Something different today – a joint review. For a while, Sergio (from Tipping My Fedora) and I have been debating the relative merits of the so-called classic Carr novel The Crooked Hinge, so we finally decided to both re-read it and share our thoughts with you, dear reader. So without further ado, off we go. I’ll start off.
Lord Farnleigh, a survivor of the Titanic disaster, is happily married to his childhood sweetheart Molly, until the surprise arrival of Patrick Gore, a man claiming to be the true John Farnleigh, left for dead on that doomed ship. The two men meet one day, both willing to undergo a foolproof test which will prove once and for all who is the true Lord Farnleigh. When he was a boy, his fingerprints were taken, so the truth is about to come out…
… until the sitting Lord Farnleigh is murdered in full view of three people. His throat is cut and yet no-one was anywhere near him. Enter Gideon Fell, but can he get to the bottom of an invisible killer and an automaton that moves of its own free will…
It’s about time I got round to this one. I read it a long time ago and despite it having a great reputation – Edward D Hoch himself rated it the fourth best locked room mystery of all time – I was really disappointed by the solution. So I thought it would be a great idea to a) reread the book and do a proper review and b) get a second opinion at the same time. So Sergio from Tipping My Fedora and I have got together to do a joint review. Me first – the case for the prosecution so to speak.
Wow. It’s worse that I remembered…
It’s a really odd one this. The opening sequences are impressive, with the poser of which is the real Lord Farnleigh being an intriguing one. But then, after the murder takes place, there’s a lot of sitting around and talking. And talking. You know the sort of thing – people give vague hints that they know something before someone changes the subject. And then the automaton is brought in for no real plot purpose except to give a hint as to howdunit.
The other oddity is the usual Carr narrator – you know the chap, young person who inevitably is going to fall in love with someone during the course of events. Normally we see the story from his point of view but here, he vanishes for sections of the book and we find ourselves following Fell’s investigations directly. I usually find Carr’s heroes good for a laugh, but this one’s a bit of a dullard.
When events pick up a little towards the end, it’s only due to some bizarre behaviour on the part of the villain. And then we come to the reveal…
Obviously I’m not going to spoil things here, but there’s a fake solution and a real one. With regards motive and suchlike, it’s not at all bad. But as for the explanations of the impossibility…
- when you need to give a page reference to a text to prove that an object used in the killing exists (admittedly in the fake explanation) then the object is pretty darn obscure – too obscure to be fair play, in my book. Pretty sure it wasn’t mentioned early in this one… [Sergio assures me that it is pointed out – although the fact that it exists as a potential weapon and isn’t used is a massive cheat]
- it uses a massive cheat which is beneath a master like Carr. Not saying what it is, but it’s the next worst thing to a secret passage.
- the actual howdunit … well, the fact that no one spots the crucial fact about the killer is utterly ridiculous. The very fact that it’s even necessary given (b) makes it pointless. And it comes out of virtually nowhere.
- the motive’s a bit suspect too.
In fact, apart from the opening section, this one is a major disappointment.
Thus rests the prosecution. Over to Sergio for the case for the defence… possibly.
“I’ll tell you what it is, gentlemen,” said Elliott, “it’s an absolutely impossible crime.” (chapter 10)
Like the good Doctor here I hadn’t read Crooked Hinge in a long time and was a bit apprehensive about going back to it. Mainly remembered liking it but not a lot else, except the central gimmick for the solution – would I still enjoy it even if I remembered the solution to the impossible murder method? The answer, I am glad to say, was a resounding yes.
Is it a Carr classic, one that deserves to be ranked with the best of his locked room mysteries? Well, the solution is certainly outlandish and unlikely but this also makes it memorable. And there is much else to enjoy here because on top of the ingenious (if a bit implausible) solution (well, two in fact), we also get so many of the elements that the author was so enamoured of. These include a witches’ coven (that is not what it seems); an ancient automaton that still can move (Carr shortly afterwards also featured them in his The Problem of the Wire Cage and The Gilded Man); and a variation on the real-life case of the Tichborne claimant (Carr was fascinated by true crime); and the sinking of the Titanic! Which is to say, with such an embarrassment of riches, what’s not to love?
Well, there are flaws – it is true that there is quite a lot of chat in the middle, though admittedly this is true of many, many Golden Age mysteries of the era. This does pay off a but at least with its well-handled sequence in a magistrate’s court that is capped by a very nice twist! Also, one cannot deny that Carr does cheat – not in the mechanics of the solution, but in setting up the alibi so does make it almost impossible to deduce the guilty party. Does this bit of cheating really ruin the book? No, not at all, emphatically not – well, not for me anyway because there is so much to revel in here. I agree with the Doc that it loses marks for that, though. However, I don’t agree with all the criticisms presented above: regarding the false solution first offered by Fell, the ‘gadget’ is most definitely mentioned early on, so I don’t see a problem at all. Also, I do think the subplot about the automaton and how it works is central to the book though and am very glad it’s there because it provides a strong interpretative key to understanding the murderer’s mind set
Because of the many beguiling elements and the sheer cleverness of its conceit, I would rank Crooked Hinge highly , but perhaps include it in second tier Fell escapades along with the aforementioned The Problem of the Wire Cage and Death Turns the Tables (it shares with the latter an approach to justice that not all will sympathise with).
Over to you again Doc – have I helped you to temper your criticisms a bit?
Everyone disagrees about Carr – not sure that I’d rather rate Wire Cage that highly, with it’s almost farcical antics trying to prove the innocence of an innocent party while using a murder method that… well, let’s just say I wouldn’t ever get murdered in that manner.
As for the cheat, it’s not one that always bothers me – as Sergio has pointed out, it’s used in another book that I reviewed recently and I didn’t even mention it. The difference is, Carr is an undisputed master of his field, so when he resorts to it to create an impossibility, it stands out. He was above such lazy tricks – but I suppose when you’re writing four books a year (To Wake The Dead, The Judas Window and Death In Five Boxes were all released in the same year as this one) then you can’t have a classic every time.
But I’m pretty sure that the thing that the killer uses every day simply didn’t work that way in the 1930s.
It’s a long way from the weakest Fell book – some of the early ones didn’t grab me the first time and (with good reason) some of the later post-stroke books are very weak. But when you’ve got books like Till Death Do Us Part, He Who Whispers and The Black Spectacles to compare it to, this comes up short. But as most people seem to disagree with me, why not take a look yourself anyway?
In the meantime, why not pop over the Tipping My Fedora where Sergio is asking for people’s Top Ten Carr books – my choices are there too, a little more up to date than my various Top Fives on Fell, Merrivale and the rest.