Best-known for his immortal creations, Dr. Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale, John Dickson Carr is less recognized for his later novels, some of which rank among his most interesting work. These tales, among them The Bridge of Newgate (1950), Captain Cutthroat (1955), The Demoniacs (1962), and The Hungry Goblin (1972), take on a variety of subjects and historical periods, but nearly always include elements familiar to readers of Carr. His stocks-in-trade, those of locked room puzzles, seemingly supernaturally-sourced murders, and haunting settings are regular features, if not in the same combinations. The old Carr worldliness and good-humour is also present, even if Fell’s stentorian laugh or Merrivale’s bemused old-bufferishness are not. A perfect example of this continuity is in Carr’s 1961 novel, The Witch of the Low-Tide.
Set in London in 1907, The Witch of the Low-Tide revolves around events in the life of Dr. David Garth, a Harley Street nerve specialist, who has been called in for a special consultation with a patient. The consultation is crashed by Inspector Twigg from Scotland Yard, who believes that Garth’s fiancée, Lady Betty Calder, is in fact a notorious society blackmailer, as well as a dancer from the Folies Bergères with exceedingly questionable morals. Twigg’s superior, Cullingford Abbot, is a friend of Garth’s, but the case and its implications set the two met against one another.
What emerges, however, is a classic Carr story of doubles, sinister secrets within families, and dark motivations that will drive the characters to murder – and more. Garth himself conceals a secret, but it is one which aligns him with the reader, and with Carr himself. John Dickson Carr also takes the opportunity to evoke two then-contemporary novelists, Jacques Futrelle, author of the “Thinking Machine” mysteries (q.v.) and Gaston Leroux, author of The Phantom of the Opera. But central to the story is a seemingly impossible murder in a bathing hut on the beach near to Lady Calder’s cottage, and several attempted stranglings.
According to Douglas Greene’s 1995 biography of Carr, The Man Who Explained Miracles (to which I direct all fans of Carr as being an invaluable companion to reading his works), The Witch of the Low-Tide is a title which Carr had wanted to use for a long time, dating back to his involvement in the classic radio series Cabin B-13 in 1948 (some surviving episodes of the Carr-penned series can be found around the Internet after a few minutes with a search engine). Perhaps this explains, at least in part, the disconnected sense of the title of the book, as opposed to its content. It is a good title, and the book certainly leaves the reader wishing for more witches. But this is a small complaint.
Some commentators argue that Carr’s later novels are weaker efforts, the work of a man who struggled with ill-health and often succumbed to a dissatisfaction with wherever he found himself living at the moment, moving back and forth between America and Britain several times in the 1950s and ‘60s. But The Witch of the Low-Tide is not a weak novel: instead, it had a real first for me, as I genuinely hated the character of Inspector Twigg, and even toward the end of the book, I wanted nothing more than for Garth to punch him on the nose. I don’t recall ever reacting quite so viscerally to a character in Carr before, but there was just something in his smug wrong-headedness that was quite overwhelming.
Even if the book is a bit talky, it is also a careful evocation of a moment and place in time, one which Carr could not really have remembered (as he was born in 1906). The meticulous research which Carr wanted to do, and the historical novels which he wanted to produce but for which he never found the time, come through to the reader as a real loss after imbibing the atmosphere of The Witch of the Low-Tide. We are fortunate, then, for those novels that we do have. For even if they do not feature Fell, Merrivale, Bencolin or even Colonel March, they remain well-worth reading for enthusiasts of Carr, historical novels, and detective stories alike. Four stars.
Reviewed 24 June 2016.