Death-Watch (John Dickson Carr)

By John Dickson Carr

First published: UK, Hamish Hamilton, 1935; US, Harpers, April 1935

Blurb (US)

Carr - Death-Watch US.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Johannus Carver had just finished making a large steel clock for Sir Edward Paull’s country house.  His own home in Lincoln’s Inn Fields was filled with strange guests, and when some one stole the hands of the clock, the situation was not considered serious.  The next night, however, the long arrow-headed minute hand was discovered driven into the body of an unknown man.  A tramp who had tried to burgle the house, everyone said.  And then Chief-Inspector Hadley made an exciting identification – one which implicated a number of the characters.

Dr. Fell solved the case in one of his most brilliant feats of reasoning.  Not one fact or even suggestion that led him to the murderer has been omitted in the telling of the story.  If you like to pit your wits against the criminal in a completely above-board struggle, this is a book for you.

Blurb (UK)

Carr - Death-Watch UK.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

A man murdered with the hand of a clock, stabbed through the back of the neck as he goes up a staircase in the dark.  This is the beginning of the new Dr. Fell detective tsory, in which that corpulent scholar must use his wits on subjects that include clockmaking and the Spanish Inquisition.

Johannus Carver, clockmaker by hobby, had strange guests at his house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.  When he had just completed a large steel stable-clock for Sir Edward Paull’s country house, and gilded it with slow-drying paint, someone stole off the hands.  On the next night, the long arrow-headed minute hand was found driven into the body of an unknown man – a tramp who had tried to burgle the house, some of them said, until Chief-Inspector Hadley identified him in a way that put every member of the household under suspicion.

Why, for instance, did Boscombe have a silencer on his gun?  Who locked the door to the attic?  What had happened to the sixteenth-century watch, the death-watch, that Boscombe kept in the brass box?  Not one fact or even suggestion that will lead to the murderer has been omitted in the telling of the story.  The skylight, the glove and th key were three leading clues, although a double interpretation might be put on the gilt paint in the bowl of water.  Dr. Fell meets a vivid and varied group of characters, and chuckles his way through fast action to the startling disclosure of the murderer.

My review

Although I am not one of those who “will always consider the clock-face problem as being Dr. Fell’s greatest case”, there is much to be said in its favour. The problem, as always with Carr, is bizarre and mystifying: a policeman, come to arrest one of the women in the Lincoln Inn’s Fields house of Johannus Carver for murder and shoplifting, is stabbed with a clock hand. In the darkest Carr since the early Bencolins (and in stark contrast to the earlier Fells), the atmosphere is menacing and claustrophobic, with a strong taint of madness—indeed, human virtues are almost entirely absent from the subtly drawn gargoyles; much needed comic relief is provided by the servants. Dr. Fell is in superb form, dominating the book from the beginning, and giving fascinating (if irrelevant) lectures on clocks and the Spanish Inquisition; he is rather H.M.ish, referring to himself as “the old man”, to others as “son”, and saying “gimme”. His debate with Chief Insp. Hadley over the guilt of the chief suspect is one of the book’s highlights; and, although Hadley ignores some evidence, the treatment of left-handedness is clever, and the logical argument ancestral to the third section of The Arabian Nights Murder. The detection is particularly strong, the clues, including a lovely one borrowed from Chesterton’s The Dagger with Wings, placed with classic timing; it is, however, a pity that Ames’ lodgings were not searched earlier. The identity of the superbly characterised villain is inevitable, although Carr lies to the reader right at the start.  The plot may also be too subtle and too involved to be entirely convincing. Indeed, Carr admits that the strands of the plot are “intricate and unnecessary.” I do not, however, see any problem with the method and motive (which Christie used in one of her best 1940s works).

Contemporary reviews

Observer (Torquemada, 7th April 1935):

That Chestertonian figure, Dr. Fell, who was only “on” (in the theatrical sense) for a short time in The Blind Barber, holds and fills the stage through the whole course of Mr. Carr’s Death-Watch, a tale less amusing and even more brilliant.  Most writers could not have handled such a desperate complication of fact and character; Mr. Carr keeps expert control of every thread.  Most readers will return again and again to question a parenthesis in Chapter VI.  But in the end their doubts will be set at rest.


Times Literary Supplement (11th April 1935):

In one way this is a very good detective story.  The reader is kept hesitating between about seven possible murderers, and is not likely to guess the right one till the end.  In at least three other ways it is not so good.  First, the characters are mere parts of the puzzle.  That, however, is common in detective stories.  Secondly, to understand the hide-and-seek game between murderer, victim and others, one must have a fairly clear mental picture of the old house in Central London which is the scene.  There is a page of description of its upper hall (sixty feet by twenty), but few readers are likely to arrive at any clear idea of the secret stairs and other complexities.  Thirdly, and chiefly, the murderer proves to be such an abnormal creature, with such vaguely explained motives, that the author narrowly escapes a conviction for that worst form of cheating in murder stories—bringing in a lunatic.  The detecting is done by Hadley the professional and Dr. Fell the amateur, who has appeared in Mr. Carr’s other stories, and who seems to be a reincarnation of Dr. Johnson.  Melson, his Boswell, hovers in the background.


Sat R of Lit (20th April 1935, 40w):

Good idea, interesting characters, shivery surroundings, but too much extraneous detail and confusing subplots.


NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 21st April 1935, 260w):

There has probably never been, either in real life or in fiction, a more elaborately planned crime than this one.  Its only fault, if it has one, is that it is a bit too elaborate; it leaves Dr. Fell too little time for drinking beer and for discussing his favourite subject, the drinking customs of old England.


Dorothy L. Sayers, Sunday Times:

He has the knack of surrounding his plot and characters with a perpetual aura of excitement.


The Boston Globe:

Here is a strange new murder mystery story by John Dickson Carr in which the fictional ‘Dr. Fell’ again endears himself to detective-story fans by brilliant feats of reasoning.


Baltimore Evening Sun:

Out of a flood of detective novels there are six undeniable aces.  For example, there is the new Dr. Fell story, Death Watch.  It is technically the best story yet produced about that enormous and uproarious savant.