It’s cold outside, it’s dark outside — yes, thank-you, The Southern Hemisphere, no-one likes a smartarse — Christmas is over; time to battle through with some beloved authors. First up, and most beloved of them all despite a recent charge by Freeman Wills Crofts, Mr. John Dickson Carr and Dr. Gideon Fell, here engaged in no showy impossibilities but instead the sort of low-key case for which Carr doesn’t get enough credit. Where the relative simplicity of this might lead to this being overlooked, I’d argue that its restrained execution and structure are so brilliantly without flaw that the more easily you dismiss it the more you’re falling into the very trap it lays.
The plot is deceptively unshowy: High Court judge Horace Ireton’s daughter Constance becomes engaged to an undesirable sort in Tony Morell, and when Tony Morell turns up shot in the head in the judge’s house…whodunnit? We’re more in the idiom of The Emperor’s Snuff-Box (1942) than the confounding details of The Eight of Swords (1934), but where that former book drags a little at the detective’s investigation only has so many circles to go in, The Seat of the Scornful (1941) is constructed with a minute perfection in every regard, and shows an author at the very top of their game. There’s no attempt to distract you with the shiny tchotchke of a vanishing this or an intangible that, no enervating passages of moral encumbrance or research-rich heavy-handedness, it’s a simple problem enlivened by a few flourishes which all tie into the fabulously smart solution with every aspect considered.
Of course there are flashes of intrigue meant to entertain — the red sand found under the body is brilliant — but the most surprising thing here for many will be how little Carr leans into the perplexing oddness. It almost doesn’t seem possible that he would write something lacking any self-conscious bravura showmanship, and yet its absence of such will only make you appreciate how rich his plotting is. The tempting thing is to say “Well, it’s not as tight as Till Death Do Us Part (1944)…” or “It’s not as complex as The Burning Court (1937)…” but then the second you start to expand on that you realise how wrong that is — look at Fred Barlow’s journey through this, consider the whole thing only from the perspective of what he knows at any given time, and it’s obviously a genius piece of construction. Even the old “take you back in time 20 minutes” at the start of chapter 18 is played in a less ostentatious manner than in Nine – and Death Makes Ten (1940) but is equally as important for what it reveals rather than being literary showmanship of what he can do.
And it’s rooted in a group of characters who are felt pretty keenly from the outset: Horace Ireton himself is painted in savage strokes for his playing with the criminals he sentences, Morell clearly has a side to him we’re not going like, Constance is possibly one of the most stuck-up and unpleasant Bright Young Things to grace the page, and Fred Barlow’s journey from also-ran to romantic lead and beyond is played out in a nicely unconventional way that rings true throughout. And then there’s Gideon Fell, here in his fourteenth full length case, and about whom Carr still has the joy of writing things like:
Dr. Fell picked up his box-pleated cape from the sofa, swung it round his shoulders, and fastened it with the little chain. Wheezing with the labour or so much effort, he put on and adjusted his shovel-hat. Then, raising his stick in salute, and with a bow to Constance, which added several new ridges to his waistcoat, he blundered out through the French window. Father and daughter watched him go down the lawn, and make a sort of safe-breaking operation out of getting the gate open.
It becomes increasingly evident how much better this book is for being written by John Dickson Carr every time you come across such brilliant understatement, such as a character “shaking off a difficult role, like a man getting rid of an uncomfortable garment”, or the final line of the book — the intent behind which I’m not entirely sure I agree with, though there’s part of the fun. It’s interesting, too, that Fell is originally recruited into events in a sort of Parker Pyne-esque “Aunt Hester’s Department for the Lovelorn” role — something requiring the utmost tact, for which the good doctor is not exactly famous — even if that gets dropped PDQ once someone phones him on account of the dead body. Carr worked in an age of unparalleled invention in the detective plot, and had contemporaries capable of spinning yarns whose complexity would rend this linear in the extreme, but none of them could have sold the stark, almost stage-bound series of long takes this requires, and would relegate this same setup to a footnote in their own careers where it might just be near the pinnacle of Carr’s (in a career, let’s be clear, that does not lack for pinnacles).
It’s normally at this point that I include some links to other reviews that offer alternative perspectives, but looking around I can’t find one that doesn’t make a direct reference to something I’d recommend you not knowing — not all the same reference, I don’t mean that, but there are so many aspects to this that even a “Well, who’d’ve thought you’d need to know about…..?” hint would, in my humble opinion, already be knowing too much. You are, of course, more than welcome to source said reviews, but I’d recommend anyone who has not yet read this go into it with as little awareness of what it contains as possible — I do not wish to direct anyone to anything that might prepare you for any of what it contains. So on this occasion, for this reason, I shall refrain and simply offer the foregoing advice.