The Man Who Could Not Shudder by John Dickson Carr (1940)

There are stories about Longwood House with its reputation for strange deaths and bizarre incidents. A death, over a century previous, attributed to witchcraft; an elderly, and reputedly sane, butler swings from a heavy chandelier, only to have it fall and crush him to death; a chair jumps across a room, flying at a man. It is because of these stories that Martin Clarke buys the house, and once it is renovated, leads him to invite a select group of guests for a haunted weekend. During that weekend they are confronted by mysterious grasping hands, a long stopped clock that begins to tick on it’s own, and the infamous chandelier is seen to move. Then one of the guests is shot dead in a room overlooked by witnesses. His wife was with him when it happened, she swears no one else was in the room, that the gun came off the wall, hung in midair and fired, on it’s own.

‘I didn’t do it. They did it’

‘Who did it?’

‘The room did it,’ answered Gwyneth.’”

One would think that a story written by Carr about a haunted house would be rife with Gothic or ghostly atmosphere, yet there is none here. In it’s place he creates tension between the characters, skillfully producing an atmosphere of unease and distrust. These characters are there not out of friendship, but because of their “emotional type”, to gauge their reactions to a supposed haunted house, so of course tensions run high.

Gideon Fell arrives in the company of Scotland Yard Inspector Andrew Elliot with an introductory salvo that is the best I’ve read so far. And this is one of the many things that I love about Carr— his ability to give substance to a thing. In this case it was Dr. Gideon Fell. And in that moment I could visualize him and hear the inflection in his voice.

‘Sir,’ intoned Dr. Fell, with Johnson-esque stateliness, ‘I also must apologize.’ He puffed out his cheeks. ‘It was the haunted house which did the trick. I could not resist the haunted house. I danced fandangos on the inspector’s doorstep, with a grace and lightness suggestive of The Three Pigs, until he invited the old man to accompany him.’”

Just an aside, but I was intrigued that Carr sets this story earlier in the Fell chronology of cases as opposed to continuing the timeline. At the time of the Longwood House case Elliot and Fell are several months away from their work on “the case of the Crooked Hinge” (TCH) and “the Sodbury Cross poisoning case” (TPotGC). I looked to see if there might be any reference to that in Douglas Greene’s biography without any luck. Any ideas…or would that lead to spoilers?

Now, back to the review. In his summing up of the case, Carr uses one of his better known devices, the false solution prior to the final reveal. And he does so fiendishly, with not one, not two, but three solutions. I’m proud to say that I caught the important clues when they occurred, and I picked out the culprit, but even though I was right I was still wrong! My brain was spinning! Carr was playing with me—like a cat plays with a mouse. He cheated, again. But I don’t care, because this twist was so cheeky that I was left starring at the page, laughing. 

It’s flawed, it’s not the best Carr puzzle I’ve read (so far), but it is cunning, funny, and audacious.  

My Judgment – 4.25/5

Prior Rulings – John Norris @ Pretty Sinister BooksBen @ The Green CapsuleNick Fuller @ The Grandest Game in the WorldAidan @ Mysteries AhoyThe Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

Vintage Mystery Extravaganza –  2011 Vintage Mystery Challenge: Take ‘Em to Trial: Book 2 of 16

Calendar of Crime Reading Challenge – May #5: Other May Holiday – Whitsunday/Whitsuntide

8 thoughts on “The Man Who Could Not Shudder by John Dickson Carr (1940)

  1. From what can remember, Carr struck me as reluctant to write about the War — he didn’t avoid it altogether (see He Wouldn’t Kill Patience or And So to Murder), but even the likes of The Curse of the Bronze Lamp is set in 1935 when published in 1945. So that might explain the retro-fitting of this, given that WW2 would have been underway as he wrote it. Pure surmise on my part, however.

    This was a very early Carr for me, and the culprit in that shooting is still one of my favourite reveals in his firmament. Yes, he undoubtedly did more ingenious and more atmospheric work, but this is a superb example to encounter early on and a great hook for the man and his greatness.

  2. JFW

    Thanks for the review. 🙂 I read this off the back of JJ’s recommendation, and liked it. In fact I’d consider this one of Carr’s stronger works. For me the most memorable bit was when I thought this was going down a certain Agatha Christie route…

  3. i forgot to ask whether the solution to an earlier Carr is reveled in this book. i have heard that it is so. Plz let me know if it is so coz then i don’t want to read it out of sequence.

    1. Not to an earlier Carr. He does reveal the solution to Christie’s The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd — so if you haven’t read that then beware! It comes about 2 chapters from the end.

      1. Elements of the solution to The Man Who Could Not Shudder are discussed in The Case of the Constant Suicides, however…

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