The Crooked Hinge was the ninth of John Dickson Carr’s mysteries to feature his series detective Dr Gideon Fell. It was published in 1938 and seems to be generally regarded as one of his best novels.
John Dickson Carr (1906-1977) was an American who lived in England for some years and most of his detective novels are set in Britain. Carr is renowned as the most enthusiastic and most successful exponent of the “locked-room” mystery. What really set him apart from the other great practitioners of the golden age puzzle-plot mystery was his fondness for introducing elements of the macabre. In fact many of his books can fairly be described as detective stories with a gothic atmosphere.
The Crooked Hinge is not a locked-room mystery but it is an example of a very closely related sub-genre, the impossible crime mystery.
The young John Farnleigh had been a survivor of the Titanic disaster in 1912. He had been on his way to the United States having already established himself at the tender age of fifteen as the black sheep of the family. After twenty years in the US he returned to England on the death of his brother to succeed to the possession of a large and rich estate and a baronetcy.
Now a rival claimant for the title has arrived on the scene. In the normal course of events this would result in a long and messy legal battle but in this case it appears that the matter can be resolved almost instantly. Years earlier, before the fateful voyage of the Titanic, Farnleigh’s tutor (a keen amateur criminologist) had taken the young man’s fingerprints as part of a demonstration of the latest criminological techniques. It should now be possible to establish once and for all without any doubts whatsoever which claimant is the real Sir John Farnleigh.
Unfortunately murder interrupts the course of events and in the ensuing confusion the fingerprint evidence disappears.
The murder itself is most puzzling. The victim was quite alone at the time, a fact verified by reliable witnesses. Suicide would seem to be the obvious explanation but both Dr Gideon Fell and Inspector Elliot of Scotland Yard are convinced it is murder. An impossible murder perhaps, but murder all the same. Surprisingly enough the coroner’s jury is in agreement with them and a verdict of willful murder by persons unknown is brought down at the inquest.
Even proving that murder took place is tricky. Finding the identity of the murder will be still more difficult. To make things even more complicated Fell and Elliot are certain that this murder has a connection with an earlier murder but exactly what that connection might be remains a very obscure matter indeed.
The novel was partly inspired by a real-life case that had caused a sensation in the 1860s and 1870s, involving a claimant to the Tichborne baronetcy. Around this idea Carr weaves an extraordinarily complex and fascinating plot. He also indulges his enthusiasm for gothic trappings and elements of the fantastic. There is witchcraft, a 17th century automaton, a lawyer deeply involved in the occult, hidden rooms, a cursed garden, gypsy lore, intersecting romantic triangles and of course the events of the fatal night when the Titanic went down will also play a key role. The Thumbograph in which the vital fingerprint resides is a nice little touch.
It’s no accident that Carr prefaces his story with a quotation from a book on stage magic. Misdirection is as important to the aspiring murderer, and the writer of detective stories, as it is to the successful illusionist. There’s plenty of skillful misdirection here but Carr was a very firm adherent to the conventions of the fair-play detective story (he was after all a member of the Detection Club) and while the plot is at times outlandish the clues are there.
The solution is most certainly outlandish. Whether that’s a weakness or a bonus is a matter of taste. To those who dislike golden age detective stories it will provide more evidence of the artificiality of the form. To those (like myself) who love this type of crime fiction such outlandishness is all part of the fun. Like a good stage magician Carr was an entertainer and as entertainment The Crooked Hinge delivers the goods with breathtaking boldness and panache. Highly recommended.