THE CROOKED HINGE by John Dickson Carr (2008, Rue Morgue)
“#6 The Crooked Hinge. Sometimes Carr actually did use the supernatural in his detective novels, sometimes he only seemed to do so. The Crooked Hinge does not turn out to be a ghost story, but that won’t spare your nerves.”
-Karl Edward Wagner, “The Thirteen Best Non-Supernatural Horror Novels” (Twilight Zone Magazine, 1983)
The novel begins with a typical English countryside setting. A lawyer, Nathaniel Burrows, has been called in to represent a member of the local gentry, one Sir John Farnleigh. Farnleigh has called Burrows to represent him because Farnleigh’s claim to the title of the ancestral lands is in question. Someone else has appeared on the scene and insists he is the real John Farnleigh. Farnleigh had been a passenger on the Titanic and managed to escape the sinking of the ship. However, he spent the rest of his life in the United States with relatives because of an estrangement with his family. Once the head of the family, Sir Dudley Farnleigh had passed on, the younger Farnleigh returned to Britain and claimed his inheritance.
Assembling at the Farnleigh manor to hear the charges of the claimant are:
Sir John Farnleigh. (But is he?)
Lady Molly Farnleigh, who has a vested interested in the outcome.
The lawyer, Nathaniel Burrows.
Brian Page, Burrows’ friend and a local scholar
Patrick Gore, the claimant.
Mr. Welkyn, Gore’s lawyer.
Kennet Murray, Sir John’s traveling companion before the Titanic incident.
Murray will attempt to analyze the handwriting samples of both Gore and Farnleigh to determine who is the real Sir John. We also get a brief history lesson about the uses of fingerprinting for identification. When the Titanic sailed, there had been a vogue for fingerprinting, but it’s uses in criminal investigation had yet to be established. The Crooked Hinge was published in 1938 when finger prints were routinely used to identify someone.
Since the author was the master of the locked room mystery, there is a murder at the beginning of the book. Needless to say, this tosses a wrench in the whole investigative process. Soon, the reader is introduced to a locked book closet which contains volumes of magickal and erotic texts. The books do figure into the murder, although only a few of the titles are mentioned.
But my favorite aspect of the plot is an automata, i.e., a mechanical puppet designed to amaze an audience with it’s musical properties. This one dates from the 18th century, appears to be a young woman in finery, and was purchased by an ancestor of Sir John. However, no one has ever figured out how the thing works. It has been locked in the before mentioned book closet. It’s also in disrepair and is referred to throughout the book as “the hag”.
Finally, the Great Detective, Dr. Gideon Fell, is introduced. Dr. Fell was the protagonist of several of Carr’s mysteries. He is supposedly patterned from the real life mystery writer G. K Chesterton. Dr. Fell doesn’t do a lot other than wander around mumbling and making observations. But he provides the analysis which cracks the mystery wide open.
The supernatural elements of this novel are always in the background. There are rumors of some “witch-cult” operating in the nearby village. Sir John had an interest in the occult before he was sent away. His lawyer is famous for representing all kinds of mystics in Britain. A woman is found dead with a book on satanic lore.
The Crooked Hinge can be a bit difficult to follow with it’s extensive list of suspects. But the book is a fine example of British mystery fiction