To Wake the Dead (John Dickson Carr)

Rating: 4 out of 5.

One of the most under-rated Carr novels.  It is overshadowed by the surrounding classics, and, while British critics praised the book, American critics disliked it. There is no impossible crime. Instead, the problem is why the murderer should have worn the uniform of a hotel-attendant in order to commit his crimes, one of which was committed in Sussex, the other in a London hotel. The characters are not really worth suspecting, but there are some good portraits among them, particularly the enigmatic Mrs. Kent, Sir Gyles Gay, and Mrs. Reaper. The detection is nicely done, with good clues from face-towels, a trunk, red ink, and a bracelet. After the murderer has been captured in a graveyard at midnight, Dr. Fell demonstrates who, how, and why in a great display of logic. The alibi is ingenious and original alibi and the gimmick splendidly Chestertonian.

Blurb (UK)

Christopher Kent, who had some quarter of a million pounds to his name, stood in Piccadilly one January morning with nothing in his pockets.  He was hungry, and it had begun to snow.  But there was a reason why he could not get a penny, or announce who he was, for just forty-eight hours.  And then he noticed he was standing before the doors of one of those big hotels which supply bed and breakfast.  Bed and breakfast – he remembered the procedure in these mammoth places.  You went into the dining-room and gave the number of your room to the waiter, and they served you with breakfast.  It was now very early.  If he strolled in and gave the number of a room certain to be occupied, they would supply him with the breakfast he badly needed.  Then he could walk out again.

They served him with breakfast and had no suspicion.  But he did not walk out again.  Due to a devilish series of accidents, he was compelled to go up to the room whose number he had given.  There was a “Do-not-disturb” sign outside; but a murdered woman inside.  And when they found that the murdered woman was…

This is the beginning of the exciting story; but the twists and turns have barely begun when Kent takes his troubles to Dr. Fell.  The conclusion is as logical as it is surprising, and it ranks among Dr. Fell’s great cases.

Contemporary reviews

Observer (Torquemada, 28th November 1937): FELL AMONG DETECTIVES

Dr. Fell has been absent from the last two of Dickson Carr’s works, being debarred from the America of The Burning Court by considerations of space, and by time from that excellent historical investigation into The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey.  He is back again in To Wake the Dead, and the first thing that strikes us is that he is more Chestertonian than ever.  In body he is photographically so, in his preoccupation with the significance of vocational uniforms he is mentally so, and throughout, through especially in three didactic pages in Chapter XVII., he is verbally so to a gratifying extent.  Also, how Chesterton would have enjoyed this book!  It may seem at first as if there is bound to be trick architecture in the setting of either the country house murder or in the London hotel murder; but such is not so.  Indeed, the plan of the floor of the suite on which the second happens will, as is seldom the case with such things, solve one of the major problems for you; but only if you study it even more intently than I did.  Those who remember H.C. Bailey’s “The Cat Burglar” will take pleasure in the way in which a simple idea which came there to Mr. Fortune occurs also in this book to a murderer, and is worked out by him back side to front to confound detection.  To Wake the Dead has not the mature boisterousness of some parts of The Arabian Nights Murder, but in every other way it is as good.

Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 10th December 1937, 270w): Mr. Carr’s explanations are this time less satisfactory than usual.  Not in anger but in sorrow must the critic declare it altogether unworthy of any author of standing to use secret doors and passages to mystify his readers.  Too easy altogether.  Several of the details may be questioned, too.

Times Literary Supplement (John Everard Gurdon, 11th December 1937): Rodney Kent, a harmless South African visitor, was brutally murdered in the country house of an English friend with whom he was staying.  Death was due to strangulation, and the victim’s face had also been savagely disfigured.  A few days later his widow met an exactly similar fate in a large London hotel.  Both cases presented certain features of the inexplicable and fantastic kind that always appealed to Dr. Fell.  It was fortunate for justice that the elephantine Doctor’s interest was aroused, for the criminal enjoyed so many advantages arising from coincidence and extraordinary circumstances that he would almost certainly have been able to outwit the more unimaginative methods of Scotland Yard.  As a thriller the tale is successful enough; as a detective story it suffers from unrealities and improbabilities.

Spectator (Nicholas Blake, 17th December 1937): Returning to the detection-novel after an enforced abstinence of nearly two years, as it might be an explorer returning to civilisation from a solitary winter beneath Arctic snows, one tends to greet old friends, familiar faces a shade too effusively: “dear old so-and-so”, one exclaims, “why, he hasn’t changed at all”.  And here, chaps, are three of the best: dear old Poirot, a wizard if ever there was one; dear old Doctor Fell, with his wheezings, his remarkable hat and his Chestertonian paradox; and that charming if unscrupulous alligator, Mrs. Bradley.  And they haven’t changed at all.

It is gratifying that this should be so: yet perhaps a slight disappointment clouds the happy reunion; we feel that the passage of time ought to have left some mark on these faces.  Sherlock Holmes, now—with every new case, almost, his character subtly developed; we were constantly discovering in him  unexpected traits, new details to add to the dossier.  Compared with him, even Dr. Fell, Poirot and Mrs. Bradley present too much of a static and Tussaud timelessness.

Dr. Fell’s new case, like most of his previous ones, is a fancy-dress affair.  A man is murdered in a country house; his wife is found dead a few days later in a London hotel; on each occasion a figure in the uniform of a hotel attendant has been seen in the vicinity of the crime.  What, we may well ask, was a hotel attendant doing in a Sussex country house?  Other curious and interesting questions begin to pose themselves.  Why did the murderer leave a card outside the door, inscribed “Do Not Disturb.  Dead Woman”?  Why was the pair of shoes not a pair?  Why were the faces of the victims bashed in, but no other attempt made to conceal their identity?  What was the point of the bracelet inscribed with a line from Virgil?—as Dr. Fell remarks, once we see the point of this, we find the criminal; but it is rather too recondite a one for so much to hinge upon.  I should advise the reader not to rack his brains about the bracelet, but to pay serious attention to the cabin trunk.  To Wake the Dead is not a flawless book: but it contains one excellent character—Sir Gyles Gay, and it demonstrates once again Mr. Carr’s uncanny skill at blending the normal with the bizarre, the real with the impossible.

The Times (21st December 1937): Mr. Dickson Carr is a master of the eerie twist that transforms an ordinary situation into something sinister.  An improbable plot in his hands becomes uncomfortably convincing.  The killing of Rodney Kent at Sir Giles Gay’s Sussex home and of Josephine Kent at the Royal Scarlet Hotel, Piccadilly (each was strangled with a towel and savagely mutilated after death), is macabre itself; add to this the shadowy figure of the uniformed hotel attendant seen by a witness at the scene of each crime and it is obvious that in To Wake the Dead Dr. Fell and Superintendent Hadley are up against a baffling problem.

Books (Will Cuppy, 6th March 1938, 200w): A full-bodied tale, with plenty of connective tissue and that three-dimensional quality lacking in so many detective yarns.

NY Times (Kay Irvin, 6th March 1938, 250w): The plot is ingenious, the characters convincing and interesting, the scene natural and well drawn.  This is not a horror story like The Burning Court, but an excellent novel of crime and puzzlement.

The Saturday Review (12th March 1938): Husband slain at English country house; wife similarly slaughtered in London hotel.  Dr. Fell performs deductive acrobatics.  Author even better than usual at inducing shivers, but tendency to lead reader up garden path irritates.  Worthwhile.