[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…
[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.
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.)