Monday, July 30, 2018

The Case of the Constant Suicides - John Dickson Carr

What makes a good detective story? For me it's something that doesn't take itself to seriously. I like camp characters who appear to have come straight from central casting, I like authors who are prepared to have some fun with the genre, and authors who are just as prepared to have some fun at the expense of the reader (I'm thinking specifically of Richard Hull's Excellent Intentions and the long section on the finer points of stamp collecting that he makes us read - I love him for that). I also appreciate a good setting.

For all these reasons I loved 'The Case of the Constant Suicides' that Polygon have just reprinted. It's set in a dour Scottish castle which is presumably why Polygon have reprinted it, the introduction also suggests that it's argued to be John Dickson Carr's best work - which is intriguing, because I loved this, but if it's the high water mark how hard do I want to look for some of his other books? If anyone has recommendations - or warnings - I'd love to hear them.

The book opens during the early days of WW2, before air raids and rationing have taken their toll, but train berths are already at a premium... Dr Alan Campbell is heading north in answer to a mysterious summons from Castle Shira, when he finds himself arguing over the same 1st class sleeping compartment as Katherine Campbell who is answering the same summons. It turns out the two have been having a bitter academic argument in the letter pages over a review Alan has written about Katherine's book.

Because this is the kind of detail I love the book had me from the start, and the reason I love these details is that a cleverly worked out murder will entertain me until I know how it's done, but I'll happily re read something I find funny again and again.

Once in Scotland all sorts of unlikely things happen, many of them fuelled by a whisky I can only assume is the product of an illicit still, and considerably overproof, whilst the younger Campbell's try and work out if cousin Angus was murdered in a locked room (in which case his dependents come into a decent insurance pay out), or committed suicide, in which case they get nothing because he'd spent all his money on trying to invent a tartan ice cream.

As I said, I loved this one, for me it's the perfect balance between comedy and tragedy with a nice twist at the end. I thouroughly recommend it.


  1. Now I know I read a lot of JDC when I was a teenager a loooong time ago, but helpfully I can remember nothing about them. However, this sounds very much my cup of tea and I'll look out for it. Cheers!

    1. He does a wonderful job of skewering an academic argument and generally seems to be an author intent on enjoying himself which made it exactly the sort of book to wind up a holiday with.