Sunday, December 15, 2019

Naughty Night: The Dead Man's Knock (1958), by John Dickson Carr

"Are you working?"
"No.  I was reading a detective story."
"Oh.  Is it--is it good?"
"I don't know.  It's reasonably well written.  But I can't tell whether it's good until I've finished it."

Caroline, don't you ever read mystery stories?

Yes I do.  But I only like...the slap-em-down kind, where they're always shooting at each other or beating up the hero.  I've tried to like the other kind....I can't.  When they try to prove how you can be in two places at once, or walk over sand without leaving a footprint, I don't understand it and I don't believe it.  It hasn't anything to do with us."

These locked rooms, I hereby declare, are too locked up to be at all credible. (line purportedly from a letter written by Wilkie Collins)

--The Dead Man's Knock, by John Dickson Carr

When John Dickson Carr published The Dead Man's Knock in late 1958, it was the first time the most revered of his fictional sleuths, Dr. Gideon Fell, had appeared in a new novel in nine years.  Fell's last appearance had been in 1949's Below Suspicion

Almost an entire decade, then, had passed without the telling of a new Fell murder, despite the fact that Carr had remained quite active as a writer throughout the 1950s, producing up to that point a dozen mystery novels.  (Another novel, sans Fell, followed in 1959.) 

Even Agatha Christie, who at the same time was tiring of her beloved Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot (in the 1940s she even killed him off in a manuscript novel to be published after her death), managed to include him in five of the dozen detective novels she published in the 1950s. 

Carr's biographer Doug Greene has asserted, seemingly irrefutably, that Carr had grown alienated from the modern world and had trouble writing about it in his novels.  Instead he turned more and more to historical fiction with strong crime and mystery elements.  In the past he could explore a world of more dash and color and, in a word, fun--at least as he saw it.

Carr's obsession with the past bleeds into The Dead Man's Knock, which is set over a few days in July 1948 (meaning it takes place in the year following the events detailed in Below Suspicion). 

Playing a key role in the tale are rediscovered letters by Wilkie Collins to Charles Dickens referencing a previously unknown planned "locked room" mystery novel by Collins, to be titled The Dead Man's Knock.  Additionally, the denouement of Carr's novel, which can't be discussed here, involves a highly melodramatic episode that would seem to have been more properly at home in one of Carr's historical mysteries, set in the Jacobean or Regency periods, where we expect people to behave more the way that they do in The Dead Man's Knock

Some people find this denouement risible, and below I'll have more to say about it (circumspectly).  However, in the meantime I want to defend the rest of The Dead Man's Knock as a detective novel, one quite a bit superior in my view to the Fell mystery that followed two years later, In Spite of Thunder (reviewed here).  It's Carr's attempt at a more realistically rendered locked room novel, I believe, in what the author deemed a drabber era of hard-boiled mysteries, police procedurals, espionage novels and "psychological suspense," where people no longer believed in miracles.  There are no Castle Skulls, French Chateaux haunted by killer unicorns or vampiric tower murderesses, just some excitable academicians at a mundane American university, who have to crib their local locked room problem from Wilkie Collins.

At its publication distinguished Wisconsin author August Derleth, who moonlighted in mystery himself, praised The Dead Man's Knock as "one of the most outstanding [novels] written by a master of the genre--a neat little classical puzzle that will delight the most exacting devotees."  (Derleth was one of those himself.)  He later included it as one of his ten favorite detective novels of the year, along with Margery Allingham's Tether's End (Hide My Eyes), Agatha Christie's Ordeal by Innocence, Stanley Ellin's The Eight Circle, A. A. Fair's Count of Nine, Erle Stanley Gardner's The Case of the Calendar Girl, Cyril Hare's Untimely Death, JJ Marric's Gideon's Month, Jean Pott's Lightning Strikes Twice and Helen Reilly's Ding Dong Bell.  Who says the Golden Age was dead?

Meanwhile, the Springfield Missouri Leader and Press called Knock a "fantastic and fascinating whodunit" and the LA Times deemed it "highly satisfactory" (though they did not like thee, Dr. Fell, finding Carr's gargantuan magister "ponderous").  Yet the novel seems to have received less attention overall in the US than In Spite of Thunder two years later, the latter novel having gotten a big roll out from Carr's American publisher Harper as his fortieth mystery (though some of the notices of Thunder were something less than favorable).

In the UK, however, there were rave notices for Knock in many high places.  "Mr. Carr has not lost a moment's speed in his conjurer's sleight of hand with impossibilities,"  said Julian Symons.  "Best Dickson Carr for some books," concurred Maurice Richardson.  I agree that Knock is Carr's best pure puzzle novel (with miracle problem) of the decade and it's much more readable than it seems today to get credited with being.

St. John's College, Annapolis Maryland
where mystery writer Leslie Ford's husband, Ford K. Brown, taught for many years

Part of the problem with Knock for some Carr readers today may be that it confounds expectations of what a contemporary Carr crime novel should be.  For one thing, the setting is not even British.  It is, rather, Queen's College, a small American private university in the state of Virginia, not far from Washington, DC.  There is, to be sure, some of Carr's characteristic antiquarianism, with those Wilkie Collins letters and some eerie atmospherics.  The murder scene is the old house at Queenshaven 13 (formerly Blue Ruin Lane) where the alluring but unsettling Rose Lestrange, source of much scandalized gossip in town, resides.

Sign of the Hogshead cottage
Annapolis, Maryland
Carr and his characters call the house, or cottage, a bungalow, but it's actually described as

very small frame house, with a shingle roof, and even older than the [nearby eighteenth-century] brick house which had once been a tavern.  Its boards, carved and blistered by age and sun, had faded in paint color to an ugly pink.  At the front there were four windows, two on either side of the door.

It this facade which is captured on the Hamish Hamilton jacket illustration of The Dead Man's Knock (along with two depictions of Dr. Fell; see above).  In the bedroom of the cottage  Rose Lestrange is found early in the novel, after one splendid appearance, dead from a single knife stroke. 

The windows and the door are locked of the bedroom, of course.  Did the poisonous Rose stab herself?  On the surface it would seem so, but there is suspicion that what we really have is a locked room murder, devised by a dead man, Wilkie Collins himself....

Carr heightens the association of raven-haired, white-pallored Rose Lestrange with witchery by noting the two reproduction paintings she placed in her house.  In the center hall there is "a large black-and-white drawing, by Goya, of a Witches' Sabbath" while in her bedroom there is Antoine Joseph Wiertz's The Young Witch (1857).  "The young woman in the picture, peering sideways past black hair, would have suggested Rose Lestrange in life if she had been smiling."  Carr may have misremembered the color of the Rubenesque witch's hair, but the painting, with its disturbing intimations of erotic diablerie, is well chosen:

Evidently Antoine Wiertz's
The Young Witch
aka The Young Sorceress
had caught Carr's eye
Wiertz's painting is suitably charged with a combination of innocence, overt sexuality and supernatural danger.  Those lecherous faces in the top left corner reminds us that we too are voyeurs of this curious scene, lit by the voluptuous fleshtones of Wiertz's nubile temptress, who is provocatively "penetrated" by the thrusting, phallic broomstick.  The tension arising from the artist's cunning juxtaposition of painterly classicism and somewhat crude titillation invests the work with a striking, magical eroticism. (Chris Blackford, The Wonderful and Frightening World of Antoine Weirtz).

These are nice touches indeed, familiar to Carr fans, but on the whole Knock resembles nothing more than a hyper-emotional women's anxiety crime novel from the Fifties--a Mignon Eberhart, say, or perhaps a Leslie Ford.  These people at Queen's University are quite an excitable lot indeed. 

Carr himself keep telling us how worked up everyone is: "The emotional heat of the room had risen so high that it hissed when Caroline tried to cool it," Carr tells us at one point; at another that a character's "emotions [were] as bare as her arms."  This may be a turn off to some readers; it certainly turned me off twenty years ago when I first read it.  Since then I've read a lot of anxiety novels and gotten more acclimated to that style.  And, indeed, this style became increasingly more characteristic of Carr's own writing going all the way back The Problem of the Wire Cage (1939), another Carr I recall not enjoying.

I'll have to reread that one too someday, because my opinion of Knock has certainly lifted in two decades.   Before I lay out my defense of it, let me say something about the characters and plot of the novel.  The main characters in the story, besides the aforementioned murderee Rose Lestrange, are:

the library at Queen's College
becomes a prominent scene of action
in the middle section
of The Dead Man's Knock
when several characters converge there
Mark Ruthven (pronounced Riven), professor of English at Queen's College and discoverer of the lost Wilkie Collins letters.  He's forty and like Carr looks older than his age, due to "heavy vertical furrows down each cheek."

Brenda Ruthven, his pretty wife, who is thirty-two "and looks younger."  (But naturally, this is Carr.)  Mark has alienated her affections, with the result that she is now attracted to

Frank Chadwick, twenty-three, young ladies man and contemptible cad, who is the spoiled son of an important QU trustee.

That takes care of out triangle (a rectangle if you count Rose Lestrange). We also have:

unimaginative Caroline Kent, twenty-seven, daughter of

Samuel Kent, scholarly head of the history department and a native of England

as well as (back to Caroline) the fiancee of

excitable (even by the standards of this book) Toby Saunders, about Mark's age and a Pentagon historian.  He is, Carr notes sardonically, "among those who were preparing a history of World War II before others had finished their history of World War I."

And we also have

Judith Walker, widow of the late head of the English department, who lives near Rose Lestrange and spies on her curious comings and goings

Arnold Hewitt, unflappable Master of Queen's and holder of the chair in Latin, who has invited to come to the campus for a visit

Dr. Gideon Fell ("Impossible situations and all miracles unveiled!  Isn't that the fellow?")

Mark and Brenda are Carr's usual (by this time) pair of bickering protagonists, with the usual somewhat older husband (who looks older than he is) and his usual pretty but exasperating wife (who looks younger than she is); but at least Brenda comes off as more reasonable than Audrey from In Spite of Thunder, the latter of whom is perhaps the nadir in Carr's capricious "heroines."  These characters bicker enough that I was reminded of Martha and George from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Martin Edwards, who hated the book, condemned its characters' "neurotic squabbling"; and whether its neurotic or not there indeed is rather a lot of it.

like Martha and George, Brenda and Mark are not necessarily a couple
that you want to spend a lot of time with

Not only Frank Chadwick but Rose Lestrange is a disruptive presence in the Ruthven marriage, as she is elsewhere on campus as well.  Moreover there is a "joker" committing potentially lethal "pranks" at various college locales. (This part of the novel reminded me, as it did Martin, of Dorothy L. Sayers' Gaudy Night.)  Then Rose Lestrange winds up unnaturally dead.  Whodunit?  And how??

Ultimate Carr authority Doug Greene has criticized this novel as "static."  With one exception the novel indeed is confined to locations on the college campus, but still I preferred it to In Spite of Thunder, where, to be sure, characters dash back and forth across Geneva, Switzerland, but for what reasons it's often hard to discern.  I found the actions of the characters in Knock more comprehensible, which made them work better as characters (rather than puppets) for me.

just another typical Carr couple
The puzzle is quite intriguing, I think, nicely clued with a legitimate locked room problem.  I should also mention that a missing copy of Wilkie Collins' novel Armadale plays a role in the story.  Carr does throw in one red herring which he explains away at the end with breathtaking flippancy, but on the whole I felt this story worked much better than the two which immediately followed it, In Spite of Thunder and the "Victorian melodrama" Scandal at High Chimneys.

As for the criticized ending, which I can only discuss circumspectly, let me just plead that it is effectively foreshadowed and arguably not out of keeping with the characters personalities.  God knows it isn't the first time Dr. Fell acted in a highhanded manner concerning  a police investigation.  That the police would behave as Carr has them behave seems unlikely, I grant, or shall I say romantic?  Carr's crime fiction really does seem remarkably libertarian, breezily confident that people left to their own devices will reach "just" outcomes, if the State will just get out of the way. 

Historically, I regret to say, Carr's notion seems to have afforded the best outcomes to the privileged and well-connected, while everyone else depended on noblesse oblige from their capricious "betters."  Carr might have asked himself just how fair the state of Virginia was to all of its people in 1958.  That very year Mildred and Richard Loving were arrested in the state of Virginia and sentenced to a year in prison for having committed the crime of interracial marriage, making me dubious of  the smug assertion of Carr's cop Lieutenant Henderson's that "We're a peculiar lot here.  We believe in justice.

Indeed, Lieutenant?  For the "right" people, perhaps?  The South was affording precious little justice to blacks in 1958.  (Nor was the rest of the country exactly stellar in this regard.)  Carr didn't seem cognizant of this in his mysteries set in the American South.

Richard and Mildred Loving were rousted out of bed by Virginia's Sheriff R. Garnett Brooks
at two in the morning on July 11, 1958.  They were arrested and charged with violating
Virginia's Racial Integrity Act.  Since the Lovings were a peculiar pair (they believed in justice)
they challenged their conviction and nine years later won their case before the
Supreme Court of the United States in Loving v. Virginia

Yet while I find Carr's political views naive and at times indeed irksome, I like much of his detective fiction, including The Dead Man's Knock.  I can't help but disagree with The Green Capsule, which slams this book hard (it gets dismissed as "crap"), all the while looking relatively benignly on such poorly written late works like Panic in Box C and Dark of the Moon; but I'll try to be fair and give those two books a second look someday.  I see, from my marked copy, that there are entire paragraphs of Dark of the Moon that could be removed from the book with no loss (indeed, it would be an improvement).  Not a good sign!  But I'll save that criticism for another day.


  1. "The Dead Man's Knock ... is set over a few days in July 1948 (meaning it takes place in the year following the events detailed in Below Suspicion). "
    Could the book have actually been written at the time it was set and been delayed in appearing? A book whose setting was inspired bu a real place might not be publishable until memories have faded or people died.

    1. Below Suspicion was published in 1949 but takes place in 1947 for some reason, rather than 1948. There had been a two year gap between it and the previous Fell, The Sleeping Sphinx, maybe that is why.

      I think Carr would have published Knock earlier had he written it earlier, there was no reason to hold it. I'm sure his publishers would have loved an earlier Fell novel. The nine year gap is weird though. But then he had been writing few present day mysteries after he dropped HM in 1953. Only Patrick Butler for the Defence in 1956. My guess is he was just finding the historical mysteries more fun to write.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. I'll have to reread Dark of the Moon (shudder), but it was one of the last original Carrs I read and I would be surprised if my view changed. I don't recall The Green Capsule's "Neck snapping twist" or whatever he called it in Dark of the Moon, but I do recall the awful prolix prose, those ridiculous nicknames and tedious characters with their silly antics. the miracle problem wasn't even interesting in my recollection. The solution as I recall turns on the usual Carr obsession as he grew older. I don't see how anyone who has read a lot of late Carr could be surprised by that element!

      I can see why people don't like The Dead Man's Knock and In Spite of Thunder, but all the things people don't like about those books seem magnified one hundred fold in Dark of the Moon. I found it nearly unreadable. Oh, and Carr's attempts to write "southern"--cringe! It's not only worse than Knock and Thunder, it's worse than The House at Satan's Elbow, which only came two years earlier, by quite a stretch.

      I read Panic in Box C not long before Moon and while it's more coherently told, it's got A LOT of the same problems as Moon. I hated it. the late Noah Stewart did a great piece on it explaining in detail why it fails on multiple levels.

      To be honest, though, I didn't like Knock (or Thunder) much the first times I read them either. I felt the same about Thunder on rereading it (or if anything liked it less), but I actually though Knock was better than I remembered. But, like I said, I have read a lot of women's anxiety crime fiction in the interim. If you can get past the bickering and lack of realism concerning the police behavior (which is deliberate on Carr's part) and the melodrama at the end (okay that's three things I know), there's actually a rather nicely clued plot with a neat little locked room. And the characters are more rational than the ones in Thunder, though that's setting a low bar! I didn't feel Carr pushed the bounds of credibility as much as he did in Thunder, except concerning the police behavior.

    2. Whoops, I just did a long reply to your post and now you have deleted it. Ah well!

    3. I think you must have replied after I inadvertently named you as the person who liked Dark of the Moon. I thought I got that corrected in time, sorry!

  3. This is, I think, one of only three "minor" Fell novels I have failed to read. Very glad to hear it is better than some suggest! Great post Curtis, thanks. Have a great Christmas.

    1. I actually liked this one quite a bit on rereading, hope I don't set up too high expectations. I didn't like it that much the first time.

  4. "I agree that Knock is Carr's best pure puzzle novel (with miracle problem) of the decade and it's much more readable than it seems today to get credited with being."

    I believe I mentioned this before in one of your JDC blog-posts, but The Dead Man's Knock, together with In Spite of Thunder, were Carr's last great performances as the Master of the Locked Room Mystery. They both have a great impossible crimes with original solutions. I particular remember the clever locked room-trick here and the clue hidden in the Wilkie Collins letter, which I remember was better handled than the lost Dupin short story from The Mad Hatter Mystery.

    Dr. Fell's career should have ended with these two novels instead of with the abysmal trio of The House at Satan's Elbow, Panic in Box C and Dark of the Moon.

    1. I was interested to see that I didn't like In Spite of Thunder much, though I agree the locked room mechanics are interesting, when on rereading I liked The Dead Man's Knock quite a bit. I didn't like the last three Fells years ago when I read them, especially Panic in Box C and Dark of the Moon, which I thought were just painful, but someday I may give Dark of the Moon another look. I have already taken another look at another late Fell.