#27: The Crooked Hinge (1938) by John Dickson Carr – A Triple-Decker Review

Crooked HingeThe heart of John Dickson Carr’s The Crooked Hinge – previously voted the fourth-best impossible crime of all time – is this: a man standing alone at the edge of a pond surrounded by sand has his throat slit, and the two witnesses who had him in their sight both swear no-one was anywhere near him at the time.  It is, of course, impossible.  But then the incidence of that which cannot be done is the bailiwick of Dr. Gideon Fell…  Something a little different this week, as two venerable gentlemen of the blogosphere – Puzzle Doctor of In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, and Sergio of Tipping My Fedora – have kindly agreed to allow me to append my thoughts to their own joint review of this title from last year by way of providing some alternative perspectives on what is a hotly-debated topic: just how classic is The Crooked Hinge?

Well, it’s not perfect.  I’m with the Doctor in his enthusiasm for the opening section – this really was the golden age of Carrian setups – and can’t disagree with his summation that “the automaton is brought in for no real plot purpose except to give a hint as to howdunit” (though Sergio here counters saying “it provides a strong interpretative key to understanding the murderer’s mind set”, which might be a little generous).  Quite unlike anyone else, though, Carr was able to take a myriad of tones and shades and ingredients and mix them into a surprisingly tasty witches’ brew, and here, gracefully incorporating the tragedy of the Titanic into the background of his scheme, he has what Sergio calls “an embarrassment of riches”.  There’s a real love of the macabre there, brought out through Carr’s wonderful turns of phrase:

Page seemed to hear a faint hiss as legal axes began to grind; as forensic sleeves were rolled up; as the conversation was being geared to the pace these gentlemen would have it take…

You can’t help but look for the threads woven throughout, though Carr’s talent at throwing dust in your eyes isn’t quite in full evidence here as it is rather talky at times (again, I’m with the Doctor on this one – though it’s nowhere near as unbalancing as, say, The White Priory Murders, which takes a wonderful set of ideas and buries them under a landslide of stultifying conversation).  Sergio is right to cite the mid-novel inquest as a particular highlight (it really is an excellent reveal), but equally Puzzle Doctor’s contention that “[w]hen events pick up a little towards the end, it’s only due to some bizarre behaviour on the part of the villain” can’t really be disputed – that whole sub-sub plot really adds very little to the book overall except what Carr himself calls ‘a love-scene of outstanding incoherence’.

And then we come to the end.  Now, you can’t argue that there is a cheat, and Puzzle Doctor’s case that the solution “comes out of virtually nowhere” is a strong one (consider that circle of sand, and the marks which could have been found there…that would have been very interesting).  Carr is arguably aware of this, though, with Fell grousing early on:

“Above all, there is an almost complete absence of material clues: no cufflinks, cigarette ends, theater ticket stubs, pens, ink, or paper.  H’mf.”

Puzzle Doctor’s not a fan of this particular revelation, Sergio is more so, and honestly I absolutely love the answer to the impossibility.  It is very novel, and very memorable, and will probably irritate as many people as it delights, but for me it just works.  There is such a miasma of the nightmarish throughout this book – with its hallucinogenic witches’ covens and the core dilemma at the heart of its identity plot – that the method slips fantastically into the morass.  Put it this way: imagine being the victim immediately before his demise, consider it from his point of view and how completely that suits the tone of the book you’ve just read, and hopefully you’ll see what I mean.

I certainly side more with Sergio on this, and agree when he says “[b]ecause of the many beguiling elements and the sheer cleverness of its conceit, I would rank Crooked Hinge highly”.  He places it among the second-tiers Fells, I’d rank it among the second-tiers Carrs overall (where I’d also consign – controversy alert – The Judas Window, which I don’t love as much as everyone else seems to).  As the good Doctor says, “when you’ve got books like Till Death Do Us Part, He Who Whispers and The Black Spectacles to compare it to, this comes up short”.  Had Carr not written those books, would we consider this more highly?  Or would he not even have been allowed to get away with it in the first place?  Well, thankfully we’ll never have to find out.

star filledstar filledstar filledstar filledstars

My thanks to Puzzle Doctor and Sergio for allowing me to co-opt their words into my own.  That these guys know their Carr is beyond dispute and they’ve provided me with much to think about over the last year or so of following their blogs, so please do check out Puzzle Doctor’s plethora of excellent Carr reviews here and Sergio’s biography and reviews of the maestro here.

The crime fiction blogosphere has turned into a bit of a Carr-palooza since I wrote this, with Puzzle Doctor debating his best works and putting him head-to-head with Dame Agatha, and acknowledged locked room encyclopaedia TomCat picking his own favourite Carrs over at Beneath the Stains of Time.  So much Carr love in such a short space of time…maybe the universe is telling us something…or maybe it’s just a coincidence.

So let me know your thoughts on this one, it’s certainly a book to provoke a lot of discussion!

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31 thoughts on “#27: The Crooked Hinge (1938) by John Dickson Carr – A Triple-Decker Review

    • Out of interest, Santosh, what other Carrs would you put on par with The Crooked Hinge? I’m interested in what Carr books go together in people’s minds…

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        • Aah, yes, I think I understand where you’re coming from; it shares the same dense gothic atmosphere with Walks by Night and Graveyard (I’ve not yet read Sleeping Sphinx), and certainly has the same unusual plot construction of the first. In that regard, it also reminds me a bit of Death-Watch, but then (as I’ve already mentioned on this blog) I do love Death-Watch…!

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  1. I hope that’s three out of 5 Santish 🙂 Great review JJ and thanks for the kind words too. As you say, this is a very memorable book, from its Titanic scenario to its extraordinary solution to the impossible crime. Is it plausible? No, and thank good ness for that I say!!!

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  2. I reread Crooked Hinge not too long ago and quite liked it. The implausibility doesn’t bother me much, since I expect that going in. Impossible situation mysteries have been inherently implausible ever since The Murders in the Rue Morgue, and their outlandishness can even be part of their charm. As long as the solution isn’t as impossible as the mystery, anything goes!

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    • You’re absolutely right – there’s definitely an element of the implausible in this type of mystery, and that certainly plays a part in my appreciation/apologyism. I said on Puzle Doctor’s post about Carr v. Christie that I was more forgiving of Carr’s flaws an this undoubtedly plays a part in that; a common-or-garden stabbing in the back is already making life realtively easy for itself, but an impossible throat-slicing has enough stacked against it as it is without us also demanding that the solution strive for unquestionable reality.

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  3. It’s been a while since read The Crooked Hinge, but what never understood is why it’s considered an impossible crime story: the false solution offered by Dr. Fell certainly would’ve placed in the category of miracle crimes, however, that’s not what went down and the actual explanation is much closer to the “weird menace”-type of stories. Or, in this case, a Chestertonian nightmare come to life for the victim.

    Anyhow, one of my favorite parts from this one is the murderer breaking down the fourth wall and explaining why didn’t rack up a larger body count, which gave the story a human touch – in spite of all it peculiarities.

    You guys aren’t apostatizing by bad mouthing The Judas Window, are you?! Do I have to give the order to stack up the funeral pyre.

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  4. It’s been a while since read The Crooked Hinge, but what never understood is why it’s considered an impossible crime story: the false solution offered by Dr. Fell certainly would’ve placed in the category of miracle crimes, however, that’s not what went down and the actual explanation is much closer to the “weird menace”-type of stories. Or, in this case, a Chestertonian nightmare come to life for the victim.

    Anyway, one of my favorite parts from this one is the murderer breaking down the fourth wall and explaining why didn’t rack up a larger body count, which gave the story a human touch – in spite of all it peculiarities.

    You guys aren’t apostatizing by bad mouthing The Judas Window, are you?! Do I have to give the order to stack up the funeral pyre.

    Liked by 1 person

    • SPOILER ALERT ! (what follows contains spoiler)

      It seems to all to be an impossible crime because a witness lies. However, this is known only at the end. Hence it may be regarded as an impossible crime story the solution of which includes the lying by the witness.

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      • The same is kinda true of The Hollow Man, isn’t it? There’s a certain amount of…er…misreporting to enable the impossibility. Is that on the same scale as this, do we think?

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    • Oh dear, surely I’ve chocked up enough brownie points by commenting favourably about Freeman Wills Crofts in your last blog review?? I do like Emperor’s Snuff Box’ and ‘Till Death Do Us Part’, and most of ‘Black Spectacles’…

      JJ – I’m excited to see that you’re reviewing ‘Tokyo Zodiac Murders’ next! 🙂

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      • I am also very excited to be reviewing Tokyo Zodiac Murders. It’s lovely to see all these previously hard-to-find books coming back into print; who knows what wonders will be resurrected next?!

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      • Heresy is still heresy, Jonathan. I’ll see you at the crack of dawn with swords or pistols. Choose your weapon wisely.

        However, the Marsh-ian is going to be chugged on a pile of burning wood!

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  5. Pingback: #32: The Impossible Crimes of Sherlock Holmes – I: The Adventure of the Speckled Band | The Invisible Event

  6. Pingback: The Crooked Hinge (1938) by John Dickson Carr | crossexaminingcrime

  7. Hey JJ, I’ve just finished this title, which I broadly enjoyed. The case of who’s-who made for an engaging premise, and wordiness aside I found the story well-told. It was an eccentric tale without being excessively melodramatic – but the resolution felt far-fetched, evoking memories of ‘Peacock Feather Murders’.

    But then again I’m struggling to think of a single Carr novel I’ve read where I left feeling that it could be pulled off in the real world with relative ease. On the whole, more inventive than Hag’s Nook, but also less plausible…

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    • Oh, no, none of them would work in the real world — that’s the fun! I mean, the real world wouldn’t be able to cope with Gideon Fell at all, but for ridiculous crimes you need a ridiculous sleuth (and I use ‘ridiculous’ in the sense that means ‘awesome’).

      I always feel that there was a trick missed with this one — had certain marks been found in the sand, for instance, it would have added an extra layer of intrigue, or something more relevant shold have been done with the mannequin, or…something. There’s a sense of a slight absence os a key ingredient that stops this being a complete classic, but it’s another fertil piece of misdirection, and takes on the quality of a nightmare if you consider it from the victim’s perspective: think of the last thing he would have seen before he died, and how that sight would have chilled him to the bone…that’s very cool in my opinion, and it’s a shame that a little more wasn’t made of it.

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      • Do you recall Fell or the confession accounting for the absence of marks on the sand? Given the description in the confession there must have been marks. I seem to think that this was accounted for in the false solution, but not in the actual conclusion. 😦

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