Wednesday, March 2, 2016

A Highland Fling with a Monstrous Thing

flying fall down 
「flying」(Garnet Crow)

flying fall down
I spread my wings as I come falling down
To your side
"flying" (Garnet Crow)

There is a negative relation between the number of posts I write on a day, and the quality of the review and especially the introduction. Sorry. I really shouldn't write more than two reviews back-to-back.

In John Dickson Carr's The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941), a chance and comedic meeting between two academic rivals in a train coach leads to the discovery that they are both members of the Scottish Campbell family and that they were summoned to the family castle in connection to the recent death of Angus Campbell. Ol' Angus apparently threw himself of a high tower to a messy death, after having setting up no less than three life insurance policies with "no suicide" clauses. At one hand, the fact Angus' tower bedroom was locked from the inside seems to indicate it was indeed simply suicide (meaning no pay-out), on the other hand, items that should be in his bedroom, and items that shouldn't be in his bedroom seem to cast some doubt to the nature of Angus' death. Dr. Gideon Fell is asked to help the Campbell family with their not-suicide claim, but the Scottish tower doesn't seem content with just one victim, for another character throws himself off the tower.

I think I've mentioned it several times, but I never really got 'caught' by Carr (or Carter Dickson) like other people appear to be ( (I'm more a fan of Queen). While I've read some fantastically constructed mysteries written by him (The Judas Window), I just never managed to get really enthusiastic about Carr as a writer, actively searching out more of his books. Somehow, I am just totally overlooking the magic it seems to have for other people. Anyway, a quick look told me that The Case of the Constant Suicides's a fairly well-received locked room mystery by fans (of Carr), so how was the book in my eyes?

Well, as a mystery novel, I did not think it was really impressive. Even though I figured out the main trick quite early, it is the type of solution to a mystery I don't really like. The "gimmick requiring specialist knowledge" solution. Whether it's for a locked room mystery or any other type of mystery, it's a solution-type that should only be used sparingly and even then, it should only be used with proper hinting and set-up. Use of specialist knowledge and such can be asked and expected of the reader, as long it has been given proper attention in the main story, but this is seldom done. In The Case of the Constant Suicides, the solution is both boring, and not particularly enjoyable as a mystery plot. The identity of the mastermind also hinges on a plot device that seldom works in print, I think. Both Christie and Conan Doyle have done very similar things, but in my opinion, it's a plot device that is simply too vague to be really satisfying (and Carr's "psychological" hints are too open for various interpretations to be convincing).

I did enjoy the overall comedic tone of the story though, even if it was a bit too exaggerated at times (the Scottish jokes!). There's a fair amount of slapstick comedy too that I didn't think really funny (note that slapstick comedy can work wonderfully in mystery fiction, as shown by Higashigawa Tokuya). The bickering between Alan and Kathryn Campbell (academic rivals and second cousins) is quite fun, and while the romance subplot between them is both predictable and unbelievable, it has about the right amount of 'fiction fantasy' for the reader to just go with it.

Oh, I did sorta enjoy the thick Scottish accents in writing: I really had to read them out loud to have a good idea of what they were saying, but that did add to the experience. 

Overall, I thought The Case of the Constant Suicides was at best a mediocre mystery novel, mostly enjoyable for its non-mystery elements (the characters and the comedy). I might not be a big fan of Carr, but I've definitely read much better impossible crime mysteries by him that were much more satisfying in terms of originality, execution and pay-off. 


  1. As a registered and licensed John Dickson Carr fanboy, I find it hard to condemn your lack of enthusiasm in this case.

    Constant Suicides often receives high praise and regularly makes it onto best-of lists (not mine). Not only of favorite JDC books, but of locked room mysteries in general and even I can't understand how that's possible.

    I can understand why people would enjoy the Scottish backdrop and humor. There's even a third locked room problem: a murder disguised as suicide inside a locked cottage, which was slightly better and more convincing than the main impossibilities, but still not up to scratch with JDC's best.

    So I'll allow this review. ;)

    1. I'm glad I'm not the only one who simply can't understand HOW this book is regarded so highly. I'm not that well-read in Carr, but most of what I've read of him was more enjoyable than this.

  2. i just start to read this books because of a recommendation from a site that said it's quite nice as a first book to start JDC legacy...

    i'm just getting started with JDC books, is it the right choice to start? or it's gonna give a bitter taste after read and stop with JDC? or i must just jump to "the hollow man" to know JDC from his best work. in case to know JDC better.

    1. I am not that well-read in JDC (you really need to go to TomCat and his Beneath the Stains of Time blog for that), but I'd say that The Hollow Man (The Three Coffins) and The Judas Window (written as Carter Dickson) are both great books. I really wouldn't recommened Constant Suicides as a first Carr.

    2. You might find my list of favorite John Dickson Carr/Carter Dickson locked mysteries a useful place to begin.

      However, it's a list that does not include any of his non-impossible crime novels, which include some excellent detective stories such as Four False Weapons and The Emperor's Snuff-Box.

    3. the hollow man is overrated as hell

    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    5. thanks to Ho-Ling and TomCat for the reply (i'm a loyal readers of both of you)... I really appreciate it.
      i'm more such Queen-ish, but now i really getting to Locked room stuff. you know i don't find much Locked Room in queen. and i found shoji shimada have that element like queen (eg. challenge to the reader)and locked room. after read that, i really like to read more locked room and i think i'm ready to move to Carr but overwhelmed to found which book to begin . but thanks you give me your list so i have view book to be considered.

  3. Like you I don't think I'm Carr's biggest fan - I thought a handful of his major works were undermined by the exaggeration/ slapstick comedy ('Plague Court Murder'), even where the puzzle was particularly strong ('Green Capsule'). I enjoyed 'Constant Suicides' more than quite a few of Carr's works insofar as the farcical elements weren't as pronounced. The culprit(s?) was/ were hidden in a clever rather than satisfying fashion.