You don’t need to go back far to find the last John Dickson Carr I read and reviewed – it was The Problem of the Wire Cage, not even two months ago. But through my journey this year through previously-unread-by-me subgenres of crime fiction, I realized a harrowing fact: since January, I had only read four books by Carr. That might not seem like such a strange thing, until you consider the other fact that last year I read eighteen of Carr’s novels. That’s a steep decline! To be fair, there have been many reasons for this shift. Those eighteen books contained many of Carr’s “classic” works, along with a few of the more under-the-radar novels. Add on top of that a desire to read other GAD authors, crime fiction authors, and literary fiction – and my hectic schedule – and you have a recipe for Carr neglect. Gone are the days when I could binge-read Agatha Christie for, um, a year and a half straight. However, in the next couple months I hope to do my best to get my Carr number back to where it should be, because I have a few of the “classics” left to read alongside many of his lesser-known but still great mysteries. So today is dedicated to Hag’s Nook, which introduced the world to Dr. Gideon Fell, that gargantuan amateur detective we all know and – harrumph! – love.Hag’s Nook introduces not only Dr. Fell, but his sometime companion Tad Rampole from America. Rampole and Fell meet for the first time in the opening chapters. Fell makes a distinct impression on Rampole, who is in Britain for the first time and has decided to stay with Dr. Fell on the advice of a college professor. Fell, however, seems preoccupied by something imminent in his town of Chatterham: Martin Starberth, latest in a long line of former prison governors, has his 25th birthday in just a couple days, and he must spend an hour in the Governor’s Room of the Chatterham prison on his birthday per his father’s will. Martin’s father Timothy had been found with a broken neck just two years before in the neighboring Hag’s Nook, in line with a tradition of Starberths breaking their necks. It seems that Dr. Fell shares Martin’s concern that he may be next…
There are many aspects of Hag’s Nook which, to my surprise, felt similar to his more mature work in the 1940’s. The creepy atmosphere of the prison and Hag’s Nook is of course a large part of this. Carr was a master of this kind of atmosphere from the start of his career, but here especially it mirrors his later books. The deadly room aspect predates the killer room of The Red Widow Murders, but the way he writes the emotional tension that oozes from the prison reflects the writing from his later “creepy” books like He Who Whispers or The Burning Court.
When it comes to genre fiction, as you may be able to guess, I find myself happiest with mysteries. But horror is a genre I can appreciate as well. I’ve noticed that fear is an emotion which can be easier or harder to convey based on the medium. Film is a pretty good way to convey fear and horror, because the audience is able to see whatever is scary or see that they must anticipate it. Video games take this one step further by putting the player in the role of the person in danger, whereas with a movie you only watch someone else make really dumb decisions. Music is a less successful medium to convey fear, although it can be done well since music has the opportunity for sudden dynamic changes and discordant chords – alongside the unique opportunity of a piece that is just as scary for the listener to hear as it is for the performer to play (my mind jumps to Ravel’s “Scarbo” from Gaspard de la nuit.) But for me the written word is the hardest medium to convey horror through because you have to do it just right. Obviously you can’t make a really good jumpscare with words like you can in a movie. In my mind there are three main aspects to rely on: atmosphere, tension and the human imagination. Atmosphere is pretty self-explanatory – if you describe something creepily enough the reader will probably think it’s creepy. Tension can be built without necessarily ending with a jumpscare or something – Stephen King’s Misery builds the tension of Paul Sheldon never knowing just how the psychotic Annie Wilkes will hurt him next. And a good writer can let the reader’s imagination do some of the dirty work for them – for instance in H.P. Lovecraft’s “Cold Air” in which the narrator refuses to describe the appearance of a man who is alive but decomposed beyond recognition. Carr is a master of atmosphere – he beautifully contrasts the sunny disposition of the village of Chattherham with the gloom and dampness of the prison, which makes it even more scary. As a mystery writer, tension is something he needs to be good at, and he is – obviously this is the tension of the reader, who wants to find out who killed Martin Starberth, how, and why. The reliance on human imagination is less necessary for Carr, but he leaves enough ambiguous to let the reader’s mind run amok – especially with the circumstances of Anthony Starberth’s death and with the psyche of the murderer.
But Carr of course needs to build a solid mystery, too, and this he does well. The mystery of Hag’s Nook may not be one of Carr’s most detailed and technical, but it still contains many of his hallmarks. The curse passed on through generations, the mysterious document, and the use of location are all there. One important Carr factor is up for debate, however: the impossibility. Martin Starberth apparently has his neck broken and is thrown from the balcony of the Governor’s Room ten minutes before his hour of vigil is up. While the Governor’s Room does not count as a locked room, there are still some complications: Dr. Fell, Rampole, and the town rector all keep their own vigil on the Governor’s Room from Fell’s house, and can see if anything happens to Starberth. But apparently his light goes out and he is thrown without anybody seen to enter the room. Sure enough, when Rampole and the rector get there they find Starberth’s mangled body. It’s not one of Carr’s famous locked rooms, but it’s an extremely puzzling scenario, and for what it’s worth it is classified as impossible in Adey’s Locked Room Murders. Impossible crime or not, however, Carr manages to make a great puzzle plot, chock full with vanishing suspects, nonsensical verse, a possible treasure hunt, and a swathe of townsfolk who could be up so something sinister.
At the same time Carr manages to put in a romance subplot. Tad Rampole very quickly falls in love with Martin’s sister Dorothy, and while the feeling is mutual, she doesn’t want to get involved with anybody as long as she suspects that there might be a family curse, or worse, a family mania. It’s a pretty standard romantic subplot in a murder mystery, but I like how it urges Rampole to help Dr. Fell solve the mystery, and to perform such crazy acts as entering the prison to confront an intruder (who turns out to be Dr. Fell) and exploring a possibly cholera-ridden well to search for clues.
The solution to the mystery of Hag’s Nook is classic Carr misdirection. The idea behind the crimes is pleasantly simple, and I kicked myself for not seeing it before the end. There are major clues and minor details which lace together to create a convincing case against one of Carr’s most heinous and surprising villains. Interestingly enough Martin Starberth’s murder does become impossible right before we learn how it was done, which I’ll explain in ROT-13: Bapr Fnhaqref vf erirnyrq gb or gur thvygl cnegl, Fgneoregu’f zheqre orpbzrf vzcbffvoyr fvapr ur unq na vzcrargenoyr nyvov qhevat gur ivtvy, naq pbhyqa’g unir qbar nalguvat nsgre gur yvtug jrag bhg.
There is one final premonition of Carr’s mature writing, though, and it comes at the very end of the novel. Many of Carr’s books have endings that simply haunt the reader for one reason or another, and he did this best during the ’40s, with the kinds of bleak and unforgettable endings in He Who Whispers or She Died a Lady. Hag’s Nook‘s ending is not as long or deep as these later examples, but in two short sentences Carr manages to create a final reversal of fortune which leaves the reader struck with some emotion – a combination of fear, dread, and empathy…
I went into Hag’s Nook with the expectation that it would be a more youthful work by Carr, but it really surpassed my expectations, for it contained many of his trademarks and had the emotional levels he would revisit during WWII. Just as Sir Henry Merrivale would later get a worthy introduction in The Plague Court Murders, so does Dr. Fell here. I don’t think it would be a bad choice for someone’s first Carr, either, since it contains so much of what he’s known for, except maybe a hermetically-sealed room (but, as someone who started with The Hollow Man, I think it would be wise to ease your way into Carr’s more baffling impossibilities.) I think my problem so far this year has been that the Carr’s I’ve chosen haven’t energized me enough: The Punch & Judy Murders was phenomenal, but it’s a unique book in Carr’s oeuvre; and both The Eight of Swords and Wire Cage disappointed me. But Hag’s Nook has restarted my Carr-o-mania, and hopefully I will review much more of his work before the year is out!