The Case of the Constant Suicides (John Dickson Carr)

By John Dickson Carr

First published: US, Harper, 1941; UK, Hamish Hamilton, 1941

Blurb (US)

Carr - TCOT Constant Suicides US
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

When young Alan Campbell, professor of history, found his compartment on the Glasgow train occupied by a young woman who claimed it was hers, he was mildly put out.  When he discovered that she was the unknown historian named K. I. Campbell with whom he had for months been carrying on a scholar’s quarrel, he was utterly disconcerted.

However, since it developed they were second cousins once removed and both on their way to Scotland to attend a family conference following the mysterious death of old Angus Campbell, they settled down to make the best of it, and spent a pleasant if uncomfortable night continuing their quarrel over the Duchess of Cleveland’s features.

Arriving at Skira Castle, they learned there was some question of how Angus had died.  Had he fallen from the window of that 60-foot tower, had he thrown himself out – or had he been pushed?  If it was accident or murder, there was a neat amount of insurance for his heirs.  If it was suicide – nothing.  And if he had been murdered, who had done it?  Had not Dr. Fell, indomitable and genial as ever, arrived on the scene, those questions would never have been answered.

A Highland ghost, a dog carrier, a powerful drink called the Doom of the Campbells, guaranteed to raise the hair on any man’s scalp, one of the most hilarious drinking bouts in mystery literature, and a second death are features of one of the liveliest, and most entertaining stories Carr has written.

My review

This one really disappointed me when I first read it.  I was hoping for a creepy, densely plotted mystery set in a Scottish castle, with a house-party of suspicious guests, and victims found in locked rooms – a cross between Castle Skull and The Red Widow Murders.

It’s one of the shortest books Carr wrote (166 pages in my edition), and so more a long novella than a novel. The setting is the Western Highlands, inevitably challenging comparison with Gladys Mitchell’s romantic Scotland in Hangman’s Curfew (1941) and My Father Sleeps (1944).  Carr emphasises the comic side of Scotland, with drinking bouts and Scottish jokes – but the deaths are soberly handled.  Dr. Fell believes suicides are ingenious murders due to the dog-carrier under the bed, the quarrel with a neighbour, and a missing diary. The solution, which relies on a clever application of chemistry, is ingenious, and the way in which a small detail causes a best-laid plan to gang agley is equally so; the second death is more mechanical, and so less interesting.

Contemporary reviews

New Yorker (28th June 1941, 70w):

This is a fine story, hilarious and well plotted.


Saturday Review of Literature (28th June 1941, 40w):

Carr at his best.


Books (Will Cuppy, 29th June 1941, 290w):

This volume by one of the top-notchers of bafflement belongs on your shopping list.


NY Times (Kay Irvin, 29th June 1941, 260w):

This is a lighter opus in the John Dickson Carr listing, but it rings the changes on mystery with a lusty wit.


Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Willson Disher, 9th August 1941):

Scotland seen for the first time by Scots is the comic background of Mr. Carr’s latest ideas for almost perfect murders.  Nothing is what it is reputed to be, apart from the whisky which is much more so.  Dr. Alan Campbell and his equally learned cousin, Kathryn Campbell, complain of being corrupted by the irresponsible atmosphere that surrounds them at their homecoming.  What puts an edge on everybody’s appetite for life is the fall from a high tower of their kinsman, Angus.  It looks like suicide, since nobody could have been near him at the time, but there is a suspicion of murder.  Mr. Carr’s detective, the bulky Dr. Fell, comes to investigate this case and has two more on his hands immediately with the wraith of a victim of the Massacre of Glenire involved.  Although soon off the mark he has to race neck and neck against inveterate readers, for the mystery of this locked room at the top of the tower resembles the mystery of at least one other locked room.  That will not hinder enjoyment of The Case of the Constant Suicides, for humour is its chief asset.


New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 25th October 1941):

Mr. Dickson Carr has borrowed a murder method from Dr. Thorndyke in The Case of the Constant Suicides.  An elderly Scottish gentleman insures his life for ₤35,000 with a suicide clause, then locks himself in a room at the top of a tower 58¼ feet high, and throws himself out of the window.  Then another elderly Scottish gentleman locks himself in the room and throws himself out of the window.  Finally a third elderly Scottish gentleman is found hung in another locked room.  A clear case for Dr. Fell.  The Thorndyke method is given an ingenious twist by Mr. Dickson Carr, but why must the very notion of Scotch whisky send him into peals of laughter?


Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 28th November 1941):

In The Case of the Constant Suicides Mr. John Dickson Carr gives his readers not only an exciting puzzle—for why this epidemic of suicides?—but also a riotous demonstration of the demoralising effect of Scottish air, and even of Scottish whisky, on the innocent Southerner.  It is indeed not always easy, in between such gusts of laughter, to remember the background of mystery and death.  A criticism may be that Mr. Carr seems to be paying too much attention to the sealed-room problem.  This time his explanations are less ingenious and less convincing than usual.