In The Spotlight: John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. John Dickson Carr, who also wrote under the name Carter Dickson, was one of the Golden Age’s most talented creators of challenging mysteries. His specialty was the “impossible mystery,” and he created more than one memorable “locked room” story. Perhaps his most famous sleuth is lexicographer Dr. Gideon Fell, so today, let’s take a closer look at Fell’s first outing, Hag’s Nook.

Tad Rampole has just finished his university studies and is planning on doing some traveling. On the advice of his university mentor, he pays a visit to Dr. Gideon Fell. On his way to Fell’s home in Chatterham, he meets Dorothy Starberth who, as it happens, lives not far away from Fell. He’s immediately smitten with Dorothy and she with him. From Fell, Rampole soon learns the interesting story of the Starberth family and its connection to the ruins of Chatterham Prison. Beginning with Anthony Starberth, two generations of the Starbeth family were governors at the prison until it was abandoned. Although the prison hasn’t been used for a hundred years, the Starberths are still associated with it through a family ritual. Each Starberth heir has to spend the night of his twenty-fifth birthday in the Governor’s Room at the old prison. As proof that he was there, he has to open the safe in the room and follow the instructions locked in the safe. Several old legends and stories have gone around that the Starberth family is cursed, because several heirs have died mysteriously. Now it’s the turn of the newest heir, Dorothy Starberth’s brother Martin. Dorothy and Martin’s father Timothy was the last Starberth to die mysteriously, so the two are more than a little anxious. But Martin is going to go through with the ritual.

Rampole’s curiosity about the ritual is piqued, and so is his interest in Dorothy Starberth. So on the night of Martin’s birthday, Rampole keeps vigil with Fell and the local rector to see what happens. The next morning, Martin Starberth’s body is found. He’s apparently died from a fall over the balcony of the Governor’s Room. At first, it looks as though he’s had a terrible accident, but evidence soon becomes clear that he was murdered. The only problem is, nobody was seen to go near the prison that night, and there’s no evidence that anyone but Martin was in the Governor’s Room. There’s talk that he fell victim to the family curse, but Fell believes there’s a more prosaic solution (and there is). The only real clue to the murderer and the motive is a cryptic poem written by Anthony Starberth generations ago. Fell and Rampole work with Chief Constable Sir Benjamin Arnold to find out who murdered Martin Starberth and why.

The mystery is an intriguing and challenging one and its solution isn’t obvious. There’s an interesting twist in the last sentence of the novel, too. For those who like to try to solve puzzles, the cryptic poem is a bonus. Yet Carr “plays fair” with the reader. The clues are there if the reader makes sense of them, and when we find out who the murderer is and what the motive is, they are believable and fall out from the story.

Another interesting element that runs through this novel is its atmosphere. Carr uses setting quite effectively to build suspense. In this scene, for instance, Rampole has seen a light in the window of the Governor’s Room at the prison, and he and Dorothy Starberth are going to the prison to see if they can catch the murderer.


“Their footfalls made sounds like the squish of oozing water. Rampole’s light darted. Small eyes regarded them, scuttling away as the beam pried open dark corners…Again that interminable journey wound Rampole through corridors, past rusty gates, down stone stairs and twisting up again. As the flashlight’s beam found the face of the Iron Maiden, something whirred in the darkness…”


Carr uses rainy weather to good effect too in building suspense.

The character of Dr. Gideon Fell has some interesting appeal – or maybe it’s just that I find language interesting and he’s a lexicographer. Here’s the way Rampole’s mentor describes Fell:


“…he’s one of the greatest institutions in England. The man has more obscure, useless and fascinating information than any person I ever met. He’ll ply you with food and whisky until your head reels; he’ll talk interminably, on any subject whatever, but particularly on the glories and sports of old-time England. He likes band music, melodrama, beer and slapstick comedies; he’s a great old boy and you’ll like him.”


And so it proves to be. Rampole and Fell do indeed develop a rapport, and although Rampole’s character is not quite as developed as that of Fell, the story is told from his point of view (although not told in the first person), so we do get a sense of his character. He’s bright and energetic, a bit idealistic if not exactly naïve, and appealingly eager to seem like a “man of the world.”

There’s also a welcome sense of humour in the story, although there’s plenty of suspense, too. Here, for instance, is a funny scene in which Dorothy Starberth has invited herself to have some tea with Rampole. He’s just managed to tell her how he feels about her:


“Rampole started in, oratorically, to tell how worthless he was; young men always feel impelled to do this, and Rampole even went so far as to mean it. The effect was somewhat marred by his putting his hand into the butter-dish at the height of the peroration, but she said she didn’t care if he rolled in the butter, and laughed at his humiliation.” 


The two of them actually make an appealing couple and it’s easy to cheer them on.

An intriguing mystery with a healthy dose of atmosphere and suspense and some gentle wit, Hag’s Nook is a solid example of Carr’s skill at the “impossible mystery.” But what’s your view? Have you read Hag’s Nook? If you have, what elements do you see in it?



Coming Up On In The Spotlight


Monday 5 December/Tuesday 6 December – Simisola  –  Ruth Rendell

Monday 12 December/Tuesday 13 December – Blood Safari  –  Deon Meyer

Monday 19 December/Tuesday 20 December – Fire and Ice  –  Dana Stabenow


Filed under Hag's Nook, John Dickson Carr

57 responses to “In The Spotlight: John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook

  1. I like John Dickenson Carr and he’s more influential than most people realise. It’s amazing how many variations you can get on locked room mysteries – I read a Nicholas Blake recently and the locked room popped up again. A Lawrence Block that I also read recently (Hope to Die ) was also in effect a locked room mystery.

    • Sarah – You’re quite right; Carr’s influence may not be obvious on the surface but it is most definitely and assuredly there. Thanks, too, for mentioning Hope to Die. I haven’t read any Lawrence Block lately, and I should…

  2. Margot: For a long time I had avoided “locked room” mysteries unfairly thinking of them as gimmicks. I have read a Carr book recently and have another waiting for me. They can be intriguing puzzles and far more intellectually interesting than some current mysteries with layers of bodies beyond numbers. Now I am being unfair to another genre.

    • Bill – You’re quite right that Carr’s work can be both intriguing and intellectually challenging. I like that about his writing, too. And honestly, I get tired of a really high “body count” myself, unless it’s integral to the plot. So if you’re being unfair to that sub-genre, then so am I….

  3. kathy d.

    Sherlock Holmes in The Case of the Speckled Band, which I remember from my high school reading days, is a locked-room mystery.
    And Sjowall and Wahloo wrote one, too, cleverly called The Locked Room. It is such an elaborate solution that they must have practiced this for days.

    • Kathy – Those are great examples of “impossible mysteries,” aren’t they? Both are very clever stories and yes, the solution must have taken a whole lot of planning…

  4. Oh, a cryptic poem…absolutely! I’d love that. If I’ve read this Carr book, it was so long ago that I can’t remember. Thanks for the review, Margot! I’ll put it on my e-reader.

    • Elizabeth – Oh, I loved that about this novel, too! It’s a great little challenge and turns out to be key to the mystery, too. I think it’s because of my language background, but I really like that part of this story. Hope you’ll enjoy it!

  5. Patti Abbott

    One of my favorites. I will be borrowing this one come Friday. Thanks!`

  6. I always enjoy your ‘In the Spotlight’ features. I learn so much from them and get to add new books to my wish list.

    Thoughts in Progress

  7. Coincidentally I’ve recently ordered HAG’S NOOK and am waiting now for it to arrive. I’ve joined Bev’s Vintage Challenge (at MY READER’S BLOCK), so I’m loading up, mostly on rereads. I know I read this years and years ago, because I was a huge fan of Dickson Carr when I was young, but damn if I can remember. 🙂

    Thanks for a great overview. Not much of it rings a bell, but that’s old lady memory for you. Ha!

    • Yvette – Oh, that is a coincidence! And I’m glad you’re doing that challenge. My life isn’t letting me this year, but I do like to read others’ posts about it. I hope you’ll enjoy Hag’s Nook; I really do. It’s not the in-depth character-driven kind of novel that many of today’s novels are, but it’s such a cool little puzzle :-).

  8. I can only take Carr in small doses, especially when he writes as Carter Dickson. But few mystery writers of the Golden Age could match his clever plots.

    • George – I enjoy Carr most in sips, myself. But right you are that his plots are fiendishly clever and yet, he did “play fair” with the reader. Not an easy task…

  9. Zeno

    Never read this. Any you chance you would do a review of Crooked Hinge or Three Coffins. Coffins was a bit overrated but I enjoyed Hinge a lot. Mad Hatter came after this,didn’t it?Hatter was alright but there two problems from a forensic point of view regarding it’s solution.

    Question for you. Is the last Fell novel Dark of Moon any good? I own it but have yet to read it.

    • Zeno – I think you’re right that Mad Natter is the second in the Gideon Fell series – good memory. I’m sorry that I don’t do book reviews. Rather, I mention novels as they’re relevant to different themes I discuss on the blog. I also do book analyses like this one. But except for Christie (I think I’ve analyzed 3 of her books), I do one per author. That’s so that I can cover the broadest range possible of authors. I’m afraid I’ve not read Dark of the Moon, so I can’t comment on that one from my own experience. If you get the chance to read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  10. Zeno

    Carr is one of the few who can compete with Christie when it comes to hard to guess mystery solutions. Who do you think are the toughest writers do figure out?

  11. Zeno

    Where would you rank Ellery Queen along the spectrum? Or would it depend on the period they were writing?

    That brings me to a theory I want to share with you. Some people were reviewing Francis Nevins recent book on Ellery Queen. They said the stories fell out of favor because Ellery’s personality was not interesting enough. However I have another belief. It could be that they changed his personality a lot without explanation. Of course other writers changed the personality of characters but for some reason it went more smoothly.

    • Zeno – I think it actually does depend on the Queen era. The early novels (e.g. The Roman Hat Murder or even The French Powder Mystery) Certainly contained tough whodunits. The later novels had more of a focus, in my opinion, on other things.
      And that leads me to your other point. I think it’s entirely possible that the cousins changed Ellery’s personality and simply didn’t do it smoothly and elegantly. It doesn’t always work easily. And I know that a lot of authors do try to have their characters evolve over time. So I certainly see your point.

      • Zeno

        So would you put the early ones up with Christie and Carr?

        As for the focus on other things the second period seems to add more emphasis on romance like Devil To Pay and Four of Hearts. That never quite came off that well. Some one wrote the that this period was like the Jim Hutton tv show but I can’t see that,expect for their being humor in the stories.

        As for changing a characters I have heard the Allingham and Sayers both changed their detectives,but have only read some of their short stories. Do you think that did it well?

        • Zeno – I think some of the early Ellery Queen mysteries were up there with Christie and Carr in terms of figuring out whodunit. As you say, the later ones included more romance. Not that that per se is a bad thing, but but (at least in my opinion) it didn’t go as smoothly in those novels as it does in some other GA work.
          As to Allingham and Sayers, I do think their characters evolved more or less smoothly over time. And it worked (in my opinion) because it happened over time, as most of human maturation does. What’s more, the character changes seemed at least to me to happen for reasons. They didn’t seem arbitrary.

        • Zeno

          Well put,it was not the use of romance it was the way that did it with somewhat silly characters.

          And with Ellery they just decided to change him with no explanation.
          That is probably why it worked better with their characters. What you say pretty much goes is what I heard about the two writers. Wimsey had a romance that changed and something similar happened with Champion. Is that correct?

          Julian Symons they say wanted to make say that the Ellery of the early novels was a older brother and the younger one took the name and was the character for the rest of the novels. You probably heard that idea before.

        • Zeno – Both Wimsey and Campion change and evolve as characters, and part of that evolution is the development of their romances. They don’t happen magically nor without ‘bumps in the road.’ And more importantly, they are not the most important feature of any one given novel. Both authors (Sayers and Allingham) kept the focus on the mystery plot.
          Thanks too for sharing Sympns’ views about Ellery QUeen. Certainly we see a marked difference in the character as the novels go on, so I can see where Symons got his ideas.

  12. Zeno

    Not having read the early book,I am not familiar with the early snobbish Ellery. It was said he was copied off Philo Vance in his early days. Never read him but heard that Vance is really arrogant. At point did Ellery change? It must have been by the time he was in Hollywood in the late 30s,

    • Zeno – Ellery is, in my opinion, much more cerebral and perhaps even snobbish in the early novels. Certainly he uses more Latin terms, etc.. In later novels he becomes, I think, more accessible. And yes, I think he’s certainly more that way in the Hollywood novels.

      • Zeno

        The Hollywood Novels and New Adventures were said to be like the tv show but personally I don’t see it. That is the Jim Hutton tv show which was excellent. New Adventures is a good collection that seems like it spans two eras. That means they must have toned him down prior to Devil to Pay.

        Would recommend the Door Between? And what era would that be part of? The early or the late.

        • Zeno – Interesting that you should mention The Door Between. Many people feel that’s a novel that begins to show Ellery in a more human way, and moves away a little from the intricate puzzles of the earlier novels. It’s aptly named, in my opinion, in terms of the ‘Ellery eras.’
          And I agree with you about the Jim Hutton series – very nicely done, I think.

  13. Zeno

    It was the Chinese Orange that was voted one of the best locked room rooms mysteries of all time. This was a poll Edward D. Hoch did in 1981 for a anthology.Door Between is also mentioned as one of the best. Speaking of which I am finishing reading Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries,a anthology edited by Mike Ashley. Have you read that?

    Jim Hutton’s Ellery really is not either Ellery. What did you think of his reinterpretation?

    • Zeno – Many people argue that The Chinese Ogange… is one of the top examples of the ‘impossible mysteries. So I’m not surprised it was listed.
      As to Jim Hutton, I think he had his own interpretation of Ellery. Perhaps it wasn’t identical to the literary Ellery at any particular time, but he added his own dimension to the role.

  14. Zeno

    John Hillerman’s Simon Bremmier character seems like a attempt by Levinson and Link to parody the Ellery of the early books. Do you think they intended it that way? Did you get that impression? As often as been said the early Ellery would have turned off viewers with his personality if he was the hero.

    • Zeno – You raise an interesting possibility. I hadn’t thought about Brimmer as a parody of the early Ellery, but there’s no reason that couldn’t have been his purpose.

      • Zeno

        Well it is interesting that unlike Ellery’s other rival on the show,Flanagan,the reporter,he does come near the true answer and often discovers part of the evidence,such as in the pilot with the names and Ramon. He is often mislead because he ignores the forensic evidence like the Lover’s Leap where he got the wrong solution because he ignored the fact that the body was moved.

        That episode was the first I entirely figured out. I had two solutions for the pilot but could not decide which was the right one. This was regarding the dying message clue on the tv.

        • Zeno – You make an interesting point about the difference between the Simon Brimmer character and the Frank Flanagan character. As you say, Brimmer found some pieces of evidence, but more than once, he forces his theory on the evidence rather than letting the evidence really tell him what happened. Flanagan offers insights too, although he’s not as erudite as Brimmer. It’s an interesting pair of characters.

  15. Zeno

    You did not mention in your review of Four Side of the Triangle that this was adapted into the pilot for the tv show. I have yet to read the original book.

  16. Zeno

    Have you read the Queen Novel Double,Double? It is interesting in regarding our talk about the differences in Ellery from the early years. There is a character who pretends to be from Harvard,but the fact that Ellery is a Harvard grad is not mentioned at all in this book. Julian Symons’ idea of the later Ellery being a younger brother seems to be less far out. The Roman Hat Mystery claimed he is retired and married in Italy. Funny that the writers never followed up on that information.The brother theory could neatly explain all of this. Have you read Symons book? I have only heard about it second hand.

    • Zeno – I’ll confess I’ve not (yet) read the Symons, although I’ve heard it’s a solid discussion. And it’s interesting that they don’t follow up on Ellery’s experience at Harvard in Double Dobule. It’s a part of his character. I have to think about that whole ‘younger brother’ theory. I’ve heard it, but hadn’t (yet) decided whether or not to subscribe to it. Thanks for bringing it up.

      • Zeno

        Maybe readers back were not as concerned with continuity as us modern readers,and so Danny and Lee thought people would not care. Today writers try harder to be consistent so fans don’t try to offer explanations such as this.

        • Zeno – I think you have a well-taken point about modern readers. Today’s readers want solid continuity across stories, and they want character development in ways that might not have been as important to readers of earlier eras.

      • Zeno

        I read that Symons theory also says that the younger brother did not go to Harvard. So that fits nicely with these facts.

  17. Zeno

    Here is more from the website below

    Note that is says the second Ellery Queen is post Halfway House and that would be starting with the Door Between. Just like you said mentioned.

  18. Zeno

    Your blog does not accept posts that have links to other sites.

    • Zeno – When someone leaves a comment that includes a link to another site, that comment goes into my ‘pending’ file. Then I approve and respond. Every once in a while it goes to my ‘spam’ file. I try hard to approve posts that are from legitimate commenters as quickly as I can. But sometimes it takes a few minutes for me to get to those comments.

  19. Zeno

    Oh that is good. Then got the links. They were related our current conversation

    • Zeno – I did indeed get the links, for which thanks.

      • Zeno

        I am interested in hearing your thoughts on them.

        • Zeno – Thanks – I’ll read them carefully and then comment when I can do so in an informed way.

        • Zeno – Again, my thanks for passing along those links. There is definitely a shift in the Queen character and it’s interesting that Calamity Town is mentioned as one place where we see that change. And although I’m no Queen scholar, I think The Door Between shows that evolution too. Is it a younger brother? Possibly – I see that argument. It is Ellery himself? Could be. It could also simply be character evolution over time, and that happens too. I’m inclined to believe it was deliberate, whatever was the motivation behind it.

  20. Zeno

    It is the abruptness of the change that led to the suggestion that it was a brother. It was not the gradual change one sees in other characters of the Golden Age.

    As for intentions there is a easy explanation. When they started writing snobbish and arrogant detectives were popular. Ellery was patterned after Philo Vance in early years. In all fairness I have not read Vance. This is from what other sources have said. When snobbish detectives became disliked by readers they knew they had to change Ellery. Some of this change may have come from the criticisms of the hardboiled writers like Chandler and Hammett. Whatever the reason if Ellery did not change they would lose readers. They knew they need to change him to survive in the market. At least that has been my impression.

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