#481: The Seat of the Scornful, a.k.a. Death Turns the Tables (1941) by John Dickson Carr

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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).

Indeed, given the richness of the books which surround this — The Problem of the Green Capsule (1939), The Reader is Warned (1939), Nine – and Death Makes Ten (1940), The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941), The Emperor’s Snuff-Box (1942), She Died a Lady (1943), Till Death Do Us Part (1944), He Who Whispers (1946)…holy shit, the same person wrote all these and more in a seven year stretch — you’d be fully justified in feeling it’s only a minor Carr; more notable than And So to Murder (1940), perhaps, but not by much.  I’d urge you to reconsider, and will probably put this in my top ten Carrs (along with the 14 other books that belong there) once I have the authority to make such a list.  A masterpiece, pure and simple.

~

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.

66 thoughts on “#481: The Seat of the Scornful, a.k.a. Death Turns the Tables (1941) by John Dickson Carr

  1. This is currently the bottom book on my Carr TBR pile. I had heard a few positive comments and figured I’d go out on a high note. Who knows if I’ll move things around though. Thanks for a spoiler free review!

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    • It’s so nice to come across such a surprisingly brilliant book without having expected it (which, yeah, I have now taken away from anyone who reads this — well, such are the privileges of writing 4,500 words a week…) — it’s hugely undershowy and just gets on with the job in the way that Carr at his best does. None of the “spice it up” second murder nonsense of Wire Cage, none of that “hang on, that doesn’t quite fit…” of Peacock Feather…it’s just sleek, perfectly constructed, and worth knowing nothing else about. You’ll enjoy it, especially as you’d already heard such good things.

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  2. Ooh, a five-star review! 🤩 But your comment about how it deserves a spot, together with fourteen other Carr titles, in your top ten rankings has once again caused my coherent universe to crack. I’m chuffed I’ve reserved this as my penultimate foray into Fell, before I lay my hands on ‘He Who Whispers’. BUt I have to navigate my way through ‘Dark of the Moon’ and ‘Arabian Nights’ first. 😑

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    • Controversy alert: I like this more than he Who Whispers. I might even like it more than (ahem) She Died a Lady, but since that’s up in a couple of books I’ll probably reread it just to make sure.

      And, hey, two-thirds…well, maybe a half…of Arabian Nights is great, it just gets dragged down by Carr’s enthusiasm to add factor after factor to his plot and ends up more turgid than I think even he could fix. That first half is golden, however, and contains some of the best jokes he ever put on the page.

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      • Controversy alert: I’m not overly-fond if “She Died a Lady”. 😅 Many bloggers/commenters put it in their top five Carr/Dickson novels – but I think I’ll put it in the bottom five if I ever compile a top ten ranking.

        Then again, I read it alongside “Till Death Do Us Part” – which still occupies the number one spot for my non-existent Carr/Dickson ranking – and suffered by comparison. I certainly think it’s a class above “Judas Window” – another controversy alert – but it doesn’t compete with Carr’s very best.

        Maybe I should leave “Death Turns the Tables” as my final foray into Fell? How the mighty have fallen – for “He Who Whispers”, usually in many bloggers’ top five, to be weaker than a novel that you consider as merely slightly better than “And So to Murder”. 😱

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        • Oh, don’t misunderstand — I’m not saying that I think this is merely slightly better than And So to Murder, I’m saying that people might dismiss this as such when in fact it’s a far richer experience than it might first appear. There’s a lack of trying to impres here which would lead to it being overlooked on account of how well it just gets on and does its thing, but it’s a piece of construction up there with Till Death in my estimation.

          Though I shall now have over-hyped it and you’ll end up disappointed, so perhaps read it sooner rather than later 😆

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  3. Glad you are back from the brink JJ. There is more joy in heaven over one who repents than over ninety-nine who have never strayed.

    I have never even seen a copy of this.

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    • I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it until the sun explodes and destroys much of the known universe: we shall never see his like again. A great many people have written, and will go on to write, a huge number of absolutely wonderful — some completely flawless — books, but no-one will ever replicate the levels of invention, skill, insight, productivity, bald talent, and masterful handling of prose that Carr did together over at least three decades.

      Liked by 1 person

        • I thought of writing about the ABC Murders adaptation and then…well, then I read Puzzle Doctor’s own post on the subject, thought “Yup, that pretty much sums up my feelings” and so thought better of it.

          It was (the show, not Doc’s post)…fine. There was way too much padding and far too liberal a hand with what qualifies as detection, but Malkovich was good and I liked the framing of Poirot as a has-been — beyond that, I can’t quite summon the will to say too much about it.

          Apologies, Sergio, the BBC will have to do far better — or, heaven forfend, worse — if they want me to hold forth for 2,000 words!

          Liked by 1 person

  4. I have an adorable old pb copy of this on my shelf. Haven’t read it before, and I’m glad you liked it so much, BUT . . .

    I do believe somebody ruined this for me, a frequent commenter on my blog, who wittily made a comparison that gave the whole game away. Why, oh why, do people do this?!? 😤😤😤

    But that is why I have kept away from this one, on the impossible chance I might forget the spoilage . . .

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    • Yes, I remember that…and yet it didn’t spoil my enjoyment precisely because of how darn smartly put together it is.

      And, hey, if it makes you feel any better, I’m currently reading a book with you — yes, youBradley Aloysius Friedman — spoiled for me, so karma, or something. No, hang on, karma would be if I’d been the one to do something wrong…hmmm.

      Godammit it, it’s 2019, can we all just be a bit more careful with spoilers?

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      • This same desire might be why I recently put aside a half-finished post on Roger Ackroyd. I mean, what do you talk about?

        I don’t recall spoiling any book for you, certainly not The D.A. Calls a Turn, which I have not read. You, sir, were never supposed to bring up Aloysius. So we’re even . . .

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        • It’s apt that you CAN’t REMEMBER spoiling a book for me, given your ELEPHANTine memory…perhaps you’re in denial?

          I always throught Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? by Pierre |Bayard would make an interesting post, but then I started reading it and found it astonishingly hard going. Dunno what happened to my copy, but perhaps I should dig it out of the heap…

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            • Someone spoiled Roger Ackroyd for me in a very kind way, by — long before I’d ever picked up any detective fiction — using the ending as an example of something that a book had done to catch people unawares. Obviously it had to fulfil a basic criterion to do this, and from that point on I suspected every book with a f____ p_____ n______ until I eventually stumbled across it. So it was only really semi-spoiled, and I got a lot of surprises from books I’d been wrongly suspecting…

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            • Okay, so it turns out that Brad didn’t spoil Elephants Can Remember…fascinatingly, in an aptly GAD manner, Brad said (well, typed) something and I read those exact words in an entirely different manner…expect a novel with this exact development no time soon.

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            • To explain, you’d talked about a c_____ m______ in that book, which made me think that a c_____ was the m______ — not that someone else was a c______ m________. As misdirection goes, it’s something with which Christie would have been delighted!

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            • A man is in a room with a TV. He turns it on and changes the channel, without leaving his chair or even touching the TV! How is this startling Impossibility achieved??

              There. I just ruined a terrible book by a famous GAD author.
              You are welcome!

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            • Aha! It was the way you referred to that book as “terrible” that threw me — clearly just throwing people off the scent, eh?

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            • De nada. It had me looking for somethig that wasn’t there, and may even have increased my enjoyment as a result — so I did pretty well out of it!

              In fact, the same thing happened (with someone else spoiling it) with Murder at the Vicarage, now I think about it. Hmmm, so maybe the spoiler I’ve been told about Curtain (“X is the killer!”) will end up enhancing that, too…

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  5. I read this a long time ago and, as ever, my memory of it is hazy in the extreme. I think I came to it having read that it was just moderate, nothing special and probably sped through it with those thoughts in place. I have the impression that I came away from it quite satisfied but that’s as much as I can say.

    I have a few copies of this book – at least one hardback under the Death Turns the Tables title, and that Pan paperback you featured here – perhaps one of the coolest covers ever from a publisher whose output offers plenty of healthy competition on that score.

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    • Yes, this Pan cover is indeed spectacular, and I’m delighted with how it appears in the header of this review — couldn’t have framed it better if I’d tried.

      As for the book…honestly. part of me dislikes giving 5-star reviews because it raises the expectations for people who only remember things vaguely and so might then go back to a novel with heightened preconceptions which it won’t then meet. Much more fun to give 2- and 3-star reviews that at least challeneg the accepted qualities of something, or leave people a lot of room for their own thoughts — but then who really rushes out to read a 2-star book? And they’re nowhere near as much fun to read.

      The only way around this is to stop reviewing altogether and write, like, a mood poem for each book or something…

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      • I shouldn’t worry. If you feel a book hits the spot in the important categories, then you should of course rate it highly. That’s your interpretation of it, which is as much as anyone can offer. I may not recall much about the book (anything?) but I do know I wasn’t disappointed, and I don’t think I’ve ever read a recommendation from someone that annoyed me if my subsequent view didn’t match up.

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        • I dunno, Colin, I’m coming round to the idea of a mood poem more and more:

          Suspense
          The air is chilled —
          the body? Of course, it bleeds…
          And lumbering Fell
          no stumbling, shall
          be encumbering…well
          Nonsense
          A man’s been killed —
          And there are far too many leads…

          Yeah, okay, maybe I’ll just stick to prose after all.

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  6. I don’t think I had ever read anything about this one – certainly the title doesn’t ring any bells – so it is quite exciting to see you give it five stars. Time to make an interlibrary loan request…

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  7. Just like Colin, I have read Death Turns the Tables years ago and my memorable needs to be refreshed to give a proper judgment on this one, but you’re probably right it deserves more attention. It beautifully demonstrates Carr proficiency with a non-impossible crime mystery showing he didn’t need a locked room gimmick to prop up his plots. They were just fun to use. However, I do think The Emperor’s Snuff-Box is Carr’s best non-impossible.

    I believe Death Turns the Tables rarely gets the credit it deserves, as a detective novel, is that many readers object to Dr. Fell allowing to let the pall of suspicion hang over an innocent person. I have seen the book being referred to, on the old JDC forum, as Death Turns the Stomach.

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    • B-but — and I’m veering close to spoilers here — the innocent person you refer to was…

      seriously, spoiler-adjacent talk now, everyone who hasn’t read this book look away now

      …in in that, weren’t they? The whole arrest was an attempt to force the murderer’s hand — the top of my page 189, right at the end, spells this out starynig with “Shall I tell you what I think?”… Or am I missing something?

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      • Sorry for the late response, but have to reread the book to give you an answer. I just remember it was a complaint that was brought up more than once in the mid-2000s. But, hey, this wouldn’t be the first time mystery readers in 2010s vehemently disagreed with those from 2000s (see Ellery Queen).

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  8. “A great many people have written, and will go on to write, a huge number of absolutely wonderful — some completely flawless — books, but no-one will ever replicate the levels of invention, skill, insight, productivity, bald talent, and masterful handling of prose that Carr did together over at least three decades.”

    That’s a suitable epitaph for JDC.

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  9. This is a lovely surprise!! Can’t wait to get to it, and glad that you saw it as an upping of Snuff Box as I totally loved that book but it was so easy to through. So the fact that this might have that clear, clean, lush plotting and be a smasher of an ending too is very exciting. Will Carr ever cease to surprise us!?!

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  10. In 2014 Sergio was planning a poll on the best of John Dickson Carr. He asked for us for a list of our 10 favorite JDC books, including all the Carter Dickson titles. Then we were to vote on them and he would compile the Top Ten. I was the only person to list Death Turns the Tables (aka Seat of the Scornful) in my Top 10. It never made the final ten after all the votes were counted, it wasn’t even a runner up. I don’t think anyone had read it and if they had certainly no one seemed to value it much. But I feel vindicated to have someone like yourself — the apparent leader of this new group of avid JDC readers — rate it as highly as I did.

    This was the first Carr book I reviewed on my blog back in January 2011 and its also one of the shortest posts, long before I turned into an egghead literary critic who continues to write 1500+ word essays. I’ve regularly recommended it to Carr newbies as one of his best and suggest as it as an introduction to Carr as contains a little bit of all of Carr’s trademarks. The controversial ending makes it all the more significant.

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    • John, I didn’t even know it was possible to review something in less than 1,000 words 😀 You’re in good company on that score.

      As I suggest up top, I can only think that this is ignored because it’s surrounded by so many other totemic Carr titles — some of which have been reprinted fairly recently (in Carrian terms, I mean — Suicides, Snuff-Box, Lady, Whispers have all been in print this century from Rue Morgue, Langtail, and ebook). Somehow, like Till Death Do Us Part, which seems to have enjoyed a resurgence in reputation recently, it just got lost in the melee of all the other brilliance Carr produced. But no longer — it’s a wonderful book and I’ll be beating the drum for it and the other neglected wonders like Punch and Judy as loudly as I can.

      But nervous about the notion of being the leader of anything, though, to be honest. Can’t we put Sergio in charge? I know he’s not blogging any more, but I think we’d all be far more comfortable with Sergio at the head of this thing…

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      • Well, I guess my choice of verbs makes it sound like it never happened. I should’ve written: “Sergio asked us for our favorite titles, many of us complied. He then selected the most popular titles from those many lists, and then we voted on them again to determine the Top Ten Favorites among the vintage crime blogging community back then.” And I should’ve added a link.

        Thanks, JJ, for supplying that courtesy for all those new readers who didn’t take part in that poll back in 2014.

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  11. Oh I wonder if my review in 2016 is one you consider spoiler-esque? I just re-read it (ie my review) and was plunged into memories of the book, and my completely split decision: as a crime plot, excellent, but as a work of art, deplorable. I had strong objections to the moral framework, but plainly no-one else agrees with me, as no-one else mentions any such thing!

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    • Oh, Moira, it’s nothing personal — I looked at yoiurs, Puzzle Doctor’s, Martin Edwards’, a few more…everyone mentioned something I thought it better to leave to the reader to discover…but that’s probably me being over-cautious.

      I’ve been having conversations on facebook about the moral element — it’s a deeply interesting note on which to structure and end the plot, and I think the fact that Carr made it so grey is one of the strengths of the book overall. Playing too safe would, I feel, just make this bland come the end, and blandness in all respects is the one thing I’m delighted this avoided!

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      • Just coming back to the GAD blogs after Christmas break! I have to say, I don’t see the moral element of the conclusion as a strength at all… in my book, at the end of the story [name redacted] has a choice between doing what is clearly the right thing and doing the wrong, and chooses the wrong. There are other Carr and Dickson books where a character faces a similar choice and makes the same kind of decision, yet in most of those instances there is some sort of case to be made in favour of it. Here? I just don’t see what the argument is for… well, I’m keeping it vague, but if you’ve read the book, you know. I’m sure Carr was trying to take things into a morally grey area, but for me, he just didn’t pull it off. It left a bad taste in my mouth when I first read Scornful, in spite of all the brilliance that preceded it.

        I have a couple of other reservations, but I can’t talk about them without becoming maddeningly elliptical, or venturing into spoiler land. I think I need to write my own review, prefaced by a warning that I’m going to spoil things!

        I agree that that Pan cover is terrific. I’m glad that was the edition that fell into my hands when I first read it.

        Carr didn’t have as much trouble as Christie did with his American publishers giving books different titles from the British… but who on earth thought Death Turns the Tables was a better title than The Seat of the Scornful? Maybe someone who thought every mystery has to have Death or Murder in the title?

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        • Fair enough, to each their own. There’s a Christie book where the same [sort of] thing happens and I’ve always felt it was a little weird — like, a bunch of people are aware of what’s just gone on and now…well, the things that happens happens, and I remember thinking “That’s IT?!?!!?? Isn’t anyone going to, like, do something?!”.

          And, yes, Death Turns the Tables is one of the most baffling variant titles yet devised — could not apply less to this novel, while also sounding like a Mike Shayne outing… 😀

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