Strange things are afoot in Gloucestershire. After a poltergeist partakes in a piece of tomfoolery and a bishop is caught sliding down a bannister, things in the house take a deadly turn when Septimus Depping is found in his study, shot through the head and clutching the eight of swords, a tarot – sorry, taroc card that concerns bad omens.
Luckily the Bishop of Mappleham, the amateur criminologist is on the scene to sort things out. As is the Bishop’s son, Hugh Donovan is also there, freshly returned from some first-hand investigative experience in the USA (or so the Bishop thinks). And on the off-chance that they can’t get to the bottom of things, maybe – just maybe – Gideon Fell can sort things out for the best…
People might say that The Eight Of Swords, the third Gideon Fell book, gets a bad press. That’s not really fair, as it gets hardly any press at all. Without a locked room or impossibility in sight, the book gets put to one side when talking about the best or the worst of the Fell stories, sort of falling through the cracks. Which is a shame as it’s really worth a look to show Carr’s skill at constructing a non-impossible puzzle.
Carr’s skills at crafting a mystery are often, I think, overlooked due to the reader’s eye being drawn to the impossibility element. But look at, say, Till Death Do Us Part, as it has one of the best hidden (but clued) murderers that I’ve encountered. And this one is pretty well done as well. The chapter where Fell explains what in hindsight would seem to be very obvious is very well done, and I’ll admit, I spent the large part of the book looking the wrong way, and once that became clear, I didn’t have a clue. In fact, I wouldn’t put it past Carr to have constructed the potential of the wrong solution that I was looking at despite it never being mentioned. Possibly.
Having said that, it’s not perfect. It’s too talky in places, with some of the “amusing” characters existing primarily to introduce a new theory or to shoot down an old one. For me, some of these sort-of-sleuths started to merge into one after a bit. Once the book hits the home straight, though, its strengths begin to show again.
And this is, I think, the book where Carr introduced a word into the English language (unless it occurs in an earlier title) namely “ginch”.
To refer to an online dictionary : “An attractive woman, especially (frequently depreciative) one regarded as an object of sexual gratification. Also as a mass noun: such women collectively.”
Apparently the first recorded use is from Carr, presumably here. The chapter even implies to the word as “a mysterious who’s definition will presently be made clear.” It’s worth bearing that in mind, as if you look up the word, it’s slang either for men’s briefs or (oddly) a vagina. Which makes the description of Patricia Standish very odd if you assume either of those definitions… although it’s not exactly great in the first place.
Anyway, putting Carr’s inability in this particular case to provide a positive female role, this is an enjoyable read that I had sort of written off as a substandard Carr, alongside The Blind Barber, The Arabian Nights Murder and Death-Watch. It’s not exactly top-notch, but it’s definitely Well Worth A Look.
Availablity: Not good in the UK. There are copies out there, due to a reprint in the mid 1980s, but it’ll cost you at least a tenner.
Just The Facts, Ma’am: Let’s tick off “Who – a vicar/religious figure” in the shape of the Bishop of Mapplethorpe.