JOHN DICKSON CARR – The Man Who Could Not Shudder. Harper & Brothers, hardcover, 1940. UK hardcover: Hamish Hamilton, 1940. Hardcover reprints: P. F. Collier & Sons, no date; Books, Inc., 1944. Paperback reprints: Bantam #365, August 1949; Bantam 1504, 1956; F2837, 1964. Berkley S1941, January 1971. Zebra, paperback; 1st printing, May 1986.

   Unless a reader is less than 40 years old, roughly speaking, here is an author that needs no introduction. If you’re a mystery reader who’s under 40 years old and John Dickson Carr is an author who’s already familiar to you, I have a feeling that you’re in a distinct (but very exclusive) minority. Zebra (or Kensingston) did a series of paperback reprints of many of Carr’s novels in the late 1980s – with very nice covers – but that’s already 20 years ago, and like Ellery Queen, his books are being slowly forgotten.

   But for many of us over 40 (and then some), Carr’s books (and those he wrote as Carter Dickson, whom some believe are even better) are among the best detective stories ever written. Or, speaking personally now, that’s the way I remember them. Does the actuality measure up to the reality? I’m at an age now when I can go back and re-read a book that I first tackled when I was, say, 12 to 15 years old, and see it through completely different eyes.

   Or in other words, I didn’t remember this one at all. The detective who was on hand for most of Carr’s mysteries was Dr. Gideon Fell, a caricature whom some say was based on G. K. Chesterton. I didn’t know this when I was 12 or 15, and since no one knows who G. K. Chesterton is any more either, somehow I do not believe that it helps to point this out to today’s mystery readers, if in fact, any of them are still reading this short essay or long review.

   Suffice it to say that Fell was an unkempt, heavy-set fellow, prone to incisive thinking and frustratingly inclined to stay mum about his thoughts on matters of mystery, expect for the most cryptic utterances when pressed, but of course (I hasten to add) one of the world’s greatest experts on impossible crimes.

   The Man Who Could Not Shudder falls right in the middle of the list of Gideon Fell novels, but chronologically it’s much closer to the beginning of his (and Carr’s) career than to the end, which is all to the good – in one sense, and maybe not in others. More after the list:

Hag’s Nook. Harper & Brothers, 1933.
The Mad Hatter Mystery. Harper & Brothers, 1933.
The Eight of Swords. Harper & Brothers, 1934.
The Blind Barber. Harper & Brothers, 1934.
Death-Watch. Harper & Brothers, 1935.
The Three Coffins. Harper & Brothers, 1935.
The Arabian Nights Murder. Harper & Brothers, 1936.
To Wake the Dead. Harper & Brothers, 1938.
The Crooked Hinge. Harper & Brothers, 1938.
The Problem of the Green Capsule. Harper & Brothers, 1939.
The Problem of the Wire Cage. Harper & Brothers, 1939.
The Man Who Could Not Shudder. Harper & Brothers, 1940.
The Case of the Constant Suicides. Harper & Brothers, 1941.
Death Turns the Tables. Harper & Brothers, 1941.
Till Death Do Us Part. Harper & Brothers, 1944.
He Who Whispers. Harper & Brothers, 1946.
The Sleeping Sphinx. Harper & Brothers, 1947.
Below Suspicion. Harper & Brothers, 1949.
The Dead Man’s Knock. Harper & Brothers, 1958.
In Spite of Thunder. Harper & Brothers, 1960.
The House at Satan’s Elbow. Harper & Row, 1965.
Panic in Box C. Harper & Row, 1966.
Dark of the Moon. Harper & Row, 1967.

   If you are anything like me, the thing that will strike you the most if you were to read any of these, I’m sure, is what a game Carr delighted in when he was telling a mystery. Even well along in his writing career and knowing exactly what he was doing, he always demonstrated the sheer fun of telling a detective story and daring the reader to play along and to see who gets to the ending first.

   The Man Who Could Not Shudder begins in a bar in a gentleman’s club with a number of participants jovially telling each other ghost stories. Only two of people in the bar appear in any of the later chapters: the narrator, Bob Morrison, and his guest at the time, Martin Clarke, who in spite of the story told about Longwood House (or perhaps even because of it) buys it, renovates it, and invites a gaggle of guests down for a weekend.

   What was the story? That twenty or so years ago a butler was found dead in the house, crushed beneath a chandelier that he had (terrified?) jumped up to hold onto and – this is the only explanation possible – swung back and forth on it until it came loose and fell down upon him.

   A ghost story of some magnitude, in other words, and apparently the ghost is still there, in spite of the renovations. A small, mild incident occurs first, that of a mysterious clutching hand that disappears as quickly as it appears. It is not until later that one of the guests, the man who could not shudder, is shot by a pistol which had been set up for display upon some pegs in the wall – but which “jumped off the wall” and was somehow fired while still in the air, with nary a human hand anywhere about.

   Rather fantastic, you may think, but is the atmosphere that Carr creates beforehand that makes this work. Here’s a long quote that will demonstrate, from pages 61-62, on the night previous. Morrison is in bed, trying to fall asleep:

   I put on my slippers and dressing gown. I lit a cigarette, was annoyed at the absence of an ash tray, wondered what to use for an ash tray, and compromised (as we usually do) by dropping the burned match into the soap dish.

   In the raw reaction of seeing light, nerves crawled. I would have given five pounds for A strong whisky and soda, to send me to sleep. There was no reason why I should not go downstairs and get myself one, except that it would be an admission of weakness if anybody saw me, and it seems the height of something-or-other to creep out and take whisky in another man’s house in the middle of the night.

   No: no whisky. Reading might do it. The cigarette smoke rose up blue, tasting thin and bitter. I was going over to the mantel to get a book when I heard, from somewhere down in the house, a heavy thud as though a sofa had been lifted and dropped.

   Then silence.

   Though that noise was not loud, the whole house seemed to vibrate to it; the tingle of the window frames, the jar of the electric bulb, the fancied shift of a plaster ceiling, for the thud had been in my chest as well.

   And here I made a discovery. In the shock of that noise, I think I discovered what is at the root of all the psychology of fear. The hot-and-cold feeling I experienced was one of pure relief. Something had happened: it could be investigated. It was no longer a question of lying supine, between starchy sheets, without shoes or the moral armor of a dressing gown, waiting in the dark for something to come to you. You could go to it. You could face it. And it was thereby shorn of half its terrors. We are frightened of ghosts because, in the literal sense, we take them lying down.

   If preparation is one weapon in Carr’s arsenal of writing tools, misdirection is another. Quite a bit is made of hidden passages (none found), sliding panels (no) and long poles with or without fishing hooks on a line (the opportunity is there, but neither poles nor hooks are to be found). Alibis are questioned, identities are mistaken, people make up tales to protect themselves, but in case you are wondering, as Fell tells Morrison on page 267, “…this is not Roger Ackroyd all over again.”

   Characterization is minimal. I would certainly have to concede that. The plot is everything, and if you don’t pick up on the clues that Dr. Fell spots and bases his solution to the matter upon, then you have no one to blame but yourself. They’re there; there are no two ways about it.

   If you were to persist in pointing out, however, that some of the characters’ actions are doubtful, designed only to further the plot as part of the massive authorial misdirection, I would have to confess that I could not disagree.

   I also confess that when the final denouement finally arrived, I was – not disappointed, but – let down. I was hoping for better – but of course there could be no other explanation, even though (in retrospect) it makes the chances of the events happening that led to the title character’s death slim and (dare I say it?) far-fetched, if not worse.

   Would the book make for a decent movie? Yes, in the 1930s. No, not today. To explain more would mean to explain too much. I’m tempted, but no, I simply can’t do it. There are some very nice twists in the tale, both beforehand and afterward, but I think the audiences of today are too well sophisticated for this particular explanation to have a snowball’s chance of going over and being accepted.

   This is not to say that I did not enjoy the book, for indeed I did. It is a marvelous game that Carr was playing here, and if this particular effort is not up to his best, which was the best there ever was, then so be it. The enjoyment that arises from reading a purely puzzle story like this one, whether it’s successful or not, can come from observing an expert who enjoys what he’s doing and who is careful and methodical about doing it. Even if Carr doesn’t manage to pull this one off, and I don’t think he does, there’s still plenty of pleasure to be found in simply sitting back, watching closely and seeing just what it is that he’s trying to do.

   There are not many other authors who’d even make the attempt, then or now.

— November 2005 (slightly revised)