The Sleeping Sphinx by John Dickson Carr

The Sleeping SphinxIsn’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.)

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26 comments

  1. Though it is quite suspenseful and virtually unputdownable, I rate it as Average because of the highly convoluted ending.
    Gideon Fell comes to know of several facts simply by following secretly and eavesdropping. Absurd ! This reveals mental laziness on part of the author.
    It is unbelievable that the doctor did not suspect anything in the death of Margot.
    Also, there is a cheat in the form of a false clue (description of MILD SPOILER). The explanation given for this is trash.

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    • Actually, I didn’t have a problem with that “false” clue. It’s a linguistic subtlety but I think the average middle-class English type that Carr was so fond of writing would make exactly that assumption from the use of that particular word.

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  2. This is one of the few Fells I have not read as I have banked a few for a rainy day – you point once again to an under-appreciated aspect of his output – just how good he was at writing clever whodunits and pulling a surprise villain,. Even if the mechanics of the impossible crimes strain credulity, he is usually fair and very, very clever, really looking forward to this!

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    • Unfortunately the only “banked” Carrs that I have that seems to get good press are The Devil In Velvet and The Lost Gallows – I’ve done all the Fell and Merrivale books unfortunately. The rest for me are the later historicals, but I’m in no rush for those…

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  3. Funny review! I remember even less about it than you did. About the only thing I remember is that a subplot reminded me of the moving coffins of Barbados. Does anyone know if Carr based it on that legend?

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    • He gives a reference late on concerning “it actually happened” from Oddities by Rupert T Gould, a book from 1928. It’s pages 33 to 78, if that helps, but I can’t imagine there’s 46 pages on that bit alone

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      • A copy of the book is available with me (1969 paperback edition). The second chapter titled “The Vault At Barbados” deals with it. In my copy it extends from page 33 to page 70.

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      • The book was first published in 1928 and revised in 1944.
        It has 11 chapters dealing with strange, mysterious events unexplained by Science. A sample of the book including the table of contents can be seen at Amazon.

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  4. The vault at Barbados is situated in a churchyard overlooking Oistin’s Bay.
    On 5 occasions between 1812 and 1820, on opening of the vault, the coffins were found overturned, scattered and even set on end. All conceivable precautions were taken like sanding the floor to detect foot-marks and sealing and marking the entrance by several persons. However, the result was always the same; on the next opening, the coffins were found scattered and displaced. After the fifth occurrence, the coffins were shifted elsewhere and the vault abandoned.
    The first coffin was placed in the vault in 1807, the second in 1808 and the third in 1812. No disturbance was noted till then. However, towards the end of 1812, when the vault was opened for placing a fourth coffin, the first 3 coffins were found in a confused state. Similarly when the vault was opened for placing the fifth coffin (1816), the sixth coffin (1816) and the seventh coffin (1819), in each case the existing coffins were found very much disturbed.
    The vault was again opened in 1820 out of scientific curiosity and again the coffins were found highly disturbed. The vault was then abandoned.
    Several theories were suggested for the occurrences including the one proposed by Carr; this theory was however not accepted by many. Arthur Conan Doyle suggested an occult explanation !

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    • (continuing)
      The supernatural explanation of Conan Doyle is detailed in his book The Edge Of The Unknown (Chapter 5 The Law of the Ghost)

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      • It is strange that a person like Conan Doyle who created the rational and logical detective Sherlock Holmes used to believe in supernatural stuff !

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      • Indeed, especially the fairies! Edmund Crispin seemed to believe in poltergeists, as in Buried for Pleasure–at least it’s just there for comic relief and plays no part in the mystery.

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  5. Carr used the moving coffins to better effect elsewhere.

    Really, I was so disappointed with this one. Such an atmospheric title but it’s really a melodramatic romance. Also, Fell was most annoying here. Usually I don’t mind when the detective hems and haws and withholds information but this was ridiculous. I feel like I need to wash my brain out with a good Carr. Luckily I’ve been hoarding them like some of you, for a rainy day.

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