The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941) by John Dickson Carr

The Case of the Constant Suicides was the third book by John Dickson Carr that I read. The first two, Panic in Box C and The Hollow Man (a.k.a. The Three Coffins) I enjoyed immensely, but I would say that The Case of the Constant Suicides was, I think, the book that hooked me.

The setting is a Scottish castle during the early years of the Second World War. Angus Campbell has, after setting up three life insurance policies with “no suicide” clauses, thrown himself from the top of a tall tower from a room securely locked from the inside. Some obscure potential beneficiaries are summoned to the castle, as are some insurance agents and Dr Gideon Fell, Carr’s recurring sleuth, in order to ascertain the truth. Matters are complicated when another family member, in order to prove that there’s nothing wrong with the tower, stays in the tower room and proceeds to throw himself out of the window as well. By the end of the book, another character has apparently hung himself, also in a securely locked room. Obviously something’s going on, but what?

Carr often intersperses his books with humour, and I find his main protagonists in this book, a pair of feuding academics, a lot of fun. Obviously they’re going to fall in love by the end of the book (as second cousins, I think that’s legal!) but he gives both of them a fair portion of the action, as Fell is often pottering around in the background. The humour is more reminiscent of his Carter Dickson byline, but doesn’t feel out of place with Fell.

I can imagine some people would take issue with the Scottish stereotypes – nowhere near as bad as some I’ve seen, but one character does drink shedloads of whisky and chase people with a giant claymore… Some characters have some of their dialogue written as if in Scots dialect. Maybe some people would find it annoying, but it’s pretty harmless to my brain.

The plot is ingenious. Part of the method is rather dodgy science, but I doubt anyone other than a professional chemist would find it objectionable. Because of the technical issue here, Carr reveals this piece of the plot fairly early, giving the reader a chance to solve the remainder of the puzzle. The murderer is fairly clued, but should still prove to be a surprise.

I’d recommend digging this book up from Abebooks or another secondhand book website. Beware, though, if you’re like me, it might start an addiction.


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