- By John Dickson Carr
- First published: US: Harper, 1933; UK: Hamish Hamilton, 1933
“Incongruous in this place, crude and powerful as Stonehenge, the stone walls of Chatterham prison humped against the sky. … And “humped,” Rampole thought, was the word; there was one place where they seemed to surge and buckle over the crest of a hill. Through rents in the masonry vines were crooking fingers against the moon. A teeth of spikes ran along the top, and you could see tumbled chimneys. The place looked damp and slime-painted, from occupation by lizards; it was as though the marshes had crept inside and turned stagnant.”
It is in this finely atmospheric haunted prison of 1837 that the Chestertonian Dr. Fell solves his first case: the death of a sullen young drunkard during a midnight vigil. The M.R. James atmosphere is, with the possible exception of The Plague Court Murders (which introduced Sir Henry Merrivale), Carr’s best (the scene at the well at midnight is excellent); and tension is well-handled. Although by the end of Chapter 15 there are only two suspects, the murderer’s identity is surprising, due to an ingenious alibi. (However, the rather obvious clue of the handkerchief gives the entire game away.) Romance is also good—not over-done.
“The Starberths die of broken necks” – that was the legend in the Lincolnshire village where Chatterham Prison, abandoned for a hundred years, had kept its secrets of death and horror since the days of witch-burnings. Scotland Yard took notice of the legend when Martin Starberth was murdered. Out of his death came many riddles. What was the secret inside the iron box? Why were the clocks at Starberth Hall ten minutes fast? Where was the green bicycle and its phantom rider? Who fired the bullet when a dead man’s hand appeared above the edge of the wall, and a young American found cryptic words scratched on stone? Tad Rampole loved Dorothy Starberth, and sought her brother’s murderer; but it took the wheezing, genial, choleric old professor, Dr. Fell, to see the truth in one of the most cunning murder plots ever contrived. The tale is not for children, and not to be read at night.
Times Literary Supplement (4th May 1933): In 1798 a certain Anthony was Governor of Chatterham Prison, in Lincolnshire, and, although the prison has long since fallen into disuse and disrepair, each one of his descendants, on attaining majority, must spend an hour by night in the Governor’s room, thereafter providing the family lawyer with certain peculiar proof that he has done so. To any nervous and imaginative youth this is no congenial task, for immediately outside the Governor’s room is a well into which the bodies of hanged criminals were dropped and left; moreover, under an old curse the heirs of the family are doomed to die of a broken neck, and this curse has been most frequently and uncannily fulfilled. For these reasons—and in spite of her fine twentieth-century scepticism—Dorothy is much concerned when it becomes her brother’s turn to endure the nocturnal ordeal. She confides her misgivings to an amiable young American named Martin Starberth, who is staying in the neighbourhood with Dr. Fell. These two keep watch but are unable to avert tragedy. The rest of the tale describes how Dr. Fell solves the mystery of the curse and how Martin Starberth compensates Dorothy for her loss.
Sat R of Lit (15th April 1933, 50w): A ‘family curse’ affair with satisfactorily gruesome Gothic atmosphere and plenty of chills. Not much ‘detecting’.
NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 16th April 1933, 200w): A clever yarn.
Sunday Times: Mr. Carr writes with verve and distinction. “Hag’s Nook” is one of the successes of the season. I enjoyed every page of it.