Thursday, February 20, 2020

Hag’s Nook - John Dickson Carr

It’s possible that ‘Hag’s Nook’ is my favourite John Dickson Carr so far. I won’t say of all time because there are going to be plenty more to read, but there’s something about this one that I particularly liked.

The elements are now quite familiar - a Murder with plenty of gothic embellishment, a hint of the supernatural, a locked room situation, and a little bit of romance for good measure. In business like hands it’s an effective formula and John Dickson Carr’s hands are very business like. 

In this case a young American graduate is visiting Dr. Gideon Fell, he meets a pretty girl at the station, and is delighted to hear that they’re heading to the same destination - but she seems a bit troubled. When young Ted arrives in Chatterham the village turns out to be dominated by the ruins of an eighteenth century jail with some nasty legends attached to it.

Meanwhile the pretty girl’s brother has to spend a night in the same jail to collect his inheritance, but there’s a legend that the men in the family die of broken necks and he’s none to keen on having to keep vigil. He turns up dead the next day so he was right to be nervous.

Carr flirts with the possibility of this turning into a ghost story all the way to the end, but it's never more than a flirtation. There’s to much humour for anybody to start seriously worrying about things that go bump in the night (my favourite detail is Ted’s confusion about how English money works - it’s pre decimalisation- so he pays for everything with notes to avoid having to count out the coins, and is consequently weighed down with pockets full of change) but just enough doubt to create a pleasing sense of melodrama.  

I keep thinking about this book in relation to the recent BBC adaptation of The Pale Horse, and wishing in more or less equal measures that Sarah Phelps would leave Agatha Christie alone, and that she would tackle Carr. It seems to me that he’s more or less writing what she’s filming (so perhaps she wouldn’t need to change the plots so much) and that Carr would be wonderful on screen. On the page he’s reasonably cosy, but there’s plenty of room to pull out the darkness in his work and make all sorts of things out of it. 

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