It doesn’t take far into Carr’s oeuvre before a reader begins to recognize the signposts. Here’s the meet-cute and there’s the first brief mention of the curse/legend/myth which will soon be tragically reenacted for our ghoulish pleasure. The foolish authority figure (not quite so foolish this time round), the suspicious relatives, and the blusterous authority of Dr. Fell all make their scheduled appearance. Yes, this is the debut for Gideon Fell and, as such, we get a bit more information about his passions than in later novels. Hag’s Nook was Carr’s fifth book, and perhaps I’m getting Carred-out, but it doesn’t hold up quite as well as the other early Carr I’ve read, It Walks By Night. Not that there isn’t much to love.
The Problem: The Starberth family have a long tradition serving as governors of Chatterham Prison. They also have a long tradition of mysterious broken necks. Next to (necks to–ha, i crack myself up) the prison is the chilling gully called Hag’s Nook where many a prisoner prayed for a quick death. The ancestral family will requires the eldest Starberth son to spend the evening of his 25th birthday in the governors room among the cobwebs, ivy, ghosts. Things…er…don’t work out so well.
It’s in the prison where Carr achieves his most creepy effects, Spiders swing from webs within an iron maiden’s mouth, windows are choked with nettles, and every room is mildewed and airless. It’s a wonderfully macabre setting. However, he did much more with much less effort in It Walks By Night. Perhaps it’s odd I would compare the two, but they are both very Poe inspired and heavily reliant on atmosphere and they were written two years apart.
The Investigation: I enjoyed the back and forth between Fell and Sir Benjamin. It comes of less of Fell lecturing (though he does) and more of two men working out the problem. They run through the possibility of mechanism with Fell giving a nice account of the requirements of Detective Fiction when it comes to mechanical devices — Some of the most far-fetched of the death traps have been real ones, like Nero’s collapsing ship, or the poisoned gloves that killed Charles VII. No, no. I don’t mind your being improbable. The point is that you haven’t any grounds to be improbable on. That’s where you’re far behind the detective stories. They may reach an improbable conclusion, but they get there on good sound improbable evidence that’s in plain sight. Truer words have rarely been spoken.
The clues are fair but obscure. There’s some confusion about fair play. One does not need to be able to solve a mystery for it to be fair, rather one must have the tools to solve it at his/her disposal. Arguing that no one can solve it is very different than arguing that the solution comes out of left field. Hag’s Nook plays fair, even dangling the evidence in ways that can easily be misinterpreted.
The Solution: It’s good enough, not terribly inspired but satisfying and well thought out. The villain of the piece takes on a tragic dimension that may not be supported in so far as we have not spent enough time with the ‘true’ him/her to process it. In other Carr books, he much more cleverly gave us the villain’s flaw in a quick (hidden) line or two.
Overall, I enjoyed Hag’s Nook, but I feel like it’s time to take a break from Carr. The House at Satan’s Elbow and Panic in Box C were not particularly enjoyable experiences, and I may be reading them too quickly. So, no Carr for a few months. Just as I say that, The Crooked Hinge is staring at me from a pile of books on my nightstand. Sigh.
Happy Thanksgiving to my American readers. And I guess…happy Thursday to everyone else. It’s kind of bland without all the food.
6 thoughts on “Hag’s Nook”
I don’t know man… I can get those two late year Dr Fell books getting you down, but Hag’s Nook should have been a triumphant breath of air after that. It’s top 15 Carr territory for sure, and if it didn’t connect then something’s off. Doctor’s orders – take two First Period Ellery Queen novels (or The Tragedy of X) and then read The Crooked Hinge.
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Top 15 Carr is high praise indeed. I think my experience of reading this is affected by the Rue Morgue Press edition promising an impossible crime — at a time when I was high on Carr and fictional impossibilities in general — and then there, like, isn’t an impossible crime and I found that very disappointing indeed.
The atmosphere in the prison is magnificent though, and it was the first time I became aware of how well Carr gets different tones butting heads so seamlessly: the comfortable domesticity of the Fell household, with this ominous prison and its bloody history on the skyline (no wonder Fell never goes home again…). It’s much more obvious that he’s swinging between different evocations of dread, he hasn’t yet picked up the subtlety he would in his later career, but it being more obvious is, I think, the thing that made me appreciate how well he does it.
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The lack of an impossible crime was disappointing, not because I was expecting one, but because the murder itself seemed underwhelming. When Rampole found the body, it was too…murky? Another thing, HN didn’t surprise me much within the narrative. Sure the solution was good, but Carr usually has a narrative twist or two up his sleeve. The second murder in It Walks By Night is a good example–we were on a path (uncertain as it might have been) and then our footing got lost again. There’s nothing like that in HN. It felt almost straightforward.
It doesn’t help that the MacGuffin in Hag’s Nook is so damn pedestrian, too. After some very enjoyable shenanigans I couldn’t help but feel a bit let down by how wholesale it could have been lifted from any number of other novels…
I still have a lot of Carr left to read, so technically it has a tenuous position in the top 15. HN felt like a long time rolling out the plot and there wasn’t all that much to roll out. The elements for a great book are there. I just thought it a bit misshapen. With regret, I must refuse your prescription. Black Aura is coming in the mail and I’m dying to read it.