Monday, April 14, 2014

The Man Who Could Not Shudder - John Dickson Carr

US 1st edition (Harper, 1940)
In slowly working my way through the works of John Dickson Carr I think I may have found a book to surpass the devilry and ingenuity of He Who Whispers as my favorite of Carr’s books. The Man Who Could Not Shudder (1940) is an intriguing mystery that not only features Carr’s most frequent recurring motif (a haunted house or haunted room) it presents two of the most ingenious impossible murders in the Carr (and Dickson) books I have read so far.

Martin Clarke is planning a weekend house party in which he hopes to show his guests the paranormal phenomena that pervade Longwood House, his newly acquired home with a reputation for fatal hauntings. Seems in the past a butler inexplicably grabbed hold of a chandelier and was killed when it came crashing down from the ceiling and landed on top of him. There have been reports also of furniture leaping out at visitors. The grandfather clock in the hallway supposedly stopped at the precise time the first owner, Norbert Longwood, died. And centuries ago Longwood himself was supposedly seen sitting by the fireplace the night after he was placed in his coffin. Clarke is ready for an all out ghost party and hopes to count among his guests a lawyer, a scientist, an architect, a spiritualist, and a priest. Clarke inadvertently invites danger to the house, too. Instead of fun and games with ghosts and poltergeists he has a weekend of violence. One of Clarke’s guests is horribly murdered and it seems that a ghost was responsible.

Benton Logan is found shot dead in a study in which an antique gun collection has been mounted to the wall above a fireplace. His young wife had entered the room just prior to the murder and swears she saw a gun jump off the wall and fire in midair. No one was in the room but she and her husband yet she was nowhere near the gun nor was her husband. Is it a possible that a ghost picked the gun off the wall mounting and fired it at her husband?

Gideon Fell shows up along with the police to help sort out the real from the illusion. Is there genuine psychic phenomena at work? Is Longwood House a cursed home inhabited by the ghost of a 19th century man rumored to have been involved in witchcraft? Or is it all the work of fiendish human hands adept at fanciful trickery?

UK 1st edition (Hamish Hamilton, 1940)
And remember that tale of the butler who went swinging on the chandelier only to have it become his deathtrap? There will be a chilling echo of that mysterious death and other threats and near murderous attacks before the mysteries are all rationally solved and the ghosts are put to rest. The solution when it comes is one of Carr’s most ingenious and gasp inducing finales. There are three obscure clues planted in plain view that can lead to an understanding of what exactly is going on in Longwood House, but only the most astute readers will catch them.

If you like your detective novels bizarre and puzzling, if the miracle problem or impossible murder is to your liking The Man Who Could Not Shudder will be right up your alley. The abundance of baffling situations will satisfy even the most demanding reader. It’s the kind of book that makes a true fan of detective novels want to give the author a standing ovation.

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Reading challenge update: Golden Age Bingo Card, space G4 -- "A Locked Room Mystery". I prefer the umbrella term "impossible crime" under which all "locked room" mysteries fall. Not all impossible crimes have a genuine locked room, but they are all related to the same subgenre.

13 comments:

  1. You make this sound irresistible, John. Well, I KNOW I read all of the John Dickson Carr books I could get my hands on once upon a time. Back then, there were plenty of them available at the library as well as paperbacks at the regular bookstore. Not so much now, that's for sure. Still, I can't seem to remember any of the Carr books I read except for the one that features Skull Island. Don't ask. I don't know the answer. My brain refuses to cooperate. At any rate, this one sounds like a lot of fun. Thanks for the re-intro or for that matter, the intro.

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  2. My great-grandparents had a grandfather clock that stopped working when my great-grandfather died. It was presumed by the skeptical adults in the family that it was because he wasn't around to wind it. On the anniversary of his death, it started working again (can vouch for this, though I was only ten). None of this has anything much to do with your fine review, but I was reminded of it, and I hadn't thought about the story since I was a girl.

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  3. I didn't quite like He Who Whispers, John, but this seems irresistible. Now to go hunting for it....

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  4. I have to be really careful and ration Carr / Dickson books as I just hate the idea of running out of new ones - I still have about 8 or so to be read - this one I am glad to say I remember reading a very long time ago but not in such detail that I remember the ending so you've really made me want to go and pick this one up - yay! Thank sJohn, you're the best (I mean both John D and John F)

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    1. Gee, I sure envy people who have unread Carr novels remaining that they can enjoy. I finished the list in my early 30s by tracking down the last few, rarities like "The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey" and "Papa La Bas" (neither worth a moment of your time, frankly) and now I wish I could go back and scrub my memory of the solutions so I could enjoy them all again!
      My own favourite is "The Red Widow Murders" but perhaps that's because I read it as a young teenager in the early Pocket Books edition with the evocative cover ... I doubt it would stand up to intense scrutiny today, but gee I sure loved that creepy scary book!
      This entry, TMWCNS, I read at a point when I was wise to Carr's tricks and knew where to look, so I didn't really enjoy it as much, I think. And I didn't care for the abrupt and explosive ending, it kind of made me think of the old "Suddenly they were all run over by a truck the end."

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    2. I began collecting JDC in hardcover first editions back in the late 1990s when I grew nostalgic for his style of mystery that no one seemed to want to write anymore. I have almost all his books now. His books weren't in print in the late 1970s when I first discovered him. Since we had only two bookstores in my hometown neither of which sold used books, I had to borrow copies of Carr’s books from friends who had old vintage PBs or resort to my library which had only titles from the 1950s and 1960s. I only returned to Carr when I missed his unique brand of mystery novel and realized that I still had never read the best of his books.

      To date here's my tally of books yet to read:

      Bencolin – 2
      Dr. Fell – 5
      Non-Series – 5
      Historical mysteries – 7
      Merrivale – 9
      And last but not least… The Bowstring Murders

      I thought the ending of this book was perfectly operatic for a story that was brimming with over-the-top fantastical elements. There were a few things that I figured out (many of the characters are liars and that's always easy to get) but he fooled me with the solution. Had I done what I intended to do -- gone to Google the moment that list of names came up -- I would've had the story ruined. I'm glad I just went along for the ride. This is the kind of Carr book I crave. I am also a fan of Death Turns the Tables because the circumstances surrounding the murder are so utterly loopy and yet it's one of his most somber and serious books.

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    1. It certainly is, Loren. How are you? Where've you been? So glad to have you leaving a comment here.

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  6. I have quite a few but not this one or He Who Whispers. I will be on the hunt for them now! I love the covers!

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    1. If you ever want a recommendation on which JDC books to read first let me know, Peggy Ann. I have a "Best of JDC" and "Best of Carter Dickson" list. One of the few lists of "Best Mystery" lists I maintain.

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  7. John, I do like my detective novels "bizarre and puzzling," and if John Dickson Carr's stories are as engrossing as this one is, thanks to your review, then I must start reading his novels right away. I haven't read a single one till date and I wouldn't mind accepting your offer to Peggy Ann. Many thanks, John.

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  8. I liked this one a lot, also reviewed it on my blog, noting a certain relation to John Street (John Rhode):

    http://thepassingtramp.blogspot.com/2012/06/carr-talk-four-capsule-carr-reviews.html

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  9. That UK 1st edition cover is awesome. This (and He Who Whispers) were two of my earliest Carrs--they were so good they got me hooked. They are also two that I should go back and reread since they came pre-blogging and I have no decent review of them.

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