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“The Case of the Constant Suicides” by John Dickson Carr

Collier did a good job with this eerie
and atmospheric illustration!

So, remember how I said that I had wanted to read this over Labor Day weekend? Yeah, well, that didn’t quite happen. I had to finish other non-mystery books and manage some new additions to my schedule, preventing my mystery-reading experience, but two weeks and a new British monarch later, I finally found the time to read The Case of the Constant Suicides. For some reason this was one which I had put off until now, even though it’s one of the best-loved Carrs and one of the few currently in print. Considering that I had absolutely loved every other high-rated Carr up to this point, I didn’t expect this one to be any kind of disappointment. However, I still experienced not only a well-crafted mystery, but a smart comedy and a beautifully painted landscape of Scotland.

The coincidence struck me that this was the first mystery I read in the era of Charles III, because this book concerns two scholars of the previous Charles (you know… the lecherous one.) Alan Campbell is travelling by train to Scotland at the behest of a late distant relative’s lawyer who wants to sort out an inheritance. There he runs into his worst enemy: K.I. Campbell, the fellow historian with whom Alan has sparred in the newspaper for months. The only problem is, K.I stands for Kathryn Irene, and Kathryn happens to be Alan’s cousin. Hilarious hijinks and (disconcertingly) romantic shenanigans ensue! Alan and Kathryn meet some unique characters on their journey: Charles Swan, a Canadian reporter for a tabloid, has been invited to the Castle Shira by Elspat Campbell, the God-fearing and dance-hall-hating domestic partner of the late Angus Campbell. Present at the conference are Angus’ brother Colin, a serious but boisterous man, the family lawyer Alistair Duncan, and an insurance investigator, Walter Chapman. Angus had lost the majority of his money after he promoted a series of his strange and unsuccessful inventions, and as such only had three life insurance policies left to leave his wife and brother. However, Angus met his demise when he jumped out of a locked bedroom at the tower’s top floor, which is obviously a problem when it comes to insurance collection. Elspat, Colin, and Duncan all believe that Angus was murdered, possibly scared to death by some creature left in a dog carrier brought by Angus’ engineering rival, Alec Forbes. However, it will take a multitude of drunken nights, Scot jokes, two more locked-room murder attempts, and the help of a certain Chestertonian doctor to solve this puzzle…

Normally I don’t begin with a discussion of the setting, but the motif of Scotland, physically, historically, and culturally, is the lodestar of this novel. I feel like Scotland was unfairly ignored by many (though not all) GAD authors in favor of England, with occasional excursions to France, Italy, or the Middle East. But Scotland’s rich history seems to invite a murder-mystery setting, a characteristic which Carr takes full advantage of. The story of Ian Campbell and the visit paid to him by the ghost of one of his victims in war may well be no more than travel-book fodder, but it still doesn’t feel out of place in Scottish history. The physical location, too, helps to set the emotional tone of the book. The Castle Shira, itself a haunting and sprawling structure, is surrounded by the gloomy Loch Fyne which in turn overlooks desolate mountains, winding roads, deep-complexioned skies, and the imminent threat of nocturnal bombing. All you need, really, is a giant eye at the top of the castle on the prowl for a certain Hobbit. In all seriousness, though, this is the perfect kind of setting for the book, which is one of the best examples of Carr’s “Gothic” locked-room mysteries – in the same vein as The Plague Court Murders or He Who Whispers.

Carr inserts Scottish culture and humor into the book too, in a way that never overbears or distracts from the plot. Sure, there may be stereotypes – the drinking and joke-telling happen so much and so grotesquely that I would understand if someone Scottish was genuinely offended by this book – but the comedy is situational too; Swan’s incident with the claymores is a perfect example. I did really enjoy the scenes in which the characters drink the potent “Doom of the Campbells”, which result in some of the funniest scenes of the book and the recurring imagery of Alan waking up in a hangover. (On a related note, this is one of the only books I’ve seen prairie oysters mentioned in.) The characters have their funny quirks as well. Elspat in particular is an extremely funny character, always cranky and asking the strangest questions, such as when she interrogates Kathryn about any possibly sinful activity at the evil dance-halls of London. Some of the characters’ delights come from their complexities. Take Colin, for example: he’s a stern English atheist who will suddenly change into a drunken, life-loving Scot, but through it all he’s clearly the same man. Constant Suicides was written in 1940, near the beginning of a renaissance for Carr in which he wrote some of his best work, which still included fiendishly-plotted impossible crimes but at the same time expounded on an increase in character humanization. These features may have been used to comedic effect here, but Carr would increase his skills in characterization for dramatic effect very soon after this, especially in books like She Died a Lady or The Seat of the Scornful.

However, the actual mystery plot of this book does not take a second chair to the Scottish comedy. This is, in fact, one of the few Carrs which contains multiple locked-room mysteries! There is, of course, the initial mystery of Angus Campbell, who propelled himself from the top of the Castle Shira. The most likely suspect seems to be Alec Forbes, who was reported to have brought the sinister dog-carrier which was found the next morning after Angus met his maker. This dog-carrier brings in a second level of locked-room: if there was something in the dog-carrier which was used to frighten Campbell to suicide without the penetration the locked door of the bedroom, then how did it get out of the carrier without unlocking the door of the carrier, too? But Carr isn’t done yet. Not only will another member of the Campbell family nearly fall victim to the same death-trap that befell Angus, but another suspect will be found dead in a hermetically sealed cabin, apparently another suicide. That’s three locked-room murders / attempted murders! One of the things which I like about this structure, too, is that Carr lets us have the first solution a full 50 pages before the end of the book, and then leaves the newer locked-room for the very end. In that way, it’s nice to have sections in which the reader can focus on one specific locked-room problem rather than both at the same time. I appreciated how Carr included the blackout into both locked-rooms. Not only is it a reminder alongside the fun shenanigans that there is a war, but it’s a unique addition to the problems which I haven’t really seen used anywhere else.

The solutions to both locked-rooms are equally elegant. Since the first one is more a matter of discerning what was in the dog-carrier, you only really need to know the object that did the deed, and when Dr. Fell revealed it I was not disappointed. Both practically and thematically it works. The second locked room is more technical, but it relies on a really astute observation. The locked-room solutions, though, do not necessarily implicate the murderer themselves. Worry not, however, for Carr has chosen a well-thought-out culprit with a path of clues that leads to their guilt, and a couple other surprises about the crimes committed.

What’s so great about this book is that it might be one of Carr’s shortest, with my copy not even 190 pages, yet it has so many of Carr’s hallmarks and still stands out as a masterpiece of comedic mystery. If you want a classic Carr with atmosphere, locked-room murders, memorable characters, laugh-out-loud scenes, and beautiful Scottish imagery, then this is the book you want to read. You might even learn something about Charles II on the way…

(P.S., I am glad that I read The Man Who Could Not Shudder before this. The spoiler mentioned in Constant Suicides is never referred as having happened during the Longwood House case, but I think that had I read this first then the shock of what happens in Shudder would have been lost.)

Other Reviews:

Blogging for a Good Book

A Crime is Afoot

crossexaminingcrime

The Grandest Game in the World

The Green Capsule

In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

Mysteries Ahoy!

Solving the Mystery of Murder

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6 responses to ““The Case of the Constant Suicides” by John Dickson Carr”

    • I agree with you that this is for sure one of Carr’s best romantic subplots. You don’t have any of the distracting shenanigans from, say, Death in Five Boxes. I also liked the romance in The Man Who Could Not Shudder, because Bob and Tess are already in a relationship and the whole experience only strengthens their bond.

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    • You know, I specifically meant to include yours because you mentioned how you had put off Constant Suicides until after you’d read many of Carr’s other masterpieces – just like I had! Unfortunately, forgetfulness intervened and then I had a really really busy couple of months. Consider your review linked!

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