Friday, January 27, 2012
Friday's Forgotten Books: Hag's Nook (1933) by John Dickson Carr
Friday is Forgotten Book Day, a weekly meme hosted by Patti Abbott at her blog, PATTINASE. As usual, don't forget to check in and see what other Forgotten Books, other bloggers will be chatting about today.
As chance would have it, this is also my entry in the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge being hosted by Bev at her blog, MY READER'S BLOCK.
This is my second John Dickson Carr book this year and Dickson Carr's first Gideon Fell book - an incredibly well written mystery of the old locked room school. Certainly one of Carr's creepiest.
HAG'S NOOK would be a great book to read aloud for Halloween. I wonder if there's an audio version - that would do the trick. It is a ghoulish, frightening tale full of dark imaginings and murder most ugly and foul. The story takes place mainly at night - for atmosphere - since ghoulishness doesn't work as well in the light of day and of course, it's always raining.
The pages of the book felt damp and chilly at times - the effect of Dickson Carr's gift for atmosphere.
A cup of tea by your side while reading, would not be amiss.
At any rate, the setting for the story is the area around Yew Cottage, Dr. Gideon Fell's pleasant, book-filled home in the country - though very little of what happens, happens there. It is however, the starting point. We do get to meet Fell's nearsighted, quirky little hen of a wife who seems the sort of woman you'd have expected Fell to marry. She is delightful. Though I don't remember her showing up in later books.
Fell's cottage sits within handy walking distance of a tumbled down, dilapidated old prison perched on a precipice called Hag's Nook. It is on land belonging to the Starberth family. Here's where most of the action takes place. The family Starberth (or what's left of them) are Fell's closest neighbors.
A wicked ancestor was the first governor (warden) of the prison and his horrible death gave rise to the curse which appears to have followed the Starbert kith and kin down through the years.
The original will states that the Starberth heir must spend an hour in the dark and dismal, rat infested office known as The Governor's Room. This fiendish caveat has been at the heart of the Starberth madness. In fact it is from the balcony of this very room, that the deranged ancestor threw himself to his grisly death, impaled on spikes. Ugh. Said hideous spikes surround a large stone well once used to dump the bodies of those hanged at the prison. It's no wonder that cholera overtook the place and helped speed along the end of the building's official use.
In this sinister room a Starberth must open a safe and deal with whatever mysterious thing he finds there. No one knows what this might be since the heir is forbidden to speak of it afterwards. As is the lawyer who handles the fine points of this absurd ritual which, unfortunately, is legally binding.
It is a heavy curse to hang over a family and no one feels it more than the present three descendants. Martin Starbert, the heir facing the lonely hour in the prison tower, is comforting himself with liquor and outbursts of frightened drunken emotion. His brother Herbert appears to be the only one who can control or keep him calm enough as the hour of the prison ritual approaches. Their beautiful sister Dorothy tries to control her own hysteria as she fears for her brother's life.
Their father's death months before has precipitated this current wretched event. A death which had been thought a riding accident, but which Gideon Fell now believes was murder.
Dorothy, at least, can turn to young Tad Rampole, an American college student whom she's met on the train early in the story. Rampole is Dr. Fell's guest and so it all works out nicely. In fact, the burgeoning love story is exceptionally well devised and written. I kind of fell in love with Rampole myself.
When the murders begin again (as we know they must), it's up to Fell to figure out how a man can be in two places at once.
A dreadfully dark and macabre story, but it makes for an enjoyable read and a great introduction to the Gideon Fell mysteries and the work of the finest exponent of the locked room puzzle.