John Dickson Carr, The
Copyright © 1938 Estate of Clarice M. Carr
Reprinted by The Mysterious Press, 2019
As I began reading The Crooked Hinge, I had conflicting impressions—first, that I was reading it for the first time, and, second, that I had read it and knew how it turned out. Those impressions persisted throughout my reading, until the very end. Partly because the book’s title rang no bells for me at all. (I checked on the “Stop, You’re Killing Me website, to see whether the book had been published at some time under another title—but it had not.
Let me begin here by saying that The Crooked Hinge is not exactly a locked-room mystery; it is an “impossible crime mystery. The murder is witnessed by several of the others involved. But no one actually sees how the murder was committed. This is one of the reasons I thought I had already read it—I knew both how and who immediately.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The story is set in the late 1930s, and involves as principals, two men who, as young boys, had been sent to America. In 1914. On the Titanic. One was John Fairleigh, the younger son of Sir Dudley Fairleigh; he was sent to (they hoped) reform his ways. The other was a boy of about the same age, Patrick Gore, the child of a poor family. The ship, of course, sank, the boys survived. And, years later, after his older brother died, John Farleigh returned to England, inherited the property, and set about being the typical country squire—including marrying the young woman whom he had known. Then, a man who had grown up under the name Patrick Gore arrives, claiming to be the true John Farleigh, and seeks to take possession of the estate. (To keep things from becoming too tangled, I will refer to the man who did inherit Farleigh and the interloper Gore.)
Both men have engaged solicitors. And they are to meet to discuss the situation. And, as it turns out, for one to be identified as the real John Fairleigh. The identification is to be provided by Kennett Murray, Fairleigh’s tutor as a young boy, who has, in addition to that knowledge, a set of fingerprints, taken of young Fairleigh 20+ years before.
Death intervenes. As I was (re?)reading, I expected the victim to me Murray (of course). But it was Fairleigh, who was in the middle of a sort of maze (the shrubbery being about waist high) who dies, with no one within sight, by (apparently) slashing his throat with an old knife. I appears, of course, to be suicide (which would clear up the identity issue). But not everyone is convinced, including a police inspector (from London, who’s there because of another death, clearly a murder) and Dr. Gideon Fell. (I want to pause, and give thanks to the designer of the cover of this edition of the book; I now know what Dr. Fell’s “shovel hat” looks like.)
We get that far quite quickly. The problem is that, as more information becomes available, the case for suicide becomes weaker and the case for murder becomes stronger. And the issue of which of the men was actually Sir John Fairleigh now takes on a somewhat different role.
But Dr. Fell does unravel the mystery. And it was, in fact, the solution that I “remembered” from my unclear memory of having once, long ago, read the book. Carr was a master of creating situation that make it seem impossible for anyone, but especially for the murderer, to have committed the murder, and this is one of the better scenarios. If complex misdirection mysteries appeal to you, you can hardly do better than JDC. And this is a very good example of what he can do.