To Wake the Dead by John Dickson Carr

published 1937/1938 (I see both dates, perhaps one UK and one US?)

Must be in her trunk,’ said Betts. ‘It’s not in her handbag, over on the dressing-table.’ Disturbed, Hadley examined the trunk. Though solid, it was an old, worn one; and her maiden name, ‘Josephine Parkes’, had almost faded out in white lettering on one side, the surname now being replaced with a bright white, ‘Kent’. The top compartment on the right-hand side of the trunk formed a kind of tray, filled with handkerchiefs and stockings neatly arranged.

In the middle of a pile of handkerchiefs Hadley found the second pen, together with a little gold box, the key in its lock, containing costume jewellery. He juggled the two pens in his hand, muttering. ‘This won’t do. Look here, Fell, what do you make of it? She was undoubtedly beginning to unpack the trunk when the murderer got her. She’d begin with the dresses – my wife always does, anyway, to see that they don’t crumple. But she had taken out only one dress and some shoes; the shoes apparently to change them, for she’s wearing bedroom slippers. The only other thing she removed was this red-ink fountain-pen, which was buried under a pile of handkerchiefs. Unless, of course. . . .’

commentary: John Dickson Carr and the woman’s touch again – see recent post on his short story The Clue of the Red Wig. This time, luggage from a sea voyage and shoes to be cleaned will feature. A very mixed party is staying in a smart hotel in London: a young man connected with the party gains access to a room and finds one of them dead. And of course the question is: who else could have got into the room? But there are also many inexplicable features connected with the room and the dead woman.

This is a complicated plot even by Carr standards: the whole cast then has to move to another house, a place where another death has lately occurred. There is a mysterious bracelet, a lot of whisky, a hotel porter in the wrong place, and an excellent graveyard scene.

My favourite weird moment is a memory of a very modern-seeming visit to a funfair, and a photo taken there of people going down a slide:
It was a group photograph some eight by ten inches, taken by one of those professionals who lie in wait at amusement resorts and persuade you to buy the photograph afterwards. Kent recognised it easily as being the inside of the ‘fun-fair’ at the Luna Park outside Durban. The picture was taken from the top of the broad platform of one of those big slides or chutes by which you sail down into darkness.
All the members of Dan’s crowd were standing at the top of the chute, most of them turning laughing faces towards the camera…
‘Who was being pushed down the slide?’

He looked at Dan, who nodded and said thoughtfully. ‘Yes, naturally I remember it. It was Jenny. She didn’t want to go down the chute; afraid she’d show her thighs or something; but I gave her a push.’

I don’t know – it just all sounds so un-1937 to me. It’s a scene that if a modern writer put it in a novel set in the past, I feel they might be criticized for anachronism. (One of my favourite things – see here for more.)

And the book is indeed set at a very specific time – the reason everyone can be sure there is limited access to the hotel floor (always essential in a Carr book) is that considerable renovations are taking place:
They haven’t finished installing the second lift. They’re working double-time to get all that floor ready in time for Coronation.
(of George VI, which was in May 1937).

And Carr always does a nice job with the women's appearances and clothes - for example this:

She looked – there is no other word for it – overbred, though the overbreeding seemed to have run to vitality rather than anaemia. You knew that her brown dress was an extreme in fashion less because it was so plain than because it was so completely right for her.

My friend Sergio did a great review of this book at his Tipping My Fedora blog (sadly no longer active, but past content still available), and gives fascinating details of a radio adaptation which I would love to hear.

Trunk illo is a cover from McCalls, via George Eastman House, and is from later than the setting of the book, but it is such a great picture…

The brown dress is from 1937, from the NYPL collection.


  1. I was thinking of The Clue of the Red Wig when I started reading this post, Moira. I do see the similarities (Carr was pretty good with women's routines). And this one sounds like quite a complex plot. Still, very weirdly interesting, and I'm glad you found things to enjoy.

    1. Thanks Margot - and I think you are right, it is something to watch out for in JDC's books. His women are always so interesting.

  2. I find the opening and the solution very memorable in this one, a lot of the events in-between have slipped my mind. But I do recall enjoying it.

    1. I strongly suspect that that is how I will think of it when a year or so has passed! But a good book all the same.

  3. Aha, I have two copies of this one. I have still only read one book by this author. But will read more.

    1. When I find I have two copies of something - which, yes, does happen - I really feel I am wearing down the TBR pile, it feels like an achievement to get rid of two at once!

  4. A bit warmer, but still not there yet, another pass.

    1. You will have to do JDC sooner or later with us all pushing him. Nothing in the tubs?


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