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JOHN DICKSON CARR. The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941).

09 Jul

A scene of comedy, set on a sleeper coach as it heads from London to Glasgow, marks a frothy start to this twin-locked-room adventure, featuring Dr. Gideon Fell. Although Carr’s humor often has the effect of pushing his work off the rails, the interplay here between two Scots scholars of Restoration history, one stubbornly male and one winningly female, recalls a well-oiled screwball romance from Hollywood’s golden age. ConstantSuicides.jpgAwaiting Alan Campbell and Kathryn Campbell in Scotland (they are cousins, but genetically at a decent remove from each other) is the puzzle of how a relative of theirs, Angus Campbell, tumbled to his death from a 60-foot-high tower window at the Castle of Shira, the family’s ancestral home. A massive bolt had sealed shut the chamber from which he plunged, so murder would appear to be out of the question. But Dr. Fell, within his gargantuan frame, harbors a doubt or two about the case. What about the animal carrier found under Angus’s bed, for example? Might a killer have smuggled in a creature fierce enough to make the old guy leap from the window in fright? Then Alec Forbes, a known enemy of Angus and an ideal murder suspect, dies in his securely locked cottage; ostensibly, he took his own life by hanging. Meanwhile, there’s a war on, even out on the highland moors, and curious circumstances involving blackout window screens and the watchful eyes of the Home Guard give Fell further reason to harbor doubt.

As is usual for Carr, variations on “what might have happened” outnumber candidates for “who might have done it,” and the identity of the guilty party comes into view less through artful detection than by process of elimination. Add in just enough comedy and just enough romance and just enough Scottish atmosphere, though—along with two clever impossible-crime solutions—and the upshot is one of the author’s most agreeable tales.

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10 Comments

Posted by on July 9, 2011 in British, Golden Age, Puzzle

 

10 responses to “JOHN DICKSON CARR. The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941).

  1. TomCat

    July 9, 2011 at 2:20 PM

    This was the first book I read by John Dickson Carr, but blasphemously wasn’t aware that I was dealing with the greatest detective writer who ever lived – until several books later. The Plague Court Murders eventually made me a believer.

     
  2. Mike

    July 11, 2011 at 10:00 AM

    “Constant Suicides” was among the first JDC books that I read, too, back when I was in my teens. (I reread it about a year ago, and that’s when I wrote up this review.) I’m not sure how it happened–it seems like a kind of magic, in retrospect–but I stumbled upon my first JDC book in a used bookstore, right when I was ready to make first foray into reading a mystery writer besides Agatha Christie. I stumbled upon Ellery Queen at about the same time, and to this day that classic troika of puzzle-masters (Christie, Carr, and Queen) continues to form my personal gold standard for genre excellence. That first JDC title was “The Problem of the Wire Cage.” I gather that neither critics nor readers are very enthusiastic about that one, but it was definitely enough to hook me.

     
  3. Patrick

    July 11, 2011 at 10:51 AM

    This is one of my personal favourites. I loved the locked rooms and the humour. It was in an omnibus- I still recall my enormous pleasure when I got it. I had placed an interlibrary loan for “The Blind Barber” (I think it was) and I got five books by Carr i hadn’t read yet… ::)

     
  4. Mike

    July 11, 2011 at 11:04 AM

    Thanks for the comment, Patrick (and also thanks to TomCat, I should say) … As I’ve indicated elsewhere, Carr’s humor often doesn’t work for me. The slapstick to which Sir H.M. is prone, for instance, tends either to annoy me or to fly past me. But the humor in this Dr. Fell book–those star-crossed egghead lovers, those feuding Highland coots–hits just the right notes.

     
  5. Patrick

    July 12, 2011 at 3:36 PM

    Personally, I realise that Carr’s humour is not always the best, but it just rubs me the right way. I’m very forgiving with Carr’s humour, and there are only a handful of times (The Cavalier’s Cup, Panic in Box C) where he fails to amuse me.

     
  6. George Kelley

    July 15, 2011 at 7:05 AM

    Love that DELL Mapback format! Yes, often Carr’s “humor” is off-key. But I try to stay focused on the puzzles he sets up and that usually gets me through the book.

     
  7. J F Norris

    July 15, 2011 at 7:38 AM

    I loved the opening. I also liked the oppressive Catholic Scottish woman. I tend to enjoy most of the loony humor in Carr and also the Henry Merrivale books. For instance — The Punch and Judy Murders is one big mystery of the absurd and reminded me of the best of Harry Stephen Keeler’s madcap books. But then I love Monty Python, French farce, Charles Ludlum’s plays, and anything to do with the ridiculous.

    I still don’t understand why this is one of the most lauded of Carr’s books. The mystery portion got bogged down for me with the discovery of the second corpse. The murder method of the first death is ingenious, granted, but overall I was left wanting. The title implies a rash of killings and I guess I was expecting more. I think He Who Whispers and The Emperor’s Snuffbox are far superior and they both get short shrift compared to this one that most readers bubble over with praise.

     
  8. Mike

    July 15, 2011 at 4:56 PM

    You can’t argue about humor, but why should I let that stop me? To be precise, it’s actually not Carr’s humor per se that puts me off in certain cases. The humor in his work, or for that matter the humor in certain other detective and mystery stories, might be just fine on its own terms. In another context, I might enjoy the kind of silliness and slapstick that Carr uses to propel Sir H.M. through his adventures, for example. (I’m one of those grown men who still enjoy the Three Stooges on occasion.) But context is everything, and for me an otherwise amusing bit of humor in the wrong context often breaks the spell of mystery, or the spell of danger, that draws me to work such as Carr’s in the first place.

    Obviously, I demur from JF’s criticism of “Constant Suicides.” The book’s brevity is one of its strong points, I think, and (unlike some of Carr’s early-1930s efforts) it doesn’t offer much in the way of opportunity to get bogged down. That said, JF is absolutely right about “The Emperor’s Snuffbox.” It’s a fine, fine tale, and nobody seems to mention it when counting up Carr’s achievements. As I recall (I read it many years ago), it has an excellent sense of atmosphere that makes me think that it could have formed the basis of a great film noir.

     
  9. puzzledoctor

    August 3, 2011 at 12:37 AM

    This was, I think, the second Carr book that I read after “The Hollow Man” and, excuse my blasphemy, I think I enjoyed it a lot more. I think that Carr’s simpler set-ups work better and is one of the simplest of the lot (the set-up, not the solution). Along with Til Death Us Do Part, this book is one of my favourites of his canon. He Who Whispers is also up there, but there’s a bit of the solution that lets it down for me a bit… you can probably guess what without me spoiling it for people who haven’t read it.

     
  10. Mike

    August 4, 2011 at 7:14 PM

    Thanks for the comment, “puzzledoctor.” I thoroughly agree with you about the attractive simplicity of this book. I confess that I haven’t read either “Till Death” or “He Who Whisper”–but I guess I really need to push them up my to-be-read list. I know that in general I like Carr’s books from the early-mid 1940s best of all; that, as I’ve noted, is when he really hit his stride.

     

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