Xmas Books: One for Noah

My good friend Noah Stewart died this month. I had this post already written, to be one of my regular series of Xmas scenes in December: it was (like so many of my posts) based on a discussion with Noah. So here it is.

Xmas Masks:

The Sleeping Sphinx by John Dickson Carr

published 1947

Xmas masks Sleeping Sphinx

Celia said: “The idea was that we were to play an old-fashioned game of Murder. Only, this time, we were each to wear the mask of a famous murderer in real life.”

[Later, Dr Fell is asking questions about this event.]

“I want you especially, Sir Danvers, to picture that rather evil scene. Your guests and your family wearing the masks of famous murderers. Yourself in the green mask of an executioner. The bowl of lighted spirits burning blue. Those faces moving and dodging around in the dark.”

For a moment, now, there was no sound except Dr Fell’s heavy wheezy breathing.

“You yourself, I believe, gave out the masks to the various people?”


“When you gave out the masks,” said Dr Fell, without opening his eyes, “did you exercise any particular choice? Did you try to make the mask, however remotely, fit the character of the person to whom you gave it?”

“Great Scott, no! On the contrary! That’s what I want to emphasize.”

commentary: Yes, how very festive.

This intriguing book has already featured on the blog this year – but I couldn’t resist doing a Xmas entry on the unbeatably strange social event that is a major feature of the action.

It’s a party, on the 23rd December, with each guest asked to wear a mask and to pretend to be a famous murderer. Here I am going to quote my good friend Noah Stewart, who first put me on to this book (just after Xmas I see), and was also discussing the Anthony Berkeley book Dead Mrs Stratton (aka Jumping Jenny) – see my blogpost here:
My first instinct is to suggest that both writers seem to be taking for granted that there is a really high standard of literacy extant about readers’ knowledge of famous murderers and what they looked like. At one point Sheringham remarks that Una Stratton had dressed up as Mrs. Pearcey and another guest as Mary Blandy. Pearcey was executed in 1890 and Mary Blandy in 1752 and I cannot imagine that the average person of 1933 would have known what they looked like, or how they dressed. Nor can I imagine going to a party dressed as a famous murderer; even less as a famous victim. It just seems in very poor taste regardless of period. Would you want to go to a party dressed as Sharon Tate or O.J. Simpson?
Well exactly. In The Sleeping Sphinx, above, the guests are provided with files of information about their counterpart, and the masks, and it’s all very strange.

But it’s a weird book all round. See more in the original post. There is another creepy Christmas-y scene:
“I was in bed asleep on Christmas Eve. I dreamed I was in the Long Gallery, standing on the lowest step looking straight along the gallery. It was all dark, except for the bright starlight. I wondered, with that sense of being in both the present and the past at once, whether the gallery has been cleared for the old Christmas dances and games. And then, far away from me, by the third oriel window, I saw half of a white face…”
Goodness. Carr certainly does strong atmosphere – a couple of years ago I did this excellent Christmas ghost story for one of my seasonal entries: John Dickson Carr’s Blind Man’s Hood.

By the way, one of the masks given out at the party was Mrs Dyer, Victorian Britain’s worst baby killer, who lived in Caversham in Berkshire – I lived very close to where she did in my 20s, though obviously that was a long time after she was dead and gone, along with her house I believe…

And I hate the thought that Noah is not going to discuss this post and the book with me.

The picture is called Death and the Masks, is by James Ensor, and is from the Athenaeum website.


  1. Noah's passing is a real loss, Moira. And what a lovely way to remember him. That's a very interesting holiday party, too, but Carr could pull that sort of thing off. Thanks for sharing this.

    1. Thanks Margot, and I did enjoy the book - Noah had perfect taste.

  2. I will be tracking down this book someday, if only for the relevance to Christmas.

    It is nice to remember Noah this way.

    1. Indeed it is, and you will like this one, I think - it is strange, but the festive party is not to be missed!

  3. Sorry to hear about the loss of a good friend, Moira. A great way to remember him.

    1. It was indeed nice for me to realize I had the book and the connection.

    2. What a wonderful way to remember Noah. I keep thinking of bookish things I wish I could talk to him about. He was so knowledgeable about so much of the mystery world.

      On another note...I read this book long ago and far away (long before I ever wrote up my thoughts) and I have no memory of the weirdness. After your post, I feel like I need to go dig through my stored books and reread it....

    3. I know Bev. As I'm reading or writing I often think 'now that's something Noah would have liked/recommended/pointed out/commented on.' And yes, there is something weird about this one - but then, John Dickson Carr… never as predictable as people think.


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