As the first of John Dickson Carr’s novels to feature one of his best know creations, the stentorian-voiced Dr. Gideon Fell, Hag’s Nook is an entertaining outing imbued with rich atmosphere and a straightforward puzzle. In Carr’s sixth novel (earlier novels had mostly featured another of Carr’s creations, the French detective Henri Bencolin), there are some minor weaknesses in the story, but overall it is an interesting tale.
Tad Rampole is a young American traveling in England, and has been introduced, through an old tutor, to Dr Gideon Fell. In this earliest of incarnations, Fell is a lexicographer and historian, writing a lengthy work on English drinking customs and living in the Norfolk village of Chatterham with his wife (who is here portrayed as a mousy, bumbling woman; in later books, she all but vanishes). This is a remarkably convenient stroke of luck by which Dr. Fell can begin his career in the detection of crime, for in Chatterham, the most notable place is Chatterham Prison, owned and formerly operated by the Starberth family. The prison itself is built around a spot where, in earlier days, witches (it is rumoured) and later criminals, were hanged. And in Chatterham, it is rumoured that the Starberths die of broken necks, much like their victims from the prison.
Coincidentally, Rampole has met and promptly fallen in love (like an ass) with the daughter of the Starberth family, Dorothy. Unfortunately, their burgeoning romance is overshadowed by the twenty-fifth birthday of Dorothy’s brother Martin. In the Starberth family, the eldest son undergoes a ritual on turning twenty-five, as a condition of receiving his inheritance. And the ritual involves – if you’ve been paying attention, you will already have guessed – a trip to the prison in the dark of night.
With all of these elements in play, Carr the juggler has a lot of balls in the air, but he manipulated them fairly neatly into a creditable tale, deftly making catch after catch. There’s a lot to like in this early effort, and all around it’s a solid, atmospheric, and enjoyable piece of storytelling. Although Carr has a reputation for locked room puzzles, this effort does not feature one, and instead answers the question: how can you be sitting in a room with a murderer, at the very moment that a murder is committed? The answer, of course, is that you can’t! 4 of 5 stars.
Originally reviewed 17 June 2015.
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