The Man Who Could Not Shudder (John Dickson Carr)

By John Dickson Carr

First published: US, Harper, 1940; UK, Hamish Hamilton, 1940

Blurb (US)

Carr - The Man Who Could Not Shudder US.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

To the Reader (before he begins p. 1): Here are the clues.  What can you make of them?

The clue of the unnatural pistol: Three guests at Martin Clarke’s weekend party swore they saw the pistol lifted from the wall, levelled, and shot.  Yet no hand held it.  It couldn’t have happened—but there was the dead body on the floor to prove that it had.

The clue of the swinging chandelier: The dead guest had not believed in the supernatural, had ridiculed Clarke’s insistence that Longwood, his Jacobean house in Essex, was haunted.  Bob Morrison, though a novelist with imagination, had also been politely sceptical until a peculiar incident had shaken him considerably—the matter of a swinging chandelier.

The clue of the noise in the night: Tess Fraser was a business girl, and smarter even than she seemed.  Yet she had hardly been in the house an hour before she was urging Morrison to drive her back to London.  The handsome Mrs. Logan was frankly terrified—but oddly enough not too terrified to investigate a startling noise in the night.

The clue of the ticking clock: Julian Enderby’s legal mind refused to credit any of their fears—until before his eyes a long-silent clock suddenly started to tick.

The clue of the agile butler: Andy Hunter, the architect who had renovated Longwood, was unaccountably the uneasiest of them all.  It was he who took most seriously the story of the agile butler and the dining room chandelier which had fallen and killed a man, twenty years before.  But how a solid chandelier had come to fall, or why the butler seemed to have been swinging on it, had remained unsolved riddles—unsolved, that is, until the bizarre events of Martin Clarke’s house-party brought Dr. Fell into the case.

Dr. Fell comes on the scene: It was a situation after Dr. Fell’s own heart, a clever murderer’s challenge to his subtlety and finesse.  As fascinated by the opportunity to study the psychological effects of fear on six different temperaments as by the series of apparent miracles, Dr. Fell came uncomfortably closer to defeat than any time in his life.  But once more the jovial doctor stars in one of those inimitable mixtures of terror, mystery, and detection of which John Dickson Carr is undisputed master.

My review

Carr - The Man Who Could Not Shudder UK.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

A ghost story without atmosphere.  Indeed, it is obvious from the beginning that ghosts could have played no part in lifting the gun from the wall and shooting one of the guests at ten o’clock in the morning (rather than at the dead of night), so the reader is alert for some sort of mechanical device, which also has the power to make clocks tick without anybody nearby, cause chandeliers to swing of their own accord and thereby squash butlers, and furniture to dance a jig. The detection is sound and sober, more reminiscent of John Rhode than of Carr; the policeman, Inspector Elliot, ferrets out all the information relating to guns, chandeliers and keys, and takes the information to the omniscient but somewhat sedentary detective, who weaves a new theory from the evidence, and who recognises the significance of brown suits and lumps of sugar. The method requires a larger than usual suspension of disbelief; there’s a double, even a triple, twist at the end; but it’s very much minor Carr.

Contemporary reviews


Sat R of Lit (25th May 1940, 40w):

Regular Chinese Box puzzle, getting intricater and intricater and more and more sinister as it proceeds to double reverse English finish.  Recommended.


Books (Will Cuppy, 26th May 1940, 170w):

The clutching hand and the thud in the night lead straight to one of the strangest shootings in history, a lot of all but insoluble problems, and a solution you’ll probably swallow with delight in spite of its complicated nature.  Dr. Fell, vast, beaming, is just the man to handle Mr. Carr’s jigsaw and explain the whys and wherefores of murder…  The ghostly element, of course, provides extra thrills for those who are skeered of spirits or rumours thereof.


NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 26th May 1940, 220w):

Never before did John Dickson Carr so thoroughly demonstrate his ability to bamboozle his readers.


Observer (Maurice Richardson, 15th December 1940):

A haunted house-party story by Mr. Dickson Carr is something to write home about.  And what a party.  Fiend-host, massive femme fatale, ubiquitous ghost.  Victim shot by pistol hanging on the wall.  Even Dr. Fell nearly blunders.  No more can be revealed.  The technical part of the solution is inevitably a little disappointing, but Mr. Carr gets away with it as usual, and his story-telling is better than ever.


Spectator (Nicholas Blake, 10th January 1941, 50w):

Mr. Carr opens with his usual effervescence, but his story fizzes out some way before it ends.


Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Willson Disher, 18th January 1941):

If mechanised murders lack humanity and house-party murders lack variety, Mr. Carr has begun this time at a double disadvantage.  Once the guests are set in the haunted house, the chief appeal is to the mechanically minded who may take up the challenge to perceive how the “manifestations” are engineered.  But within the strict limitations fixed by himself, the author reveals a nice taste in queer specimens of humanity.  Even if you regard his celebrated Dr. Fell as Ersatz because of the hyperbole used in his making, there is a new idea in villains to give quality to the tale.  Martin Clarke boasts that he never takes any chances; he finds it so easy to outwit detectives that he has to supply them with evidence in order to make the contest more engaging.  Perhaps it would be worth Mr. Carr’s while to keep Martin Clarke as a character for further novels; at present the portrait is underdeveloped.  He comes to life only in the episode when he excuses himself for not inviting anyone to share his bottle “because it is as bad as champagne can possibly be”.


New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 19th April 1941):

To rest our emotions let us turn to Carter Dickson, or if you prefer, John Dickson Carr.  This double-barrelled author brings down a right and left in The Man Who Could Not Shudder and And So to Murder, as neat a couple of trick murders as even he has ever devised.  The Man Who Could Not Shudder is the more mechanically ingenious, but the penalty of such technical virtuosity has to be paid when the mechanism is explained.  Conjurers know well how inevitably tedious is the explanation of a conjuring trick, however brilliant the trick.  In fact the greater the previous deception, the flatter must be the process of undeception.  The purport of this particular trick is how to shoot a man with a pistol hanging from a nail on a solid wall, when you yourself are in the next room.  If you already know how, you needn’t open this book.  If you don’t you’ll find out on p. 248.  But even that does not reveal who actuated the mechanism.  A very unpleasant man was shot; almost every one who disliked him was in the next room; so any one could have done it.  Actually it is the last person you would suspect—and I mean it.

And So to Murder is less provokingly ingenious and more amusing, especially if you prefer to have your mysteries solved by Sir Henry Merivale [sic] rather than Dr. Fell.  A sweet young lady novelist, trying to write scenarios, is the victim of a dastardly series of attempts on her life at a film studio.  In this case it is the ingenuity of motive, not of actual murder, for which we must admire Carter Dickson or, if you prefer, Dickson Carr.  Incidentally, it is interesting to compare the male and the female handling of terror.  The lady novelist is alone in an empty house with a potential murderer padding in the room overhead.  Carter Dickson gives her gooseflesh four brisk pages, whereas any one of our authoresses would give it at least two chapters.