively fond memories of reading this and everyone being baffled that I wrote a review that wasn’t scathing and this was early enough in my Carr adventures that the worry was that I liked it just because I hadn’t read better. Obviously Carr at his best is way better than this but I agree about the elements you praise here. It’s not perfect but it’s no Passenger to Frankfurt either…

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  2. I might have been too hard on Deadly Hall. It’s not the easiest Carr to read, true; as you say, there are a lot of digressions / historical information – but it’s stronger than Papa Là-bas or The Ghosts’ High Noon. The method is clever, and the murderer is well hidden. I liked it well enough to read High Noon immediately after!

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    1. It’s interesting that Carr’s final two novels (Deadly Hall and Hungry Goblin) aren’t as bad quite a number that had come before: Papa La Bas and The Ghosts’ High Noon in particular. In fact, there’s a slight twinkle of the old magic going on in the last two books, even if they aren’t successes.

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  3. If I remember correctly, one of the problems (not really an impossibility) here is almost identical to one that Carr had used twice previously. Even so, I quite enjoyed this when I read it, not long after it was published (giving my age away there!)

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    1. I tagged this post with Impossible Crime – and I’m very finicky about that – on account of the missing gold. Not quite an impossible crime I suppose, but it felt appropriate. I never really bought into the two murders as being impossible simply because they both could have been accidents and there was no real evidence that murder was involved. There’s the strong intuition that an athletic man wouldn’t trip (the modern popularity of streaming videos would suggest otherwise…) and then I think a character made a statement that the second death was murder (but there wasn’t any reason to suggest it).

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  4. I think I remember two things about this novel: that the hero keeps accidentally seeing the heroine undressed and that there were was an explanation from the author of a piece of clueing that I thought was funny and quite unique.

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    1. That bit with the heroine undressed happens twice towards the beginning of the story (once in a flashback). I’m really surprised it didn’t get trotted out a third time, as it seemed like Carr was priming the pump for a punchline.

      That reminds me – there’s a subplot in the story where the main romance goes a bit cold for a few chapters because the heroine starts acting a bit aloof. I’m convinced that Carr never followed through on this thread and it just sort of got lost. I don’t recall ever getting an explanation as to why the lead character was getting the cold shoulder.

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  5. So I re-read the novel now. I am slowly rereading all of Carr’s novels, and I thought I might read this one next since the review made me excited.

    I thought it was a nice historical depiction, and it had some neat ideas for both the murder and the gold. It was an enjoyable read. I remember one explanation from the author made me laugh out loud the first time I saw it, and I still enjoyed it this time.

    But I agree that several plot threads seemed to go nowhere. What was the point of the earthquake episode? And if I understood it correctly, one character’s guilty secret was that he liked to play music?? And the role of the tobacconist was odd.

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    1. Yeah, the San Francisco scene made absolutely no sense. I was thinking that Carr was going to have some “notes for the curious” that described it was some attraction that had actually existed, but nope.

      The historical depiction of New Orleans did seem much better than The Ghosts’ High Noon and Papa La Bas, and of course the story is much better as well.

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