Warning! While this review does not name the murderer in The Crooked Hinge, it does give away the book’s big secret. If you haven’t read it yet, proceed no further!
Twenty-six years before the story begins, a boy named John Farnleigh was a passenger on the doomed Titanic. He survived the disaster and continued his journey to America, where his parents were shipping him off to live with a relative. He returned to England in 1935 when he inherited his older brother’s baronetcy and estate. Now, though, a certain Patrick Gore has turned up, claiming to be the real John Farnleigh. The two of them, he says, switched identities as the ship was sinking, and the fake Farnleigh tried to seal the deal by knocking him out and leaving him for dead. While Gore makes a convincing circumstantial case, hard evidence is needed, and there is a man who can provide it: Kennet Murray, who has a set of the boy’s fingerprints, taken before he sailed off. In keeping with the expectations of a mystery reader, a dead body soon turns up on the Farnleigh estate… but it is not Murray who’s been killed…
Much as there is to like about The Crooked Hinge, at base I consider it one of Carr’s misfires, a failure as a fair-play mystery. (Kind of the reverse of The Cavalier’s Cup, which has a fair puzzle but practically nothing else going for it.)
Why am I being so hard on TCH? Well, if you’ve read it, you know that a certain character turns out not to have any legs, which has allowed him to pass himself off as different people of varying heights with the help of artificial legs of different lengths. It also helped him when it came time to kill his victim. Carr prepares us for the revelation by telling us that this character’s walk is a bit clumsy.
To paraphrase a certain cartoon horse: No, sir, I don’t believe it. Specifically, I don’t believe that, with the medical technology available in 1938, a double leg amputee could walk, unaided, well enough that no one who saw him would suspect he didn’t have his original legs. Telling us his walk is “a bit clumsy” is not a fair description of what someone in his situation would look like trying to walk without a cane or crutch. Of course, we’ve come a long way since then, but it’s worth noting that the artificial legs of today that allow a double amputee to move about gracefully do so at the expense of looking anything like a natural leg… so this trick wouldn’t work even today.
I concede that someone who had two amputations below the knee might pull the trick off, but “I have no legs” indicates to me that far more of the original legs were destroyed.
Before the final revelations, there is an Ellery Queen-esque penultimate chapter where Dr. Fell presents us with a false solution, complete with a false murderer and a false method for committing the crime. I admit I had decided on this character and method before reading this chapter… but all the same, I think TCH would have been a stronger work if they’d turned out to be correct!
(By the way, remember the final chapter of The Eight of Swords – no spoiler here if you have not read that one – where a character says “The public will only glance at this chapter, to make sure it hasn’t been cheated by having evidence withheld”? I think Carr was afraid a lot of readers would do that with TCH and never get to the real solution, so he had viewpoint character Brian Page think, “This case is not finished” as a way of encouraging them to keep going.)
There are some other criticisms to make: Page is practically a cipher, someone to stand around while everyone else says and does things; his girlfriend Madeline Dane is also kind of blah; and the business of the Golden Hag is one of those subplots whose main function seems to be to pad the story out to book length. But the central gimmick, being unworkable, is far and away TCH‘s most serious flaw. It’s a tribute to Carr’s skill as a writer that I found it an enjoyable read, and reread, anyway… and that I still rate it higher than some of his other books.