“This thing was wrong. Terrors should not be domestic terrors. It was like being told that in your own home you may completely disappear for four hours. It was like being told that in your own home you may open a familiar door, and enter not your own room, but a room you have never seen before, where something is waiting.”
The problem with revisiting the work of your favorite authors is that you can discover that a book you once loved doesn’t do it for you anymore. You hold that once beloved volume in your arms and you wonder, “Where did the magic go?” The Greek Coffin Mystery was so enticing when we first met, taking me down an alluring path of mystery to an explosive climax. When did it become such a drag? And Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? was such a funny fellow the first time we crossed paths; now it produces nary a giggle.
Don’t be sad, old friends, it happens: we grow up, we change. It’s not you, it’s me. I’ll just return you to the shelf and slowly walk away, not looking back.
For many years, when people would ask me the title of my favorite John Dickson Carr novel, my reply would be: The Crooked Hinge. I read a lot of Carr in my teenaged years. I can’t remember much about them, except general impressions, and the impression with which Hinge left me was unbridled joy. Back then, people would respond to my choice with a murmur: “Oh, yes, fine book!” But over the past few years, a minor shemozzle has evolved over The Crooked Hinge. Its greatness has diminished. Many opine that the false solution is better than the real one. My friend JJ has suggested that the addition of one sentence would fix the book’s flaws.
Having not returned to the novel for – can it be? – half a century, I wasn’t able to defend it. Instead – and here is where I must confess the sordid truth – I cheated on The Crooked Hinge! I started calling He Who Whispers my favorite Carr novel. I confess it . . . I took the easy way out. But first loves come back to haunt you, and I kept asking myself: how did we lose our way? If we only spent a little time together again, could we get the magic back?
I remember only a few things about Hinge: the premise of “which man is the real heir?” the name of the killer, and a little four-word sentence that had shocked me to pieces at the time as it unraveled the truth. A re-read was in order, and yet my damned TBR pile kept getting in the way! And then, a chance offer upped the stakes and provided me with the perfect opportunity: my good friends, Flex and Herds, those playful co-hosts of Death of the Reader, the mystery lover’s podcast from Down Under, invited me to guide them along on their very first read of this classic Carr title.
It works like this: over a three-week period, the boys will read the novel and try to solve the puzzle, while I grunt encouragingly and smirk as hard as one can in audio format. In the end, I believe I get to reward points or something to the one who comes up with the most correct answer. If you’ve read the book, it’s fun to listen along as the boys get it all wrong, but honestly, they’re very good at this game. And with both of them applying their little grey cells to the same book, there’s a good chance they will figure everything out by the end.
You can find Death of the Reader wherever you listen to podcasts. (Here’s a link to the first episode on YouTube.) Meanwhile, in order to prepare for my duties, I finally picked my old love down from the shelf after so many years and re-read it. Can I tell you that I admit to some trepidation as I began? These long-awaited reunions can disappoint you.
I needn’t have worried: the old book is still fabulous.
The premise is great: two men vie for the title of squire in the village of Mallingford in Kent. The real John Farnleigh has a dark and colorful past: a disfavored second son banished at fifteen to America for his wild ways with women and unseemly interest in witchcraft, he was unlucky to choose the Titanic for his crossing but lucky enough to survive its destruction. Is the man who returned to England soon after the death of his parents and brother and became a model citizen the real Sir John, or is the cynical, but attractive man who has recently arrived to challenge the title the rightful heir?
It all leads, of course, to murder, and you couldn’t ask for a spookier, more cunning impossible crime. A man is murdered right out in the open, in the creepy garden abutting Farnleigh Close, in full view of witnesses who swear that nobody was near him when he struggled, cried out and fell to the ground, his throat cut. How could he have died by anything but his own hand? And yet, the evidence against suicide is equally compelling.
Was the victim murdered by an evil spirit, summoned by the witches who gossips say have long practiced their dark arts in the nearby wood? Or was the killer something even more fiendish and strange that resides in the Farnleigh attic? And which man is the real John Farnleigh – because, according to Dr. Gideon Fell, who has arrived with Scotland Yard to look into another murder that occurred the previous summer, the way you look at the murder depends on the answer to that question.
If I was worried that, like some of those old Ellery Queens, this book would drag and disappoint, I needn’t have bothered. It’s a lively read, with an intimate cast that grows more suspicious as the plot clicks along. Carr is one of the best at proposing one theory after another that turns the tables on our expectations until we’re dizzy with wondering what the truth may be. Characters flip from heroes to villains and back again in our minds. Clues are trotted out and waved in our faces or slipped in through the cracks.
Even knowing the solution as I did coming in the second time, I had great fun watching the case unfold and little pieces of evidence present themselves. I also loved the lively, spooky tone that presides over the proceedings, landing us with a little kick at the end of every chapter. Even the scenes where people just talk about the case are drenched in atmosphere, like a late-night tête-a- tête in a cozy cottage between two young people who are falling in love, only the talk is about murder and sorcery while outside in the garden a hideous monster awaits . . .
Dr. Fell doesn’t lecture much here or even “harrumph” a lot, but he’s a marvelous presence. And when he does pontificate on murder cases in general, even a little, he’s especially entertaining. Here he is discussing the tendency of murderers, once emboldened by success, to kill again and again:
“We’ve known cases in which the murderer, after taking careful pains about his original crime, then goes berserk and begins to eliminate people all over the place. It seems to be like getting olives out of a bottle: you have infinite trouble with the first one, and the rest roll out all over the table. Without, indeed, anybody seeming to pay much attention to them.”
Fell need have no fear of a broken olive bottle from this killer, who is possessed of their own strong moral code, a person who had no qualms about committing a savage murder and yet explains late in the game why certain people who held damning knowledge against them were always safe from harm: “These are real persons I have known, not dummies to pad out a chapter; and they are not to be treated like stuffed cats at a fair.” These statements by Fell and the murderer are part of Carr’s meta-fictional game that he likes to play – just another quality that we love about him!
The ending of the book might be said to be controversial, although this has nothing to do with false solutions versus real ones. No, the controversy has to do with the killer’s ultimate fate, which I had completely forgotten. (We can discuss it in the comments section.) Regarding the solutions, I personally think that the false one is great, and it has an important purpose to it. However, the real solution is magnificent, bold, and crazy. That said, both these theories are pure “Golden Age,” and one must embrace that knowledge when reading this – or practically any – impossible crime novel. These are the most fanciful of mysteries, inspiring joy in their fans and ridicule from their detractors.
It makes me think of one of the great love affairs of the 20th century between comedian husband-and-wife team George Burns and Gracie Allen. As they stood before the audience and Gracie applied her scattered logic to her family members or the simple events of her day, George’s expression would grow a little tighter, and his questions would come a little faster. And then, he would simply . . . relax, take a puff from his cigar, and say, “Goodnight, Gracie.”
That’s what you have to do with books like Carr’s The Crooked Hinge, or Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit or Scott Byrnside’s The Five False Suicides or little Jimmy Noy’s The Red Death Murders: instead of bemoaning the fact that the killer could have simply pushed Monica off the balcony but instead manufactured a trap with a cannon ball, a goldfish bowl, and a harmonica, you need to take a slow drag on the fantasy, let it out with a contented sigh, and say:
Thank you, Mr. Carr, and good night.