John Dickson Carr put out a stellar run of 18 Gideon Fell novels between Hag’s Nook in 1933 and Below Suspicion in 1949, with a solid dozen of the titles being absolute classics, and the rest still being well above the status quo. The detective wasn’t heard from again until nine years later, with the unfortunately awful return to the page in The Dead Man’s Knock (1958). Fell closed out his career over four additional novels, being retired for good with 1967’s Dark of the Moon. Sadly none of those final books are really worth reading except for the Carr completist.
The House at Satan’s Elbow finds us in the middle of the final five Fell novels, and I’m surprised to say that it may be the best of the lot. We get a country house, a ghost, a locked room mystery, and some glimmers of the personality that made the gargantuan detective so fun to read. It’s a muddled affair though, which is frustrating, because if you strip away the cobwebs, this could have been a solid read.
The story starts with an absolute information dump of family history – something that may have fit more naturally in the historical mysteries that Carr was writing at the time – and we’re missing any semblance of the fantastic setups that Carr used to hook the reader in days of old. We’re 60 pages in before encountering anything of interest – a man nearly shot by what seems to be a ghost – and we’re over 100 pages before encountering the novel’s core crime. Taking up the rest of the pages is the non-stop drama that Carr packed his later books with: every conversation is inexplicably a shouting match, every scene contains heightened “emotional temperature”, and characters harbor deep secrets that they’re not willing to discuss. This last bit drives me crazy in these final Fell novels, because inevitably when the secret is revealed, it’s some silly non-issue that everyone is fine with.
“Seriously, Fay, isn’t it time you dispelled this tempest-in-a-teapot with a little plain speaking? For God’s sake, don’t behave like the heroine in a story, who for no reason at all won’t say a word when two sentences would have cleared up most of the difficulties to begin with.”
We get that very quote on page 38, and yet we know that the two sentence clear up won’t come for at least 100 more pages. Come on Carr! You even acknowledge that you’re doing it!
The core crime involves a man shot at near point-blank range within an indisputably locked room. The room is thoroughly searched, yet there’s nowhere that the culprit could be hiding. It’s a solid set up, but suffers from Carr not providing the reader with a good understanding of the crime scene and the overall layout of the house. At this point in his career, Carr handles most scene descriptions via dialogue (likely a result of his years working on radio mysteries), and it’s hard to get a grasp on the setting through unnatural lines like “At the front, corresponding to drawing-room and library in the other wing, we have first what the Victorians called a morning room and then the dining room… The room on your left, at the count-eastern angle on the ground floor, was once a butler’s pantry.” I mean, who talks like that, much less in 1965?
The story picked up a bit though once Fell arrives on scene, with some sections that felt like I was reading the Carr of old. We have an honest to goodness locked room mystery taking center stage, which isn’t that common in the last two decades of Carr’s career. I felt a tinge on excitement when I realized that I had glommed onto a really clever solution to the impossible crime, but three pages later Carr seems to have read my mind and explicitly shot it down. Perhaps the old master did have some tricks still up his sleeve.
By the time the denouement came, I was wrapped up in the story, and I was delighted when we got a scene that harkens back to Death Watch, with Fell gathering various characters at a pub to deliver a lecture explaining it all. It’s a fine solution throughout; not top tier Carr, but likely the best of the final Fell novels. There seems to be a divide though on the explanation to the impossible crime. I’ve seen several opinions (including Douglas Greene’s in the Carr biography The Man Who Explained Miracles) that see the solution as amongst Carr’s best. I disagree and felt it was a flimsy solution worthy of the typical throw away “third impossible crime” that you get in a Paul Halter novel.
As a final interesting aside – the main female character is named Fay Sutton, and I was super confused at first as to whether this was meant to be Fay Seton – perhaps Carr’s most memorable non-detective character, who featured in the classic He Who Whispers. Age difference and other details cement the fact that this is not meant to be the same character, but in addition to the name similarity, it’s interesting that both are haunted by a tragic past. As an additional oddity, Fay Seton does get a name check in the Fell novel that followed The House at Satan’s Elbow: Panic in Box C.