For once the year selected for Past Offences Monthly Challenge, was one which coincided with a book I already had on my TBR pile and even more importantly of course it coincided with JJ’s (who writes the wonderful Invisible Event blog) recommendation that I should read The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941) first out of my Carr TBR books. I should also thank the Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel for also helping me in my Carr book buying decisions. This book, (which came 9th in Adrian McKinty’s Top 10 Locked Room Mysteries article for the Guardian last year) has also tied in with another locked room/ seemingly impossible crime mystery I read called Murder of a Lady (1931) by Anthony Wynne, which is also set in Scotland. At the outset I did feel some trepidation about starting this book. Not only is this the first Carr book I have reviewed on my blog but over the past few months I have read and enjoyed many posts on this author and I did wonder what I can add.
The story is set during WW2 and begins with history professor, Alan Campbell, heading to the Castle of Shira at Inveraray in Scotland via train, ruminating ruefully over the acrimonious argument he became involved in after reviewing K. I. Campbell’s book negatively in a newspaper. The dispute between the pair of them is of a trivial and academic nature, namely the colour of one of Charles II’s mistresses hair… but this doesn’t stop it getting personal. The journey gets worse for Campbell when an administrative error means he has to share his compartment with a woman, who does so happens to be Campbell. Amidst continued arguing on academic points it also materialises that they have both been summoned to the same castle, as a distant relative there, Angus Campbell, appears to have committed suicide by jumping out of a tower (which apparently has roots in family history), though Kathryn thinks it could have been… murder.
On their way to the castle they meet newspaper reporter, Charles Swan, who has been invited to the castle by Elspat Campbell (Angus’ common in law wife) as apparently she has sensational news to impart. However, he initially is much more interested in writing a gossipy article on Kathryn and Alan after misunderstanding the significance of their argument on the train (he was in the compartment next door,) construing the idea that Kathryn and Alan are illicit lovers and that Alan had been having an affair. This is a misunderstanding which runs until near the end of the novel and not just with Swan. Nevertheless in a sort of Jane Austen style, Alan and Kathryn’s dislike of each other begins to thaw and Alan even attempts at being flirty, which was definitely amusing.
On reaching the castle, more information is forthcoming on Angus’ death as it seems the insurance company is determined it is suicide, so they don’t have to pay out on Angus’ numerous life insurance policies. However, the law agent and the family members are adamant it is murder. Angus’ death has all the usual and unusual trapping of the locked room mystery. His bedroom was locked and bolted from the inside, the window was inaccessible and only had Angus’ fingerprints on. However, the night before he had a quarrel with a business partner, who has now disappeared and what a suicide theory can’t explain is how a dog cage got underneath Angus’ bed when witnesses say it wasn’t there when he went to bed.
Enter Gideon Fell, who has been invited down by Colin Campbell, Angus’ co-heir and brother. He initially seems quite baffled by the case:
‘If only the facts… weren’t so infernally simple! I distrust simplicity. I have a feeling there’s a trap in them.’
It doesn’t help that during the previous nights’ drunken antics a ghostly figure dressed in tartan was seen in the tower. This fuels local opinion that the castle is haunted and the solution to the case is a supernatural one. Whether or not this is the case remains to be seen, but as the locked room crimes continue and the question of suicide or murder becomes increasingly blurred, it is down to Fell to solve the mystery…
In the midst of this of course is Swan, our eager reporter who ends up having a rough time of it, being the focal point of drunken pranks and the target of buckets of water – not that he isn’t entirely undeserving of them. If this was not a detective fiction novel, its’ title could easily have been The Case of the Constant Misunderstandings, the main misunderstanding I have already mentioned concerning Kathryn and Alan, but Swan also becomes misunderstood by Elspat. Consequently the style of this story reminded me to an extent of a comedy of manners novel/play such as those by Austen or Oscar Wilde, where misunderstandings abound. I know this is a bold claim to make, but I am only saying to an extent. Comedy of Manners is a:
‘witty, cerebral form of dramatic comedy that depicts and often satirizes the manners and affectations of a contemporary society. A comedy of manners is concerned with social usage and the question of whether or not characters meet certain social standards. Often the governing social standard is morally trivial but exacting. The plot of such a comedy, usually concerned with an illicit love affair or similarly scandalous matter, is subordinate to the play’s brittle atmosphere, witty dialogue, and pungent commentary on human foibles’ (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2015).
I will say outright that I don’t think Carr is necessarily satirising any particular group in this novel, though the characters do engage in playful jibes of each other’s nationalities. What particularly caught my attention from this definition is that idea that the comedy of manners looks at ‘whether or not characters meet certain social standards… [which are often] morally trivial but exacting’ and that ‘the plot… [is] usually concerned with an illicit love affair or similarly scandalous matter’. Taking the first point, I think Elspat particularly is interested in assessing other characters’ behaviour by her own code and moreover, Alan and Kathryn due to the misunderstanding in the train are also held to account, albeit jokingly for seemingly having transgressed social standards e.g. by supposedly being in a relationship and not being married. This misunderstanding also ties into the scandal focus of the comedy of manners, although there are a number of other scandals which come up in the story. As with a conventional comedy, Alan and Kathryn may have to go through discomforting experiences but ultimately everything turns out okay for them. In addition, the badinage which occurs between Alan and Kathryn also links into the genre as their arguments do tend to involve witty one-upmanship concerning academic topics and personal jibing. Finally, I think Fell’s explanation of the crime does key into the last bit of the definition to a small degree, giving a ‘pungent commentary on human foibles.’ Of course I might be completely wrong so I would be interested to hear what others think.
Overall, I really enjoyed this novel as the Alan/ Kathryn relationship made the plot funnier and less dry and formulaic. I liked the locked room aspect and Fell’s solution is a good one, although I have read somewhere that it isn’t entirely possible. The combination of the setting and the focus on characters, as opposed to tabulating everybody’s alibis (yes I’m thinking of you Inspector French) made this a great read and I think a review from the Berwickshire News written on the 28th July 1953, kind of sums it up well:
‘Alan and Kathryn Campbell, paying a dignified visit to their relatives, found mirth, adventure, terror, and a sad loss of dignity, before Dr Fell reached the solution of as ingenious and as baffling a series of crime as even he had ever met.’
Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2015). Comedy of Manners. Available: http://www.britannica.com/art/comedy-of-manners. Last accessed 03/12/2015.