Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Broken Object
Having read excerpts from pieces such as Stefano Serafini’s ‘Illusionism and Magic in the Golden Age Mystery’ (Linguæ &, Vol 14, No 1, 2015) and also some of Christie’s own thoughts on Carr (‘a master magician’), I was aware of the idea of illusions and the magician’s sleight of hand in Carr’s work and consequently I found it interesting that the first section of The Crooked Hinge (1938), is prefaced by a quote from a book on magic, urging novice magicians to not tell their audience what they are going to do as that will make them more wary. In regards to the plot which follows it, this quote is very apt, as looking back on the narrative I can definitely see how plot devices in the text distract you from certain pieces of information. The subsequent three sections of the book are also prefaced with quotes, though I feel the middle two are more descriptive/thematic, in comparison to the first and last. Moreover, I think the last quote, which is from the Father Brown story, ‘The Blue Cross,’ returns back to the start of the novel, reminding readers of the idea of disguise in plain sight.
The Crooked Hinge begins in Mallingford village, which according to one resident, Brian Page (under-motivated lawyer and amateur historian) is a very busy village indeed, what with Victoria Daly being murdered by a tramp last year, two mysterious guests currently residing at the local pub and now a man is found dead at Farnleigh Close. All of these events are intrinsic to the final solution but it is the latest murder the novel predominantly focuses on. This is no ordinary death, as just prior to it, the victim, known as Sir John Farnleigh and a claimant who also claims to be the real Sir John Farnleigh, but goes by the name of Patrick Gore, were awaiting the results of a fingerprint test, conducted by Farnleigh’s old tutor. Patrick Gore claims like in the tale of the Prince and the Pauper, these two men as boys on the Titanic swapped identities and the inevitable sinking of the boat also made each of them think the other was dead. This is also no ordinary death as the man known as Sir John Farnleigh was in the middle of a sandy area, completely by himself and the wound was several cuts to this throat. The physical evidence and the eye witness accounts (which in this novel particularly are not hugely reliable) either make the death an unlikely suicide or an impossible murder, with motivation as well as murder method being questioned. Not only that, but the finger prints which were being used to compare the recently taken prints have been stolen. Are the two linked? Thankfully Dr Gideon Fell is soon on the scene, along with a Scotland Yard detective, DI Elliot.
A further element to the novel is magic and the supernatural, which is first introduced by Gore’s legal representative, Welkyn and is further implemented through the automaton, which is kept in the attic of Farnleigh close, along with some old books on the same subject. All of which become more increasingly and dramatically pertinent to the case. However this atmosphere of magic and the supernatural was not to my taste, even if Dr Fell debunks it and I much preferred the atmosphere generated in The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941).
The ending seems like it will be dramatic, with the automaton taking on a life of its own and when DI Elliot hears gunshots will he and Dr Fell be too late to save the innocent from the guilty? However this tension and pace dissipates a lot, especially as the solution to the case, although very ingenious, is rather long and features the epistolary format, though includes a number of dispersed surprises. In addition, as Christie said, this is an instance where Carr is seen to be ‘loading the dice’.
I thought this novel treated the trope of disputed heirs in an interesting way and reminded me a little of Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar (1949). The characterisation of the novel is one of its’ strengths as claimant character is very well depicted, as he holds a certain charisma which means when he talks especially in the beginning of the novel, he holds the power in the conversation and his unlikeable-ness is interesting as he is so successful at getting under everyone’s skin. In addition Gore reminds me of a magician in that he whips out pieces of proof in a similar dramatic manner and builds up to his biggest pieces with showmanship. I think the readers’ sympathies are carefully played with in the story as your sympathies end up turning towards the man who has suffered less, the man who did the original wrong. Perhaps this is why justice in this novel is unfulfilled.
The main reason I rated this novel lower than The Case of the Constant Suicides is because various components are inferior, such as the romance subplot which is handled amusingly and to great effect in The Case of the Constant Suicides, but is thrown in with little thought in this book and is weaker as a consequence. Furthermore, I think the opening of The Case of the Constant suicides had a much better pace and hooked me in more quickly. The Crooked Hinge in contrast felt rather slow and as a reader I was less interested in Brian Page than Alan Campbell.
So where does the crooked hinge come into this? I’m afraid once again for me a key object mentioned in the title has a very minor and also negligible role, which I found rather disappointing and this is a problem which I am finding increasing annoying.
Overall it is not a bad story, with a number of interesting features and the characterisation is strong and if you prefer stories with a magic and supernatural theme then you will probably be able to appreciate and enjoy this side of the book more than me.