“I’ve got to separate the nonsense and the happenings of pure chance from the really ugly side of the business. Chance started it, and murder finished it; that’s what I think.”
London is paralyzed by an unprecedented crime wave—someone is stealing hats from the heads of prominent men and replacing them in ridiculous locations. Reporter Philip Driscoll has seized on the story of the “Mad Hatter” with special glee. His uncle, newspaper magnate Sir William Bitton, has already lost several hats, but that isn’t why he’s consulting Chief Inspector Hadley and Dr. Gideon Fell. Sir William has lost something far more valuable, the manuscript of a previously unknown Edgar Allan Poe story.
Before Fell can begin his investigation, however, the Mad Hatter strikes again. This time the prank has turned fatal. Driscoll is found dead at the Tower of London, his body sprawled at Traitor’s Gate with the bolt from a medieval crossbow protruding from his chest. In a final, macabre touch, the casually dressed corpse is wearing his uncle’s missing top hat.
So, that’s a lot of plot already, and it’s only the first two chapters. The Mad Hatter Mystery is a wild ride, from start to surprise finish. It’s a likable story, with some fun suspects and lots of foggy London atmosphere, even if the mystery itself lacks the fiendish complexity of other works by John Dickson Carr. This early appearance by Dr. Fell establishes his good humor and penchant for drama without slipping into caricature. Fell is reunited not only with Chief Inspector Hadley of Hag’s Nook, but also with his useless young sidekick Rampole as they tramp through the fog in “a nightmare of hats.”
Despite the damp weather, the Tower has attracted a number of visitors with ties to Sir William Bitton, including his voluptuous sister-in-law Laura Bitton, and his houseguest Julius Arbor, a rival manuscript collector. That’s not counting those who work at the Tower, like his friend General Mason and the general’s secretary Dalrye, the victim’s best friend as well as the fiancé of Sir William’s daughter Sheila. Finally, there is the mysterious Mrs. Larkin, who just happens to live across the hall from Philip Driscoll.
There are countless personal dramas swirling around, but the murder may also involve a passion of a different kind—the dangerous affliction of bibliophilia. The missing Poe manuscript turns out to be an Auguste Dupin story that predates “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” making it the first-ever detective story. Not even Dr. Fell is immune to the allure of this “magnificent dream of blood and violence.” Sir William seems infatuated by his possession of the manuscript, confessing, “I wanted this great thing, a secret between Poe and myself, for myself. For nobody else to see unless I chose.” Likewise, Julius Arbor is willing to take any risk and go to any expense in his pursuit of rare manuscripts. Would he go as far as theft, or even murder?
With the investigation being relatively straightforward, much of the reader’s enjoyment comes from the interactions between the eccentric Dr. Fell and the equally odd Bitton family. The bickering between Dr. Fell and Hadley is also entertaining.
You see, General, in his own way, Doctor Fell is invaluable. But he gets his ideas of police procedure from the cinema, and he is under the impression that he can act any sort of part. Whenever I let him question anybody in my presence he tries to give an imitation of me. The result sounds like a schoolmaster with homicidal mania trying to find out what fourth former spread the axle grease on the stairs when the headmaster was coming down to dinner.
Dr. Fell accepts this in good humor, but when Hadley goes after detective novels, it’s too much.
You say that the detective in fiction is mysterious and slyly secret. All right; but he only reflects real life. What about the genuine detective? He is the one who looks mysterious, says “Aha!” and assures everybody that there will be an arrest within twenty-four hours. In other words, he has all the pose, whether he has the knowledge or not. But, like the fictional detective, very sensibly he doesn’t tell what he thinks, for the excellent and commonplace reason that he may be wrong.
The solution to this highly stylized crime turns out to be based in a very human messiness, resulting in an unexpected moral quandary for the detectives that I’m not sure the book has earned. Overall, however,The Mad Hatter Mystery is a solid puzzler. It’s pleasant enough without reaching either the highs or the lows that Carr is capable of.
The Mad Hatter Mystery was a mixed bag for me. I finished it and thought “I don’t know what to say about this.” I enjoyed the ride and yet I was left somewhat wanting. The book has a fairly good reputation, and perhaps I was expecting something more in terms of the mystery. Overall, the pacing is good, the characters are well fleshed out, and the plot is enjoyable.
I haven’t read enough of Carr’s work to be able to say whether this qualifies as one of his best books but I certainly found The Mad Hatter Mystery to be insanely enjoyable. Highly recommended.
The Grandest Game in the World
A good, solid detective story, with lots of detail and detection. It may, though, lack the hyperingenuity of Carr at his best.
The Mad Hatter Mystery is now back in print as an ebook, hardcover, and paperback from American Mystery Classics in the US and as a hardcover in the UK.
7 thoughts on “The Mad Hatter Mystery (1933) by John Dickson Carr”
I distinctly remember there being one aspect to the workings of this that gave me a moment of “Yeah, U dunno how I feel about that…” and then I just decided to roll with it since I was having such a good time already. I think its reputation may be slightly elevated, but that’s possibly down to it arguably being the first time we saw how dazzling Carr could be — if you’re not reading him in order (and, hell, most people — myself included — aren’t) then it’s probably just an interesting diversion rather than a dazzling signpost; you’ve already seen what’s ahead, so this pointer may be taken as obvious.
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Isn’t Hag’s Nook a bit more dazzling though? To me that’s the first Carr where he really shows his powers. The six novels that came before have fine moments and are overall enjoyable, but Hag’s Nook strikes me as the one where he turns the corner.
For me, The Mad Hatter Mystery straddles the Bencolin / Poison in Jest era (in terms of atmosphere) and the likes of Death Watch and The Arabian Nights Murder (in terms of misdirection). Hag’s Nook is very much in the other direction, expanding the atmosphere/puzzle of The Bowstring Murders into the direction of the early Carter Dickson novels.
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Hag’s Nook shows Carr’s development as a novelist, no doubt, but it’s more notable for baroque, Gothic heebie-jeebies rather than plotting. Take out that uncanny element, and the mystery plot is, I’d argue, no better or worse or different than a bunch of other stuff published the same year.
He distinguishes himself with Mad Hatter — for all its flaws, there’s an additional swizz of brilliance in the setup and execution, and the combination of ideas feels far fresher and enervating. The genre would have looked at that and been very excited indeed.
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Well, I’ll leave Hag’s Nook to the experts. It’s been a million years since I read it, but I also remember being more impressed by the atmosphere than the plot. Mad Hatter has a verve and confidence that is very appealing. Some aspects of the solution are unusual even today, so their effect was surely even greater on readers of the time.
It’s too bad we can’t go back and see these books as their first readers would have experienced them, but I selfishly prefer to have them all available to me at once!
It’s been a while since I read it, too, but I have that same impression. Two of us can’t be wrong!
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