The House at Satan’s Elbow by John Dickson Carr


published 1965


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[The young hero gets on a train and meets a beautiful young woman]


She was alone. In a blue-and-white summer dress, stockingless and with blue shoes, Fay cowered back towards the upholstery of the corner seat by the window. She looked even more alluring and desirable than he remembered. With trembling fingers she fumbled at the clasps of a white handbag and snapped it open. Though they might be in a non-smoking compartment, from the bag Fay juggled out a tortoise-shell cigarette case.

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[The train arrives…]

On the platform, amid gathering shadows, waited a brown-haired, hazel-eyed young woman, the outdoor type of girl, in dark slacks and an orange sweater. Garret could not help liking her at once.



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[Later that evening, in the eponymous house]

From the east side of the room hurried a middle-sized, middle-aged woman with a kittenish manner and voluminous hair rather obviously tinted red. Though not at all ill-looking, if somewhat scrawny-faced and staring of eye, she wore a jacket and brilliant tartan slacks that would better have suited the figures of [the two young women described above] Deidre Barclay or Fay Wardour.

commentary: This is a late book by John Dickson Carr, close to the end of his writing career, and I found it unexpectedly good. His later works weren’t usually his best, and there are always odd intrusions of contemporary modern life which don’t really seem to fit. That’s true here, with odd mentions of pop music in a grumpy way, but most of the time you could happily imagine it was the 1930s…

Part of the reason I liked it is that the setting is well-known to me: the House of the title is at the end of Lepe Beach in Hampshire – although the house isn’t real, the beach most certainly is. Sadly it doesn’t feature much, except as a place to which the maid sneaks out to meet her boyfriend - a pity as it is a splendid and very lovely place. The train they board in the opening scenes above is the very train that I get home from London, and they pass through my hometown – though I wonder if Carr was bringing his American roots to bear in this section, as he speaks of the travellers finding out what ‘gate’ the train leaves from: this is US-speak, in the UK it would always be the platform.

There is a lot of guff in the book about a certain kind of Victorian window, and its lock, and stap me if they aren’t specifically described as being found in houses in my home town! And our house is the right era, and we have those very locks and handles… I felt as though I was living in this book, I really did.

The House at Satan’s Elbow is properly sinister, as befits the name, with wild previous owners, a history of ghosts, impressionable servants, wills to be lost and found, and a lot of people staring at each other with suspicion and behaving oddly. Dr Gideon Fell turns up to find out what happened to Pennington Barclay, who seems to have seen a ghost and then been shot in a locked room.

As it happens, I spotted the culprit very early on – like the awful red-haired Estelle above I may be psychic, it wasn’t really based on anything but intuition, though the cast of characters was quite small.

Intriguingly- and fairly irrelevantly to the plot – one of the characters has written a serious biography of Macaulay, a 19th century politician and historian, and this has very unexpectedly been turned into a smash hit musical on Broadway and in the West End. Like a foreshadowing of Hamilton – it must have seemed most unlikely in 1965…
I haven’t been able to find many other reviews of this book – I’ll be curious if any of the usual suspects in the Carr-fan blogging world have comments on the book.

I consider he was a bit harsh on poor old Estelle, above, whose outfit sounds perfectly fine to me.

Both tartan pictures from Kristine’s photostream, as is the blue dress.

While looking for a nice picture of an orange sweater, and there it is up there, I also found this one, which I feel I must share. It is hard to imagine how anyone could ever have thought this photograph was a good thing…. As young people say, I can’t even.


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Comments

  1. Oh, my goodness, Moira, I can't even, either! What a 'photo! As for the book, I'm glad you enjoyed it, even though you did spot the culprit early on. And a very nice connection to your home town, too. I like it! This is one of the Carrs I haven't (yet) read, but it sounds like a good 'un, even though it's a bit late in his career.

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    1. Definitely in the top tier of his books for me (I know others disagree!) but well worth a read. And it led me to the photo - which might of course be an argument against it!

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  2. Thanks, Moira, for making me laugh out loud when I saw that photo of the couple in matching jumpers. Priceless! The book sounds pretty good, too, and it always fascinating when a book is set in a place you know well.

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    1. It is, Chrissie, and it really added to the charm of the book. Mind you next time I'm on the beach I'll be looking for a man in an orange sweater and tiny shorts...

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  3. Those knitted dresses must have been so hot! I'm sure I never saw anybody wearing one.

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    1. I think there used to be little girls wearing them, in the 1960s? I suppose crocheted dresses would be better in warm weather, but wouldn't there be a case for a warm wool dress for winter?

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  4. Moria, I have to disagree with you on this one - when I read it a fair few years ago, I thought it was dreadful. If I recall, it was written around the time Carr has a stroke and it really needed a rewrite. I’ll take another look one day, but I thought it was the weakest of all the Gideon Fell mysteries.

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    1. It obviously divides the fans/readers! I've read a lot worse JDCs. I must say, I was wary when I started it, I wasn't expecting great things, so it was an extra joy that it was a good read (for me).

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  5. I was fortunate enough to find, this morning whilst burrowing around in a church op shop, a book of ladies' sweater patterns from 1961. They are swoon-able. One of them resembles the orange sweater above, with a cabled front and wide collar.

    At this point I have so many knitting projects in the queue that I don't think I'll ever be able to die.

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    1. oh old knitting patterns are so lovely, lucky you. Someone gave me a reprint of vintage patterns, and 20 years later am still wearing two sweaters I knitted from it...
      But yes, I do agree, there really isn't enough time to do all the knitting.

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  6. I think he should have had a contrasting orange hat and matching shorts.

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    1. https://www.pinterest.com/bocchi16/crochet-gone-bad/?lp=true

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    2. Bill: I can always rely on you to say the right thing about clothes for the style-conscious man.
      Shay: that is quite a page. I keep scrolling downwards and my mouth keeps dropping open farther...

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  7. I seem to remember the mystery in this book being quite weak, and the love story being somewhat silly. Not as overlong and boring as the Hungry Goblin or as offensive as Papa-la-bas, but I have never felt a desire to revisit it.

    As for the Americanism, had not Carr moved back to the states at this point? Maybe this affected his grasp of British language-

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    1. I think a lot of people were underwhelmed by this one, but it caught my fancy - more so than other of his books that are more highly-rated. Individual taste.
      Yes, his Americanism is fair enough really, I just can't help spotting things like that!

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  8. Yes, that last pic is really, uh, something. But then, as an aficionado of old sweater pattern pics, I challenge ANYONE to find a knitting pattern pic of a man in a sweater who doesn't clearly KNOW he looks a complete [insert any word you like here], usually sporting a creation no male would ever ever wear in real life. Though they're often given a manly prop, such as a pipe or golf club or rifle or camera.

    Go ahead, just Google "1960s sweater patterns men"

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    1. I found it and didn't pin it (darn) but earlier this week I ran across a vintage knitting pattern for a man's cherry red mohair crewneck complete with poofy sleeves*. The model actually managed to smile.

      *as my second oldest brother, who for many years was the only gringo in a local salsa band "Los Ritmos", used to call them. Their uniform was tight black pants, and a white shirt slashed to the waist, with rows and rows of piped ruffles trimming the sleeves. I wish I had kept a photo of him performing.

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    2. Susan: I did, and they were hilarious. It's odd though - I spend a lot of time looking at fashion advertising, and obviously plenty of people look absurd: but nothing like those men-in-sweaters, I wonder why they were always so painfully awkward?
      Shay: I think you owe it to us to find the cherry red sweater again. And also you owe it to your brother to pretend you have forgotten his past.

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    3. He has grown sons and is therefore susceptible to blackmail.

      (I also keep threatening to tell my older sister's children that she played the accordion in high school).

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    4. It's a great joy of grownup life I feel. When my children were small, they were meeting my brother for the first time as sentient beings (he lived on a different continent), and so I had told them many stories about our youth. When he arrived they both glared at him and said 'WHY did you try to poison our Mummy when she was little by telling her to eat one of her toys?' I was never more proud. (Of course they then became great friends... )

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