The Starbeth family lived in a prison, a prison built to surround the gibbet where witches were hanged in days past – the so-called Hag’s Nook. And the family has a legend – that the male heirs will die of a broken neck, after spending the night in the Governor’s chamber. And one night, as determined by tradition, Martin Starbeth spends the night in the chamber.
Gideon Fell, who lives nearby, suspects things aren’t everything they seem to be – and as he and his young American friend Tad Rampole keep watch, the light in the room suddenly goes out. As the watchers race to the prison, Martin Starbeth is found fifty feet below the window of the chamber, on the edge of the well that lies there – and needless to say, his neck is broken (as are quite of lot of his other bones as well.)
It’s up to Gideon Fell, in his very first case, to find a cunning murderer – someone who has killed before and is willing to kill again.
I first read Hag’s Nook an age ago, my copy coming from my New York trip when I shuttled back and forth across Central Park between two second hand bookshops and came home with a suitcase containing at least thirty cheap Carr paperbacks. Happy days… I read it after reading a number of the “classics” and I didn’t have fond memories of it. There’s no impossible crime here and I think I went in expecting one and came away disappointed.
But I think that’s a bit harsh as the writing shows some of Carr’s best qualities. Yes, there’s his typical love-at-first-site romance – does anyone ever fall in love slowly in Carr’s work? – but Fell here is at his best. We get an insight into his work (his finest work, The Drinking Customs Of England From The Earliest Days) and even get to meet Mrs Fell. He’s a little more controlled here, with no “Archons” in sight, just one or two “Bacchus!”s. The setting is suitably atmospheric and there are some lovely twists to the narrative – the chapter from the stolid butler Budge is fun and the final paragraph of the book is very impressive.
The mystery? Well, the murderer is pretty guessable as there isn’t a mass of suspects to choose from but for once, there’s a mysterious treasure hunt clue that’s actually solvable – Carr even gives the necessary info for the trickiest bit earlier in the text. The narrative of the past and present story ties itself up in knots a bit in places, but there’s a lot to like here. It’s a strong debut for Fell, a lot stronger than I remembered. Highly Recommended.