“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.
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.