It doesn’t take far into Carr’s oeuvre before a reader begins to recognize the signposts. Here’s the meet-cute and there’s the first brief mention of the curse/legend/myth which will soon be tragically reenacted for our ghoulish pleasure. The foolish authority figure (not quite so foolish this time round), the suspicious relatives, and the blusterous authority of Dr. Fell all make their scheduled appearance. Yes, this is the debut for Gideon Fell and, as such, we get a bit more information about his passions than in later novels. Hag’s Nook was Carr’s fifth book, and perhaps I’m getting Carred-out, but it doesn’t hold up quite as well as the other early Carr I’ve read, It Walks By Night. Not that there isn’t much to love.
The Problem: The Starberth family have a long tradition serving as governors of Chatterham Prison. They also have a long tradition of mysterious broken necks. Next to (necks to–ha, i crack myself up) the prison is the chilling gully called Hag’s Nook where many a prisoner prayed for a quick death. The ancestral family will requires the eldest Starberth son to spend the evening of his 25th birthday in the governors room among the cobwebs, ivy, ghosts. Things…er…don’t work out so well.
It’s in the prison where Carr achieves his most creepy effects, Spiders swing from webs within an iron maiden’s mouth, windows are choked with nettles, and every room is mildewed and airless. It’s a wonderfully macabre setting. However, he did much more with much less effort in It Walks By Night. Perhaps it’s odd I would compare the two, but they are both very Poe inspired and heavily reliant on atmosphere and they were written two years apart.
The Investigation: I enjoyed the back and forth between Fell and Sir Benjamin. It comes of less of Fell lecturing (though he does) and more of two men working out the problem. They run through the possibility of mechanism with Fell giving a nice account of the requirements of Detective Fiction when it comes to mechanical devices — Some of the most far-fetched of the death traps have been real ones, like Nero’s collapsing ship, or the poisoned gloves that killed Charles VII. No, no. I don’t mind your being improbable. The point is that you haven’t any grounds to be improbable on. That’s where you’re far behind the detective stories. They may reach an improbable conclusion, but they get there on good sound improbable evidence that’s in plain sight. Truer words have rarely been spoken.
The clues are fair but obscure. There’s some confusion about fair play. One does not need to be able to solve a mystery for it to be fair, rather one must have the tools to solve it at his/her disposal. Arguing that no one can solve it is very different than arguing that the solution comes out of left field. Hag’s Nook plays fair, even dangling the evidence in ways that can easily be misinterpreted.
The Solution: It’s good enough, not terribly inspired but satisfying and well thought out. The villain of the piece takes on a tragic dimension that may not be supported in so far as we have not spent enough time with the ‘true’ him/her to process it. In other Carr books, he much more cleverly gave us the villain’s flaw in a quick (hidden) line or two.
Overall, I enjoyed Hag’s Nook, but I feel like it’s time to take a break from Carr. The House at Satan’s Elbow and Panic in Box C were not particularly enjoyable experiences, and I may be reading them too quickly. So, no Carr for a few months. Just as I say that, The Crooked Hinge is staring at me from a pile of books on my nightstand. Sigh.
Happy Thanksgiving to my American readers. And I guess…happy Thursday to everyone else. It’s kind of bland without all the food.