Saturday, July 13, 2013

The House at Satan's Elbow by John Dickson Carr

Title: The House at Satan's Elbow
Author: John Dickson Carr
Publisher: International Polygonics Press
Rating: WARTY!

After a disappointing outing with Ian Rankin's Detective Sergeant John Rebus, I decided to try a date with the master, John Dickson Carr and his hero Gideon Fell, which you have to admit is a less-then-complimentary name for someone who's supposed to succeed! Note that John Dickson Carr is the grandfather of Shelly Dickson Carr whose novel Ripped I reviewed back in April.

I've decided that July is detective month, so after this one, I'll move on to an Agatha Christie novel. At the same time, I'm watching the US version of Prime Suspect (having completed watching the original Brit series), and also catching up on Steven Moffat's Sherlock. All of these TV series have been or will be reviewed in the TV section of this blog. I'm also going to check out the Midsomer Murders!

The house at Satan's Elbow is a detective mystery novel published in 1965 - although it seems to be set earlier as I'm reading it. I don't know why it feels that way to me! Satan's Elbow is a fictional creation, but there is a village of Lepe (not quite the Lepe Beach mentioned in the novel but near enough), although there's really no obvious elbow to be found in the area. Maybe the locals are religiously superstitious and gave it the elbow? The fictional Satan's Elbow is one mile from Exbury which itself isn’t far from Beaulieu after taking a left at a crossroads so we're told. They travel a road where they can see the Isle of Wight three miles away to the right. It's all a bit confusing! But enough about that.

The novel begins with Nick Barclay inviting his old friend Garret Anderson down to Greengrove - his family's residence. There is a big fuss over old Clovis's will. Just when everything was considered settled after his death, a new will was discovered hidden inside a large tobacco jar kept on the mantle in a rarely used room in the house. The jar was accidentally broken revealing the will in front of several witnesses. The new will, un-witnessed, but hand-written by Clovis, disenfranchised Uncle Pennington in favor of Nick, but the latter is independently wealthy, and doesn't want to deprive his uncle of the family home, so he's headed down there to set things straight and evidently wants Garret along for moral support.

So far, so good. As they're about to board the train, Garret is delivered a note from a woman in one of the carriages, who turns out to be Fay Wardour, the woman with whom he had a passionate fling when in Paris, a year or so ago. They were supposed to meet up in London shortly afterwards, but she never showed, and never contacted him. Now she's evidently Uncle Pen's secretary, living at Greengrove. However, in order to protect her privacy, she begs Garrett to act like he doesn't know her and their meeting at Greengrove is their first. She plans to disembark the train at the station before the others will get off and ride the bus into Lepe Beach.

This novel continues to slightly confuse. The story is written using the language and the manners of a much earlier era. It doesn’t read like it's talking place in 1965. This, I suspect, is because Carr was born and spent his formative years in a much earlier era and either chose not to, or could not, adapt to a more modern style. He lived in England for the better part of two decades, married to an English woman. That's where he began writing, and it seems to me that he never changed his style from the behaviors, and language usage, he encountered around him in the 1930's and 1940's. Frankly this was off-putting to me to begin with, and it still keeps distracting me from the story, but it has become much more engrossing now that we're out of the tedious introduction and getting into the action.

Sir Horace Wildfare supposedly haunts Greengrove. He was an extremely stern judge in the mid 18th century, who was ridiculed for what was considered to be a miscarriage of justice when a wealthy landowner, accused of slitting the throat of a 12 year old girl he was known to have raped, was found not guilty after the judge had gone after the prosecution mercilessly. It’s rumored that he built Greengrove with bribe money from such trials. Two people have claimed to see this ghost in the same part of the house - one of them claimed it went through a wall, the other claimed it went through a locked door. These people are Mrs Tiffin, the so-so cook, and Nick's Aunt Estelle.

As the party from the train (Nick, Garret, Deidre, who picked them up, and Dawlish, the lawyer) arrives at the house, they hear a gunshot. Uncle Pen is known to carry a .22 revolver in the pocket of the old-fashioned smoking jacket he routinely wears. Rather than go in the front door, the party absurdly goes in through an open library window and by amazing coincidence, Uncle Pennington is in the library. He tells them that the 'ghost' fired a shot at him, but it was a blank, and all that hit him in his chest was a wad of paper that was in the gun - his own gun. Rather suspiciously, his young wife Deidre has disappeared and shows up again shortly thereafter claiming that once she knew her husband was OK she went to park the car properly.

Pen explains that he was sitting in the room facing the window and must have dozed off because when he was next aware, there was a figure entirely covered in black standing inside the room by the window (which was locked on the inside). The figure retrieved Pen's own gun from a pocket in the robe it wore, fired the one blank shot at his heart, then dropped the gun and retreated behind the curtains. Pen did not give chase. The figure apparently disappeared. There are no prints on the gun because the figure wore grey nylon gloves.

Doctor Fortescue supports Pen's story by relating that he observed someone dressed in black disappearing behind the high hedges in the garden outside his window. His room was directly above the library. Estelle also arrives in the room having apparently been spying on the goings-on from a small interconnecting room. So the ones who could have done this are (so far), Fay, Doctor Fortescue, Aunt Estelle, Mrs Tiffin, and either of the two maids, all of whom were so far unaccounted for in terms of my having certain knowledge of where they were.

Well I can't speak to Carr's ability to create a good crime yet, but I am beginning to think he can't create a good story. In addition to the antique language I mentioned earlier, Carr also has an annoying habit of over-describing or of describing things that really jar you out of the story and back to the realization that he's making this up as he goes along! There's a lot of annoying detail and interruptions to describe the layout of the house! For example, when Fay arrives home, she comes into the room at a point when Pennington is talking about someone being poisoned, and Fay takes a look of horror upon her face and immediately hurries away. Deidre runs after her, and Garret runs after her, using Fay's dropped cigarette case as an excuse, since he isn't supposed to know Fay.

Instead of Garret catching up to Fay and the two of them having a good conversation, Garret is stopped by Deidre, who for no reason at all describes the layout of the house, not only the room into which Fay went,. but also the rooms all around it and the rooms down the hallways at the other end of the house. That's completely absurd, and so fake! So at this point I do not rate Carr as a writer, and especially not as a writer of suspense! When Garret finally reaches Fay, she tells him a story which has effectively robbed me of my suspicions of her, gullible fool that I am! I hope this won't come back to, er, haunt me, but at this point I can't see Carr fingering her as the guilty party. Right now my money is on Fortescue.

Carr may be a great concocter of locked room mysteries, but as a writer, particularly when graded as a suspense writer, he rather sucks. At one point he has Garret address Fay as "my sugar-candy witch". That's really an Americanism, and while it may have been 'appropriate' in 1935, it seems entirely out of place in 1965 and in Britain. Worse than this, he has Nick Barclay address Deidre - his step mother - in appallingly familiar terms. I know there was no political correctness, in general, in 1965, but amongst the upper class in Britain there was a rather solidly-established political correctness after a fashion, and this particular portion of the novel seemed entirely contrary to that, to me. Unless, of course, there's something going on between the two of them! Carr's inability to make a story flow is starkly outlined later, as well.

After the discussion in Pen's study, the group splits up,with Fortescue rudely disappearing into what I shall describe as the music room, playing Gilbert and Sullivan at an anti-social volume on the "hi-fi". This seems to me to be a liberty which no one would take as a guest in a home like this. Unless, of course, Fortescue is the would-be murderer (which is still the option I'm going with at present). The loud music will obviously cover any shenanigans he wants to get up to. It’s possible that this could be a herring of a decidedly scarlet hue, of course. Garret and Fay are in discussion next door in the billiard room, Estelle is supposedly in her room, and Nick and the servants are god-knows-where. Nick shows up, concerned about Pen, who has evidently bolted both of the doors and locked both of the windows to his study.

When the party goes outside to look in through the windows, they see Pen lying on his back, the gun at his feet, and a bleeding wound in his chest. The gun was fired at point-blank range, which means he could have done it himself, or the villain could have wanted us to think that, but if there was another party to this, where did they go?

Now we come to Carr's mistake: when Fell rounds up the parties, in clich├ęd fashion, and begins to examine this disturbing attack on Pen, Garret rudely interrupts him to ask about the manuscript of Sheridan's The Rivals which is why Fell is there - to authenticate it or otherwise. Seriously? Someone has just been shot and may die and Garret's only interest is in some antiquated manuscript? That just kicked me right out of suspension of disbelief. I can only conclude that Garret is a complete jerk or that Carr is a poor writer, or both!

Another issue here is that we're not told what happened to Pen until some time later! Its like he's completely irrelevant at this point! Fortescue advocates moving him to his room without making any attempt at all to arrest the profuse bleeding, and this is what happens! No ambulance is called! Pen is stuffed away in a room upstairs and we find Fortescue there in the study with everyone else! Since Pen didn’t go to the hospital, what in god's name is going on with leaving a bleeding man unattended by a medical professional? Worse than this, Fortescue later announces that he has given a man suffering serious blood loss a sedative! This is appallingly bad writing, but as hard as it is to conceive of something worse than this, there is: Fell, supposedly a brilliant detective, allows Fortescue, who must be at least a suspect, to take charge of Pen and remove him from everyone's sight rather than leave him lying where he is until an ambulance arrives! The only one watching Pen is a constable.

Carr very loudly telegraphs things, too. For example, he has made it clear that hand-written communications play a part in this story and that Estelle can imitate handwriting - so she could have both forged Clovis's new will, for example, and/or sent the note that brought Fell to Greengrove. Indeed, it was Estelle who ensured that the new will was discovered by 'clumsily' breaking the tobacco jar in which it was hidden. So are we seeing Fortescue telegraphed as the villain of the piece, or is that merely misdirection from Estelle? Or are both of these marooned-herrings and the real perp here is Nick Barclay? Or is it his close friend - and aunt-in-law - Deidre? I don’t know!

I'm done with this one now and I have to say that it deteriorates and never really recovers. The end is a surprise (at least it was to me) but by that point I had become so tired of all the meandering that it was far more of a meh than a yeay! WARTY!