Friday, 13 April 2012

Forgotten Book - To Wake the Dead

Regular readers of this blog will be well aware that I enjoy a good "impossible crime" story, and by definition this means that I enjoy the work of John Dickson Carr, the American who made a career out of spinning variations of great ingenuity on the locked room theme. My latest Carr choice as a Forgotten Book is a title dating back to his prime, in 1937 - To Wake the Dead. It's not exactly a locked room story, but in much the same general vein.

The story begins brilliantly. A young man on the last stage of a journey from South Africa conducted as part of a wager finds himself hungry and outside an upmarket hotel in London's Piccadilly. As a result of a bizarre set of circumstances, he finds himself entering a room in the hotel - and discovering the body of a woman, who just happens to be his cousin's wife.

Perhaps surprisingly, he does not fall under suspicion for long, but makes haste to involve Dr Gideon Fell and Fell's chum, Superintendent Hadley. It then turns out that his cousin has also been murdered recently, in a small village. One link between the deaths of husband and wife is the observation of a uniformed hotel attendant near both crime scenes.

There are many neat touches in this story, but overall I didn't think it was a story of quite the same quality as Carr's best work. In particular, the murder motive, and the link between one of the victims and the killer, are not, in my opinion, really clued in a fair enough way. (Of course, this means I didn't figure out the solution! But when a mystery is fairly clued, my inability to solve it makes me admire the author's skill - that's why I admire Christie so much.)

At one point, Fell says that, of the questions “who, how and why?” the most revealing, but usually by far the most puzzling, is why. I don’t mean merely the actual motive for the crime itself. I mean the why of certain other actions, eccentricities of behaviour, which centre round the performance of the crime....the why torments us even when we know, or think we know, the truth. Why did Mrs Thompson write those letters to Bywaters? Why did Mrs Maybrick soak the fly-papers in water? Why did Thomas Bartlett drink the chloroform? Why did Julia Wallace have an enemy in the world? Why did Herbert Bennett make a sexual attack on his own wife?” Good questions, but this is a book about an elaborate and improbable plot, rather than about criminal psychology.


J F Norris said...

I think this is the very first JDC book I read when I was a mere lad of 15. I know I liked it because I ended up reading as many as I could back then and I even liked PANIC IN BOX C which is one of his weaker efforts. Now I own nearly every book in a first edition.

The puzzle and bafflement outlined in those why questions you cited are always the draw for me with Carr's books. In reading your review nothing came back to me so perhaps I ought to re-read this one. I do remember though that the cover of my 70s paperback edition had a forbidding figure in a uniform wielding a blunt instrument of some sort which must be the uniformed hotel attendant you mention.

Patrick said...

I really enjoyed this book-- although "far-fetched" is a rather conservative way of putting it when it comes to the central fact that provides the twist in this novel! (Seriously... did the police *never* discover the-- oh, but I'm saying too much...)

*But* that being said... I unreasonably loved this book. It was so much darn fun to read, even if it wasn't on the "masterpiece" level like some of JDC's other stuff.

I think I have that edition-- mine's a '67 Collier. It's a picture depicting that final chase through the cemetary-- a pretty creepy finale, I thought! (I like the Collier editions of JDCs books because the covers are often so much fun, and the books are top-notch quality, especially for paperbacks... which can often be sloppy! I speak from experience, as someone who goes for more books in paperback form, rather than getting fewer books in original hardcover editions. A wonderful literary investment, I find!)

Androwson said...


Martin Edwards said...

I have Panic in Box C but haven't read it as yet, John. Maybe I'll leave it a bit...
I really do admire the way Carr imbues his plots with such atmosphere. No wonder Christie was a fan.

Sextonblake said...

I'm a huge fan of Carr. This book could probably be fairly described as a bit of a miss fire. That said, even Carr's less successful books tend to be interesting.