One of the best things about mysteries is that they can act as a great form of escapism. In the kind of world we live in, this is a big plus. It’s what this book in essence did for me, because over the three days I read it I managed to get both indigestion and a badly skinned knee. Even if it wasn’t the best of conditions to read Carr in, I was still glad that I had this book to take my mind off of my injuries. Now, the reason I read this in the first place was because I wanted to read The Case of the Constant Suicides next weekend (hold tight for that review,) and I was aware that that spoiled a key event in this book. I just wanted to make sure that I didn’t completely ruin my experience with The Man Who Could Not Shudder, but from what I’d read I had expected it to be a flawed and overall mediocre selection from Carr. I was very glad to prove myself wrong. It’s not a top 5 Dr. Fell for me, but The Man Who Could Not Shudder really exceeded my expectations.
The setup is classic Carr. Bob Morrison, our narrator, and his fiancee Tess Fraser have been invited to a house-warming by Bob’s somewhat shady friend, Martin Clarke. Clarke has an ulterior motive in his invitations to Longwood House, which he has recently bought: the house is rumored to be haunted, and he wants to invite six people of different constitutions to observe their reactions to whatever spooky things happen. And spooky things have indeed happened in the past: In 1820 one of the Longwood ancestors died mysteriously and was seen days later as a ghost. Furniture has long been seen to move on its own. Twenty years before the book begins, a butler was found crushed to death by a chandelier, the evidence of which strongly suggested that he had swung on said chandelier so violently that it fell on him. This time around, however, the stakes are higher, as Clarke’s business friend Archibald Bentley Logan is shot by a gun in the study that seemed to have fired itself and fallen down, with Logan’s wife in the room and witnesses at each of the two sides of windows. It’s a case for Dr. Fell and Inspector Elliot to solve before the house – or a very cunning murderer – claims any more lives.
One of the critiques I often see for this book is that Carr wastes the spooky atmosphere that a haunted house should easily provide. I understand why people feel this way – most of the present-day scary events aren’t that scary (disembodied hands that politely greet you at the front door by grabbing your ankle; clocks that, get this, stop; etc.), the main impossibility takes place at 10 in the morning, and said impossibility is one of Carr’s most artificial. The self-shooting gun is clearly not the work of ghosts, and it’s never treated as such. But this isn’t what Carr was going for. It’s well known that Carr probably got some advice from John Rhode for this book, whereas Carr probably gave Rhode advice on The Bloody Tower. So in one aspect, this is Carr’s attempt to write a more Rhode-like book. This is clear from Elliot’s routine investigation and the mechanical features of the crime. Furthermore, I believe that Carr on occasion writes in a way that I call “didactic horror”, where scariness is juxtaposed with a somewhat dry, textbook-like writing style. Think Poe, Lovecraft, and Carr’s own The Hollow Man. It’s a hard writing style to pull off, and it’s not really a thing in the first place outside of my mind, but if you ask me it’s what Carr has done here, and I think it works well.
The almost humdrum investigation complements the crime nicely. Unlike in other Carrs, there’s not even a suggestion that the impossible crime could be supernatural, and this allows the characters to look at it in a unique way. Although some theories on how the gun trick was worked are propounded, Fell, Elliot, and the others try to piece together the true story of the crime in other ways. They interrogate witnesses, figure out who was where when, and find out the details of ballistics, architecture, and history. (By the way, I think that Elliot is a great police detective character like Sgt. Pollard, and while I’m glad that he got this third appearance, I think that his best performance was in The Problem of the Green Capsule.) There are many clues in this book that will make it easier to solve if you have more knowledge of certain subjects of knowledge like history or science. I appreciated that Carr put so much focus on the architecture itself as he did. This is a book where it is very important to visualize the setup of the location in order to understand anything, and Carr does a good job in his descriptions of the house, its rooms, decorations, and layout. Overall, the detection in this book is sound, and I enjoyed that it was completed not only by the actual detectives but by the more trustworthy suspects, too.
Those suspects may be few, but they are memorable. The Man Who Could Not Shudder was written in 1940, and like many of his contemporaries, Carr began to improve his characterization during WWII. This is a great example of how Carr was able to create stronger and more memorable characters and still provide a complete and satisfying puzzle plot. As mentioned earlier, each of Clarke’s guests fills a certain disposition in connection with their belief of the supernatural. Clarke himself is a skeptic but, shady as he is, does not hesitate to tell his guests spooky stories about Longwood House. Morrison, a writer, has a wild imagination but is still rational. Tess can be frightened by the events but remains unconvinced. Logan believes in ghosts, just not here. Mrs. Logan seems to buy into it, architect Andy Hunter is naturally curious about just what the ghosts are up to, and lawyer Julian Enderby is very suspicious of the existence of ghosts. Each of the guests, plus Clarke, plays to their dispositions but still reacts sensibly to the events at hand no matter whether or not they believe in the supernatural abilities of Longwood House. I found the characters to be on the whole likable, their motivations understandable, and never more annoying than they needed to be. This is one of the few times where Carr includes a villain who exists besides the murder mystery. In The Reader Is Warned, it’s Herman Pennik, who terrorizes all of England with his apparent powers in Teleforce. This time, it’s Clarke, who is able to take advantage of his guests’ personalities and play with just about all of them (plus the detectives) in his sick mind games. Bob and Tess are another one of my favorite Carr couples, as neither one annoyed me, and Tess wasn’t a victimized woman in the Lesley Grant / Fay Seton mold. Don’t get me wrong, Grant and Seton are two of Carr’s best-written female characters, but it’s nice to see a romantic couple in Carr who act for the most part normally, and sometimes even smartly!
The solution is the other main aspect that I see critiqued. Again, I can understand why some people dislike it. It’s one of Carr’s most complex and complicated, the impossibility has a more mechanical explanation than is usual for Carr, and it can be hard to follow or believe. I get all that. But I LOVE the solution that Dr. Fell propounds. It explains both the big mysteries and the little ones, it’s delightfully twisty, and it complements some very shocking but funny events that happen at the end of the book. I’ll explain some more in ROT-13:
Fb V haqrefgnaq jul gur ryrpgebzntarg obguref fbzr crbcyr fvapr vg pbhyq or pbafvqrerq n purng. Ohg jung V yvxr nobhg vg vf gung n.) vg svgf va jvgu gur Eubqr-yvxr dhnyvgl bs gur obbx, naq o.) vg rkcynvaf abg whfg gur vzcbffvoyr fubbgvat, ohg bgure guvatf yvxr gur pybpx, punaqryvre, naq gur qvfneenatrzrag bs nyy gur thaf. Vg’f yvxr n bar-fvmr-svgf-nyy vzcbffvovyvgl fbyhgvba! Ba gur bgure fvqr bs guvatf, gur rkcynangvba gb jubqhavg vf whfg nznmvat. V ybir gur Vntb gebcr rfcrpvnyyl jura vg’f qbar jryy, naq Pnee qbrf vg jryy urer. Bsgra gvzrf, gur “Vntb” punenpgre vf noyr gb trg gurve pubfra nppbzcyvpr gb pbzzvg zheqre ol zrer fhttrfgvba. Ohg jung V yvxr urer vf gung Pynexr gnxrf ab punaprf jvgu Uhagre. Ur yrnirf gur cynaf bs gur ryrpgebzntarg flfgrz, yrnqf Uhagre ba jvgu gur glcrjevgre fhttrfgvba, naq nyybjf Zbeevfba gb zber be yrff vaivgr Uhagre uvzfrys. V gubhtug vg vagrerfgvat, gbb, gung Pynexr naq Uhagre unq gjb pbzcyrgryl qvssrerag zbgvirf, ohg jrer rnpu shryrq rabhtu ol fnvq zbgvir gb pneel bhg gurve cybg. Gur svany gjvfg bs Zbeevfba’f nppvqragny phycnovyvgl vf na rkgen pureel ba gbc, naq Qe. Sryy’f pbasrffvba gb nefba znqr zr ynhtu bhg ybhq.
A couple other things I noticed about this book:
- I thought that it was a curious choice to make this book a prequel to Elliot’s two prior appearances, but I suppose it makes more sense because it not only shows Elliot as he improves his deductive technique, but it gives the solution in a flash-forward, too.
- I was bemused by Clarke’s reason for all the petrol in his basement (that he was hoarding it before it became scarce in the impending war.) It’s nice to know that 80 years ago people were going crazy about gas just like us.
- As has been mentioned before, there is a Dr. Harold Middlesworth who appears as a minor character after what appears to be an attempt at a second murder. He’s a very minor character, but he shares a name and profession with another character from Till Death Do Us Part. I like to think that they’re brothers, or cousins, or something, as a cool connection in the Carriverse.
- Lastly, I found a couple references to Agatha Christie. The first, which I hadn’t seen referenced in any other reviews, was probably accidental, when characters refer to the mysterious witness to the crime as “the man in the brown suit”. The second (as has been said by others) is infuriating, as Carr decides to just spoil The Murder of Roger Ackroyd for no good reason.
Even though I liked the solution, atmosphere, and all that, what endeared this book to me most was that I enjoyed it. It was so much fun! I wanted to read and read and find out what happened next. We always praise Carr for his skills in plot and the impossible crime, but I think that sometimes we forget just how good of an entertainer he was with his books. That’s something which I think we need to give Carr more credit for. Even though there are still quite a few Dr. Fells which I like more than this one, I still think that The Man Who Could Not Shudder is an above-average novel from Carr, especially considering the disappointment of its predecessor and the high reputation of its successor. And next week we shall see just what I think of that successor…
Also, to anyone else who’s read this, I have a question which I’ll have to ROT-13: Jub qb lbh pbafvqre gur thvygl cnegvrf? Boivbhfyl Pynexr vf gur znfgrezvaq, Uhagre vf gur bar jub frgf vg hc, naq Zbeevfba vf gur vanqiregrag xvyyre. Ohg bs gurfr guerr juvpu barf qb lbh pbafvqre “gur zheqreref”? V fnl Pynexr naq Uhagre, fvapr Zbeevfba qvqa’g naq pbhyqa’g xabj jung ur unq qbar, hagvy Sryy rkcynvarq vg gb uvz. Ohg V’z phevbhf gb xabj jung crbcyr guvax nobhg guvf.
GADetection Wiki (Nick Fuller, Curt Evans)