PODCAST MANIA, PART II: The Crooked Hinge (with Flex and Herds)

This thing was wrong. Terrors should not be domestic terrors. It was like being told that in your own home you may completely disappear for four hours. It was like being told that in your own home you may open a familiar door, and enter not your own room, but a room you have never seen before, where something is waiting.”

The problem with revisiting the work of your favorite authors is that you can discover that a book you once loved doesn’t do it for you anymore. You hold that once beloved volume in your arms and you wonder, “Where did the magic go?” The Greek Coffin Mystery was so enticing when we first met, taking me down an alluring path of mystery to an explosive climax. When did it become such a drag? And Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? was such a funny fellow the first time we crossed paths; now it produces nary a giggle. 

Don’t be sad, old friends, it happens: we grow up, we change. It’s not you, it’s me. I’ll just return you to the shelf and slowly walk away, not looking back. 

For many years, when people would ask me the title of my favorite John Dickson Carr novel, my reply would be: The Crooked Hinge. I read a lot of Carr in my teenaged years. I can’t remember much about them, except general impressions, and the impression with which Hinge left me was unbridled joy. Back then, people would respond to my choice with a murmur: “Oh, yes, fine book!” But over the past few years, a minor shemozzle has evolved over The Crooked Hinge. Its greatness has diminished. Many opine that the false solution is better than the real one. My friend JJ has suggested that the addition of one sentence would fix the book’s flaws.

Having not returned to the novel for – can it be? – half a century, I wasn’t able to defend it. Instead – and here is where I must confess the sordid truth – I cheated on The Crooked Hinge! I started calling He Who Whispers my favorite Carr novel. I confess it . . . I took the easy way out. But first loves come back to haunt you, and I kept asking myself: how did we lose our way? If we only spent a little time together again, could we get the magic back? 

I remember only a few things about Hinge: the premise of “which man is the real heir?” the name of the killer, and a little four-word sentence that had shocked me to pieces at the time as it unraveled the truth. A re-read was in order, and yet my damned TBR pile kept getting in the way! And then, a chance offer upped the stakes and provided me with the perfect opportunity: my good friends, Flex and Herds, those playful co-hosts of Death of the Reader, the mystery lover’s podcast from Down Under, invited me to guide them along on their very first read of this classic Carr title. 

It works like this: over a three-week period, the boys will read the novel and try to solve the puzzle, while I grunt encouragingly and smirk as hard as one can in audio format. In the end, I believe I get to reward points or something to the one who comes up with the most correct answer. If you’ve read the book, it’s fun to listen along as the boys get it all wrong, but honestly, they’re very good at this game. And with both of them applying their little grey cells to the same book, there’s a good chance they will figure everything out by the end. 

You can find Death of the Reader wherever you listen to podcasts. (Here’s a link to the first episode on YouTube.) Meanwhile, in order to prepare for my duties, I finally picked my old love down from the shelf after so many years and re-read it. Can I tell you that I admit to some trepidation as I began? These long-awaited reunions can disappoint you. 

I needn’t have worried: the old book is still fabulous. 

The premise is great: two men vie for the title of squire in the village of Mallingford in Kent. The real John Farnleigh has a dark and colorful past: a disfavored second son banished at fifteen to America for his wild ways with women and unseemly interest in witchcraft, he was unlucky to choose the Titanic for his crossing but lucky enough to survive its destruction. Is the man who returned to England soon after the death of his parents and brother and became a model citizen the real Sir John, or is the cynical, but attractive man who has recently arrived to challenge the title the rightful heir?

It all leads, of course, to murder, and you couldn’t ask for a spookier, more cunning impossible crime. A man is murdered right out in the open, in the creepy garden abutting Farnleigh Close, in full view of witnesses who swear that nobody was near him when he struggled, cried out and fell to the ground, his throat cut. How could he have died by anything but his own hand? And yet, the evidence against suicide is equally compelling. 

Was the victim murdered by an evil spirit, summoned by the witches who gossips say have long practiced their dark arts in the nearby wood? Or was the killer something even more fiendish and strange that resides in the Farnleigh attic? And which man is the real John Farnleigh – because, according to Dr. Gideon Fell, who has arrived with Scotland Yard to look into another murder that occurred the previous summer, the way you look at the murder depends on the answer to that question.

If I was worried that, like some of those old Ellery Queens, this book would drag and disappoint, I needn’t have bothered. It’s a lively read, with an intimate cast that grows more suspicious as the plot clicks along. Carr is one of the best at proposing one theory after another that turns the tables on our expectations until we’re dizzy with wondering what the truth may be. Characters flip from heroes to villains and back again in our minds. Clues are trotted out and waved in our faces or slipped in through the cracks. 

Even knowing the solution as I did coming in the second time, I had great fun watching the case unfold and little pieces of evidence present themselves. I also loved the lively, spooky tone that presides over the proceedings, landing us with a little kick at the end of every chapter. Even the scenes where people just talk about the case are drenched in atmosphere, like a late-night tête-a- tête in a cozy cottage between two young people who are falling in love, only the talk is about murder and sorcery while outside in the garden a hideous monster awaits . . . 

Dr. Fell doesn’t lecture much here or even “harrumph” a lot, but he’s a marvelous presence. And when he does pontificate on murder cases in general, even a little, he’s especially entertaining. Here he is discussing the tendency of murderers, once emboldened by success, to kill again and again: 

We’ve known cases in which the murderer, after taking careful pains about his original crime, then goes berserk and begins to eliminate people all over the place. It seems to be like getting olives out of a bottle: you have infinite trouble with the first one, and the rest roll out all over the table. Without, indeed, anybody seeming to pay much attention to them.

Fell need have no fear of a broken olive bottle from this killer, who is possessed of their own strong moral code, a person who had no qualms about committing a savage murder and yet explains late in the game why certain people who held damning knowledge against them were always safe from harm: “These are real persons I have known, not dummies to pad out a chapter; and they are not to be treated like stuffed cats at a fair.” These statements by Fell and the murderer are part of Carr’s meta-fictional game that he likes to play – just another quality that we love about him! 

The ending of the book might be said to be controversial, although this has nothing to do with false solutions versus real ones. No, the controversy has to do with the killer’s ultimate fate, which I had completely forgotten. (We can discuss it in the comments section.) Regarding the solutions, I personally think that the false one is great, and it has an important purpose to it. However, the real solution is magnificent, bold, and crazy. That said, both these theories are pure “Golden Age,” and one must embrace that knowledge when reading this – or practically any – impossible crime novel. These are the most fanciful of mysteries, inspiring joy in their fans and ridicule from their detractors. 

It makes me think of one of the great love affairs of the 20th century between comedian husband-and-wife team George Burns and Gracie Allen. As they stood before the audience and Gracie applied her scattered logic to her family members or the simple events of her day, George’s expression would grow a little tighter, and his questions would come a little faster. And then, he would simply . . . relax, take a puff from his cigar, and say, “Goodnight, Gracie.” 

That’s what you have to do with books like Carr’s The Crooked Hinge, or Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit or Scott Byrnside’s The Five False Suicides or little Jimmy Noy’s The Red Death Murders: instead of bemoaning the fact that the killer could have simply pushed Monica off the balcony but instead manufactured a trap with a cannon ball, a goldfish bowl, and a harmonica, you need to take a slow drag on the fantasy, let it out with a contented sigh, and say: 

Thank you, Mr. Carr, and good night.

29 thoughts on “PODCAST MANIA, PART II: The Crooked Hinge (with Flex and Herds)

  1. So glad it held up for you. I feel exactly the same way – it is so clever, packs so much in, has such great visual ideas that it is a bit of a wonder. But yeah, as the PuzzleDoc rightly points out, it does also cheat on an alibi clue. Shame that. But it’s still fabulous after all these decades. As the Doc is still going strong, I’ll post the link to where we discussed it all those years ago – hope that’s OK Brad?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for adding the link, Sergio. I must say that reading it depressed me a little – oh, not for PD’s negative opinion (the world has room for difference of opinion, even if it’s WRONG). Reading the comments section, including long-gone friends like Realthog and even words from people you never see in these conversations, like Les Blatt, made me wonder if the all-too-brief heyday of classic mystery blogs has come and gone. Ah, well . . .

      The only comment I will make to your debate is that you are visiting the blog of a man who has suffered through so many boring middle sections that he breaks out in a rash, and I did not find the middle section here dull at all. There’s remarkably little in the way of interviews, and I don’t think those discussions were too long or ever boring. For boring, let’s go back to The Eight of Swords, which, for me, was an awful mess of a wallow.

      VAGUE SPOILERS FOLLOW:

      Oh, and one other thing: the “cheat” . . . are we talking about the alibi? Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t: the reason for the alibi might not be well-established, but there is a reason for it, just as there is FINALLY a good reason for the false solution. (Most of the time, those are offered and they’re just wrong.) I didn’t mind any of it.

      The only thing that bothered me is that I hadn’t remembered the killer’s fate, and while Carr and others have occasionally done this, I’m not sure that it was warranted here. Maybe the victim’s supposed villainy was too ambiguously presented for me to get why his death should receive no justice.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The cheat on the alibi, as I recall (not easily done for me nowadays and, as you say, sad to see the likes of John gone though at least partially preserved) is that Carr pretty much lies saying the suspect was in position A in the garden when it turns out they were in position B. I think … The GAD blogosphere seems pretty healthy but we are definitely into the next phase!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. My memory of this is it being baroque, multi-coloured, larger-than-life, and probably just a smidge off wonderful. The closing stages delighted me, while some people no doubt find that final chapter unbelievable or underwhelming, I loved the invention and chutzpah of it all. And it’s not even Carr’s most outlandish solution…which I think give me yet another reason to love the man and his work.

    I bought the AMC reissue of this a little while ago and am very much looking forward to diving back into it at some stage. Although, as your opening comments suggest, having found The Plague Court Murders somewhat less than brilliant upon rereading, part of me wonders if I should just leave this in the memory banks where it’s happy…

    Liked by 3 people

    • Well, as I said, this was my big worry, especially hearing all the lack of love for TCH over the past few years. Ultimately, it’s a matter of taste. You DID love The Eight of Swords, which I found abominable, but we both love The Punch and Judy Murders, which many others abhor. Re-reads, it seems, are a huge gamble for long-time mystery fans. This time around, it really paid off for me because the set-up and the execution were so much fun that, if the book does have flaws, they did not bother me at all. Plus, it was fun as hell to read this with the AWS (Aussie Whippersnapper Squad)!

      Liked by 1 person

        • I’ll definitely reread it in due course, but there are plenty of other Carrs I’ve not yet reviewed to reread first. Should hypotism be required, I’ll get in touch.

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  3. I wouldn’t say the fate of the killer is controversial… Carr made a habit of that kind of conclusion imo.
    My issues with it were whether the solution really solves the problem set out at the start. Maybe I should reread it to see just how fair he was!
    I can’t wait for the next podcast episode. That was a fun listen and I’m looking forward to seeing their theories develop.

    Liked by 2 people

    • SPOILERS FOLLOW:

      The killer here possesses a great deal of cleverness and charm, but honestly, he is a scoundrel with a long list of scoundrel-like behavior that victimized other people. (He was a bad child and a thriving con artist.) His confederate may not have been totally responsible for two women’s deaths, but she helped them along. There’s very little to admire about this pair, but I suppose Carr is championing their non-conformity. We get a sense that both were stifled by the conventional behavior of rural aristocrats, which allows the author to favor them over a man who, while similarly flawed, didn’t deserve to be murdered in the way that some “awful” GAD victims do.

      This is interesting to me because my Book Club was just talking about another character in another author’s book – the victim in Anthony Berkeley’s Jumping Jenny – who was also stifled to the point of being an “enemy of the people” and consequently killed. There, too, the murderer gets away with it, and quite frankly, nobody seems to even care that she died.

      Liked by 1 person

      • SPOILERS CONTINUE:
        I don’t think the killer here is deserving of being let off – though Carr does seem to find him compelling, I think this is intended as a “horror ending”. Carr lets off other irredeemable culprits in other books I won’t name, and occasionally calls out the fact that this ending isn’t just. Sometimes Carr goes for the full “order is restored” ending, and sometimes the worst character in the book escapes consequence-free. Iirc this is the first one of his I read that had this kind of ending, and I was non-plussed. Other times, I’ve been infuriated. One time, I even loved to hate the villain.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. The next release of LRI is the English translation of Masahiro Imamura’s second novel which is a sequel to his first novel (Death Among The Undead) with the same 2 young detectives.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There was so much that I had forgotten even existed in this book between reads, and I was very young the first time and thought only of trying to solve the case. Perhaps it’s insolvable, perhaps it doesn’t play entirely fair – I don’t mind that at all, since it was such a pleasure to read. I hope that if you DO re-read it, you find similar pleasures in store!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I have read Crooked Hinge twice now and it remains one of my very favorite Carr titles. It is the perfect encapsulation of what he did as a mystery writer with the impossibilities and particularly the atmosphere. There’s a reason this book shows up on lists of great horror novels. It’s so unsettling and creepy and the ultimate solution plays into the baroque-ness of the whole thing. (If this had been turned into a film in the ’30s, you could easily see someone like Tod Browning taking a kind of perverse joy in the finale.) Carr makes it all seem so effortless and that’s why it’s such a joy to read and revisit.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. My complaint about this novel is not that of its physical implausibility (or some would argue, impossibility). I would just say that the unique characteristic of the culprit is too thinly-clued for my tastes. It is certainly not that there is no indication of it, but that the indications allow for too wide a range of possible explanations to satisfy me. Again— as always— there is no objective standard for clue sufficiency, but this work doesn’t reach my subjective standard of sufficiency, so that when the culprit offers his four word bombshell, it surprised me but did not strike me as retrospectively inevitable.

    That said, I find the most interesting and compelling first half of a mystery novel I’ve ever read. And the misdirection at the time of the murder— just after Carr has offered us a chapter-heading quote on misdirection— is stunning.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I can certainly understand this set of clues being a bit thin, but (spoilers) gur snpg gur phycevg fcraqf gur ragver abiry xvpxvat guvatf gb cebir uvf yrtf jbex vf bar bs gur shaavrfg rcvcunavrf V’ir rire unq ernqvat n abiry.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Uh oh it looks like WordPress ate my first comment.
    This was a great read, Brad (both the post and the novel!), I really like your point about how consensus changes our perspective on the things we read. I was talking with some friends recently about Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight’ compared to Matt Reeves ‘The Batman’, because I actually preferred the latter. It’s become really difficult to articulate quite why The Dark Knight never clicked with me, since over the years my own experience became drowned out in my own mind by the consensus of its brilliance. One of the things I really like about our format on Death of the Reader, basically having an ‘advocate’ for the story, really helps to bring out the best of a novel, so that even if one of us doesn’t quite get it at first, we can find the joy of the story. I still think it’s good to be critical of the stories we experience, but it’s also important, I think, to not be cynical about them, because there’s joy in most novels, even The Floating Admiral.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Felix, much as I want to hold you down and shake you until you come up with three things that ARE good about The Floating Admiral, I heartily agree with the idea of an advocate. As JJ, Moira and I discuss Agatha Christie’s work, we have often disagreed, and the joy in listening back doesn’t lie in the “fun” of hearing conflict but in the playing off of advocacy vs. criticism. This was especially true for me with Cards on the Table, which probably has garnered a lot more mixed opinion than Five Little Pigs, over which we also had some disagreement. There are opinions that one can argue against logically (i.e. whether Five Little Pigs does or doesn’t play fair), and then there are those emotional reactions to another’s argument or opinion. If someone finds Cards on the Table boring, I can only argue emotionally, based on my long-standing admiration for a novel that, over the years and several readings, has only grown. My hope is that the passion of both sides fuels the listener; I know that I am enjoying hearing back our conversation on The Crooked Hinge as much for the fun we seem to be having as for our opinions.

      Now . . . let’s get to Batman, who is probably my favorite drawn character. Again, we come upon him from different perspectives. I was introduced to Batman in the 60’s comic books, which means that I also read some 50’s comics coming out of second-hand shops. This Batman was much more a straightforward hero, and even if his appearance struck fear in the hearts of his enemies, there was little to nothing of “The Dark Knight” about him. Plus, he had Robin, the Boy Wonder – the perfect stand-in for eager lads like myself – and the kid had to be in bed at a decent hour.

      Next, there was the Adam West series, where Batman devolved into pure camp. Listen, I devoured this show, with its casting of old and new Hollywood stars as the villains (I loved Frank Gorshin as the Riddler), but this one was played for laughs, which goes to show the mood of the country at the time.

      Then the comics changed, and sadly – due to a dispute with my mom – I had stopped reading them just as everything turned dark, the art and writing got better, and a new Batman was born. Tim Burton captured some of this darkness and creepiness, and while his version was bound to date, particularly because he overstayed his welcome and not all his leading men were right, his films were entertaining.

      I thought Christopher Nolan’s trilogy was great, and while there’s no doubt Heath Ledger made a fabulously dangerous Joker, I was more creeped out by Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow in the first film. Then came the TV series GOTHAM, but this coincided with my growing antipathy for ultra-violence and gore, and I gave up on the show after two seasons.

      I go on about this because your comment came exactly as I was trying to watch the new The Batman for the first time. Frankly, I gave up on it because, like all the other DC-based films of recent years, it’s dark to the point of murkiness, and I could tell that the Riddler’s first murder would be a harbinger of awful violence to come. (And I was right.) So I certainly won’t disagree with your opinion about your favorite Batman movie so far, particularly since – like all the Agatha Christie adaptations fans fight over on my blog and on Facebook – every new film extends people’s interest in someone in whom I have much interest and affection! Who am I to halt that??? I just think Robert Pattinson’s version of the character is TOO scarred and TOO damaged – and that Gothic nightmare he lives in (both his house and his city) would make anyone voluntarily commit themselves to Arkham Asylum!

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  8. Very impressed with the podcasters.

    I am fine with the murderer getting away, he has suffered a lot, and ends up losing his rightful inheritance when he flees.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think I’m more upset with HER getting away with everything: a bored housewife enticing others into drug use (which kills them) and shooting at the woman who had captured the heart of the husband she despised??? And Patrick is the guy who seduced her into that life? I understand he paid a huge price for his misspent youth, and he was very clear that nobody else was to get hurt! I guess they deserve each other.

      Like

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