John Dickson Carr: The Crooked Hinge (1938) – this review contains spoilers!

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.

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8 thoughts on “John Dickson Carr: The Crooked Hinge (1938) – this review contains spoilers!

  1. You’re actually kinder to this novel than I am — for me, the bad outweighed the good — but our reasoning and criticisms are quite similar. But you’d better prepare yourself for the backlash! When I voiced my concerns in a Goodreads mini-review of the piece I had some troll come along and tell me:

    “This novel is such an undoubtable masterpiece of its genre that I cannot understand disliking it unless you dislike mysteries altogether.”

    There were some rather more rational disagreements among the commenters, and it was interesting to read the dissenting (from moi) views. Clearly a lot of Carr fans rate it very highly; it’s just a few of us who find it wanting alongside the bulk of his output.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This definitely is the worst case of “How did anybody not notice it?” that I have ever read. It is a enjoyable read but the solution did undo most of the good work for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Your review rekindled memories of how much I loved this novel. Yeah, the criticism of the fair play of the trick is warranted, but you can’t tell me that it still wasn’t one of the more memorable endings you’ve read. I can’t imagine there’s anyone who has read this book that didn’t make an audible chortle of some sort when they read that famous line.

    I’m somewhat puzzled about why this book has fallen out of favor with Carr fans in recent years. Perhaps things are cyclical – He Who Whispers seems to have been recently taken down a peg. Who knows, maybe five years from now everyone will be criticizing Till Death Do Us Part (one of Carr’s best page for page novels but with a solution that never really stood out for me). The “one that every one likes” is always fair game for “but is it really that good?”

    It’s fun to get into these debates of course – that’s the who point, right? Still, I kind of agree with the comment above saying “I cannot understand disliking it”. Can anyone seriously claim that there are 50 mystery novels better than The Crooked Hinge when it comes to a cover to cover reading experience? Yeah, debate the dent here and there for the fun of it, but at the end of the day it really is that good.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. One thing I like about the GAD bloggers is that we can disagree about a book without anyone taking it as a personal affront!

      I think you may be right about things being cyclical – time was when The Three Coffins and The Judas Window seemed to be widely considered Carr’s supreme untouchable masterpieces, but I’ve seen more criticism of them in recent years. If I’m being hard on TCH, maybe it’s because before I wrote this review, I read a bunch of others, and none of the ones I saw mentioned the impossibility of the leg gimmick. I was starting to feel like Scott Evil wondering why no one else sees the absurdity of not just shooting Austin Powers! Still, you are right that it has a memorable ending.

      I know I’m similarly hard on Ten Days’ Wonder, an Ellery Queen novel that critics have said was the collaborators’ best ever, or close to it. Judged purely as a suspense story, that may be true (this was a long time after books like The French Powder Mystery, and by now they knew how to write a real page-turner), but the solution has a basic flaw that takes it straight out of “fair play land” for me, in spite of its other merits.

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      1. A nice thing about the cyclical nature is that new books fill the void. Take stories like Death Watch or The Problem of the Wire Cage. I don’t think anyone is claiming that these are Carr’s absolute best, but they seem to be getting a lot better press recently compared to their once diminished reputations.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. SPOILERS

    Oh, I love this one. It’s the kind of thing I read Carr for—like thegreencapsule noted, I’m somewhat surprised that Carr fans wouldn’t like this one, but you’ve written your opinion very fairly.

    As for your criticisms: Brian Page is cardboard, yes, but the book has three of my favorite Carr characters—Sir John Farnleigh, Patrick Gore, and Molly Farnleigh. Molly in particular—it’s amazing how likeable she is even at the end, in spite of the twist. And poor “Farnleigh,” morally burdened with what he can’t remember; as much as what he did on the ship was wrong, if you go back and read those chapters he’s just a grand character. And Gore and his wit and cleverness, how he serves as an author-surrogate even more than Page… (He’s got all of Carr’s literary tastes, for one thing.)

    In Doug Greene’s biography, he discusses your main criticism and talks about a WWI soldier who managed to disguise his double-amputations well enough that no one realize that he didn’t have legs. And the guys in this video (https://youtu.be/podaaHJIV1Q) seem to be walking around amazingly well, though most of them have one leg remaining. Maybe just mentioning a cane would be fairer, though? I’ll be honest, I love the twist and was shocked by it the first time I read it, so there’s that. How it plays on GKC’s “The Blue Cross” is kinda brilliant, in my opinion. (I also love the false solution, though, and almost wish JDC didn’t use it as a false solution, as it’s so good on its own—full marks to do for getting that one right, as I certainly didn’t.)

    I do have a problem with the solution, and it’s that, as good as I find the twist, it’s kind of unnecessary. The real solution to the impossible crime is that Knowles was lying, not that Gore didn’t have legs. Because, honestly, what does that allow him to do other than to move quickly through the bushes? He couldn’t have crossed the sand because there would still be, er, stump-marks there. I’ve never been able to get a good mental map of the murder scene, then.

    That said, this one’s probably my favorite Carr—I find it lightyears better than The Hollow Man, which is my Carrian heresy. I just like the characters, the Golden Hag backstory, and the witchcraft and adventure elements. And Gore’s closing remarks make, I think, for some of Carr’s best writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment! Regarding the leg thing, there were times when Carr would “stick his head out from behind the scenes” in a footnote and explain directly to the reader that a certain thing in the story was based on fact – there’s even one in Chapter 20 of TCH regarding the false weapon. Maybe another one about the leg matter would have helped, if Carr did in fact have anything real he was basing it on. Alternatively, having Gore use a cane might have helped.

      I will have to refresh myself with Greene’s book – I read it years ago, but haven’t seen a copy in a long time.

      Also, great point about how Gore seems to be Carr’s alter ego. If I remember correctly, Carr was on the short side – interesting that his fictional spokesman was someone who could change his height at will.

      Liked by 1 person

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