Death Turns the Tables (John Dickson Carr)

  • By John Dickson Carr
  • First published: US, Harper, 1941; UK, Hamish Hamilton, 1942, as The Seat of the Scornful

Rating: 4 out of 5.

One of the very few successful attempts to combine the problem of detection with the novel of character, and a simple and straightforward case without the nervous hysteria of which Carr was becoming so unfortunately fond at this time (c.f. Seeing is Believing, also 1941). Superb presentation of a severe cat-and-mouse judge who finds himself suspected of murder, until Dr. Fell solves the case in remarkably short time, discovering it to be an almost-perfect murder: although the murderer is known, their guilt cannot be proved.

Blurb (US)

One of England’s “Big Four” mystery writers, recognized as a top-notch mystery writer on both sides of the Atlantic, Carr has here outdone his best previous efforts.

Judge Horace Ireton didn’t care twopence about the law.  He was interested only in justice, and justice as he saw it was swift and sure, and not tempered with mercy.  That his methods were often condemned as cat and mouse tactics was no concern of his, for he had no doubt of the rightness of his judgments.

To Dr. Gideon Fell, that jovial, black-caped bundle of eccentricities, it seemed the height of irony when a murder in Ireton’s own home suddenly put the Justice on the mouse instead of the cat end of the game.  For Horace Ireton was discovered with a pistol in his hand, standing over the dead body of his prospective son-in-law, whom he had no reason to love.

There were other suspects of course – as engaging a group of the rascally and respectable as Dr. Fell had ever had the pleasure of matching wits with – but it was clear that the police liked Mr Justice Ireton for the role of murderer very much indeed.  Only his eminence made them hesitate before they pounced.  Then Dr. Fell, drawing some startling deductions, completely confounded police and suspects alike, and in the most irregular and brilliant coup of his career, proved that he could beat a most unorthodox murderer at his own game.

Contemporary reviews

Springfield Republican (4th January 1942, 200w): The solution remains improbable; which does not, however, detract from its grip on the reader’s attention.  However, in the end there is a gross miscarriage of British justice, for the high-placed murderer escapes the usual penalty for his crime.  Someone should speak sharply to Mr. Carr about this; after all, the movies and the detective story are almost the only two places left where we can expect villainy to get its come-uppance and justice to emerge triumphant.  In this one respect, then, ‘I do not like you Dr. Fell’; otherwise Death Turns the Tables ranks among the author’s distinguished best.

Sat R of Lit (10th January 1942, 40w): Although not quite up to some earlier Fell feats, bulky doctor’s personality carries off yarn pretty well.  Diverting.

NY Herald Tribune Books (Will Cuppy, 11th January 1942, 480w): No use talking, Dr. Gideon Fell has few if any equals in the detecting racket, as he proves once more in this case of the fatal shooting at Mr. Justice Ireton’s seaside bungalow.

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 11th January 1942, 140w): This story is not quite up to the Dr. Fell standard, but it is well worth your attention.

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Willson Disher, 2nd May 1942): In three weeks three Judges of the High Court have had murder to upset their private lives in the detective stories of Mr. Cyril Hare, Mr. Phillips Oppenheim and now Mr. Dickson Carr.  If these resemblances, which keep recurring in fiction, cannot be dismissed as the sport of chance, then some ominous rumblings against law and order may be signified by this disrespectful spirit.  That is for soothsayers to decide.  Such carefree souls as book-reviewers cannot but be pleased by the contrasts of style and method, strictly forensic with Mr. Hare, highly romantic with Mr. Oppenheim and perplexingly problematic with Mr. Carr.  Not that The Seat of the Scornful is content merely to puzzle: there is no missing the moral that even a judge must take a little notice of “judge not that ye be not judged” yet entertainment comes first.  Scotland Yard men should keep this book for its tips on how policemen should deport themselves when questioning a Judge of the High Court.  In these pages the inspector is without fear and beyond reproach.

New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 13th June 1942): Mr. Dickson Carr has also tried to draw a portrait of a High Court Judge, but it would be mere mockery to compare it with Mr. Hare’s.  In The Seat of the Scornful, Mr. Justice Ireton, after complacently sentencing a man to death at the local assizes, is found by the police holding a revolver opposite the body of a man he has every reason to wish dead.  A nasty set-up for a Judge, who is a hearty believer in circumstantial evidence!  If that were not enough, the Judge has just had the temerity to defeat Dr. Fell at chess, so you can imagine to what stupendous lengths Mr. Carr will go to put him on the spot.  Stupendous is the word.  I have never known even Mr. Carr outrage the credibilities so barefacedly.  Fortunately, if his psychology goes from bad to worse, his narrative style improves, as the years roll by, and this cat’s cradle of nonsense is delightfully readable.