As it’s the first month of a new year, the Tuesday Night bloggers (a group of crime fiction fans doing a themed entry each week) have chosen ‘firsts’, a nice wide-ranging topic.
Bev at My Reader’s Block - of course - did the splendid logo.
And Kate at Cross-Examining Crime is collecting the links this month.
A couple of people have mentioned John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook recently, including my friend Sergio over at Tipping My Fedora, and I strongly recommend his review (which contains more details of the plot than I will feature here, and some great analysis). It's a book I hadn’t read, so when I found out it was the first of Carr's mysteries to feature Dr Gideon Fell - well, it was an obvious choice for this week’s entry.
Hag’s Nook by John Dickson Carr
[American visitor Tad Rampole is travelling to visit friends in the country]
There was loneliness in wandering through the grimy station, full of grit and the iron coughing of engines, and blurred by streams of hurrying commuters…
That was when he ran into the girl in grey.
He literally ran into her.
He bumped into someone with a startling thud; he heard somebody gasp, and an ‘oh!’ beneath his shoulder.
Then he recovered himself to notice the face. Light from the first-class carriage beside which they stood shone down upon it – a small face, with eyebrows raised quizzically. It was as though she were looking at him from a distance, mockingly, but with a sympathetic pout of her lips. A hat was pulled down anyhow, in a sort of rakish good-humour, on her very black, very glossy hair; and her eyes were of so dark a blue that they seemed almost black too. The collar of her rough grey coat was drawn up, but it did not hide the expression of her lips.
commentary: John Dickson Carr is very popular round here – he had a magnificent output, and I’m sure there are many of his books I haven’t read yet, but I like the ones I know. He has featured on the blog 20-odd times, and has had his own Tuesday Night Club session.
The passage above is from the beginning of the book, with some Carr tropes well to the fore. The meet-cute girl is, by pure coincidence, going to be deeply involved in the case, and Rampole happens to be going to visit Dr Gideon Fell, a friend of a friend.
In fact they meet before they are due to, and when a stranger says ‘You’re young Rampole aren’t you?’ we know who it must be. Carr continues
If the stranger had added ‘You come from Afghanistan, I perceive’ Rampole could not have been more startled– a nice little reference, a tip of the hat, to Sherlock Holmes.
Once they get together, general mayhem will ensue, featuring a terrifying-sounding prison, a lot of history and some really unsettling scenes: all deeply connected to the young woman and her brother. There is a locked room and an impossible murder.
Early on, Dorothy is trying to explain the peculiar relation between her family and the hideous blood-soaked prison, and says:
‘You say you understand, and it’s nice of you, but you don’t! Growing up with the thing…. I remember when Martin and I were tiny children, mother holding us each up to the window so that we could see the prison. She’s dead now, you know…’--a simple passage that gave me a real frisson. The book is full of sentences and exclamations that could be clichéd but really worked for me: ‘There he goes! Grab him!’ and ‘Whatever you see or hear, for God’s sake don’t speak’.
Carr creates tremendous tension and a most sinister atmosphere with a very clever plot, and the idea of the hidden accusation hanging over a villain’s head is superb and discomfiting. I had a slight problem with the solution (the culprit seemed to be the one person who could not be held in this way, someone who could disappear) but I enjoyed the book so much I am not going to argue.
Mrs Fell appears in Hag’s Nook, something I don’t remember from other books (I’m sure the experts can put me right on this), and she is rather splendid, producing huge meals and clumsily moving around breaking things. A pity she wasn’t used more.
So a great start to a much-loved series, and a great introduction to a much-loved figure. My first first for this meme gets very high marks.
The picture of travellers in the 1930s comes from the NYPL digital collection.