Hag’s Nook by John Dickson Carr

Hag's Nook“Worst of all, the man’s a mathematician. Pah!”

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.

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13 comments

  1. I’ve always been a fan of Hag’s Nook, particularly the incident which is pretty well taken directly from one of the great horror stories by M. R. James. I thought the atmosphere overall was very well done. Don’t you wish Mrs. Carr had at least put in an appearance or two in some of the later books?!

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  2. The edition that I have says it’s an impossible crime novel and, as you say, there’s no impossibility – I was a little put out when that turned out to be the case, and weirdly that’s the main impression I took away from it. I remember the atmosphere being suitably threatening and Fell being surprisingly similar to his incarnation in later books (especially given how HM changes…), but easily the biggest shock was Mrs. Fell! I remember no mention of her elsewhere, and she caught me completely by surprise.

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  3. I have spoken well of this book and highly recommended it in the comments section of your post on The Crooked Hinge by John Dickson Carr – A Joint Review.

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  4. Though Mrs Fell makes an appearance only in Hag’s Nook, there is mention of her in some other novels.
    In Death Watch (1935), the narrator mentions that he went with Dr. and Mrs. Fell to the theatre. (Chapter 1)
    In The Three Coffins (1935), it is mentioned that ” Upstairs the Mesdames Fell, Hadley and Rampole were conferring about something”. (Chapter 2)
    In The Problem Of The Wire Cage ( 1939) it is mentioned that Dr. and Mrs. Fell had been in their new home at Hampstead for a month (Chapter 18)
    Then for 27 years there is no mention of her till in Panic In Box C (1966), Dr. Fell speaks of her in the present tense indicating she is still alive.(Chapter 9)
    Dr. Fell is however childless unlike Merrivale.

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    • Haha, well having read Death-Watch, Hollow Man, and Wire Cage I’m clearly not the most observant of people; whoops! Thanks for this, Santosh, enlightening as always.

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  5. Is the man a mathematician or is Carr using the term broadly to stand for a type of person he does not like, which I think he does sometimes? I have read the book but don’t remember a mathematician.

    As for people falling in love slowly, the slowest I can think of are the Doctors Campbell in “Case of the Constant Suicides”, which is still pretty fast but not at first sight.

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  6. There are disparaging remarks about Mathematics and mathematicians in other novels also.
    In The Hollow Man (chapter 3), the character Mills says,”…This was a simple mathematical certainty. If PQ==pq, it is therefore quite obvious that PQ=pq+pb+qa+ab.” After a few paragraphs, when Dr. Fell asks him,”… what did you think when your equation was shot to blazes?”, he replies,”…I am a mathematician, sir. I never permit myself to think.”
    In Dark Of The Moon (chapter5), a main character Alan says,”… To me mathematics means the activities of those mischievous lunatics A, B, and C. In my time they were always starting two trains at high speed from distant points to see where the trains would collide somewhere between. Which, as the man said in the story, is a hell of a way to run a railroad.”

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