John Dickson Carr: The House at Satan’s Elbow (1965)

There have been repeated ghost sightings at Greengrove, the country house built in the mid-18th century by that disreputable judge, Sir Horace Wildfare. Is Sir Horace returning from the grave to scare the current residents? Is a living person creating a ghost-hoax for some more sinister purpose? And is either entity responsible for the locked-room shooting that closely followed the latest sighting? Dr. Gideon Fell investigates…

The mid-1960s and onwards were not, by anyone’s yardstick, the glory years of John Dickson Carr. As Douglas Greene ably outlines in his biography of Carr, his writing was by now showing certain mannerisms not to everyone’s liking. Characters began to lecture each other; when they didn’t lecture they spoke enigmatically to no good purpose; and humour played a greater role than ever before, none of it funny. (And Carr developed a peculiar fondness for stringing three sentences together as one, separating them by semicolons.)

All that said, however, The House at Satan’s Elbow is well worth at least one reading if you’re a Carr fan. The locked-room puzzle is intricate, generally solid and probably the last first-rate impossibility Carr ever created. You may find it reminiscent of an earlier one — I won’t be more precise — but this one is different enough that I would acquit the author of mere repetition. And if the characters are pretty much out of his stock company, well, that never stopped me from enjoying one of his books before.

So, if you’re unsure about giving late (say, post-1960) Carr a try, this would be a good one to start with. Our old friend Dr. Fell is much as he had been 20 or 30 years earlier; the plot, in spite of a few contrivances, is not unworthy to stand aside those of Carr’s Forties mysteries. The main difference is the “late Carr” style of writing. If you can’t get past that, then the last two Fells and the final historical novels are probably not for you.

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