Echoes from The Hound of the Baskervilles resound throughout the early part of this early work in the Carr canon. A gruesome curse attaches to an ancient fortune, and both the curse and the fortune are inextricably tied to a moody patch of not-so-merry Old England. In Hound, it’s a mythical fog-shrouded expanse known as the Grimpen Mire, located in the Dartmoor region of Devonshire. In this tale, it’s a death-haunted slab of earth called the Hag’s Nook, located in the Fens region of Lincolnshire. A prison figures atmospherically and practically in the events that occur in both of those precincts. Each novel opens with the arrival of a young male heir who has been living in North America—Henry Baskerville comes from Canada, Martin Starberth comes from the United States—and his transatlantic origin highlights a contrast between the bright vistas of the New World and the dark legacies of the Old World. To claim his patrimony, each heir must reckon with an obligation that derives from the misdeeds of a twisted ancestor. Looming over each novel, moreover, is the specter of a recent unexplained death: The uncle of Henry Baskerville and the father of Martin Starberth had both expired in circumstances that appeared to arise in some way from those ancestral misdeeds. Only the intervention of a genius sleuth, as it turns out, can dispel the cruel force that binds the innocent young to a heritage of villainy. Sherlock Holmes, of course, takes on the problem that hounds the Baskervilles, whereas the Starberth clan relies on the services of Dr. Gideon Fell.
It’s fitting that Carr, who later wrote one of the first major biographies of Arthur Conan Doyle, chose to borrow from the work of that illustrious predecessor when he mustered the ingredients of this début outing for Fell. All in all, the case makes for a worthy introduction to the great doctor and his world. Fell emerges in fully realized form, complete with his box cape and his slouch hat and the two canes that he uses to maneuver his vast bulk to and from the crime scene. On hand to assist him and to admire him is Tad Rampole, one of the juvenile-lead types who populate novels from the first phase of Carr’s career. Any difference between Rampole and (say) Jeff Marle, who accompanies Henri Bencolin on his adventures, is negligible. Like Carr himself during this period, these characters are impressionable Americans in Europe—innocents abroad who stand ready to witness events that will strike awe in their tender hearts.
Fell has invited Rampole to visit him at his cottage, which happens to be in Starberth country, and the main action in the piece begins on the night of the young man’s arrival. Late that evening, Martin Starberth must undertake an hour-long vigil in a rat- and ghost-infested chamber inside Chatterham Prison, a now-empty pile that rises above the Hag’s Nook. This obligation comes down from Anthony Starberth, the first governor of the prison and the first of several Starberth men to die mysteriously in the vicinity of that chamber. Fell and Rampole observe the vigil from the Fell residence, and when a light from the chamber flickers out at an untimely moment, they rush to the prison and discover that Martin has met with a violent end. Fell, seeing through the supernatural aura that hovers over the scene, determines that a human agent caused the heir’s death. Although suspects are thin on the marshy ground that surrounds the Hag’s Nook, there is plenty of investigative fodder to keep Fell and Rampole and the local police busy.
In a gripping discussion of the clue-rich site where Martin spent his last hour of life, Fell interjects a bit of literary criticism that signals the nature and scope of Carr’s ambition. The Gothic romance, with its panoply of carefully laid death traps and other grotesque improbabilities, lags “far behind the detective stories,” Fell contends. Tales of detection, he says, “may reach an improbable conclusion, but they get there on the strength of good, sound, improbable evidence that’s in plain sight.” Measured by that standard, this book succeeds: All of the clues that Fell cites to explain how he spotted the murderer and how he dissected the intricacies of the murder scheme are visible—albeit not always plainly so—within the text of the narrative. At the same time, Carr’s commitment to the fair-play ethos entails no sacrifice of his ability to deliver thrills and chills on a Gothic scale.
Carr falters somewhat in how he handles the solution and the revelation thereof. A long and occasionally jumbled denouement takes up the final one-fifth of what is otherwise an impressively crisp tale, and although the pattern of misdirection that hides the killer’s identity is clever enough, it lacks the spare elegance that distinguishes the author’s best work. The book, moreover, closes with an extended written confession by the culprit that has the lamentable effect of stealing Fell’s thunder. (Even so, the confession stands out for the artful way that it reveals the mind of a deeply repellent figure. Carr was hardly known as a master of subtle characterization or psychological insight, but here he shows off his talents in that vein.)
Despite that flaw, which is eminently fixable, Hag’s Nook would have served as the basis of a splendid film during the 1930s heyday of silver-screen gothic horror, or indeed at any time. More so than most authors from the Golden Age of detection, Carr penned works that brim with screenplay-ready elements, and those elements are on display here—from the eerie and visually captivating location to the tight circle of easy-to-cast characters (imagine Charles Laughton in the role of Gideon Fell) to the sharp dialogue and the cliffhanger scene endings that move the plot swiftly along. Why have there been no film versions of Fell’s (or Sir Henry Merrivale’s) exploits? To be sure, there are a handful of movies (including The Man With a Cloak and Dangerous Crossing) based on tales from the periphery of Carr’s large corpus. But the absence of any cinematic or televisual treatment of his core work remains not just a mystery but also a crime.
January 24, 2019 at 1:47 PM
Thank you for a thorough and thoughtful review. I agree with you that this one has some interesting psychological aspects for which Carr doesn’t always get credit. And, yes, I can certainly see it as a successful film. Thanks, too, for the kind link.
January 24, 2019 at 2:05 PM
Margot, thank you for dropping by here to comment. Like you, by the way, I was impressed by how Carr not only musters a compelling sense of atmosphere but also uses atmosphere to inform the plot and to bring the characters to life.
January 24, 2019 at 2:15 PM
I would have truly loved a suitably full-blooded movie adaptation from the 1930s!
January 24, 2019 at 6:19 PM
I know, right! To reiterate what I wrote above, Carr’s work is unusually cinema-friendly, at least in comparison with the work of other Golden Age authors. (Carr was young enough to have grown up with the movies, and for movie-like storytelling to come naturally to him.) So the dearth of screen treatments of his novels is especially disappointing. In this case, I envision something along the lines of the moody horror flicks that directors like James Whale and Michael Curtiz were making during the same era.
January 26, 2019 at 4:47 AM
That sounds marvellous to me – Whale and Curtiz are two of my very favourites from the era. What glorious atmospheric fun a Fell series could have been!
January 24, 2019 at 4:25 PM
I love this book, although that may be tainted by the rosy memory that it was my first Carr. I can appreciate that my recollection may be somewhat tainted, but Hag’s Nook feels very different than what followed with The Eight of Swords or The Mad Hatter Mystery. In a sense it has the gothic elements that we’d expect from an early Carter Dickson story, but I find the story to be almost of the 1938-39 Fell variety. At the same time it does rely on the heavy misdirection that we get from early 1933-36 Fell stories. Either that made sense or I’m nerding out.
I know what you mean about the denouement. I skimmed through it a year ago and I was like “holy hell, that is long!” Ah, but it was glorious. It’s one of my favorite Carr denouements. You are right that it relies on many more moving parts than we should expect, but man, it’s just like eating a never ending bowl of goodness.
January 24, 2019 at 6:19 PM
It’s a topic well worth nerding out on, Ben. My knowledge (or memory, in some instances) of the mid-30s Fell titles isn’t strong enough for me to evaluate your analysis. But I think it’s safe to say that “Hag’s Nook” has a crisp brevity that makes it resemble some early-40s classics (“Wire Cage,” “Constant Suicides”) more than it does some of the longer, denser novels that immediately follow it.
January 24, 2019 at 10:11 PM
Fabulous review, Mike — I agree this one gets a bit too convoluted towards the end, but the way Carr juggles the various tones so easily should have served as a hint at the time that the man had great things ahead of him. That easy slide from the gentle, almost comical domesticity of the Fell household all the way through to the Gothic chills of the first visit to the castle is handled so effortlessly and is all the more effective for it. He’d write far better books, but the freshness of this one will probably never fade.
January 25, 2019 at 6:30 AM
Thanks for your enthusiastic comment, JJ. In highlighting Carr’s facility with managing diverse tones, you hit on a key point. That ability is very much present in this early work, and would become a feature that distinguishes later entries in the Carr canon. On occasion, Carr’s humor gets a bit over-ripe, but in general the man knew what he was doing.
January 26, 2019 at 4:25 AM
Yeah, I’d suggest that from The Eight of Swords (1934) to probably The Gilded Man (1942) Carr’s use of humour worked very well — her wrestled is in The Blind Barber and let it out of the box again in She Died a Lady, but for those 29 books (maybe I’ve still not read Seeing is Believing) he seemd very much the master of his balancing tones. And then it’s almost like he gets bored, and starts throwing in broad humour to liven things up — not in every book, weirdly, just in the odd scattering here and there where it stands starkly agaist the reserve elsewhere.
And then the Historical bug bit him and he started taking it seriously again…