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 Books, Ben @ The Green Capsule, Nick Fuller @ The Grandest Game in the World, Aidan @ Mysteries Ahoy, The 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