To Wake The Dead by John Dickson Carr

The writer Christopher Kent is on the verge of winning a bet – return from South Africa to London without access to his own money by a certain date. With twenty four hours in hand, he finds himself in London, outside the Royal Scarlet Hotel – and that’s when the trouble starts.

After conning his way into the breakfast room, Kent is asked to come to the room that he has pretended to be staying in by the hotel staff. On entering the room, he finds the horrific sight of a dead woman in a luggage trunk. And what is worse, he recognises the woman…

The party that were staying on that floor of the hotel come under suspicion, but there remains the question of the mysterious stranger who was disguised (?) as a hotel worker who was seen on the floor. A stranger who was also witnessed weeks before when the dead woman’s husband was also murdered…

To Wake The Dead is an interesting book from Carr. It’s the eighth Gideon Fell mystery and it’s sort of the pivot from his earlier, less popular work – only The Three Coffins has gone before that I particularly rate as classic Carr, but it’s followed by The Crooked Hinge (ugh, but I see while people like it), The Black Spectacles (one of the finest works of detective fiction EVER) and many more. Even the rubbish ones in the next few years, such as The Problem Of The Wire Cage, are entertaining reads. So which does this resemble most – the earlier work or the later?

The earlier work, unfortunately. It actually starts off as a bit of a caper, resembling The Punch and Judy Mystery written under Carr’s Carter Dickson pseudonym. But it rapidly becomes clear to the authorities that Kent is innocent and was there by coincidence, so he basically becomes Fell’s “sidekick” for this story. And, as is the way, naturally finds his one true love along the way.

There’s no impossibility here, just some bizarre occurrences that seem to make no sense until the explanation is given. Fell, naturally, knows much more that he’s letting on and keeps his cards close to his chest for no particular reason at all. I find myself wondering about Fell and his popularity as he often just seems slightly unpleasant, except when he’s instructing his sidekick on the art of love or making exclamations that nobody would ever say. I do much prefer Merrivale, as even when he’s at his most extreme, he’s still and endearing character.

Plot-wise, there’s a great plot hiding in this one, but it gets a little lost under a deluge of conversations and floor-plan mechanics, and is handicapped with part of the resolution which, while being clued, still feels rather ridiculous. And not in a “he’s got no CENSORED” ridiculous… That aspect is unfortunately necessary for the rest to make sense, and I can almost feel Carr trying to work round doing what he did, but coming up with nothing better…

So, not bad, but nowhere close to Carr’s finest work. Worth A Look, but don’t get your hopes up too much…

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9 comments

  1. Yeah, I’d say we more or less agree here; I think the cleverness of how the various workings play out is something I enjoy more than you, but it does become rather talky come the end and starts to drag…something I didn’t mind because I was anticipating a particular streak of genius in the final moments to tie it all up (i think the same thing you hint at above) and it never results. But the puzzle back-and-forth always goes over eell with me.

    I have The Problem of the Wire Cage as my next-but-one Carr, and am very eager to see how it turns out, given your dislike of that one… 🙂

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    • I saw The Problem of the Wire Cage referred to recently as one of Carr’s best and was startled, because I (re)read it a few weeks ago and thought it wasn’t up to much: genial enough, but massively farfetched. So I’m relieved by Puzzle Doc’s dismissal of it (I’m not the only one!) and will be interested to read your own views, JJ.

      I remember enjoying To Wake The Dead back in the day, but that may just have been because of its sterling setup. Another one I should reread sometime soon. Thanks for the reminder, PD.

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  2. This is one of those where the set up is really compelling, but then it doesn’t really turn into much. The scene where Kent is led from the hotel restaurant to the room is so uncomfortable and leads, in the early chapters, to that sense of jeopardy Carr did so well in The Problem of the Wire Cage and The Emperor’s Snuff Box. But, yeah, then that just kind of stops, which is an unfortunate squandering of a promising plot device.

    I wouldn’t say that the story sags in the middle – at least not in the sense of The White Priory Murders or The Ten Teacups – but Carr does take his foot of the gas. The ending isn’t my favorite, but all the threads turn out to be nicely woven together, similar to Death Watch or The Mad Hatter Mystery.

    I think you summarized it nicely – worth a look, but not Carr’s best.

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    • The problem is that Carr struggles to come up with a good explanation of the mysterious hotel worker. There’s a good idea there but it needed more work to explain… um… part of the second murder, without resorting to some nonsense that undermines the cleverness of the whole thing.

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