Friday’s Forgotten Book: Death Watch (1935) by John Dickson Carr

Whilst Carr is by no means a forgotten author within the GAD fan community, I do wonder whether perhaps today’s read is not one of the most talked about titles, despite being popular with a few people I know. It was also recommended to me when I launched my TBR Pile SOS post a few weeks ago, so decided to give it a try.

This is a case told in retrospect, starring Dr Fell, Chief Inspector Hadley and Professor Melson and the action mostly takes place at a house in Lincoln Inn’s Field. We are initially told about the murder of a shop walker by a shop lifting customer, but our attention is soon switched to a murder which just so happens to take place in the home of Johannus Carver, a clockmaker Fell was wanting to drop in on. The theft which took place at Carver’s home the day before comes back with a vengeance in the murder case we are presented with and Carr delivers quite a shock when the victim is identified. A lot is thrown at the reader in the opening pages as the events of that night are untangled and it soon seems to Fell and Hadley that a lot of coincidences are piling up. But how many of them really are what they seem? There is also an interesting array of suspects: a retired yet disgraced police officer, a female solicitor, as well as a garrulous house keeper and an adept pair of self-incriminating lovers.

Overall Thoughts

The set up for this case certainly tries to raise the bar on reader expectations. I love how on the second page we get a flurry of hints of what is to come:

‘When Melson had finished telling his story I understood why Melson, not himself a nervous man will always have an aversion to skylights and gilt paint; why the motive was so diabolical and the weapon unique; why Hadley says it might be called ‘The Case of the Flying Glove’; why, in short a number of us will always consider the clock-face problem as being Dr Fell’s greatest case.’

What a claim indeed! Yet whilst I think the subsequent story matches the ingenuity implied, especially in its intricate solution, I don’t think the story lives up to the horror and atmosphere perpetuated in the opening pages. Gothic terror rapidly transforms into domestic drama. I’m not saying this a wholly negative thing, as gothic terror can get overdone, but I don’t think Carr developed the skull watch angle as much as he could have done. This surprised me given the fact he is at pains to tell his readers that the skull-watch comes from real life and not his imagination. So on the whole I’d say Carr didn’t produce as much atmosphere as he could have done or perhaps as much as I expected him to do, given subsequent works such as The Burning Court (1937).

However, I think Carr does well with using clocks elsewhere in the book and I particularly enjoyed Fell’s comment that: ‘has it ever struck you that in fiction and poetry, even in everyday life, the clock is the only inanimate object that is considered human as a matter of course? […] It speaks nursery rhymes, and clears the way for ghosts and accuses of murder; it’s the basis of all startling stage effects, and a note of doom and retribution. If there were no clocks, what would happen to the tale of terror?’ It certainly made me think about the roles clocks have been used for in mystery fiction.

The first half of the book has the best pacing, as it covers the events of the first night, but after that I felt the speed lessened somewhat as Hadley and Fell battle it out with their various theories. Personally for me it could have been truncated a little and then I did have the reoccurring bugbear of the killer only being incriminated through a trick in order to confess. I guess I like a little more concrete evidence.

Reading my review back it does look like I have stressed the negatives a bit. Yet whilst I wouldn’t categorise this as top draw Carr and probably wouldn’t recommend it as a first experience of Carr’s work for new readers, it is still a good read.

Rating: 4/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Best of List (Otto Penzler’s Favourite Carr novels mentioned in The Big Book of Locked Room Mysteries.)

15 comments

  1. I love this one; I read it while on holiday somewhere blazing hot, and the darkness and oppression that house really stayed with me. Additionally, I do love the complexity of the plotting and how it spins that staggering number of (possible) coincidences into something remarkably clear-sighted and easy to follow given its apparent density and difficulty. But, yeah, I can understand why others don’t love it, and I don’t deny it has problems.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s interesting comparing the books which really stay with us, as invariably we tend to be polar opposites in this respect. I felt this setting was supposed to be dark and oppressive but it just didn’t seem to work for me. I think the amount of theorising limits how much tension Carr can create in the story.

      Like

  2. Death Watch captures the best of what I like about Dr Fell. This is probably one of the books where you spend the most time with the detective, and he’s quite a bit of fun (in the later years he became somewhat a caricature of his earlier self). I think the highlight is the end of the book where everyone is gathered in the pub and Fell gives a long winded lecture.

    I thought that the solution was pretty surprising. The identity of the killer really took me off guard and I loved the overall misdirection even though some may argue it relies on a cheat. If anything, it’s a reverse-use of a cheat, and Carr lays the ground work for it ahead of time.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for the review, as I loved this one! For me, it’s my favourite Carr novel, surpassing some of the better-known works: ‘She Died a Lady’, ‘Judas Window’, ‘Plague Court Murders’ (eeks), ‘Green Capsule’, ‘Constant Suicides’, etc. For me, it’s second only to ‘Till Death Do Us Part’. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

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