The Seat of the Scornful (1942) by John Dickson Carr

It has been quite a while since I last read a book by Carr, so this recent reprint from the British Library Crime Classics series is very well timed. I wouldn’t want my GAD membership revoked, after all! This book particularly intrigued me as it is not one I have read much about recently, and in fact I was more familiar with its USA title, Death Turns the Tables. The American edition was published 5 months prior to the UK publication. Unusually for a Carr mystery, this story does not have a locked room or impossible crime.

Synopsis

‘Over a long career in the courts Justice Horace Ireton has a garnered a reputation for merciless rulings and his dedication to meting out strict, impartial justice. Taking a break from his duty after a session of assizes, Ireton retreats to his seaside bungalow in Devon and turns his attention to family, and specifically in attempting to bribe his daughter’s lover Morrell to leave her alone so that she may instead marry the respectable clerk, Fred Barlow. It seems something about the deal with Morrell must have gone amiss, however, when the police are called to the Justice’s residence to find Morrell shot dead and the judge still holding a pistol. But would the lawman be so bold to commit a murder like this? With a number of strange items making up the physical evidence Dr Gideon Fell, himself an old friend of Ireton’s, is summoned to help with the deceptively simple – yet increasingly complex – investigation.’

Overall Thoughts

Whilst I would not want to invite Mr Justice Ireton around for tea, I did find him an interestingly ambiguous figure spanning the disparate roles of possible victim or culprit. Carr does not present him as a sympathetic character, so much so that you might expect him to become the murder victim! Normally, in this type of crime setup where one person has been framed or is damningly incriminated by circumstantial evidence, the reader feels sorry, to a degree, for the character. However, I would not say this happens here and I wondered if Carr’s creation of this man was inspired by Agatha Christie’s Mr Justice Wargrave, who features in And Then There Were None (1939).

The UK title comes from the King James version of Psalm 1 verse 1: ‘Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.’ This title is a good summation of the Judge and his way of viewing the rest of the world. Scornful, which means to act arrogantly towards and look down upon others, is a trait Mr Justice Ireton suffers from a lot. This comes through strongly in the way he plays with the prisoners at the bar in his giving of their sentences. For example, if the prisoner is not going to receive too hard a sentence, he will put them emotionally through the wringer as long as possible. Conversely, with another prisoner, the Judge kept letting the man get so far down the stairs out of the court, before recalling him and adding more time to his prison sentence. The phrase cat and mouse is apt and it is one Carr employs in the story itself.

The story begins in medias res, with the conclusion of a trial and the prisoner receiving the verdict from the Judge. I think the opening of the book is one of its strongest parts, as the author is able to effectively and engagingly help us build up our impressions of the Judge, beginning with his actions, then moving on to the opinions of others, and then finally, the thoughts of the omniscient narrator. I enjoyed this transition of vehicles for giving us information and the writing style flows really well. Through this the personality of the Judge is deftly demonstrated without being heavy handed.

Furthermore, I also liked the sequence of revealed crime scene details which pertained to the victim and then the Judge. The Judge’s reaction to the arrival of Police Constable Weems is interesting in its arrogance, which ignores the vulnerable position he is in. Mr Justice Ireton very much throws out the book on how to interact with the police when suspected of murder. For example, he breaks down theories which would absolve himself and he is unhelpfully reticent during questioning. However, the forceful nature of his personality and his job seem to hold back the consequences you would expect:

‘The monosyllable was fashioned with care, and with finality. It almost finished Weems, who quite frankly did not know what to do. If it had been anyone except Mr Justice Ireton, Weems would have cautioned him and taken him along to the station. But taking Mr Justice Ireton to the police station would be like violating the law itself. You didn’t do that to high-court judges, especially one whose eye froze you even now. Weems had begun to sweat.’

Judges feature quite a bit in classic crime fiction, but we don’t necessarily get to interact with them all that much. So it is interesting to see a mystery in which we get to do so and see how others perceive them because of the job they hold. In this instance there is almost a sense of the Judge being allowed to act above the law.

Mr Justice Ireton is not the only character of interest in the narrative and early on it does seem like he has met his match in his daughter’s fiancé, Anthony Morell. He is established as a character who I don’t think we are meant to approve of, but then as the plot progresses Carr complicates the picture, with further information that either damages or ameliorates his reputation.  The only character I found annoying was Constance, the Judge’s daughter, who amongst other things, tends to make damning statements which don’t really stand up upon scrutiny.

Now eagle-eyed readers will have spotted in the synopsis that this is a Dr Fell mystery. Yet for the first one hundred pages of the book, Carr’s famous sleuth does not get much page time. Moreover, unlike in his earlier cases, his larger-than-life personality in today’s read is significantly muted. However, we do get this wonderful description of him mid-way through the story: ‘He welcomed them in his room, one vast substantial beam like the Ghost of Christmas Present, wearing a shiny black alpaca suit and a string tie.’ Whilst I liked Dr Fell being described as ‘the Ghost of Christmas Present,’ I didn’t think his presence in this book demonstrated this part of his personality.

Not only is his personality restrained in his narrative, but his detective work is also more on the minimal side. By the 150-page mark it occurred to me that Dr Fell had not really contributed anything to the case and instead he seems to keep his thoughts very much to himself. The Criminal Record in The Saturday Review found The Seat of the Scornful ‘diverting’ and concluded that: ‘Although not quite up to some earlier Fell feats, bulky doctor’s personality carries off yarn pretty well.’ I found this surprising given how little Dr Fell seems to be a part of the story. Moreover, I very much believe this would have been a better book if it had been one of Carr’s non-series efforts. Dr Fell’s presence in the book does not really add that much and in the large chunks he is absent, the writing style and characters put me in mind of The Emperor’s Snuffbox.

The final solution is a good, one expects no less from Carr, but I wasn’t sure there had been enough explaining along the way. Furthermore, [spoiler in ROT13 Code coming up]:

juvyfg V qba’g zvaq hapbairagvbany be habegubqbk whfgvpr, V sbhaq Qe Sryy’f qrpvfvba gb yrg gur Whqtr tb serr qvffngvfslvat. Zl cevznel ernfba sbe guvf vf gung gurer vf abguvat va gur grkg cerivbhfyl gb fhccbeg Qe Sryy’f pubvpr va yrggvat uvz bss gur ubbx, n ceboyrz rknpreongrq ol Qe Sryy’f erqhprq cntr fcnpr. Vs gur cnve unq fcrag zber gvzr gbtrgure va gur obbx pebffvat fjbeqf, gura znlor guvf qrabhrzrag jbhyq unir qryvirerq n uvture raq abgr.

This was an unexpected read from Carr, deviating from the blueprint I had previously built up based on previous reading. This is not a bad thing in and of itself, as I like many of the unusual elements he includes in this mystery. I just think from a mystery construction angle, this story could have been stronger.

Rating: 3.5/5 [From a plotting a point of view] 4/5 [From a characters, writing style and scene construction point of view]

Source: Review Copy (British Library Crime Classics)

7 comments

  1. Your Christie parallel is an intriguing one that hadn’t occurred to me. Like Wargrave, Judge Ireton seems to have a sadistic side, but is also intent on justice; giving defendants the sentence he thinks is fair, even while playing cat-and-mouse with them.

    Like Johan, I was put off by the ending; otherwise, I consider this a solid mid-level Carr (for nearly any other author it would be top-notch).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes I had issues with the ending as well, as I put into the ROT13 code. It’s an ending that could have worked if the run up had been different. There aren’t that many judge protagonists in GAD fiction so I think the Christie comparison stood out more for me.

      Like

  2. I was less disturbed by the ending this time. The murderer deserved punishment for sure, but I can barely see Fell thinking that the evidence should not come from a trick like that. And the victim was not as blameless as I remembered, and the murderer received some punishment at least.

    Like

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