Death-Watch by John Dickson Carr (1935)

The door to No. 16 Lincoln’s Inn Fields stands open, then from the darkness inside is heard a moan, a cry, and an accusation. A man lies dead, stabbed in the neck with the gilt-painted minute hand of clock. 

Dr. Gideon Fell is at the scene with his friend Professor Walter S. Melson, discussing the murder of a shop-walker, killed by a shop-lifter who has stolen several items from a busy store. The dead man in No. 16 just happens to be the detective who was investigating the shop-walker murder. And No. 16, the home of the clockmaker who made that gilt-painted minute hand. This is a house full of suspects with motives and plots. As the story unfolds, you are given clues that, if the reader is clever enough, can be used to deduce the identity of the murderer. This reader was, as usual, not that clever. 

Unlike in The Blind Barber, Fell is part of the action throughout, never in the background, and he is in great form. The scenes with Hadley where they argue a character’s innocence or guilt were especially good. The descriptions of Fell are splendid, providing us with more than the usual beer swilling and eye twinkling – “Dr. Fell, a slave to the charms of Miss Miriam Hopkins, had insisted on sitting through the picture twice.” “To Melson’s rather fanciful brain there was something almost goblin like in the doctor’s big figure in it’s cloak, with the breeze blowing the ribbon on his eyeglasses, peering down on him in the narrow passage.”

Carr’s skill at writing continues to impress me. It is striking how it actually makes me feel like an observer of the action as events unfold. He is so adept in his use of language, using it to conjure up an atmosphere of darkness and dread – 

The moonlight came into the room with a pale bluish color…Bascombe stood in that weird light, moving his shoulders up and down, and I heard the safety catch click on the pistol when he released it. The doorbell started again, horribly, and buzzed a couple of bursts – the victim clamoring to come into the trap.”

And to build tension as the story moves toward it’s conclusion –

For a second the tableau held, emotion arrested at its climax and in the weird facial distortions of its climax; with the currents of it, hatred or tears or anger or jubilation, flowed out palpably at the watchers. 

This is top-notch Carr. He has created a devilishly complicated and thoroughly entertaining story which I highly recommend.

My Ruling – Originally I gave this a 4.25/5, but in writing my review I felt I had to up it…so 4.5/5

Prior Judgments – Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World, Kate @ crossexaminingcrime, Ben @ The Green Capsule

2 thoughts on “Death-Watch by John Dickson Carr (1935)

  1. I was so taken with this book when I read it — entirely unheralded as it was, unlike The Judas Window or He Who Whispers, etc — and it was this title that convinced me not just to read Carr but to read everything by Carr. It has its detractors, as does literally every book ever published, but the compactness of the setting, the layering of events, the way every action is examined and re-examined, and the fact that the essential idea ends up so simple even while the plot has gone through twist after twist…who else can do that, eh?

    Really pleased you enjoyed this one, it seems to get a kicking more than I feel is fair (and, yes, I’m aware of the lie Carr tells…); in time, people will come around to our way of thinking 🙂

  2. I think there are some who don’t like having the wool pulled over their eyes, so they feel cheated by Carr on this one (“if he hadn’t said ‘that’ I could have solved it”, or “if he had told us ‘that’ I could have picked out the murderer). Not me…trust no one…even Carr! And the fun of Carr is that he does tell you everything…he just may twist it a bit so you don’t recognize it.

    I think this may be the one that cements my Carr fixation too. I’ve now got all of the Fells, about half of the Merrivales, several of the historicals, and a couple of the Bencolins. I’m slowing obtaining all of them…yes even Papa La-Bas, which Ben @thegreencapsule says “has has no redeeming value.” 😉

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