The Tuesday Night Bloggers, you’ll doubtless be aware, is an opt-in group of Golden Age crime fiction enthusiasts who look at the work of a different classic author each month. And with (Colonel) March being dedicated to John Dickson Carr – the single finest proponent of detective fiction ever to take up the craft, no arguments – I thought it about time I rolled up my sleeves and contributed something to this superb endeavour (also, two people asked me if I was going to get involved and I am nothing if not helpless in the face of my own vanity).
The difficulty is knowing quite where to start. I am an avowed disciple of Carr, but a lot of his work is still ridiculously out of print and so if I’m recommending something you then have to search for months to find it may dampen your enthusiasm for it somewhat. And then I remembered that the recently-published compendium of impossibilities that is The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked Room Mysteries contains two stories by Carr and that the second of these – ‘Blind Man’s Hood’, first published in 1938 under his Carter Dickson pseudonym – highlights much of what I love about his writing.
The setup is simple: a young couple arrive at the isolated country house of some friends for Christmas to find all the lights on and the doors open but no sign of habitation. After a brief period of confusion they are greeted by a young woman who explains the absence of everyone else, invites them in, and then proceeds to tell the story of the impossible murder that occurred in the house several decades before. It’s a creepy enough setup on its own, but many promising setups have been undone by the author’s inability to exploit them. What Carr does so brilliantly here, and he did throughout his career, is constantly juxtapose the contrasting sensory aspects in a way that exploits the setting beautifully and stirs up that atmosphere for which he was so rightly famous.
Now, of course, many authors have been rightly celebrated for their lexical versatility, but Carr contrasts his moods more beautifully than anyone I’ve yet read. Take this, as the couple in question investigate the open front door of the seemingly-deserted dwelling:
There was no reason to feel disquiet… That his footsteps should sound loud on the gravel was only natural. He put his head into the doorway and whistled. He then began to bang the knocker. Its sound seemed to seek out every corner of the house and then come back like a questing dog; but there was no response.
Oh, that semicolon! From amplifying even the quiet crunching of the gravel, the shrill whistle, the banging of the door knocker…and then to isolate that lack of response. And this hard upon the heels of an opening paragraph that highlights the relative mundanity of the scene within and then throws in, parentheses and all, ‘(At that time, of course, there was no dead woman lying inside.)’.
We are naturally disquieted ourselves, and all that is missing is a dolorous butler to add to the sense of oppression by hinting at some dark reason as to the absence of the expected part, at which point Carr introduces…a ‘pleasant-faced girl’ with ‘an air of primness’ not unlike ‘a governess or a secretary’. She explains the absence of the party quite naturally, quite easily, and the threat is dispelled. But then she begins to twitter about a murder and reassures the guests that “I am quite sane really,” and we’re back on our guard. It’s these casual shifts in tone, as easily as if they haven’t happened at all, that commend Carr so much. Not for him the jump scares, no sudden jarring to a halt of one flow and the groping desperately for a succeeding jolt to hold you fast. He simply drifts into and out of comforting and disquieting moods like a Sunday afternoon ghost train, and it is riveting to watch.
And so we have the cosy gathering around a warm fire at Christmas, but in a deserted and cold house absent of the expected friends; the garrulous and prim hostess entertaining the guests with a story, but one that involves foul murder and with moments that ‘turn her hearers cold’. Even the story within the story is a study in contrasts: the sudden flash of light in the darkness that brings the house to the attention of the passing witnesses, that snow-surrounded house – chestnuts, knitting resting on a chair, the expectation of Christmas gifts for the children – becoming the site of a terrible fire in which a young woman is burned and murdered, the figure in the game of Blind Man’s Bluff that can see so clearly in the gloom of the oil lamps when it itself is so uncertain a presence, even the game itself which turns in the space of three lines from harmless fun to something clearly far more sinister. And, of course, the eponymous hood used for that game, with its inevitable connection to the hangman’s noose, starting out as a ‘white bag’ but then becoming corrupted by a stain ‘seeping through’ as the mood turns irredeemably dark.
Yet even in his closing stages Carr maintains this easy shifting of contradictory tones, with the sense of threat, the supernatural overtones connected to the bay window that features so prominently, dismissed easily: ‘they now seemed innocent and devoid of harm. You could have put a Christmas tree there’. ‘Even the scars of the fire seemed gentle now’ we’re told in the finishing lines, and that sinister house now emits a ‘welcoming light’. And upon reading the final line, go back to the opening paragraph and tell me that you honestly believed the story could end that way. You, my friend, have just been played by a master.