The Mad Hatter Mystery (1933) by John Dickson Carr

My reading of John Dickson Carr has slowed up in recent years, having ploughed through some of the greats (and some of the duds!) earlier in my blogging youth. Looking at my records it seems I now review only 1-2 of his books a year. I am not sure why this is. Lack of availability on some titles and less enthusiasm on tackling some of his later efforts both might be factors, but it is also possible that because classic crime fiction is so vast that my attention is so very often elsewhere. Dorothy L. Sayers was quite the fan of today’s read, writing in her review for The Sunday Times that ‘this is the most attractive mystery I have read for a long time.’ All I can say is, is that I wish I had been reading the same book she was…

A Popular Library edition of Carr's The Mad Hatter Mystery. It has a Dali-esque design with a giant top hat on a hillock with a tree beside it. The sky is orange and there are eyes visible in the sky and inside the top hat as part of it is missing. The pupils of the eyes are red.


‘At the hand of an outrageous prankster, top hats are going missing all over London, snatched from the heads of some of the city’s most powerful people—but is the hat thief the same as the person responsible for stealing a lost story by Edgar Allan Poe, the manuscript of which has just disappeared from the collection of Sir William Bitton? Unlike the manuscript, the hats don’t stay stolen for long, each one reappearing in unexpected and conspicuous places shortly after being taken: on the top of a Trafalgar Square statue, hanging from a Scotland Yard lamppost, and now, in the foggy depths of the Tower of London, on the head of a corpse with a crossbow bolt through the heart. Amateur detective and lexicographer Dr. Gideon Fell is on the case, and when the dead man is identified as the nephew of the collector, he discovers that the connections underlying the bizarre and puzzling crimes may be more intimate than initially expected.’

Overall Thoughts

Well before I look at what did not work so well for me in the story, let’s begin with what I did like. Carr opens his mystery in an intriguing fashion, headlining the peculiarities of the case that is going to be solved:

‘It began, like most of Dr Fell’s adventures, in a bar. It dealt with the reason why a man was found dead on the steps of Traitor’s Gate, at the Tower of London, and with the odd headgear of this man in the golf suit. That was the worst part of it. the whole case threatened for a time to become a nightmare of hats.’

I like the juxtaposition this passage creates, as you would imagine that it is the setting which is the most baffling and odd part of the case, yet a greater emphasis is given to the commonplace objects, the hats. They are almost an affront to the narrator’s sleuthing sensibilities.

Dr Fell is also introduced in an enjoyable way in the first chapter, with his comical revulsion towards cocktails:

‘Young man […] have you never reflected on what American influence has done to stalwart England? Where are your finer instincts? This is enough to make decent tipplers shudders […] I have been working for seven years on the materials of my book, The Drinking Customs of England from the Earliest Days, and I blush to have to include such manifestations as these, even in the appendix. They sound almost bad enough to be soft drinks.’

 Yet despite his colourful entrance, Fell falls into the background of the narrative for the first half of the book with Chief Inspector Hadley being the more prominent questioner of suspects and witnesses, once the murder has been discovered and they have been summoned to the scene. Nevertheless, the opening of the story does a good job of tying the hat stealing, the manuscript theft and the murder of Philip Driscoll together. Carr avoided being too ham fisted with it.

This book reminded me in some ways of my previous read, Robert Thorogood’s The Killing of Polly Carter (2015), in that the reader is presented with a murder case with outlandish or baffling elements and is also presented with some questions to encourage the reader to do their own spot of armchair sleuthing. However, in contrast to Thorogood’s mystery, I found Carr’s did not hold my attention well and my mind very much wandered. Are there too many characters at the start of The Mad Hatter Mystery? That was one such question I had. I certainly didn’t feel I had a good grasp of who was who and the characters did not really come alive to me, not even Dr Fell, which surprised me given the other mysteries I have read featuring him. Perhaps he is kept off the stage for too long in the book? The worst characterisation for me was Tad Rampole. I know he is in a previous mystery, Hag’s Nook (1933), but his presence in this one was so non-existent and his role so pointless that if he had been removed from the story there would have been no discernible differences made to the plot. He was just a name on a page really.

Penguin edition of The Mad Hatter Mystery. It shows a pair of legs sticking out of a grey top hat. There is blood on the floor and up the side of the hat.

Both Thorogood and Carr’s novels have a fair number of suspect interviews, yet I found Carr’s to be much duller. It is hard for me to pin down how they failed to grab my interest. I wondered if in this story Carr’s writing style was drier. Furthermore, despite the plot taking place during less than 24 hours, I found the story dragged after the opening third. The dramatic and atmospheric potential of the Tower London setting wasn’t exploited particularly, which I was surprised by, since Carr seemed to me to be an author who enjoyed indulging in the Gothic in his early work.

This is a book which I felt told rather than showed information and clues and as such the ending requires a lot of dialogue from Dr Fell and the killer to reveal the solution. I found this quite dull and too long for my liking. A long confession from a killer is not the sign of a good mystery for me. The unorthodox nature of the denouement also fell flat, probably due to my perceived lack of characterisation shown hitherto in the story. That type of ending works better when you have a level of interest or attachment towards the relevant character(s) and I did not have that.

So overall I can’t say this was a great read.

Rating: 3.25/5

See also: Aidan, the Puzzle Doctor, Ben, Nick, Dead Yesterday, and Jose have also reviewed this title.


  1. I consider The Mad Hatter to be one of the weaker Dr Fell mysteries from the 1930s, and so it always raises my eyebrows when it gets thrown around as one of the better. Even a weaker 1930’s Carr is still good by me, and I remember enjoying all of the sections where Fell’s personality graced the page (he’s best in the first dozen or so books I think). Still, this has the weaknesses that you describe and I agree that the mix of pea soup fog and The Tower of London didn’t live up to even a quarter of its potential. If Carr wrote that plot thee years earlier it would have made your skin crawl.
    I did like the overall misdirection revealed by the solution. One of the better examples of an entirely different story playing out behind the scenes that I can think of – The Seventh Hypothesis and The Four False Weapons being others that jump to mind.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes it was the earliest Carrs I had in mind when wondering why the setting was so underused in this story. I liked the accidental hiding place of the Poe manuscript, I thought that was a good move.


  2. I can’t disagree too much, but I thought Fell was pretty good in this (apart from the ending). The bits involving his cergraqvat gb or Unqyrl were quite enjoyable.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Tad Rampole is so bland in this, I completely forgot he was even in it, and I’ve read it twice! Mind you, Carr’s POV young men are pretty damn interchangeable and are — in fairness — never the focus of the tale, so tend to go by the wayside of memory somewhat.

    I consider Mad Hatter to be a major minor Carr, at the upper end of his weaker output. It’s enjoyable and does a good job of toying with concepts of declaration and clewing, but he was about to light the genre on fire in the coming years, so it stands to reason that his earlier stuff wouldn’t all be up to that standard. Hopefully you’ll fare better with whatever you read next.

    Liked by 1 person

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