book review

Death Turns the Tables (aka Seat of the Scornful)

It’s time for me to take a break from John Dickson Carr. Fortunately, I can’t imagine a better novel with which to pause than Death Turns the Tables. After the unfocused nonsense of The Punch and Judy Murders, here is a novel with nearly perfect construction. Every chapter builds on the previous one, adding only new (and highly contradictory) information and clues while subtly shifting the reader’s sympathies. Though I’ll grant the questionability of the last chapter, I truly believe Carr has earned the right to pull the freshly placed rugs out from under our feet. This is a towering achievement done on a small scale.

The Problem: Judge Ireton (a strict, no-nonsense sort of fellow) hopes his daughter Constance will marry the defense attorney, Fred Barlow. Imagine his displeasure when she decides to marry Anthony Morell(i), an Eye-talian with a checkered past, questionable morals, and uncertain finances. In fact, the judge sees right through Morell, immediately offering him 3000 pounds to leave his daughter. Morell agrees and comes for his money the following night. He’s found in the judge’s home with the 3 grand…and a bullet in his brain…and red sand under his body.

The Investigation: The American title of the book is apt because the tables are constantly being turned. Gideon Fell does little talking throughout, acting more like a wise sage than an investigator. Most of the investigation is done by Inspector Graham, and I enjoyed his character very much. He has a respect for Ireton, making his job extremely difficult because of the mountain of evidence against the judge. Constance claims to have witnessed the murder, but that is difficult to believe–she was at a telephone box more than 300 yards away. Whom was she calling? Jane Tennant, a woman in love with Barlow. Oh, I almost forgot–Barlow was near the scene of the murder. He ran over a bum who then vanished. ( I love how Carr’s non-impossible crime novels still feel impossible.) To top it all off, the gun is the exact one used on Morell years before.

The Solution: The concatenation here is out of sight. Remember that stuff about the prism in Punch and Judy? Oh yeah, you don’t…because it was horribly presented. Everything here works–the missing bullet, the vanishing hobo, the m—-. It’s crystal clear and (even at its most ridiculous) it makes sense. I can’t be too specific without spoiling things, but there’s a scene between Constance and Jane that is among the most subtly suspenseful Carr every wrote. Ditto for the gathering of all the suspects. It’s a reminder of how good the man was when he was on his game.

DTtT is one of Carr’s shorter novels and it’s bereft of his usual impossible hook, but you won’t feel like anything’s missing. I especially appreciated his use of the third person. We get a clear view of the conversations before the crime, making us privy to facts Fell doesn’t know, and yet (deliciously), that doesn’t help us much. It only deepens the mystery and makes the book more entertaining.

As for the last chapter–I’m not going to try and convince you. You’ll feel however you want about it. I disliked it at first, but as it played out, I appreciated the chutzpah. And I even appreciated Fell’s lack of morals. In an age when people salivate over criticizing and cancelling others, it was a good reminder that everyone is flawed and everyone has their reasons. Personally, I empathized with Fell.

9 thoughts on “Death Turns the Tables (aka Seat of the Scornful)”

    1. It’s great storytelling–presenting mood, exposition, and character within the narrative.

      British cover designer — “It features a strict judge and a shooting. Those should feature prominently.”

      American cover designer — “Can we lower that robe a bit more?”

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I was pretty excited to see this as your next read. I’d heard of it as a bit of a hidden gem when I picked it up, and it actually lived up to expectations. Glad it lived up to yours too.
    Everyone goes on about how Carr is the master of the impossible mystery, and leaves out the part where he’s also the master of the intricate and baffling murder situation which twists and repositions itself at every turn. Well, I guess it takes longer to say that one.
    I think I might even like this subgenre more than the impossible crime – more likely to have the ending come off cleanly. Of course, Carr often does both in the same book…


    1. “Well, I guess it takes longer to say that one.”

      Absolutely. It’s also harder to describe the hook for each particular book. The basic impossible crime has an easy (and interesting) hook. “A dead man killed in a locked room.” A one-sentence hook for Death Turns the Tables is not so simple.


  2. I have a gorgeous edition of this (the exact same in the post picture, actually!), but it’s on the verge of falling apart. So I’m in a sort of quandary; do I read it and let it fall apart, leave it be, or get another edition? The dilemmas that face us old mystery fiction fans.

    I think that this review, alongside so several others which have lauded it, will probably push me over the edge. It’s such an underrepresented book in Carr’s chronology, but the few reviews that I have read have been unanimous in their praise. As a book, it seems to go against so much of what Carr was known for, especially during this period of his career, but experimentation is bound to bring about masterpieces. Then again, last time I read a “straight” Carr novel (The Emperor’s Snuff Box), I immediately caught upon the solution, so I hope that doesn’t happen here 🙂.


  3. You know, jumping from Punch and Judy and right into DTtT is like admiring a Manet after a Mondrian. And I’m not talking about quality here, but contrast. One is a madcap chase with extraneous components, the other a fairly serious “plot and nothing but the plot” affair. Feels like Jason Voorhees took on Manhattan, blade ready and all, within the first ten minutes this time around , eh, James?
    Now, this is a pretty good book whose only fault, IMO, is being too dry. It lacks the sense of oppression and tension Carr was known for. I would put it alongside TESB and TMWCNS, just a tad below the great and excellent Carrs. Not bad at all.


  4. “It lacks the sense of oppression and tension Carr was known for.”

    We’ll have to disagree here. The tension is in the characters and our shifting sympathies. The Judge is constantly placed on a chair while the witnesses and cops play games around him. I think a lot of the tension comes from not knowing if he’s in the judge’s seat or the witness’s. The pool sequence is beautifully tense.

    “…fairly serious…”

    Yeah, but this made me laugh so hard I nearly choked to death on my grapes.

    “The girl at the telephone exchange was reading ‘True Sex-Life Stories’.
    Florence sometimes wondered whether these stories were really true. But of course, the magazine wouldn’t dare print them unless they were; and they sounded true, too. With a sigh of envy, Florence thought that the girls in the stories, no matter how irretrievable ruined, always managed to have such a good time. Nobody had ever offered to ruin her in so many interesting ways. And this white-slave business, though no doubt it was all very horrible, still…”


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