Hag's Nook

Written by John Dickson Carr

Review written by LJ Hurst

Initially, L. J. Hurst worked in the backrooms of the media industry. He now divides his time between work for an international scientific publisher and a rather more British independent bookseller. In years past he was a regular attendee at the Shots on the Page Festivals from whence Shots Mag sprung

Hag's Nook
RRP: £8.99
Released: July 11 2019

John Dickson Carr was still a young man and only recently settled in England when he published Hag’s Nook in 1933. It continues the themes and styles he had developed – gothic grotesquery, fair-play detective story, and the impossible crime.

Hag’s Nook is a derelict castle and former prison in Lincolnshire, probably inspired by Lancaster Castle, except that where Lancaster is owned by the Crown, the Nook is owned by the Starberth family. The Starberth’s once profited from being wardens of the prison but are now down on their luck. The family are also running out of heirs, particularly as their said heirs have a tendency to die with their necks’ broken. Little wonder that the last one is not keen to spend the night of his twenty-fifth birthday in the tower to satisfy a requirement of the entail. In the era of Downton Abbey we should all be familiar with entailed property.

Luckily, this village is also the home of Dr Gideon Fell, making his first appearance in Carr’s work. It’s fortunate that Fell has been sent a post-graduate student from America, who will soon find himself running after Fell’s errands, not to mention that of Dorothy Starberth, sister of the heir. For the heir will be found dead in the fearful position, even while Fell and his party have watched from his garden.

The Chief Constable is quite happy for Dr Fell to take over the investigation, which scarcely moves into the village, let alone into the city of Lincoln itself. Fell sets himself to answer burning questions: who killed Martin Starberth and why, who – if anyone – killed Martin’s father, and where has the family fortune gone?

Fell works things through, admitting as he goes that anyone could arrive at his conclusions, and that the murderer probably did, but he is left with the old problem: he has a solution but not the evidence to prove it - unless the murderer does something to expose himself. That revelation is what Fell has to engineer.

As a detective story, Hag’s Nook is fair play, while the grotesque location allows Carr to use another theme: echoes of M R James’s ghost stories. The gallows here hang over a deep well (or fen) within the curtain wall, rotting in the effluvia. Anything emerging from such a well would of course be wet, and wetness is a feature of the victim’s bodies – the sort of thing that James did so well. 

Carr may have known his horror fiction but he was clearly not familiar with British geography or its ways. Lincolnshire might provide the fens and water he wanted, but not the promontory on which to build the castle. There is a lot of talk of cholera, too, when the traditional gaol fever was typhus while an extraordinary conversation occurs soon after the murder when the Estate lawyer, Payne, asks the Chief Constable if he is familiar with the law, and is told by that officer who is also a magistrate, which seems a non sequitur of the first order. Not to mention Dr Fell ordering beer, and then specifying it should be lager.

These complaints, though, are even weaker than the murderer’s attempts to provide himself with an alibi after he has been unmasked and Fell has described his machinations and the human weaknesses on which he has played.

In the end, Hag’s Nook’s narrative skill depends on recognising that all the characters are human, and that observer, victim and offender all have human weaknesses. Recognise those, and how we might hide them or work around them, as Fell does, and you may be on the way to the solution before our sleuth announces it.

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