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Locked Room Reviews:
John Dickson Carr: Death-Watch
A classic Golden Age impossible crime!
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As this is not our first John Dickson Carr review, and TheLockedRoomMystery.com has five full pages dedicated to this Golden Age king of the locked room mystery, this review will omit most of the biographical notes – for further information on the author, please go to the page links above or below. For those who are not locked room fans, I will simply note that John Dickson Carr was the undisputed Golden Age master of the locked room mystery and impossible crime. He was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, the son of a US Congressman, and studied law in Paris before marrying an English woman and settling down in England. He modelled his eccentric and portly series detective, Dr. Gideon Fell, on G. K. Chesterton, and wrote a number of novels and short stories, including his series featuring Sir Henry Merrivale, under the pseudonym Carter Dickson. He was one of only two Americans ever admitted to the British Detection club, and was highly praised by other mystery writers. Dorothy L. Sayers said of him that “he can create atmosphere with an adjective, alarm with allusion, or delight with a rollicking absurdity”.
When reviewing John Dickson Carr, or Agatha Christie, one point must always be noted at the start. This is the simple fact that when either of these amazing authors write a mystery that is not quite first rate, it is usually still far better than the best titles of most other authors in the genre. ‘Death Watch’ has been touted by many as one of the best Carr novels. Dr Gideon Fell even claims, in this novel, that this is the only case that ever really frightened him – and the narrator makes the claim that “some of us will always consider the clock-face problem as being Dr. Fell’s greatest case.” Yet, while there can be no doubt that it is a very good impossible mystery case, it is far from being in the same league as ‘The Hollow Man’ (AKA: The Three Coffins), Carr’s great masterpiece, written the very same year.
This novel begins as the portly Dr. Fell and his friend, Professor Melson, are walking home from the theatre late at night. They are just nearing Melson’s lodgings in Lincoln Inn Fields, as their conversation drifts to the brutal murder of a ‘shopwalker’ at Gamridges department store. The store detective had been stabbed while attempting to nab a shoplifter who had just stolen, amongst other items, a valuable antique watch loaned to the store by Johannus Carver, a clockmaker and Melson’s neighbour. Fell relates the basic facts of this case and elicits another odd story in return, when Melson recounts an overheard conversation between two women from the Carver household and the local constable. They were reporting the odd theft of two gilt painted hands from a new clock that had been securely stored inside the house. All of which quite effectively sets the stage, just as they arrive outside the Carver residence and notice that the front door is standing wide open, though no lights are turned on inside the house. A moment later they hear a startled cry and follow the local constable, who was watching from the shadows, into the house and up a staircase to the second floor landing, where they discover a young woman standing near a body which has recently been stabbed to death with the minute hand of a large clock!
This house is soon found to contain an odd assortment of suspects. The young lady doing all the screaming is Eleanor Smith-Carver, the ward of Johannus Carver, clockmaker. She was headed to a midnight assignation with her young man, Donald Hastings, up on the roof of the building. Hastings soon re-enters the story quite dramatically, when he is discovered in the garden after taking a tumble during his attempted departure. Other than the clockmaker, the house also contains Millicent Steffins, a busybody who runs Carver’s household, Mrs. Gorson, the housekeeper, and another young maid. Lucia Handreth, who is Hastings’ cousin, is a young lawyer who occupies the other lodgings on the ground floor, while upstairs are the rooms of Mr. Christopher Paull, the nephew of Sir Edwin who commissioned the now handless clock, and Calvin Boscombe, a wealthy man, with a disturbing interest in the Spanish Inquisition. A little too coincidently, it soon becomes evident that Boscombe was actually planning the perfect murder of the very corpse that is now lying on his doorstep – apparently for the sheer sport – by means of a bullet fired from a silenced pistol, when someone beat him to the punch by stabbing the victim in the neck with the ornate clock hand. Then there is the dead man, apparently a bit of a local tramp, who turns out to be a Scotland Yard detective, Inspector George Ames, working in disguise. Ames, again just a little too coincidently, once helped to bring down Boscombe’s current visitor and murder cohort, the one time Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Peter Stanley, who was thrown off the force after emptying his gun into an innocent banker. Fortunately, for Boscombe and Stanley, no one seems overly concerned with charging them with attempted murder!
In charge of the case is Fell’s old friend and adversary, Chief Inspector David Hadley, who immediately recognizes the victim when he arrives on the scene. The vicious attack on the shopwalker in the department store also hangs over the case like a dark storm cloud, after Hadley admits that Ames was working on this case and had a firm lead which indicated that the woman who killed the shoplifter lived in this same house. At first it proves to be a baffling case, badly complicated by Boscombe’s deadly game, but the evidence soon falls into place – and it all points to the lovely young Eleanor Carver! It begins to seem like she may have an upcoming date with a hangman’s noose, until Dr. Fell takes over the case for the defence and roundly plucks apart Hadley’s seemingly impregnable case in the best moment of this mystery. Fell makes his point quite clearly by noting that any correct answer must involve the solution to five distinct questions. If the department store killer was from the house, why wait until the watch was loaned to the department store to steal it? Then there is the vexing question of why both clock hands were stolen and why they were taken while locked away – not when they were outside as the paint was drying? Fell also wants to know why the initial witness at the department store now refuses to come forward, why they did not find the stolen sixteenth-century death-watch planted on Eleanor with some other items, and why Ames notes seem to so clearly indicate that only Eleanor or Lucia could be his killer?
This is a bizarre and extremely intricate plot, laden with far too many red herrings, and my edition contains no floor plans, which would certainly have come in handy as the exact layout is rather difficult to comprehend. It clearly does not share the spooky atmosphere found in ‘The Hollow Man’, but there is a very dark and claustrophobic tension, which gradually paints a nasty picture of a very devilish and unsympathetic murder. Still, it is Fell who truly dominates this novel from the first page, despite Hadley’s pig headed determination to follow the too convenient trail of false evidence. However, in the end, even the great doctor must resort to a rather cheap trick to gain a confession, by threatening the killer with a mad man. It is quite clear that Carr had no other option by this point, as he had created such a airtight plot that there could be no conclusive evidence of the identity of the killer. Fell only arrives at his solution after a long process of elimination and by a close examination of the question of opportunity. I doubt that any first time reader will be sure he has detected the right villain, as there is no dead giveaway clue and a major impossibility must be overcome before reaching the correct conclusion. I was on the right track from the start, despite some clever, nearly unfair, misdirection, but this was more intuition than deduction and I suspect that few readers will be greatly surprised when the killer’s identity is finally revealed.
There is also an important issue with Carr’s characters in this novel. Most are flat and two dimensional, and, as usual, Carr tends to make all his female characters candidates for the psych ward, wrought with uncontrollable emotions that are far too overplayed. These issues are not uncommon in other Carr works, but they seem to be more starkly defined in this instance, where it is the women who are directly suspected of the brutal slaying of the store detective. I also must take exception with some of the investigative techniques used by Fell and Hadley! Why does it take so long to search Ames quarters? Why was there no early interview of former Chief Inspector Stanley? These shortcomings are simply an unbelievable lapse, and would have quickly clarified several otherwise mystifying points – which is exactly why they were ignored for too long!
However, the real problem with this novel is that Carr actually breaks one of Dr. Fell’s cardinal rules of locked room mysteries from his famous lecture in ‘The Hollow Man’. “In discussing ways of escaping when both door and window are sealed, I shall not mention the low (and nowadays very rare) trick of having a secret passage to a locked room. This so puts a story beyond the pale that a self-respecting author scarcely needs even to mention that there is no such thing.” Yet this quiet house in Lincoln Inn Fields is literally riddled with secret panels and stairways, which effectively prevent any solution by the reader, until the basic design of these passages is finally revealed – and even then we are not permitted to accompany Fell on his final examination of the hidden passages. Shame upon you, JDC!
Still, as I noted at the beginning of this review, a second rate Carr is still far better than nearly anyone else’s masterpiece. Even with these major flaws, this is still a great four star locked room mystery, from the master of the genre, and a thoroughly enjoyable read!
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