The Crooked Hinge by John Dickson Carr – A Joint Review

Crooked Hinge 2Something 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?

Crooked HingeWell, 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?

==

Crooked 3Everyone 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.

52 comments

  1. Nice review. There are a TON of problems with this one, so many that I’m going to side with the Doc and say it’s a failure overall. I REALLY like the setup with the murder – in fact I think it’s Carr’s best – and the solution to the problem of who’s the impostor, but too much of the rest of it is flat-out broken.

    Carr is just trying to do too much here. Impostors! Witchcraft! The Titanic! Creepy Automata! Obscure Crime in the Past! Legal pedantry! Solution completely out of left field! There are plenty of examples of Carr pulling off all of those things in very good books, but trying to compile a greatest hits like this is just a mess.

    There are too many issues to get into here (especially without spoilers), but I think the single biggest flaw is that I’ve read it twice and I still don’t understand why the solution is a solution at all. Even if it was well-clued (it isn’t) and possible with contemporary technology (it wasn’t), I don’t see how it even helps the murderer. Why couldn’t anyone have just done what they did?

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    • The claim is that only the killer could have done it and got back to where they were supposed to be with the necessary speed, which is another massive leap for the armchair detective to make – working out the basic fact is bad enough, but then deducing what it makes it possible for them to do…

      At least, I think that’s the point. Really not sure though

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      • Yes I think that’s what Carr’s getting at, but it’s so tenuous. After all, it’s the years of practice which make the murder possible, not the special circumstance itself. Anyone else could have practiced a different (but related) skill and committed the murder. Since Carr makes such a fuss about the secret to the whole case being expressible in four short words (or whatever he says), it’s clear he thinks everything falls into place immediately once you know it. But it just doesn’t.

        I really think the problem is Carr’s terrible spatial awareness. He wrote so many books where things (often the key to the mystery) have completely bizarre dimensions. I think he just wasn’t properly imagining these scenarios he dreamed up.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow. It’s worse that I remembered…

    I reread The Crooked Hinge a few months ago, and this was exactly my reaction. It was only by sheer force of will that I didn’t throw the book at the wall. I agree with all of the Doc’s criticisms, and suspect that he’s hit on a truth when he notes that at the time Carr was churning ’em out at the rate of four a year. This reads like a novel written to fulfil a contract: Gideon Fell, check; impossible murder, check; weird stuff, check; and so on. It’s hard to get me to admit a Carr novel’s a stinker, but this one’s the exception.

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      • To be honest, my memory of it consists of two words – cheat (regarding the trick) and boring (regard the rest of the book). The second point is common to a number of early Fell books – Blind Barber, Arabian Nights, etc – so maybe I should take another look.

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      • No arguments on Blind Barber, which I did find dire, to say the least.
        The Arabian Nights Murder is nicely constructed though and isn’t at all bad in my opinion.
        I do know what you mean about seeing Death Watch as a cheat – it’s an aspect that bothers me too.

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      • It’s a very long time since I’ve read either, but I remember — like Colin — quite enjoying Death-Watch. I can’t remember anything at all about The House At Satan’s Elbow, which presumably means I thought it was okay, nothing special.

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      • I think the Blind Barber could work if Carr was better at writing frenetic humour. It’s intricately worked out, and all the farce makes it quite hard to spot the murderer, which is a concealment tactic I’d like to see more of. As Dr Fell points out, there really are a ton of clues. But it just isn’t funny at all, and it’s hard to keep track of everything that’s going on, which makes it a real slog to get through.

        Arabian Nights is well worked out, but need to be about half as long, and with a clearer presentation of the “no footprints” problem in the cellar as an impossible crime.

        Death Watch is an unsalvageable snooze fest.

        I wonder if The Mad Hatter Mystery is boring as well? I haven’t re-read that. I only remember being impressed by the solution.

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      • I remember enjoying Hatter. Not sure there’s an impossibility there, but I thought it was by far the best of the early Fell books. Any opinions of Hags Nook? Can’t remember a thing about it…

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      • Hag’s Nook is very good with a superb, creepy atmosphere having a tinge of the supernatural. The murderer’s identity is really surprising. Highly recommended.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Actually I don’t think I’ve read Hag’s Nook. I was avoiding it because the early Fells, as you say, are a bit dull. (I can’t remember ANYTHING about The Eight of Swords. There’s maybe a bishop??). So thanks for the recommendation, Santosh!

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      • Yes, there is a bishop in The Eight Of Swords, who fancies himself as a crimonologist. A man is found murdered holding a tarot card (Eight of swords) in his hand. It is a very decent mystery with a surprising resolution. However, there is a lot of silliness and farcical scenes (à la P.G.Wodehouse).

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  3. And I agree about the false solution. The item in question definitely IS mentioned (in chapter 13), but in such as way as to deliberately obscure its nature and downplay its prominence. If it’s mentioned again I can’t find it.

    I don’t think it’s cheating (it IS there), but I think that’s beside the point. It’s rubbish mystery writing technique. If most readers are going to get to the end of your book and think “I don’t remember you mentioning that!?!” then it may as well NOT have been mentioned.

    It’s the author’s fault for not making it more prominent, not the readers’ for not committing all of the details of a book completely jam-packed with unrelated miscellany to memory.

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  4. I have already mentioned the several flaws of this book in the post on My Late Wives by Carter Dickson.
    I would like to add another flaw. Why doesn’t the person who is in Victoria’s house after the murder remove the incriminating book ?
    However, the biggest flaw, as mentioned by richmcd, is regarding the special circumstance of the murderer. In fact, without the special circumstance, it would have been easier for the murderer to commit the crime. In the latter case, even if spotted, they could say that they were searching for something, whereas in the actual case they would have no excuse if spotted and would be caught.

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  5. Incidentally, at the beginning of part 3, there is an interesting French quote from the novel Là-Bas (1891) by J.K. Huysmans:
    “Car, au fond, c’est cela le Satanisme, se disait-il; la question agitee depuis que le monde existe, des visions exterieures, est subsidiare, quand on y songe; le Demon n’a pas besoin de s’exhiber sous des traits humains ou bestiaux afin d’attester sa presence; il suffit, pour qu’il s’affirme, qu’il elise domicile en des ames qu’il exulcere et incite a d’inexplicables crimes.”
    The novel deals with Satanism and modern witchcraft and the above quote is one of its central statements. The English translation is as follows:
    “For, he said to himself, this is the deepest manifestation of Satanism ; the question raised from the world’s beginning—the matter of apparitions—is subsidiary, when one reflects on it. The Devil need not exhibit himself in human or bestial form in order to prove his existence; it is sufficient that he affirms his presence by electing to live in human souls, which he corrupts and incites to inexplicable crimes.”

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I loved this joint review. I have noticed a lot of disagreement about some of Carr’s books. I think I keep putting off reading a few of his books because I don’t know where to start.

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      • Well, this is why I was so glad that you picked this one as it is interesting to see which are the titles that people agree the most about – I think CROOKED HINGE is flawed but spectacular in so many ways that it still does the trick (sic)

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      • I’m going to be very curious to see which titles are consistently in people’s Top Ten over on your site, Sergio. Astounded to see one mention of The Man Who Could Not Shudder, which usually gets bad press alongside Wire Cage, although I have fondish memories of it myself, for example.

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  7. Taken everything into account, I have to say i rate the book. I liked the setup and the little touches but that ending, while creepy and memorable, kind of annoyed me. It still belongs in my top 10 but in the lower reaches.

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      • I think you have to weigh up the good and bad with a lot of Carr’s output. I generally find there’s enough good stuff in the books – atmosphere and background even if the payoff disappoints a little at times – to ensure he remains a favorite with me.

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      • Yes. For example, I know you didn’t seem all that impressed with its use but I thought the stuff with the automaton was a splendid piece of flummery (yes, I’m reading Stout at the moment 🙂 ) in The Crooked Hinge.

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      • My major complaint with the automata stuff is that Carr’s research here is way off. Usually with this kind of Carr there’s at least some interesting historical trivia, but apart from his description of what it looks like, most of the facts about Maelzel’s chess-playing automaton are wrong (and would have obviously been wrong even in the 30s if he’d done proper research). Which completely scuppers its usefulness as a key to the solution, and is another example of Carr not really being sure what size things are.

        He’s done his usual thing of picking a source he likes and treating it as gospel. Which would be fine – it’s only a silly mystery story – if he didn’t insist on leaving pompous footnotes all over the place.

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  8. Of course, the question now becomes, as the majority of commenters seem to be anti-Hinge, is why did the Mystery Writers of America vote it the fourth best locked room of all time (and Ten Teacups/Peacock Feathers the tenth)? I know there’s an “everything but the kitchen sink” vibe to it, but it pales next to many other books from Carr. What was it that impressed so many luminaries?

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    • Yes, I agree with you on this Steve – in a way with the two-part review we set up an unnecessarily or at least too overtly pro and con critique to a mystery that we both agree has a lot of terrific elements to it. We disagree about how well they gel of course, but this is the kind of stuff we both like and it does have much to recommend it. Rich says that Carr is wrong about his automata lore (despite the historical footnotes!) but I would have no way to know this off the top of my head, way too arcane and in the context of the story, and giving it that thematic unity that its critics feel is lacking, it makes complete sense to me. Worth pointing out that Doug Greene is one of those that rates it among his best – this makes me think that it does depend on your tolerance of certain flaws and acceptance of the skewed rules of the Carrian universe – I just loved being in it – to me, quite unlike anything else. i was supremely entertained – there are so many fair to middling GAD stories out there, let alone downright mediocre ones – I believe this is way above those.

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  9. I like “The Crooked Hinge” better than Doc but not nearly as much as Sergio. It’s been a while since I read it, but the two things which I remember are (a) the four-word solution, which I thought was an interesting device, and (b) the massive cheat already discussed here, which I find a major turn-off.

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  10. […] Always a popular title, Suicides did surprisingly well none the less; on the other hand, while Hinge, once considered a top ranking Carr title has fallen surprisingly low by comparison – but I still like ti a lot and it’s the book that got this poll started, so honour is due. The PuzzleDoctor and myself discussed its merits over at his blog, In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel. […]

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  11. I think the cheat in “The Crooked Hinge” was not as bad as the cheat in “Death Watch”. At least, in “The Crooked Hinge”, the cheat can be sort of psychologically justified. Whereas for the “special circumstance”, I never realised that in fact that was not necessary at all for the solution. Still, I like the book because of the atmosphere and I think the “special circumstance” as much as all the stuff about witches etc… adds nicely to it.
    I actually do like “Death Watch” too, even though I do think the main cheat there is 100% unforgiveable. Actually, there is another cheat in it too, some trick which I’m sure even Carr would agree should never be used. The reason I like “Death Watch” is mainly for the “poultry-farming” speech of Fell and a bit for all the gothic horror. And there is a side-solution to a side-mystery which is sort of satisfactorily explained (in that speech).
    In general, I think the Fell mysteries are Carr’s best, because – in general – in those Carr tries less to be funny (a horrible exception is “the Blind Barber”). The irony is that Fell can be genuinely funny, with all his ramblings and unintentional mystifications (e.g. the “poultry-farming” speech in “Death Watch” or the “who shot whom” discussion in “He Who Whispers”), whereas when Carr tries too much to be funny (“Blind Barber”, but especially in many Merrivale books, even good ones like “She Died A Lady”) it’s not funny at all, just embarrassing. Another good example is Arabian Nights which is genuinely funny for all the impossibilities and lunacy but fails to be funny in the “courageous vicar” bit.

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