The Sleeping Sphinx (John Dickson Carr)

Rating: 4 out of 5.


“Here is a sleeping sphinx. She is dreaming of the Parabrahm, of the universe and the destiny of man. She is part human, as representing the higher principle, and part beast, as representing the lower. She also symbolises the two selves: the outer self which all the world may see, and the inner self which may be known to few.”

Sir Donald Holden, war hero, returns from the war — but he is legally dead. At once, we are plunged into the familiar Carrian world of the topsy-turvy.

In love with Celia Devereux, Holden expects to find her sane and healthy; his only fear is that she might be married. Instead, he finds that tragedy has struck. Her sister, Margot Marsh, has died of a cerebral haemorrhage — but Celia believes that Margot’s husband, Thorley Marsh, drove his wife to take her own life through his wife-beating. Marsh, on the other hand, is fully convinced (or pretends to be), and has spread the word around, that Celia is mad. It is into this emotional situation that Holden steps. The matter is further complicated with news of Marsh’s affair with a local landowner’s daughter — this much to the horror of her likeable young fiancé — and with irrefutable proof of Celia’s madness. It is not until these complicated strands have been established that Dr. Gideon Fell enters the scene. The plot accelerates, taking in a memorable impossible occurrence: the locked vault containing Margot’s coffin — sealed by Dr. Fell himself, with the ring of the sleeping sphinx — is disturbed, the coffins “flung” about — yet the door is sealed and no footprints are evident on the sandy floor. A distraught tale of ghosts stepping Ruddigore-like out of their frames and a dingy fortune-teller’s office are also involved, before Fell unmasks the killer. The solution relies on the annals of crime so beloved of Carr and Anthony Berkeley, and on sexual psychology.

Only two problems with the book: the protracted disclosure of Celia’s ghost story, and the awkward phraseology of one of the clues.

Note similarities to The Peacock Feather Murders in the setting at a murder party; and In Spite of Thunder in the truth of the set-up.

Blurb (US)

When Major Sir Donald Holden returned to the house in Regent’s Park, where he expected to find all the people he liked best, he knew that things would be changed.  He had been away from his friends for seven years, and there were reasons why he had been blotted out of their lives.

He returned to find his closest friend in the arms of a nineteen-year-old girl, and to hear that a beautiful woman had died from what the doctor insisted were natural causes.  But Donald feared that the death was not a natural one, a fear that was enhanced when the dead themselves refused to rest quietly, and tormented the living.

Donald’s problems were much greater than he suspected.  He found himself in a situation in which one or the other of the two persons he liked best must be lying cruelly, or must be mad.

Confronted by these problems, and by the story of a dangerous game in which everyone wore masks modelled after executed murderers, Sir Donald felt that, think and struggle though he might, the mystery would overpower him.

Then came Dr. Gideon Fell, moving his huge person, on his two canes, into the midst of heartbreak and terror.

The story is built with a series of surprises, the clues are given and stressed, and the reader is challenged to solve the problem before Dr. Fell.

Contemporary reviews

New Yorker (22nd February 1947, 90w): Neatly plotted, and tricky enough to please even the most demanding of Carr’s devotees.

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 23rd February 1947, 230w): All in all, this is Gideon Fell at his best, and that is saying a mouthful.

Sat R of Lit (1st March 1947, 40w): Grade A.

Washington Post: Certainly as good a story as Carr has ever produced, which is saying plenty.

Columbus Evening Dispatch: A top-flight Carr, than whom, when he’s at his best, there’s none better in the whodunit business.

Chicago Sun-Times: Of all detective writers none is more consistently or more impeccably dazzling as a craftsman than John Dickson Carr.

John O’London’s Weekly (Evelyn Banks, 8th August 1947): Is there a sort of mental telepathy between crime writers?  Often in reading through a batch of detective stories I have been struck by similarities in device or setting—not of an obvious type, as when all the murders are committed with arsenic, but in quite unexpected details.  Now it has happened again.

John Dickson Carr and Mary Fitt both make use of family vaults in their latest stories.  John Dickson Carr’s The Sleeping Sphinx is, of course, a case for the fat and unorthodox Dr. Gideon Fell, and I found it entirely satisfactory.

It begins with the return from the war of Major Sir Donald Holden, who has been on such secret service that he has been officially reported dead.  He finds that his greatest friend has apparently been transformed into a thorough rotter; that the girl he loves is apparently mad, and that her sister is certainly dead.  Her death has been attributed by the family doctor to natural causes, but…  When Donald starts looking into things various mysteries come to light.  As, for instance, the fact that the coffins in the sealed family vault have been “flung about” and a bottle of poison placed inside by no human agency.

Times Literary Supplement (23rd August 1947): The fluent pen of Mr. Carr describes here Major Sir Donald Holden, late of M.I.5, returns to England after a long absence to find his two best friends involved in an incident that looks like murder.  Fortunately the formidable Dr. Fell is at hand to investigate.

New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 8th November 1947): Mr. Dickson Carr’s machinery works double shifts.  Of his latest products, My Late Wives (under his pseudonym Carter Dickson) is the more exciting, The Sleeping Sphinx the more complicated.  These are the two unfailing qualities to be found in all his work—and he never hesitates to maintain them, whatever the sacrifice in plausibility.  Fortunately the express speed at which he rattles along is calculated to blur some of the most distressing improbabilities in the landscape.  Both plots are technically without a flaw, but artistically—well, we won’t recommend them to M. Aveline[1].  Incidentally, My Late Wives is indebted to Brides-in-the-Bath Smith for its theme, and is all the better for having some link with reality.

[1]              Claude Aveline, a Frenchman who viewed the crime novel as Art.