Isn’t it always the way? You’ve been off on a secret mission for Army Intelligence during the war, having been declared dead and – whoops – forgot to ensure that your nearest and dearest were informed. And then when you do turn up, you find your best friend’s wife, Margot, is dead of an aneurysm, and her sister Celia – your one true love even if you basically called things off before they even got started – is assumed by all to be completely off her rocker. After all, she is telling tales of ghosts in the Long Gallery at the family estate where her sister died. Oh, and she’s also convinced that Margot was murdered…
Luckily for Donald Holden, Gideon Fell also has his suspicions about the death of Margot – but of course, if it was murder, then suspicion may well fall on the person acting the most suspiciously on the night in question. Namely Celia herself…
Right, the first of a few Carr reviews (interspersed by some other bits and bobs, obviously). So why, when I could be reviewing the first – Hag’s Nook – or the “classic” – The Hollow Man – or the awful – The House At Satan’s Elbow – have I picked The Sleeping Sphinx? Well, in part because I could remember absolutely nothing about it at all, apart from the solution to the impossibility – which I’ll come to in a moment – and Rich, of Complete Disregard For Spoilers (a blog on hiatus but hopefully back soon) – mentioned it in a comment as one of four Carr novels having a unique idea at its core and I thought I’d take a look to see what he was going on about. But I probably can’t discuss that because a) it’ll be a spoiler and b) I’m not entirely sure what he means.
So, the impossibility first off. It’s rubbish and unnecessary and I haven’t detailed it in the blurb because it happens well into the book – over halfway in fact. And it’s got absolutely SWEARWORD all to do with the mystery. Nothing. And it’s not even that interesting. So let’s ignore that and look at the rest.
If you can put something to one side, then it’s a clever mystery. A very clever one, with a bucket load of clues that you won’t see the relevance of – the comment about slippers, for example – and, as I’ve said before, a well-hidden murderer, an under-appreciated talent of Carr. The mystery of what happened on the fateful night is complex – much more so that you’d get in an average Christie novel. In fact, Carr makes the evening’s activities more complex than even Christie’s classics, such as Death On The Nile, when he doesn’t really need to, apart from to lay yet another clue under the reader’s nose. But it works, so no complaints here on that score.
What does need mentioning though is the behaviour of a number of characters. Leaving aside Gideon Fell’s newfound ability to follow and eavesdrop on conversations without being noticed – look at the cover of The Dead Man’s Knock to see why this is unlikely, both he and at least one other member of the cast spend the whole book stringing things out. Fell seems to know who the murderer is before he even turns up but spends the book talking in riddles and half-hints until events that he could easily have prevented mean that he has to reveal all. And another character spends a good few scenes with revelations of the “I knew that… but I wasn’t going to tell you, even though it could have saved you a lot of time” type.
And we do need to address why anyone thought the death was natural in the first place. It’s no spoiler to say that Margot drank poison, but given that she had also been SPOILERED and nobody noticed (and Fell’s explanation for that is bunkum) and the poison in question isn’t some obscure tree-frog extract… It should have all been sorted out before Hilton even shows up.
Basically, it’s clear from the denouement that Carr’s been doing some reading about SOMETHING and does a very good job of constructing a mystery around a central misconception based on this. But then constructing a story around that mystery plot… less successful, although still streets ahead of The Dead Man’s Knock.
Because although people behave in bizarre ways, this is still an extremely readable and enjoyable mystery. It has its flaws, yes, such as the unnecessary impossibility, and one of the subplots was done better by Ellery Queen, but that didn’t stop me from carrying the book around with me until I got to the end. I probably was neglectful in saying that Carr’s strong period stopped with He Who Whispers in 1946 as this is still a strong entry from him (in 1947). Highly Recommended (although with reservations for readers who want their characters to behave like human beings.)