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