Dress Down Sunday: The Sleeping Sphinx by John Dickson Carr

published 1947


Sleeping Sphinx 1

[Celia is describing the runup to an event in a country house which will end in death…]

“I finished dressing first. So I went over and knocked at the door of Margot’s bedroom.

‘Margot wasn’t nearly ready yet. She was standing in front of the big triple mirror around the dressing table, in her step-ins and stockings, with a wrap over her shoulders, and scrabbling about among things on the dressing table. She called out to me: ‘Darling, do go and look in the medicine cabinet in the bathroom and see if my nail varnish has wandered in there.’

‘I went and looked… there were about three dozen bottles there, all crammed together on theshelves. But I saw the nail varnish, right enough,I was just stretching out my hand for it when I saw the poison bottle. I tell you,” Celia almost screamed, “I saw the poison bottle!”

commentary: Of course she did. The wandering poison bottle is a key feature of this book and it keeps moving around like a Find the Lady trick – is it the same one, how many were there, what did they contain, and how the heck did it end up there?

I liked this book, but with some strong reservations. I got hold of a copy (as with so many other books) after reading about it on Noah Stewart’s blog: the killer detail was that The Sleeping Sphinx features a party in which the guests wear masks to represent famous murderers, AND it is held just before Christmas. Noah also mentioned that an Anthony Berkeley book had a similar party (blogpost coming soon… ) and I also have fond memories of the Gladys Mitchell book with the Sherlock Holmes costume party (one of my favourite blogposts here, with bustles).

So obviously a must-read, and it has a weird and complex plot (yes, even for JDC, the master of complex plots). It is completely batty, but none the worse for that of course…. My copy has a line on the cover which I consider to be a spoiler of sorts: it certainly suggests far too much of the eventual revelations about what was going on…

Sleeping Sphinx 2

There is some good clothes detection: Margot, above, is wearing a strapless silver lame dress with grey nylons – which a witness notices particularly. That’s because nylons were a relatively new and very covetable invention – see my blogpost and Guardian article for more than you ever wanted to know on this subject. So what is the role of the black velvet dress in all this – why on earth might Margot have changed her dress….? Margot, incidentally, is going to take the mask of Edith Thompson of the infamous Thompson-Bywaters murder case.

My reservations concern the treatment of women’s sexuality – an area in which JDC has extreme form: in many of his books he shows a liking, acceptance and understanding of women which far outshines his contemporary male authors, crime and other, and which again I mentioned in a blogpost and Guardian article, as well as this post on The Judas Window. But just occasionally he goes bizarrely far in the other direction – The Waxworks Murder is one example and this book is another. It left a bad taste from what is otherwise an enjoyable farrago. Although in the very final sentences (and not directly to do with the solution) one of the women behaves in a surprising way which I enjoyed hugely, and which almost redeemed Mr Carr…And, to be fair, he also lays into certain men’s view of sex, while discussing a particular character in the book:
But then – and it always will happen to immature people brought up in public-school traditions – he began to feel debased.
One mysterious event, by the way, didn’t puzzle me at all - the explanation leaped to my mind straight from close childhood reading of J Meade Falkner’s seminal Moonfleet, one of the best adventure stories ever written in my important view.

Vintage lingerie from Kristine’s photostream.

Silver lame dress also from Kristine’s photostream.


  1. Hmm.....I'm not too keen on that attitude towards women, Moira. But the plot itself sounds intriguing in its weirdness, if that makes sense. And I keep thinking about that moving poison bottle. That sounds very Carr. Hmm....Just on that score I may have to read it !

    1. It's a good one Margot, and would love to hear what you think about it.

  2. Why "step-ins"? What else would you do with pants?

    And have you ever read Faulkner's The Nebuly Coat?

    1. A blog commentator told me that stepins followed on from camiknickers: so the camis went over your head and were buttoned between the legs, while the stepins were self-explanatory.

      I LOVE The Nebuly Coat, I think it would be in my (amorphous and ever-changing) top 10 novels list. There are two blog entries on it. I bought it because I thought the Nebuly Coat would be a clothes feature for the blog... but of course it isn't at all. Happy mischance, though, I would hate to have missed the book, and it is insufficiently talked about. It is magical.

  3. Something from him is on the pile, maybe from you? I'll stick with that for now.

  4. This might be interesting because of being close to Christmas. I will keep an eye out for it. I got a few by Carr at the book sale so won't run out for a while.


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