The second Dr Fell novel, The Mad Hatter Mystery finds us in fog-soaked London. Ted Rampole (previously in Hag’s Nook) reunites with the doctor as they investigate a string of hat thefts plaguing the city and confounding the police. We’re also introduced to Chief Inspector Hadley, who will go on to be the Fell equivalent of Merrivale’s Chief Inspector Masters – a likable investigator lured to false conclusions by the clues of the crime, only to eventually be shown the light by the omniscient series detective.
The stolen hats go beyond just simple theft – someone is snatching hats from people in positions of powers and placing them in conspicuous places. On top of that, we have the theft of a rare manuscript by Edgar Allan Poe – a lost story featuring the first appearance of detective Auguste Dupin. All of this in the first chapter of the book, plus one more thing – murder.
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“In a detective story, no person is above suspicion. But there are several types who are below it.”
I did it. I finally did it. I knew that if I explored some of Carr’s less popular works, I’d find a gem worth savoring. A book that for some reason has fallen out of favor, leaving it a neglected treasure to be stumbled upon. Below Suspicion is that book. Let me explain how I got here.
Several months back, I took a chance on The Man Who Could Not Shudder, based on a comment from JJ at The Invisible Event that it had an audacious ending. The book definitely had a few weaknesses, such as a plodding first half and a surprising lack of atmosphere for a plot that revolves around a haunted house. Still, I enjoyed it. The pace picked up in the second half and the finale was truly enjoyable. To be clear, it wasn’t top tier Carr, but it didn’t strike me as deserving of the derision it receives.
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John Dickson Carr has some books where the title alone draws you in – The Nine Wrong Answers, The Reader is Warned, The Four False Weapons,… The names suggest that the reader is going to be played with – presented with a set of clues that promise to be false. Amongst these ranks, we find The Case of the Constant Suicides. The title suggests deaths – multiple of them – and they’re going to look like suicide. But this is Carr, so we know it’s not going to be that easy.
This is a classic that I’ve been holding onto for a while. For one, I simply had to get a copy with the best cover. Second, this is one of the handful of Carr works that I have left that are unanimously considered among his top works. I’ve come to learn that I enjoy Carr in general, even if I’m not dealing with the more popular works, but I’ve also come to appreciate that with many of those revered stories, everything just snaps into place.
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Aside from The Hollow Man, no other book is more likely to occupy a top 10 Carr list than The Crooked Hinge. Not only a fan favorite, the book has been ranked highly in some fairly famous lists and polls, even being branded the fourth best impossible crime novel of all time. And yet, in recent years, the story seems to have fallen out of favor. Perhaps that’s natural – with everyone heralding The Hollow Man and The Crooked Hinge as the top of Carr’s work, it seems reasonable that they would eventually be viewed with a higher degree of criticism. It’s like the hit single by that band that you like – everyone knows that track, and maybe it even got you into the band, but you’ve come to recognize that the true gems lie with the more obscure album cuts and b-sides. Maybe.
I’ve really been looking forward to reading this one, exercising some restraint by placing it well down in my To Be Read list. Partially, I held off on the book because I was under the impression that I had the ending spoiled for me online. I was happy to realize midway through that I must have been thinking of some other story; this truly was fresh ground for me.
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When I started my journey with Carr, the road was laid out and predictable. I would read through a blend of the most highly regarded books before making my way into the middle ground – books you don’t hear too much about, but aren’t derided. Eventually, I figured, I’d hit a breaking point – slogging through a few disinteresting stories and then moving on to a different author. But, then a funny thing happened. I accidentally read Fire, Burn (thinking it was The Burning Court), which, while not derided, doesn’t exactly inspire stellar reviews. Shocked that I loved the book, I decided to step further into the deep end, next picking up Death Watch, which I’ve seen on a few “worst of Carr” lists. Absolutely loving that story, I now find myself at grips with The Man Who Could Not Shudder. While not despised at the same level as, say, Behind the Crimson Blind or The Hungry Goblin, this book is a staple when people list their least favorite Carr’s.
What led me to the book was a comment by JJ at The Invisible Event that there is a moment of brilliance – of sheer audacity on Carr’s part – when the solution is revealed. Ok, I’m sold. After experiencing a euphoric moment of clarity towards the end of The White Priory Murders, I had to have another taste.
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I recall an interesting debate on a blog about which book would be the best to introduce a newcomer to Carr. Upon the topic being introduced, my mind immediately flashed to classics like The Problem of the Green Capsule and The Judas Window.
This was an obvious reaction – why not start with a story that you’re bound to love? However, as I dug deeper into the comment section, a different position became prevalent. Don’t start with the best and then leave the reader expecting every book to be perfection. Well, I’m probably doing a horrible job paraphrasing the commenter, but the basic logic was that a newcomer should start with a solid story that gives them an introduction to Carr’s writing style, hooks them with a solid impossible crime, and sets the tone for what can be expected with future reading.
As I piece together my thoughts on Hag’s Nook, it strikes me that this might fit the criteria perfectly. Perhaps I’m a bit biased – after all, this was my first encounter with a full length Carr novel. Yet it’s all there – everything that makes a Carr novel great.
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On rare occasions, I’ll be several chapters into a book when I realize that I’m reading something special. I got that sense two chapters into The Burning Court – I knew that I was in for a fun ride and I almost regretted knowing that it would at some point end. I was fortunate enough to experience that feeling again with Till Death Do Us Part, and even more fortunate that it was an intuition that turned out to be correct.
Having surveyed reviews on a number of sites, I categorized the book as Highly Recommended Carr. This was a mistake, it is a Classic. As with He Who Whispers, everything about this story just works. Riveting impossible crime – check. Excellent pacing – check. Memorable characters – check. The feeling that the rug is constantly being pulled out from under you – che…well, this is a Carr novel, so I suppose that’s a given
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Consult a list of the top five Carr books and He Who Whispers is almost guaranteed to be on it. This is widely considered to be classic Carr, and I won’t argue with that sentiment. It has it all – the quality of the puzzle, the sense of adventure, memorable characters, and a haunting ending. It’s this well rounded nature that raises it above such strong competition; the many other Carr tales often sagging slightly in one dimension or another.
I’ve only read 15 Carr stories so far, with some notorious gaps (The Hollow Man, The Case of the Constant Suicides, The Crooked Hinge), but I think I can spot a classic when I see it. There’s something about how all of the aspects of the story work together in concert.
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Having been slowly working my way through the top 1/4 of Carr books, I’ve decided to become a little more adventurous. In part, this was due to accidentally reading Fire, Burn (a typically low rated Carr work) and enjoying it. Another influencer was JJ, over at The Invisible Event, who included both Death Watch and The Man Who Could Not Shudder in a list of Carr books to try. The recommendations seemed unusual – both of these books have a somewhat diminished standing on review sites. When first building my reputation-based list of Carr novels to avoid, both of these titles were in heavy consideration for inclusion. Death Watch in particular is regularly panned in reviews, but I stumbled upon several other blogs that positioned it as a worthy read. As such, I’ve been mixing up my To Be Read stack a little, and recently took on Death Watch instead of Till Death Do Us Part.
Death Watch revolves around the murder of a detective who was investigating a brazen killing in a crowded department store. The detective is found dead, stabbed in the neck with an unusual weapon – the minute hand of a clock. He has seemingly been lured to a clockmaker’s house under the pretense of receiving evidence exposing one of the inhabitants as the killer from the department store. It is at this house that Dr Fell discovers the crime scene and Carr introduces us to a cast of suspects. Immediately, we get the sense that not all is as it seems – something is clearly being hidden and it isn’t hard to detect that nearly every character’s account is laced with lies.
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