Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Tuesday Night Club: The First Dr Fell Book

 
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.

Firsts logo

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


published 1933


 
Hag's Nook 1st Fell 3
 

[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.


























20 comments:

  1. Great post. I haven't read this one, though I am tempted by it, not least because we get a glimpse at the woman who chose to marry Dr Fell!

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    1. It's a good one, Kate, and Mrs Fell is merely glimpsed, but very satisfactory!

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  2. Great post Moira and thanks for the shout out, very kind. Mrs Fell appeared only a couple more times as I recall.

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    1. I'm really glad I read it Sergio, and will look out for more about Mrs Fell.

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  3. It is an excellent read, isn't it, Moira? And I do have a fondness for the cryptic-poem-that's-a-major-clue trope, too. Carr had such talent for making ordinary, even clichéd expressions and situations work brilliantly. I like Gideon Fell a lot, too.

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    1. You mentioned it in one of your posts too Margot, which was another prod to me to read it, so thank you!

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  4. I feel like it might be some kind of heresy to admit I've never read one of Carr's books. Or at least I don't remember doing so. Perhaps something I might remedy this year.

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    1. You need to read one, and provided it is one of the classics, you will know immediately whether you can put it aside and never look at him again, or will have to start tracking down all the others... He is not for everyone, but I love him.

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  5. A great account, and one that reminds me how long I've been putting off a Carr reading/rereading blitz.

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    1. Thanks. He never fails - even one of the weaker Carrs is always an entertainment. And he wrote so many! What with reading the previously-missed ones, and re-reading, they'll keep me going forever.

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  6. It does feel like the moment where everything clicks for Carr. You look at the earlier books and they're clever but lacking in that certain something. The opening of the novel has a loving description of England as seen by an anglophile American, and despite all of the ghoulishness to come this feeling permeates the book. It helps to balance out the tone of the book. Unlike Bencolin, Fell is a reassuring figure, as HM will be. We need someone like that.

    Carr later became a excellent radio scriptwriter, and that ability to tell the story by using exactly the right words can be seen here. I almost get the feeling that he either read or re-read the ghost stories of M R James before starting this book, as there is the same sense that less can be more until you really want to get the big guns out to scare the reader. There's a bit in a James story called THE MEZZOTINT where the main characters watch a picture slowly change to tell a story of supernatural revenge. They see an awful figure on all fours inching towards a country house, but when the picture changes it has gone, and an open window can be seen on the titular picture. "He must have got in", whispers one of the viewers. It's such a simple sentence, but ripe with awful possibilities. There's very much that sort of feeling with this book. The plotting is good, the murder method ingenious, but the mood of the book is exactly right. We are taken to somewhere awful, but by the end the figure of Dr Fell has reasserted normality and reason.

    As I recall, HM has a wife and two daughter, and we never meet either of them. Carr's books are relatively short, and you feel that he didn't feel that it was worth the the time and effort to keep them in the picture. Mrs Fell is in the background in certain novels, but she doesn't really need to be there other than as a stable, loving background for the sleuth, so we don't need to see her.

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    1. Not much fictional scares me, but the Mezzotint is the exception. Just that he WORD mezzotint (in,say, an art catalogue) gives me a frisson, because of the story. And I have to check the pictures on my wall to make sure the figures aren't moving.

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  7. Moira, I should add this to my own neglected meme on "First Novels" by authors. Gideon Fell — I really like that name.

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    1. Yes Prashant, I agree - Gideon Fell is a very satisfactory name. Choice of names is so important.

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  8. I have to admit I'd never read anything by my namesake until I read your post on "Blind Man's Hood." I tracked down a copy of the collection it was in and enjoyed all the stories. So, I'll definitely try this one as well.

    I hadn't realized he was American. He was from Pennsylvania where I had relatives nearly two hundred years ago. Maybe he was a distant relation? :-)

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    1. Oh I'm so glad you liked them! There's a lot left to read. We Brits are always really glad that the American Carr was such an Anglophile, and wrote so well about his adopted home.

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  9. I have several books by Carr to read first, but this one sounds like one I should try. I like the beginning.

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    1. It's a good one, and it is the start of a new series...

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  10. I think Mrs. Fell is mentioned in one of the last Fell books, I remember getting surprised that she was mentioned again.

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    1. Thanks - I'll have to look out for that. I wish there was more of her.

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