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.