Gideon Fell was featured in a run of 18 novels over 16 years, starting with Hag’s Nook in 1933. At least one Fell novel was released each year through 1941, and then the pace slightly cooled to a book every few years, finishing with Below Suspicion in 1949. John Dickson Carr was still producing contemporary mysteries with his other lead detective, Henry Merrivale through 1953, as well as releasing a stand alone title, The Nine Wrong Answers (1952), and a spin off featuring a character from Below Suspicion – Patrick Butler for the Defense (1956). In light of that, the reemergence of Dr Fell in 1958 with The Dead Man’s Knock may appear like a brief gap in Carr’s contemporary novels, but it was a nine year absence for the detective.
Over this period, Carr was invested in his long held passion for historical mysteries, releasing The Bride of Newgate (1950), The Devil in Velvet (1951), Captain Cut Throat (1955), Fear is the Same (1956), and Fire, Burn! (1957). Many would consider the books that I just listed to be the cream of the crop as far as Carr’s historical output goes, and let’s hold that in mind for later.
The transition to historicals may well have been for the best, as the final three Merrivale novels were Carr’s worst work to date, and I suspect his heart just wasn’t in the present day. That’s no great intuition on my part; Douglas Green’s biography of the author captures well Carr’s obsession with the past and his disenfranchisement with the emerging post-WW2 society. The historical novels provided Carr with a fresh brush to paint with, and while the stories certainly aren’t his best mysteries, there’s a life in them and they include some of his most spirited passages. These historical mysteries brought with them a differing writing technique. We’re in a foreign time – 1600s, 1700s, 1800s – and there’s a lot to explain to the reader. People speak differently, society has different rules, and Carr was always very open about the research that led to how his historical stories were presented.
Reading the final Fell novels, I always felt like it was a half hearted attempt to reconnect with the audience that had lapped up Carr’s first two decades worth of output. Whether that was pressure from publishers, I have no clue, but it always felt like Carr was kind of phoning it in. No, that’s not quite fair. It was the contemporary setting and the presence of Dr Fell that felt phoned in. Everything else read much like one of his historical mysteries, but there’s an awkwardness when that writing style is brought into stories set in the 50s and 60s. What would otherwise be Carr delving into interesting historical facts becomes out of place ramblings. Spirited mannerisms and hearty debate that may feel palatable in the foreign time of the 1700s turns into oddly mannered shouting matches in present day. With no room for dramatic scenes of sword play, the drama is forced into domestic life, and every conversation bristles with “emotional temperature”.
We’re only dealing with five stories in this era, so let’s get them out on the table.
The Dead Man’s Knock (1958) – Set at a college in Virginia, this is a return to the locked room murder mystery; Carr’s first since He Who Whispers in 1946 (seriously, do the math). This is my least favorite of the bunch, mostly due to the shouting and hijinks that consumes 95% of the plot but ultimately ends up being about nothing.
In Spite of Thunder (1960) – Set in Geneva, Switzerland, the story revolves around a starlet who once brushed shoulders with Adolph Hitler. On two separate occasions decades apart, a victim falls to their death from the same terrace, despite nobody being near them when it happened. This had the setup to deliver, but unfortunately turns into the strongest candidate for Carr’s weakest solution to a semi-impossible crime.
The House at Satan’s Elbow (1965) – The only book set in England, this features an air tight locked room murder. Probably the best of the final Fell novels, but don’t take that as an endorsement.
Panic in Box C (1966) – A woman is shot in the back with a crossbow during a play rehearsal, but nobody can understand how the crime could have been committed. This one is kind of tolerable.
Dark of the Moon (1967) – Three crimes separated by centuries feature men killed by blows to the head despite being surrounded by untouched stretches of sand. This had the most potential for greatness, but is a rambling mess. It does feature a shocking twist in the end which may be Carr’s final real wow moment.
What might stand out from that summary is that each of these stories features a central impossible crime that harkens back to the Carr of the 30s/40s. Yes, Carr’s historicals of the 50s/60s typically feature some sort of impossibility, but it’s typically a minor plot element and not central to the story. In each of these Fell entries, the impossibility is central to the story, although in most cases it ends up caked in enough needless drama to lessen the impact. In Spite of Thunder and Panic in Box C are arguably semi-impossible crimes in that the murder is perplexing but not necessarily outright impossible.
What sets these apart
These novels stand apart from the rest of the Fell catalog in that they’re so freaking bad that they don’t feel like they’re even written by the same author. If you told me this was someone ghost writing Fell stories I’d halfway believe it, except I can spot the similarity with Carr’s writing during his final decade.
Carr’s last three Merrivale novels weren’t that good either, but the overall writing style was similar to the Merrivale work of the 1940s. Not so with the final Dr Fell novels At this point in his career, Carr’s style is heavily influenced by his experience writing radio plays. Nearly all scene descriptions and, hell, any aspect of the plot are driven purely by dialog. Instead of the lush scene descriptions of his early writing, we get characters unnaturally describing what they are looking at as if those around them are blind: “You see this door towards the front, in the middle of a long blank wall?” The narrator no longer explains the setting, and instead we get clumsy conversation between characters:
“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.”
With Carr shifting from narration to relying primarily on dialog, the source of tension shifts too. Each conversation is a debate or shouting match, and you could play a drinking game by looking for every time the phrase “emotional temperature” is used. It’s needless drama too, because there’s rarely a reason why characters would be at odds with each other. Often times it’s because someone is flaunting a secret that they’re annoyingly keeping hidden, and inevitably we learn that it was much ado about nothing.
The “needless secret” trope crops up from time to time in Carr’s historical work, but there it’s cloaked in enough cultural difference due to the time period that it doesn’t stand out so roughly. With the final Fell novels, the secrets feel remarkably out of place in the 1960s, and come the end it feels bizarre that so much of the story was consumed by (making up an example to avoid spoilers) the romantic interest not wanting to reveal that she had once been engaged to a man whose father had been a convicted criminal. And inevitably the male lead says “darling, I don’t care”, and fifty pages of plot gets brushed aside in the blink of an eye.
Carr’s writing during this time period was also heavily influenced by the historical novels that he was writing in parallel. The historicals are jam packed with interesting tidbits that you never knew you wanted to learn about: social conventions of centuries past, the birth of the London’s police force, powdered whigs, etc. Carr worked this trivia into the stories in a way that felt natural, and he often had enough left over that he’d include a “Notes for the Curious” section at the end of the book with more details on his research.
I guess Carr couldn’t help himself, because this enthusiasm for trivia leaked into the final Dr Fell novels. The thing is, it feels very out of place in a contemporary novel and doesn’t flow with the story. Take Panic in Box C as an example, where we’re trying to be swept up in a semi-impossible crossbow murder, and yet we’re wondering why page after page is devoted to the history of baseball and college fight songs.
In essence, these last five Dr Fell mysteries feel miles apart from the rest of the books in the series. The stories are told differently, the crimes are pushed to the background in favor of drama, and it is only the presence of the great detective that provides any semblance of a link to the previous novels. Even this is superficial. We get the requisite lines about Fell “beaming like Father Christmas” and “walking with the aid of two canes”, but the warmth of the detective rarely shines through.
What was being written at the same time
It would be tempting to declare that after 1958 Carr had simply lost his skill as a writer and crafter of great mysteries. And yet, during this same time period, Carr produced Scandal at High Chimneys (1959), The Witch of the Low Tide (1961), The Demoniacs (1962), and Most Secret (1964). I doubt anyone would claim that any of these books are amongst Carr’s great works, but with the exception of Scandal at High Chimneys, these are all pretty good reads. The Witch of the Low Tide may be the author’s final hurrah in terms of a solid impossible crime novel. The Demoniacs and Most Secret lack in the mystery department, but are fine examples of Carr’s swashbuckling historicals, following in the vein of the more widely read Captain Cut-Throat (1955).
Scandal at High Chimneys is interestingly a perfect parallel for the final Dr Fell novels, as it suffers from most of the same weaknesses. Of the nine historical mysteries released between The Bride of Newgate and Most Secret, it’s the only one that falls flat on its face and is of little worth reading. I’d put Scandal at High Chimneys and these five Fell novels on similar footing to Carr’s final four novels – Papa La Bas through The Hungry Goblin.
Not only were these final Fell novels written at the same time as some pretty good historical mysteries, but they were published immediately following some solid work. The Dead Man’s Knock is separated by just one year from the excellent Fire, Burn! (1957), which is probably Carr’s best historical novel. Rewind one more year to 1956 and you have Patrick Butler for the Defense. Although many people despise Patrick Butler as a character, the novel is a fun read and feels like a masterpiece in comparison to The Dead Man’s Knock. While Dr Fell isn’t featured in Patrick Butler for the Defense, there’s a shared point of reference with Below Suspicion (1949) and so you could consider it a Fell novel. I didn’t include it in this final era of Fell books because it reads very different and feels more like a follow on of Below Suspicion, which firmly belongs to an earlier Fell era.
What to make of them
I obviously don’t care that much for the last five entries in the Fell series, but you should be aware that the books do have their fans. I’ve seen several posts by people who had Panic in Box C or In Spite of Thunder as their first ever experience with Carr, and they enjoyed the reads enough to carry on with the author. I’ve also seen opinions that The Dead Man’s Knock is one of Carr’s better locked room mysteries, and while I can’t personally fathom sharing that position, it is out there.
I get a sense that it may depend on where in your Carr reading you are when you encounter these books. I’ve pointed out above a number of themes that grate me about these books (the needless secret, the needless drama, the scene describing dialog, etc), but these themes grate because I’ve observed the pattern over a number of stories. Encountered in isolation and without pretense, perhaps these stories would get more credit than I give them.
So, which are worth reading? Personally I think you could skip all five of these books without missing out on anything. If you do want to give them a try, I suggest going with The House at Satan’s Elbow and Panic in Box C. They have decent enough puzzles and there are moments where the spark of the original Fell novels shine through.
I’ll also give you a nudge towards Dark of the Moon. The story is an absolute mess and may be one of Carr’s most unreadable along with Papa La Bas and The Ghosts’ High Noon. However Dark of the Moon features a fine solution to an impossible crime (perhaps his best in two decades), and provides Carr’s final great shocking twist. It’s a bad read but it has its highlights.