The Man Who Could Not Shudder by John Dickson Carr

ShudderMartin Clarke is holding a party – a house-warming, if you like – for the stately home that he has purchased and refurbished. Of course not many other people wanted to buy it as it has a history of bizarre events. For example, an eighty year old butler who decided one evening, against all previous behaviour, to swing from the heavy chandelier until it came loose and crushed him to death.

And of course, the bizarre events are not just in the past. Our narrator’s fiancée feels a ghostly hand grab at her ankles. The chandelier swings for no reason. A clock starts without being wound. And as one of the guests sits typing some letters, a gun leaps off the wall and shoots him right through the centre of the forehead… Luckily Gideon Fell is on hand to try and sort things out. But with a gun untouched by human hands as the murder weapon, is it possible that the killer is a ghost? (No, of course not…)

My penultimate Carr post for the month, and I picked this one for a couple of reasons. I was surprised to see it in at least one Carr Top Ten over at Tipping My Fedora but the more I thought about it, I realised that I could remember very little about it – the basic how, but little more. And I could remember that the first time I read it, I was very wary about it. I’d read somewhere on the internet that this and its immediate predecessor, The Problem Of The Wire Cage were both stinkers. To be fair, the site was right on that one, but I think it’s rather unfair on this one. Because I think it’s rather good.

Not really top ten good, but certainly not too far away. At the end of the day, the impossibility is simple (although really doesn’t make much sense if you think about it – if the gun was untouched, even by gloves, why does no one ask how it was loaded? And why was the SPOILER at that particular place in the first place?) but the whodunit is delightfully convoluted. There is one particular red herring that is a little on the unbelievable side, but it all builds up to a satisfying finale. I’m sure some people will be miffed by another incidence of Carr basically lying to the reader, but it’s integral to the plot here and does make sense.

Fell is on fine form, with his excesses curbed for this one, and our narrator and his love interest are refreshing normal. Yes, there’s a bit of bickering along the way, but they’re quite bearable. The action moves along nicely as well – there’s no elongated middle section of interrogating the suspects to slow the pace down.

So, I think there’s a few things here that might annoy some readers – I haven’t mentioned the fact that the villain’s plan is somewhat on the convoluted side – but there’s also a lot to enjoy. Much better than I remembered and well worth a look. Recommended.

BTW, can anyone explain the title to me?

ADDENDUM: A quick warning – Carr casually spoils The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd near the end of the book. So read the first, on the vaguest off-chance you haven’t already.

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9 comments

  1. This is one of those fell books I remember liking but actually can’t remember much about – the significance of the title in context escapes me though it is almost certainly derived from the Grimm fairy tale, ‘The Boy Who Could Not Shudder’, which Doug Greene tells us was a favourite of Chesterton’s!

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  2. This is a Carr which I may not have read — oh, horrors at the possibility. I thought I’d read them all. I must fix this omission as soon as possible.

    Many thanks for the good essay!

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  3. “if the gun was untouched, even by gloves, why does no one ask how it was loaded?”
    Actually that gun was touched and fingerprints were found on it . The other guns were untouched.
    “why was the SPOILER at that particular place in the first place?” It is not clear what you are referring to. (It would be better if you are more explicit and give a spoiler alert beforehand !)
    This is quite a good and entertaining read, though I would not put it in top 10.
    Yes, the plot is convoluted, but it is better that the nonsensical epilogue of The Burning Court !
    Regarding the title, ——-refers to himself as the man who could not shudder,(not being scared of ghosts) drawing parallel with the boy who could not shudder from Grimm fairy tales.

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    • Never heard of the Grimm fairy story, but both you and Sergio have, so thanks for that.

      Not going to give spoiler warnings – that’s not the way I do things.

      As for the fingerprints, it seems I misinterpreted the statement that “no one touched those guns” as referring to all of them, rather than all but the murder weapon, although I can’t find a reference to there being fingerprints on the murder weapon itself.

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      • For reference to the fingerprints, please see chapter 10, the para beginning: “—– was shot by a bullet from that revolver hanging on the wall”. After all, the revolver had to be brought from a room to that place.
        Perhaps, by SPOILER you refer to the main murder weapon. The thing was put there by the last Longwood for the purpose of prank. It is clear from chapter4 that the guns used to be kept at the same place at that time.

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      • That is what I’m referring to – but given the reason for the SPOILERS being there, having one of them in proximity to the guns seems a rather odd choice.

        Thanks for the reference – the whole handling of the gun bit was bothering me after misreading the line about the other guns.

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      • The choice was for a particular prank. Please refer to chapter 20, the para beginning: “—— was the evil genius, of course,” he said.

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