The Crooked Hinge (John Dickson Carr)

Rating: 4 out of 5.

One of the best Dr. Fells. Carr keeps the reader guessing which of the two claimants to the baronetcy of Mallingford and Soane is the impostor who attempted to murder the real baronet on board the Titanic and steal his identity, a problem complicated rather than resolved by the (naturally impossible) murder of one of them. Crucial clues are the meaning of the phrase “the crooked hinge,” a locked book-closet, the psychology of the people involved, and the automaton known as the Golden Hag; witchcraft further complicates the story. The plotting is dazzling: a false solution as utterly convincing as those of Anthony Berkeley, followed by a fireworks display simple, convincing, and breath-takingly surprising, suggested by Chesterton‘s “The Blue Cross”. The only flaw is that the murderer does not receive his comeuppance.

2002 (rereading); in 1999, I thought it was very good, but not as good as some Carrs, despite the staggering solution.

Blurb (US)

Two men claim the same name and the same estate.  Each of the two claims that he is Sir John Farnleigh, heir to the richest baronetcy in Kent, who hasn’t been seen at his old home for twenty-five years.  Each of the two men declares that the other is an imposter – and each has proof of it.  Each tells a different but equally convincing story.

Who is the real Sir John, and who is the pretender?  His old friend and tutor, Kennet Murray, has the answer in the form of fingerprints, taken when Sir John was a boy.  A logical candidate for murder, one would say . Yet when death struck, the victim is not Murray, but—

This is the opening gambit of The Crooked Hinge.  What the crooked hinge is, and in what way it contains the secret of the situation, is one of the puzzles to be solved by Dr. Fell.  Another is the problem of the mechanical automaton, the secret of whose operation has been lost since the 18th century.  What happens when it begins to move again provides the climax of the mystery – a mystery whose solution comes as the most amazing upset of Dr. Fell’s career.

Contemporary reviews

Boston Transcript (Marian Wiggin, 8th October 1938, 150w): Maybe less hardy souls than ours will find Mr. Carr’s disruption of a quiet English country town terrifying.  We are sorry to say that he left us cold, and not with fear.

Sat R of Lit (8th October 1938, 40w): Witchcraft, a malevolent automaton, and an inexplicable killing seen by several at close range keep brain buzzing and hackles rising.  Dash out and get it.

Books (Will Cuppy, 9th October 1938, 330w): The tale grows a little tall near the end, but why wouldn’t it?  As an exercise in ingenuity it has few if any weaknesses.  Watch Dr. Fell as he forces the killer to yield ground step by step.

New Yorker (15th October 1938, 40w): All’s fair and square.

NY Times (Kay Irvin, 16th October 1938, 190w): John Dickson Carr is an unexcelled master in this field of creepy erudition, swift-moving excitement, and suspense through atmosphere; and his latest book is a masterpiece of eerie skill.  It is possible that you may cavil at one detail in the puzzle’s solution.  It is not possible—if you are a normal devotee of crime and cold shudders—that you will leave the book before you come to the end.

Observer (Torquemada, 16th October 1938): CONJURING AND CRIME

Hermetic or “sealed room” crimes must of necessity be invented by the same type of mind which makes the successful stage illusionist, and John Dickson Carr has in all his novels shown a deep and appreciative knowledge of conjuring lore.  But in The Crooked Hinge, which is the most mentally exciting detective story I have read for a long time, he not only gives us his inevitable “impossible” murder, but also performs for our discomfiture certain new sleights of deception which drive us, in the midst of our applause, to oaths as round as Dr. Fell himself.  The first part of the book is called “The Death of a Man”, and we are warned, by a quotation from a conjuring manual, in what way we are going to be blinded in our watch for the promised death.  Yet we are so blinded.  In the second part, which deals with the activities of a partially wrecked automaton, we are challenged to find out how the thing ever worked.  If we had succeeded, we might have been spared some doubts of the infallibility of Dr. Fell when, in the third part, the vast doctor “rolls us out his mind”.  Or again we might not, for there is a thunderbolt in that part which dazes us somewhat.  John Dickson Carr also displays, in what seems to be a sunny Kentish melodrama of rival claimants to a name and an estate, his gift of making horror walk at our shoulder without any apparatus whatsoever.

Times Literary Supplement (Leonora Eyles, 22nd October 1938): When we see the silhouette of Dr. Fell on the jacket of a book we are sure of an ingenious plot, some hair-raising horror and just that tincture of something rich and strange that takes a book out of the region of the commonplace and transports the reader into a queer world.  Yet in Mr. Carr’s hands the queerest things seem credible.  Sir John Farnleigh and Molly his wife are apparently enjoying their newly wedded state in the Farnleighs’ ancestral halls when a detective arrives to investigate the apparently simple and long-forgotten murder of Victoria Daly on Lammas Eve a year ago.  At that moment a claimant to the Farnleigh estates arrives in the person of Patrick Gore; when he was fifteen he and John Farnleigh were in the wreck of the Titanic and the suggestion is that “Farnleigh” had substituted himself for “Gore”.  One man, Kennet Murray, young Farnleigh’s tutor, knows the truth, as he had in an amateur way been interested in the science of fingerprints and has prints of the fifteen-year-old John Farnleigh.  But on the night when the two claimants are, with suspicious willingness, submitting to the test Farnleigh is murdered in the garden in full sight of several people who cannot see the murderer; they can only offer impressions of “:something flying”, “something rustling” and so on.  The solution to the mystery is thoroughly satisfying and startling.

Spectator (Nicholas Blake, 28th October 1938, 210w): The Crooked Hinge is his best story and a safe bet for the best detective novel of the year.

Time (31st October 1938, 20w): Extremely neat puzzle involving mixed identity, murder and witchcraft in an English village.  Dr. Fell provides a surprising, ultra-tricky solution.

Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 1st November 1938, 390w): One strange, apparently impossible, occurrence treads fast upon the heel of another, but Mr. Carr wonderfully succeeds in binding all together with a thread of impeccable logic, even though some may feel he fails in the greatest task of all—that of winning a reader’s belief.