The Dead Man’s Knock by John Dickson Carr

carr57Professor Mark Ruthven at Queen’s College in Virginia is on the verge of splitting up with his wife, Brenda. Matters aren’t helped by the presence of the dangerous Rose Lestrange (how long did it take Carr to think of that surname?) who seems determined to stir things up. Add in the problems of a dangerous prankster in the college, who seems to be stepping up from graffiti to attempted murder, and Mark has little time for his work – namely the study of letters from Wilkie Collins to Charles Dickens hinting at a locked room mystery that he never wrote.

Before you can say “Archons of Athens!” – a candidate for the worst catchphrase ever – Rose is dead, stabbed inside her locked house in the same manner as Collins’ character. With the finger of blame pointing at Brenda, it’s a good job that Mark has invited a scholar to study the letters – a certain Dr Gideon Fell…

This is the nineteenth Gideon Fell mystery, published in 1958, and it’s reasonable to say that Carr’s best work was behind him. Merrivale had been put out to pasture five years previous and of the later Fell books, only In Spite Of Thunder and Panic in Box C have much going for them. I’d say that those, and probably The Witch Of The Low Tide, were the last of Carr’s works worth much, and that’s a shame because there’s still a fair number of books left.

This one has a clever idea hidden in it, but it’s damn well hidden. The locked room itself is very basic and alone doesn’t make the book worth reading. The murderer is well hidden but only because the characters are so interminably two-dimensional and interchangeable that you quickly forget who’s who. As such, only the most dogged reader is going to spot the clues as to what’s going on. At the heart of it is a nicely complex plot, although some of the motivations are suspect. And the less said about the conveniently loaded pistols at the end of the book – “Oh, I was just carrying them around” – the better.

Overall, not Carr’s finest hour by quite some distance. A shame, as I had reasonably good memories of this one. Never mind…

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39 comments

  1. I differ from you regarding this book.
    Yes, the convoluted relationship between the characters is utter nonsense. Also, the “justice” delivered at the end is outrageous nonsense.
    However, otherwise it is an intriguing mystery. A fair-play mystery, suspenseful till the end. Well-plotted. I found the locked room trick simple and ingenious.

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    • Unfortunately the characters are so indistinct, I needed a crib sheet to tell which was which. And as I didn’t remotely care about any of the characters – not even the lead, you can see where the Brenda story is going from a mile away – I didn’t care who was the murderer. Which is important to me in a mystery.

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  2. A shame, as I had reasonably good memories of this one.

    I have very good memories of this one too, and was surprised you were disappointed. It’s many years since I read it; must give it another try someday soon.

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      • I don’t remember Merrivale saying “phooey”, but if so it’s interesting since it seems to be one of Wolfe’s favorite expressions. I wonder which came first?

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      • Pfui is the German spelling, according to Chambers English Dictionary.

        I wonder which came first?

        That seems a rather academic question, in that both words seem to have been in popular use for a couple of centuries or more.

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      • Sounds like the sort of thing he’d say, but it’s such a standard, if dated, exclamation that I couldn’t state an exact instance. It certainly isn’t an invention of Carr or Wolfe

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      • I didn’t mean which spelling came first, but whether Wolfe or Merrivale first used the expression in a book. Since Wolfe used it frequently, Carr’s use of it might have been a reference to Stout.

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      • Have you checked whether it was used in a book by William Makepeace Thackeray? It might very well have been. Why on earth would Stout have been referring to Carr or vice versa when the word has been in common usage since long before either of them started writing and is still in common parlance today?

        If I use the term “Golly!” in a piece of fiction I’m almost certainly not referring to either Just William or the Famous Five: I’m just, y’know, using a word.

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      • You’re probably right about that, but the original issue was about catchphrases. If Merrivale just happened to say “phooey” a few times in the course of his many stories, that’s not a catchphrase. Wolfe frequently said “Pfui!”, which is well-known to Stout fans. Anyway, this is getting silly. I was hoping that someone could point me to an example of Merrivale saying it, but it’s not worth the bother to look it up.

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  3. ‘Ere! *I* say that sometimes. It’s a fairly traditional exclamation, unlike (I believe) “Archons of Athens!”, which I’ve never encountered outside the pages of JDC.

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    • I realize that “lord love a duck” is traditional and “Archons of Athens” is not, but that cuts both ways. At least the latter is original; the former is hackneyed and silly, though I guess it fits the character.

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  4. I have just gone quickly through the book and I regard it as one of Carr’s better novels worth reading (in spite of the atrocious incidents at the end).
    As you have mentioned, there is a clever idea in it.

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  5. Just googled “Archons of Athens” and the word “exclamation” only to find the top link to this post. Apparently the only other instance I can find of it being used outside of Gideon Fell is in Deadly Hall, another Carr book. But the other two are – or were – reasonably common phrases on this side of the pond.

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      • That’s interesting – maybe the translator tidied up the writing style. I might be wrong but I think Satan’s Elbow was written soon after Carr’s stroke and his writing style suffered as a result. I may be wrong. I’ll check what it says in the JDC biography.

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      • ELBOW is from 1965, which I thought was before, and I remember thinkign the plot was a good one (but I can’t really remember now). Less the translation and more the fact that iw as in my teens and was mad in love with Carr.

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      • Carr suffered the stroke in 1962.
        Yes, the plot of Satan’s Elbow is quite good and the locked room solution is simple and brilliant. However, the quality of writing has clearly deteriorated after the stroke. Also, it has too many liars.Virtually, every character lies at one point or another !

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      • Thanks for the update Santosh – I am normally very tolerant of Carr because I like what he does so much, but shall clearly have to look again at these later titles. I still say though, in the 30 and 40s, for me, nobody could touch him!

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      • I’d shorten that window from about 1934-1935 (the early Merrivales andThe Hollow Man) to about 1948, with a few good historicals still to come. There are a couple of clunkers – And So To Murder, for example, but it’s an astonishing run of quality. Which makes the deterioration of his work, even pre-stroke, such a shame.

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  6. Incidentally, the title of the book is taken from the second chapter (The Hand Of Glory) of a favourite book of Carr, The Ingoldsby Legends by R. H. Barham:

    Now open, lock!
    To the Dead Man’s knock!
    Fly, bolt, and bar, and band!
    Nor move, nor swerve,
    Joint, muscle, or nerve,
    At the spell of the Dead Man’s hand!
    Sleep, all who sleep! — Wake, all who wake!
    But be as the dead for the Dead Man’s sake!

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  7. I know this doesn’t really add anything to this discussion (this is a Carr I’ve not yet read) but I do really love the gothic hideousness of that cover. One gets the impression the artist looked up “gargantuan” in the dictionary and then just went for it with Fell!

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