#77: The Tuesday Night Bloggers – An appeal to the senses in Carter Dickson’s ‘Blind Man’s Hood’ (1938)

The Tuesday Night Bloggers, you’ll doubtless be aware, is an opt-in group of Golden Age crime fiction enthusiasts who look at the work of a different classic author each month.  And with (Colonel) March being dedicated to John Dickson Carr – the single finest proponent of detective fiction ever to take up the craft, no arguments – I thought it about time I rolled up my sleeves and contributed something to this superb endeavour (also, two people asked me if I was going to get involved and I am nothing if not helpless in the face of my own vanity).

The difficulty is knowing quite where to start.  I am an avowed disciple of Carr, but a lot of his work is still ridiculously out of print and so if I’m recommending something you then have to search for months to find it may dampen your enthusiasm for it somewhat.  And then I remembered that the recently-published compendium of impossibilities that is The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked Room Mysteries contains two stories by Carr and that the second of these – ‘Blind Man’s Hood’, first published in 1938 under his Carter Dickson pseudonym – highlights much of what I love about his writing.

BLBBoLRMThe setup is simple: a young couple arrive at the isolated country house of some friends for Christmas to find all the lights on and the doors open but no sign of habitation.  After a brief period of confusion they are greeted by a young woman who explains the absence of everyone else, invites them in, and then proceeds to tell the story of the impossible murder that occurred in the house several decades before.  It’s a creepy enough setup on its own, but many promising setups have been undone by the author’s inability to exploit them.  What Carr does so brilliantly here, and he did throughout his career, is constantly juxtapose the contrasting sensory aspects in a way that exploits the setting beautifully and stirs up that atmosphere for which he was so rightly famous.

Now, of course, many authors have been rightly celebrated for their lexical versatility, but Carr contrasts his moods more beautifully than anyone I’ve yet read.  Take this, as the couple in question investigate the open front door of the seemingly-deserted dwelling:

There was no reason to feel disquiet…  That his footsteps should sound loud on the gravel was only natural.  He put his head into the doorway and whistled.  He then began to bang the knocker.  Its sound seemed to seek out every corner of the house and then come back like a questing dog; but there was no response.

Oh, that semicolon!  From amplifying even the quiet crunching of the gravel, the shrill whistle, the banging of the door knocker…and then to isolate that lack of response.  And this hard upon the heels of an opening paragraph that highlights the relative mundanity of the scene within and then throws in, parentheses and all, ‘(At that time, of course, there was no dead woman lying inside.)’.

We are naturally disquieted ourselves, and all that is missing is a dolorous butler to add to the sense of oppression by hinting at some dark reason as to the absence of the expected part, at which point Carr introduces…a ‘pleasant-faced girl’ with ‘an air of primness’ not unlike ‘a governess or a secretary’.  She explains the absence of the party quite naturally, quite easily, and the threat is dispelled.  But then she begins to twitter about a murder and reassures the guests that “I am quite sane really,” and we’re back on our guard.  It’s these casual shifts in tone, as easily as if they haven’t happened at all, that commend Carr so much.  Not for him the jump scares, no sudden jarring to a halt of one flow and the groping desperately for a succeeding jolt to hold you fast.  He simply drifts into and out of comforting and disquieting moods like a Sunday afternoon ghost train, and it is riveting to watch.

And so we have the cosy gathering around a warm fire at Christmas, but in a deserted and cold house absent of the expected friends; the garrulous and prim hostess entertaining the guests with a story, but one that involves foul murder and with moments that ‘turn her hearers cold’.  Even the story within the story is a study in contrasts: the sudden flash of light in the darkness that brings the house to the attention of the passing witnesses, that snow-surrounded house – chestnuts, knitting resting on a chair, the expectation of Christmas gifts for the children – becoming the site of a terrible fire in which a young woman is burned and murdered, the figure in the game of Blind Man’s Bluff that can see so clearly in the gloom of the oil lamps when it itself is so uncertain a presence, even the game itself which turns in the space of three lines from harmless fun to something clearly far more sinister.  And, of course, the eponymous hood used for that game, with its inevitable connection to the hangman’s noose, starting out as a ‘white bag’ but then becoming corrupted by a stain ‘seeping through’ as the mood turns irredeemably dark.

Yet even in his closing stages Carr maintains this easy shifting of contradictory tones, with the sense of threat, the supernatural overtones connected to the bay window that features so prominently, dismissed easily: ‘they now seemed innocent and devoid of harm.  You could have put a Christmas tree there’.  ‘Even the scars of the fire seemed gentle now’ we’re told in the finishing lines, and that sinister house now emits a ‘welcoming light’.  And upon reading the final line, go back to the opening paragraph and tell me that you honestly believed the story could end that way.  You, my friend, have just been played by a master.

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28 thoughts on “#77: The Tuesday Night Bloggers – An appeal to the senses in Carter Dickson’s ‘Blind Man’s Hood’ (1938)

  1. Excellent debut JJ for the TNBs and I have posted your piece into the FB group. Don’t think I have ever read a Carr short story, but by the sounds of things I definitely should and not just because I now need to know the twist of that story! Do you think the brevity of the short story heightens the intensity of Carr’s suspenseful descriptions in comparison to his novels?

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    • I find Carr maintains such brilliant suspense across his novels that the intensity is diminished here by a) the number of factors he can bring into play and b) the space he has to work with them. The language is easier to study in the shorter form because you only have to track it over a smaller time frame (or word count).

      These same threads run through the novels, but for pages and pages and chapters and chapters – see the entire first half of Death-Watch, which is the most insanely tense piece of protracted writing I’ve ever been wrung through. When they finally stepped out the house in that book it felt like coming up for air…

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      • Definitely intrigued by your idea of the suspense being more intense in the novels. Having read fewer of his novels I can’t say I have come across these moments of intensity such as you describe in Death-Watch.

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        • He doesn’t always build suspense in the same ways in all his books, it’s true, but when he does it well it cranks up to almost unbearable levels (Jonathan, I think, was not such a fan of this aspect of his writing).

          In a weird sort of way, the structure of the suspense in this reminded me of the similar aspect of The White Priory Murders (which has a murder in a snow-surrounded pavillion with no footprints before the body is discovered) and the buidling of tension in that book really didn’t work for me at all… weird how that happens sometimes.

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        • I agree that the tension in The White Priory Murders didn’t work well. Although the core murder was puzzling, I had trouble being drawn into the story (despite it having my favorite solution).
          In terms of suspense, I was really gripped by The Red Widow Murders and The Problem of the Green Capsule. The tension in the former holds throughout the book, whereas the tension in the later is thickest in the first half. It has been a year and a half since I read Blind Man’s Hood, but I do recall enjoying the tension.
          I haven’t read Death Watch yet – I used to have it towards the very bottom of my Carr reading list, having seen a lot of bad comments about it. I’ve been progressively moving it up the stack as I come across more and more reviews saying it is really good. I currently have it sitting after Poison In Jest, and before The Arabian Nights Murder. Mistake?

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        • Agreed: TWPM’s solution is excellent, but the book leadng up to it gets a bit tiresome (it is, in its own way, possibly the most melodramatic of Carr’s earlier works).

          Green Capsule is amazing, possibly the best of Carr, and I remember really enjoying RWM, but have also recently been told that it’s not as good and one remembers so I’m thinking a revisit to that might be on the cards….

          As to Death-Watch…I love Death-Watch. It’s an absurdly dense book (seriously, there’s so much going on that the first half gets a litle overwhelming) that Carr just unpicks so casually over the course of the second half, and it left me agape at his clarity and consruction. Maybe others will disagree — and there’s one slightly controversial aspect that I can understand — but my personal response to it was that it does so much of what Carr does so readily and what so many of his contemporaries (and all-comers since) struggle to do even half as well. For that alone, I recommend it most enthusiastically. it’s a better book than PIJ (though, again, that is still a fine book in certain regards) and I’ve not read ANM so can’t comment there, I’m afraid…

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      • Hmm, I’m afraid Death-Watch had a very different effect on me. I didn’t so much find it intense but rather tiresome. That was the first Carr novel I read as a teenager. After having read almost everything by Christie I was looking for new writers and my parents only had two JDC books, one was The Demoniacs, the other one Death-Watch. I was intrigued by the cover of the latter, so I chose that one and I have to say to my shame that I could never finish the book. I think after some time I just lost all interest in the story.
        Now recently I picked up Death-Watch again thinking that I would enjoy it much more now, 15 years later, that I have maybe matured in taste, but to my chagrin I came away with the same feelings. It felt very long, quite tedious and far too static.Nothing much happens. It’s just characters sitting in a room and talking, talking, talking…

        For me this is the least enjoyable JDC I’ve read so far, closely rivalled by Castle Skull.

        Of course it could be that the translation just wasn’t very good. Unfortunately I’ve only read most of Carr’s work in Hungarian and German translations, some of the editions were even abridged I think, so some of the original charme might have been lost in the process.

        I’ll make sure I reach for the original when I try again in another 15 years 🙂

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        • Yeah, there is a lot of chat. But the way events unfold over that first half is just dizzyingly brilliant and packed so perfectly and without an ounce of needless overlap in a way that plays out right into my tastes. A lot of people disagree with me, however…

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  2. Well, look at you! Whining to me that you could never find the time OR something relevant to say! And now you’ve got us all adding The Big Lizard Watchamacallit to our teetering TBR piles! ‘Atta boy, JJ!

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  3. Great review of this particular story, but I have to admit that overall I was a bit disappointed with The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked Room Mysteries. But then I found The Big Book Of Sherlock Holmes Stories a bit underwhelming too. I understand that Otto Penzler is putting a lot of work into these anthologies, but personally I often tend to disagree with several of his selections.

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    • Anthologies tend to be like that though, don’t they? I was pretty surprised at the other Carr story here – the rather mundane ‘The Wrong Problem’ – but I have to celebrate the fact that it brought back Hugh Pentecost’s ‘The Day the Children Vanished’ and Ellery Queen’s ‘The Lamp of God’ and, well, many, many others that haven’t seen the outside of a printer for decades.

      The couple of Mammoth Book impossible crime anthologies that Mike Ashley edited had the same problem in the variation in quality, though the first one was decidedly the stronger of the two – and I think he was stuck because some were written especially for those collections and so he couldn’t really refuse them…!

      Anything that brings back some untold gems without having to trek round hideously overpriced second-hand book fairs is alright by me, and I’m more than happy to take the odd dud for a rediscovered classic. There were actually quite a few in the BLBBoLRM that I’d heard of but not read…and even some corkers I’d never heard of. Win/win.

      The Holmes anthology may not be very good simply because so much Holmes pastiche is deeply terrible, too!

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      • I think you are right, most anthologies are a bit of a mixed bag.

        I’ve only read one of the Mammoth Book anthologies by Mike Ashley, I think it was the second, and thought there were fewer hits than misses. I was thinking about ordering the first one too, but I noticed there is some overlap with The Black Lizard Book, which makes me think that I’ve already read the better ones in the collection.

        And yes, there are plenty of terrible Holmes pastiches, and yet I keep reading them in the hope of finding some brilliant ones.

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        • Have checked the first Ashley anthology and the only storties you’re really missing out on are:

          ‘The Silver Curtain’ by Carr
          ‘Off the Face of the Earth’ by Clayton Rawson
          ‘Mr. Strang Accepts a Challenge’ by William Brittain
          and possibly ‘The Amorous Corpse’ by Peter Lovesey

          The Rawson has been collected as The Great Merlini along with all his other shorter fiction and if you aven’t read them then you really should, and the others will doubtless crop up elsewhere. If you can get this cheap, it’s worth it for those few but, yeah, mainly I think you’re fine not having it.

          If you find any brilliant Holmes pastiches, let me know! I loved the Anthony Horowitz books, and occasionally stumble across the odd decent story (like Colin Dexter’s ‘A Case of Mis-Identity’) but I worry I’ve exhausted all the likely avenues for something genuinely new and thrilling. Any directions greatly appreciated.

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        • Thanks! I will look out for the Great Merlini.

          There are so many Sherlock pastiches coming out every year and I’d like to read all of them, but alas, my time is limited.
          Are you familiar with Barrie Roberts and Dennis O. Smith? For me they have written some of the most faithful pastiches.

          I enjoyed the two anthologies by Titan Books “Encounters Of Sherlock Holmes” and “Further Encounters Of Sherlock Holmes” although they are bit more phantastical with steampunk and sci/fi elements. So they might not be everyone’s cup of tea.

          “Sherlock Holmes and the Hellbirds” by Austin Michelson and Nicholas Utechin is another one I liked. I saw it being referred to as a YA novel, but it’s definitely nothing like Andrew Lane’s Young Sherlock Holmes stories.

          Initially I was quite impressed by Edward B. Hanna’s “The Whitechapel Horrors”, but the ending was such a let-down that I can only recommend that one with hesitation.

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    • I still want to know what possessed him to put “The Flying Hat” in there. Like, you can argue about the quality of just about everything else, but that story? Gah, awful awful awful.

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      • Part of me also feels that, fine, the first section acknowledges that the stories there are the most reprinted locked rooms of all time and you want to include them for coverage. But, then, at the same time they’re the most reprinted locked rooms of all time. It’s not like people can’t track them down if they’re interested. Give us some Arthur Porges or William Brittain or a first English translation of something awesome…something, y’know, notable rather than just trotting out the same old crud again.

        But, hell, it’s not like I’ve ever been asked to edit such a book or would even know where to start, so I guess I should probably shut up.

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      • I actually didn’t mind that as much, as I hadn’t read all of them yet. 😛 And “The Two Bottles of Relish” made up for it, I think.

        (I don’t know what it says about me that I figured out what was going on almost from when I first read the set-up, or close to it. That I’m a better mystery solver than I think? That I have a truly messed up imagination? Most likely the latter.)

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      • Thanks Santosh – I have the latter while the former is an Italian edition that has all the March stories but none of the others – I’m starting to think I’ve not read it (bit of a shock that)

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    • I’m not awre of it having any other titles, and a quick search doesn’t reveal any…maybe you’re getting old, Sergio 😉

      It’s definitely in The Scotland Yard Department of Queer Complaints, because that was where I read it first. Not sure if it was in anoy of Carr’s other collections, but it’s doubtless been anthologised before. It’s a wonderful little story, anyway, and I really enjoyed revsiting it – so even if you have read it before, it bears repetition!

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  4. Pingback: The Tuesday Night Bloggers: John Dickson Carr, Week 1 | Noah's Archives

  5. Pingback: #79: The Tuesday Night Bloggers – The Sherlockian Impossibilities of John Dickson Carr – I: ‘The Adventure of the Highgate Miracle’ (1953) | The Invisible Event

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