The heart of John Dickson Carr’s The Crooked Hinge – previously voted the fourth-best impossible crime of all time – is this: a man standing alone at the edge of a pond surrounded by sand has his throat slit, and the two witnesses who had him in their sight both swear no-one was anywhere near him at the time. It is, of course, impossible. But then the incidence of that which cannot be done is the bailiwick of Dr. Gideon Fell… Something a little different this week, as two venerable gentlemen of the blogosphere – Puzzle Doctor of In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, and Sergio of Tipping My Fedora – have kindly agreed to allow me to append my thoughts to their own joint review of this title from last year by way of providing some alternative perspectives on what is a hotly-debated topic: just how classic is The Crooked Hinge?
Well, it’s not perfect. I’m with the Doctor in his enthusiasm for the opening section – this really was the golden age of Carrian setups – and can’t disagree with his summation that “the automaton is brought in for no real plot purpose except to give a hint as to howdunit” (though Sergio here counters saying “it provides a strong interpretative key to understanding the murderer’s mind set”, which might be a little generous). Quite unlike anyone else, though, Carr was able to take a myriad of tones and shades and ingredients and mix them into a surprisingly tasty witches’ brew, and here, gracefully incorporating the tragedy of the Titanic into the background of his scheme, he has what Sergio calls “an embarrassment of riches”. There’s a real love of the macabre there, brought out through Carr’s wonderful turns of phrase:
Page seemed to hear a faint hiss as legal axes began to grind; as forensic sleeves were rolled up; as the conversation was being geared to the pace these gentlemen would have it take…
You can’t help but look for the threads woven throughout, though Carr’s talent at throwing dust in your eyes isn’t quite in full evidence here as it is rather talky at times (again, I’m with the Doctor on this one – though it’s nowhere near as unbalancing as, say, The White Priory Murders, which takes a wonderful set of ideas and buries them under a landslide of stultifying conversation). Sergio is right to cite the mid-novel inquest as a particular highlight (it really is an excellent reveal), but equally Puzzle Doctor’s contention that “[w]hen events pick up a little towards the end, it’s only due to some bizarre behaviour on the part of the villain” can’t really be disputed – that whole sub-sub plot really adds very little to the book overall except what Carr himself calls ‘a love-scene of outstanding incoherence’.
And then we come to the end. Now, you can’t argue that there is a cheat, and Puzzle Doctor’s case that the solution “comes out of virtually nowhere” is a strong one (consider that circle of sand, and the marks which could have been found there…that would have been very interesting). Carr is arguably aware of this, though, with Fell grousing early on:
“Above all, there is an almost complete absence of material clues: no cufflinks, cigarette ends, theater ticket stubs, pens, ink, or paper. H’mf.”
Puzzle Doctor’s not a fan of this particular revelation, Sergio is more so, and honestly I absolutely love the answer to the impossibility. It is very novel, and very memorable, and will probably irritate as many people as it delights, but for me it just works. There is such a miasma of the nightmarish throughout this book – with its hallucinogenic witches’ covens and the core dilemma at the heart of its identity plot – that the method slips fantastically into the morass. Put it this way: imagine being the victim immediately before his demise, consider it from his point of view and how completely that suits the tone of the book you’ve just read, and hopefully you’ll see what I mean.
I certainly side more with Sergio on this, and agree when he says “[b]ecause of the many beguiling elements and the sheer cleverness of its conceit, I would rank Crooked Hinge highly”. He places it among the second-tiers Fells, I’d rank it among the second-tiers Carrs overall (where I’d also consign – controversy alert – The Judas Window, which I don’t love as much as everyone else seems to). As the good Doctor says, “when you’ve got books like Till Death Do Us Part, He Who Whispers and The Black Spectacles to compare it to, this comes up short”. Had Carr not written those books, would we consider this more highly? Or would he not even have been allowed to get away with it in the first place? Well, thankfully we’ll never have to find out.