John Dickson Carr's Great Detective

A true Great Detective needs great cases to solve and a formidable personal presence. Dr Gideon Fell scores highly on both counts. Nobody in "golden age" crime was as unfailingly ingenious in plot construction as John Dickson Carr, who boasted more than eighty variants on the classic puzzle of murder in a locked room. And few literary figures of the 1930s were as gigantic (in either sense) and recognizable as G.K.Chesterton, from whom Carr borrowed Fell's appearance, mannerisms, and fondness for beer.

In the best of these books, it's a very Chestertonian world through which Dr Fell makes his clumsy-seeming way – wheezing, supporting himself on two canes, occasionally working on his forever unfinished The Drinking Customs of England from the Earliest Days. The plots are full of high melodrama, seeming impossibilities and eerie background lore, such as the European vampire legends which darken the atmosphere of The Hollow Man (1935) and He Who Whispers (1946), or the smoky pall of witchcraft in The Crooked Hinge (1938)... all highly recommended.

The mystery tradition stated clearly that supernatural hints might be introduced, but only if later dispelled by the light of reason. Carr broke this "rule" elsewhere, but never in the 23 novels and handful of short stories about Fell. As an eccentric polymath, Fell always knows more arcana than anyone else; as an ex-schoolmaster, he's accustomed to seeing through elaborate and consistent lies. Because he is a large, comforting figure like Santa Claus or Old King Cole, we believe him when he claims to be frightened, and let him convince us that far from being a let-down, the rational solutions are even more startling than ghosts or vampires – as in the above titles they certainly are.

Sometimes, when Carr wants light relief, Fell grows too determinedly comical. More often he does a creditable version of his original's fluency with absurd examples as a route to serious points. In the tortuous Death-Watch (1935), Fell persuades his friend Chief Inspector Hadley against a disastrous arrest, by showing how the case would collapse in court – and can't resist addressing an imaginary jury: "Gentlemen, it is a well-known rule in poultry-farming...."

The most notorious example of Fell's rhetoric forms Chapter XVII of The Hollow Man: "The Locked-Room Lecture". As he frankly begins:

"We're in a detective story, and we don't fool the reader by pretending we're not. Let's not invent elaborate excuses to drag in a discussion of detective stories. Let's candidly glory in the noblest pursuits possible to characters in a book."

This isn't mere self-indulgence. What follows is a rumbustious defence and analysis of the locked-room tradition ... not only an erudite and entertaining essay but a taunting challenge to the reader. Two murders have already been committed, "in such fashion that the murderer must not only have been invisible, but lighter than air." They remain, in this chapter, unsolved. Fell's lecture openly lists the category and subcategory of deception into which both puzzles fall, while Carr's misdirecting hand ensures that even as it's pushed under your nose, you fail to see it.

Other notable appearances of Dr Fell are in his debut novel Hag's Nook (1933), which buzzes with vermin, plague, and superstition, and logically explains a family curse consisting of a hereditary broken neck; in The Black Spectacles (1939), a tour de force wherein a psychological demonstration of witnesses' inability to observe is so successful that no one can tell who entered and – under the glare of a photoflood lamp – unhurriedly murdered the demonstrator; in The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941), whose mingling of spookiness and farce skates over one awkward scientific lapse; and in The Seat of the Scornful (1942), concluding with one of Fell's most magisterial games of bluff against a murderer who "cannot be convicted".

The doctor never regained his best form after 1946, but in the above titles he presides over some of the most dazzlingly implausible confections in the annals of mystery. Let's leave him on a characteristic note of melodrama and compassion, in the final line of The Hollow Man:

"I have committed another crime, Hadley," he said. "I have guessed the truth again."

I have used the author's preferred British-edition titles The Hollow Man, The Black Spectacles and The Seat of the Scornful rather than the US retitlings The Three Coffins, The Problem of the Green Capsule and Death Turns the Tables – DRL.