Thursday, 25 February 2016

Book of 1933: The Mad Hatter Mystery by John Dickson Carr



published 1933








[A body has been found at the Tower of London]


Just before the beam of his flashlight moved down the steps, Rampole felt almost a physical nausea. Then he saw it…
The thing lay with its head near the foot of the stairs, on its right side, and sprawled as though it had rolled down the entire flight of steps. Philip Driscoll wore a suit of heavy tweed, with plus fours, golf stockings, and thick shoes….

The face was flung up towards them, just as the chest was slightly arched to show the bolt in the heart. White and waxy, the face was, with eyelids nearly closed; it had a stupid, sponged expression which would not have been terrifying at all but for the hat.

That opera hat had not been crushed in the fall. It was much too large for Philip Driscolle; whether it had been jammed on or merely dropped on his head, it came down nearly to his eyes, and flattened out his ears grotesquely…

 
Mad Hatter Mystery 3

[Later – a staff member is being questioned about Driscoll’s arrival at the Tower of London:]

‘What was his manner? Nervous? Upset?’

‘Very nervous and upset, sir.’

‘And how was he dressed?’

Cloth cap, light-brown golf suit, worsted stockings, club tie, sir. No overcoat.’
 
 
commentary: I’m a glutton for punishment where John Dickson Carr is concerned: he’s the chosen author for next month’s Tuesday Night Club, so I’ll be writing regular posts on him in March. But I couldn’t resist also choosing him for my book of 1933 for Rich Westwood’s Crimes of the Century meme over at his Past Offences blog.

I knew I had read this one before, a long time ago, and wasn’t sure what would come back to me. The answer is – one thing only, which is the explanation of what an opera hat is, and how it differs from a normal top hat. I could clearly remember the force of this revelation, even though it didn’t help me solve the murder.

FYI: an opera hat is a top hat that collapses in on itself for ease of carrying or storage – the ones that are so useful for visual jokes in slapstick films. That’s all. There is an absolutely splendid explanation of how they work over at the website of Culture Victoria – that’s where the hat pictures come from. The x-rays of the opera hat, below,  are some of the best images I’ve seen this year.

Mad Hatter Mystery 2
 Mad Hatter Mystery 4
 
 











And the whole issue reminds me of one of the splendid jokes in Terry Pratchett’s Maskerade (he was one of the great writers on opera…): the special witches’ opera hat, collapsing in on itself - see blog entry for details.

Anyway - most of this is fairly irrelevant to the book. A practical joker has been pinching striking hats around London and leaving them in noticeable places: in this case on a corpse. The hat thief is the least interesting part of the plot – I think you’d be hard put not to guess who is doing it, though it blends in nicely with other parts of the story.

The setting in the Tower of London should be exciting and compelling, but somehow doesn’t quite work out – it is very hard to visualize, oddly, compared with some of Carr’s other settings. The ‘locked room’ aspect that Carr fans love is not very well done here, though there is one good surprise at the end.

I liked the description of a woman
Well-dressed in dark clothes of the sort called ‘sensible’; which word, as in its usual context, means an absence of charm.
Other incidental joys were the character, above, called Rampole – so close to John Mortimer’s Rumpole. And, of all unlikely things, this:
‘And I, ma’am,’ said Dr Fell, ‘am the walrus, you see…’
Who’d’ve thought?

The morality of the ending is highly questionable.

So – enjoyable enough, but not in the JDC top ten…. (As curated by my friend Sergio over at Tipping My Fedora.)






















16 comments:

  1. I like Carr's work, Moira, so was glad to see you chose one for this year. I know exactly what you mean about finding it difficult to get a good visual image of a scene or a place. I think that's important to a novel, and if it's not there, the scene really is less. Still, this sounds like a decent enough Carr (I confess it's one I haven't read).

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    1. He wrote so many - I wonder if anyone has read them all! I was confident there would still be plenty to write about for the Tuesday Night Club if I did this one now. And he's allowed an off day...

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    2. MAD HATTER MYSTERY is good, but not quite in the inner circle. I personally believe that he didn't quite hit his stride until the mid-'30s. The plotting is good, but JDC had only moved to England that year, and it still feels a little bit like a tourist talking about the country rather than a resident. The background still has to come into focus.

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    3. that's a very good description. And it's not that it's bad - it's just that we know he can do really outstanding books. What are your favourites?

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    4. THE HOLLOW MAN/HE WHO WHISPERS/THE CROOKED HINGE/THE EMPEROR'S SNUFF BOX/THE DEVIL IN VELVET/THE JUDAS WINDOW/THE READER IS WARNED/CURSE OF THE BRONZE LAMP/CASE OF THE CONSTANT SUICIDES/A GRAVEYARD TO LET. I like a lot of others, but these seem to be quintessential Carr. His best, which fall roughly between the mid-30s and the mid-50s have that quality where you have to turn the page to find out what's happens next. I'm very fond of his short story collection THE DEPARTMENT OF QUEER COMPLAINTS with Colonel March as the detective. In that book, though, is one of my favourite Carr short stories BLIND MAN'S HOOD. It's an honest to goodness ghost story, but also a fair-play detective story,which is something that I've never seen done anywhere else.

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    5. thanks, that's really good, I can print out your list! I actually have about 25-30 books by him, I used to pick up 2nd-hand copies very cheaply, and quite often I read of one and then find to my surprise that I do have a copy, so now I will check out which of your list I have...

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  2. Been ages and ages since I read this one - truly whetted my appetite for the Tuesday to come Moira - (and thanks for the generous mention too).

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    1. Thanks Sergio, and yes, I'm looking forward to everyone's pieces on JDC. And reading some of the very best ones...

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  3. That is great information about the opera hat. So cool. I would like to say I will read a Carr book soonish, but I have so many others I want to read more right now. But someday.

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    1. Thanks, I was so pleased to discover all that, and I just love the X-rays!

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  4. Moira, I have been meaning to read John Dickson Carr since I read about his books on Sergio's blog. I can't imagine what I have been missing.

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    1. Once you start you'll have to read them all Prashant - and there's loads of them...

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  5. I'm definitely going to read Carr as soon as the year of the couple I have coincide with Rich's monthly meme.

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    1. That's a really good idea. He's always my fallback for Rich, because he wrote SO MUCH, just about a book a year for a long long time.

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  6. The morality of the ending is highly questionable.

    AND hats? Okay, now I have to read this.

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    1. You are a woman after my own heart...

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