Dr. Gideon Fell, that beloved, avuncular detective from the genre’s golden age, returns in this reprint of his second case, originally published in 1933.
Otto Penzler’s brief introduction, which emphasizes Carr’s unrivaled reputation nearly 50 years after his death as the master of the locked-room mystery, hails this one for including “an impossible crime.” The murder here doesn’t involve a locked room; instead, it pushes whimsical absurdities to a sinister extreme. As the tale begins, Dr. Fell, just arrived in London, hears of two notable thefts: the disappearance of an original Poe story from the possession of Sir William Bitton, who’d unearthed it in one of Poe’s homes in Philadelphia, and a rash of thefts of headgear—a police constable’s helmet, a barrister’s wig, Sir William’s top hat—by some wag who relocates his prizes to new places sure to offend the victims and amuse everyone else. News swiftly follows that Sir William’s nephew, journalist Philip Driscoll, who’s been milking the Mad Hatter story for all it’s worth, has been found dead at Traitors’ Gate, in the densely fogged-up Tower of London, stabbed or shot by a crossbolt Sir William’s brother and sister-in-law, Lester and Laura Bitton, had recently brought home from a trip abroad. As usual with Carr (The Hungry Goblin, 1972, etc.), the plotting is denser than a London particular. But this time there’s nothing impossible about the mystery, just plenty of outré details. In truth, this is middling Carr, unable to sustain its atmosphere through the increasingly labored revelations of its second half, and its principal red herring, the theft of all those hats, is more vivid, more baffling, and more logically satisfying in its elucidation than the murder of Philip Driscoll—a flaw Carr duly corrected in the masterpieces that followed: The Three Coffins, The Burning Court, The Crooked Hinge, and, as Carter Dickson, The Judas Window.
Even so, fans won’t, and shouldn’t, hesitate to dive back into a past in which whodunits could be so unsettlingly evocative in their setups and so unabashedly brainy in their solutions.