The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941) by John Dickson Carr: An ‘ingenious and… baffling… series of crime’

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.

John Dickson Carr

John Dickson Carr

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.

The Case of the Constant Suicides

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.

Included this cover as I thought it a classic case of a publisher trying to make a book racier than it is by placing an incongruous seductive woman on the front. In my opinion that woman would get very chilly if she was lounging about in the Scottish Highlands at that time of night...

Included this cover as I thought it a classic case of a publisher trying to make a book racier than it is by placing an incongruous seductive woman on the front. In my opinion that woman would get very chilly if she was lounging about in the Scottish Highlands at that time of night…

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.’

Another cover, which I liked because it focuses in on Alan and Kathryn

Another cover, which I liked because it focuses in on Alan and Kathryn

Rating: 4.5/5

Bibliography

Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2015). Comedy of Manners. Available: http://www.britannica.com/art/comedy-of-manners. Last accessed 03/12/2015.

See also:

https://classicmystery.wordpress.com/2010/12/29/the-case-of-the-constant-suicides-by-john-dickson-carr/

http://classicmysteryhunt.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/case-of-constant-suicides-by-john.html

http://www.classicmysteries.net/2011/02/the-case-of-the-constant-suicides.html

https://theinvisibleevent.wordpress.com/2015/09/26/19-five-to-try-starting-john-dickson-carr/

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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25 Responses to The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941) by John Dickson Carr: An ‘ingenious and… baffling… series of crime’

  1. chris Wallace says:

    I believe that the argument was actually about the size of the Duchess of Cleveland, not
    her colour. This was the first Carr novel that I read and probably the funniest. It’s still a
    favourite.

    Chris Wallace

    Liked by 1 person

    • Not to replicate the Alan/ Kathryn discussion, but I’ve checked the story again and it was both of them as Duchess of Cleveland’s body size and hair colour are commented on (Kathryn person saying she was ‘small with auburn hair,’ whilst Alan says she had ‘jet black [hair]’ and her ‘proportions are amble’ , though the personal insults against Alan are more connected with the body size. I didn’t mention both of them as I was trying to keep the length of my synopsis down. Glad you like the book.

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    • Also just realised re-reading my post I had missed out the crucial word ‘hair’. Good job you brought it up, otherwise many readers probably would have been jolly confused.

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  2. JJ says:

    I am delighted to hear that you enjoyed this, Kate, and I’d say you’re spot on about it being certainly in the comedy of manners genre (though with rather more death). It’s probably Carr’s funniest book (The Blind Barber – supposedly high farce and murder entwined – is like a night of po-faced Swedish crime shows next to this) and also probably his most fun.

    The murder method…yeah, I’m not sure it would be as efficient as claimed, but then I’m not sure the method on The Plague Court Murders would work and that’s a wonderful book, nor that a few of his other famous and highly-regarded solutions would play out as he says (witness the controversy around The Crooked Hinge, discussed most recently in the comments after my review a little while back). I envy you the Carrs you have ahead of you, but then I feel like that about an alarmingly large number of authors when I see people are in the early stages of discovering them. Aaah, youth…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Was glad I enjoyed it as I thought if I didn’t and posted a negative review I would need to hide from all the Carr fans. I don’t think it mattered to me that the murder method wasn’t 100% efficient or workable, as I’m not a mechanically minded person so minor technicalities pass me by. A glaring problem with the method would annoy me though. Would you recommend reading The Crooked Hinge next? And I get what you mean by envying new readers to an author. I have read all the Christie’s now and its sad as I know there will be no new book for me to read and it is great fun to see how people cope with books like The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and And Then There Were None. Also glad you agreed that the book was like a comedy of manners as I was worried that it was a completely daft idea which was stuck in my head.

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      • JJ says:

        You’ll have to read Crooked Hinge at some point, and to be honest making lesss of a thing of it is probably a good idea. Yeah, there’s no reason not to make it your next Carr since you already have it (I believe). I love it, for all sorts of reasons, but others disagree…

        The ‘comedy of manners’ thing is far less daft than you fear; Carr was an absolute master at working in all sorts of threads and contrasting moods into his writing. Hag’s Nook is based around a cursed gothic castle but still manages to be about two people living in comfortable domestic bliss in a very charming way while also chilling the life out of you. That’s why he’s so awesome.

        Liked by 1 person

      • well my other options are the burning court or the hollow man from my TBR pile. I don’t think I have read any of Carr’s really gothic toned novels.

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      • JJ says:

        Crooked Hinge or Plague Court Murders are probably his most gothic, I’d argue. Oh, and possibly Death-Watch. Actually, definitely Death-Watch. I love ’em all, so maybe the man just bring out the Goth in me…

        And, yes, Crooked Hinge before those two, I’d advise. But no rush.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. JFW says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed your first foray into Carr. 🙂 But if you had to post a negative review, I would have been on your side insofar as I had a slow start with Carr. I didn’t like ‘Plague Court Murders’, and found ‘Black Spectacles’ somewhat farcical at points – though I would concede that ‘Black Spectacles’ had a fascinating premise. I think I only hit my stride with Carr when I read ‘Emperor’s Snuff Box’ and ‘Till Death Do Us Part’ – both were fairly dramatic, but worked very well as novels.

    With such a strong rating of 4.5, I’m looking forward to reading ‘Constant Suicides’, though I may have to get ‘Man Who Could Not Shudder’ out of the way first. I gather that ‘Constant Suicides’ spoils the solution for ‘Man Who Could Not Shudder’?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Having not read The Man Who Could Not Shudder I couldn’t tell you. I have also read the ‘Emperor’s Snuff Box’ and really enjoyed it. Equally I had a bad start to Carr as my first Carr novel was In Spite of Thunder and I didn’t get on with it at all. You’ll have to let me now how TMWCHS goes.

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    • JJ says:

      CotCS spoils one aspect of the denouement of TMWCNS; I’m not saying which one, but in …Suicides it’s a delightfully off-hand mention of something that exemplifies Gideon Fell perfectly. Certainly there’s no mention of the mechanics or the culprit or the motive or any of the key elements of …Shudder. It’s a small point, no fear.

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  4. Bradstreet says:

    Re: The murder method. It’s not entirely impossible, and people have died or come close to death with it, but the way that it works in the book is just about plausible (even if it does depend on a certain amount of luck), It’s hard to discuss iwthout spoliers, but I’m prepared to give this method a pass mark. The book is highly entertaining, and the fractious relationship between the hero and heroine is hilarious in a Noel Coward manner.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. JFW says:

    I’ve just completed ‘The Case of Constant Suicides’, and I think I’m warming to Carr’s sense of theatrics and humour. The scenes of drunkenness I found slightly over-the-top – but still bearable compared to ‘Plague Court Murders’ and ‘Black Spectacles’. Like you I enjoyed the banter between Alan and Kathryn, as well as the puzzle. But I think I found the romance and dramatics (histrionics?) of ‘Till Death Do Us Part’ and ‘Emperor’s Snuff Box’, as well as the puzzle for ‘Black Spectacles’, to be superior – and so I think you will enjoy further forays in Carr’s other novels. 🙂

    As for the book covers for ‘Constant Suicides’, I think the one you liked makes Alan appear somewhat younger and more dashing than my mental impression of him? But yes, that’s still a much better, more relevant, cover than the damsel in scarlet reclining suggestively before the tower – Kathryn would definitely have foamed in the mouth belonging to a book with such a cover… If you didn’t like that one, I would recommend avoiding the covers for the old Pan editions of the Ellery Queen nationality novels…!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad you liked TCOTCS, I think the drunken escapades work, though if he had gone further with them it would have been overkill. I have never read The Black Spectacles or Till Death Do Us Part, so I will have to look out for them. The Alan/Kathryn cover does make them seem a bit like they belong in a children’s adventure story, but I think thought it nice that they were included on the front cover since they are pivotal to the enjoyment of the story. Also there are a lot of covers I couldn’t include because they provide spoilers about the crime I believe and as to the woman in red, aside from the overt sexism, it just annoys me when front covers include people or things which aren’t actually included in the story.

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