John Dickson Carr was one of the best known mystery writers of the golden age of detective fiction in the 1930’s but who has now largely slipped from public consciousness. Although born in the United States he spent a lot of his active writing life in England and was highly prolific with roughly 100 books published; mainly under his own name but also using pseudonyms. Oddly for a prolific novelist he was strangely unimaginative in his pen names using Carter Dickson, Carr Dickson and once somewhat randomly Roger Fairbairn. His main output was stories about two English amateur detectives, Dr. Gideon Fell written under his own name and Sir Henry Merrivale as Carter Dickson, this book is the second of the Gideon Fell books following on from Hag’s Nook which I also have as a Penguin first edition but which is too fragile to read without worrying about damaging such a rare wartime paperback. Although first published by Hamish Hamilton in 1933, Penguin didn’t print their first edition of The Mad Hatter Mystery until October 1947 so this copy is somewhat more robust.
In this book Dr. Fell is first encountered in a bar, over the twenty three novels and several short stories in which the character appears this would prove to be the best place to find him. He is described as a very large man, not just tall but fat with numerous chins and needing a cane to get around, he is believed to be modelled on G.K Chesterton who certainly fitted this description and Carr admired the man and his works especially the Father Brown stories. About Fell himself we learn very little in this book, Carr is much more interested in the plot of the mystery than in biographical details of his character. He does however fit in to a familiar trope of being an amateur detective who is frequently called upon by the professionals due to his unusual way of linking details and coming up with the solution to an apparently baffling case, something that goes back to Sherlock Holmes but Dr. Fell only works with the police rather than taking on clients.
The actual mystery of the Mad Hatter alluded to in the title is really a minor diversion through the book and is quickly solved by Fell; what he is actually brought in to help with is the theft of a manuscript of an unpublished story by Edgar Alan Poe. The police don’t want to be involved as the person reporting the theft has a somewhat dubious claim to be the owner in any case and has only asked Chief Inspector Hadley for assistance as he knows him. There is a murder but it doesn’t occur until after the other two problems are being pursued, although as I said the identity of the person stealing distinctive hats across London is deliberately left pretty obvious by Carr presumably so the reader can feel that they have solved something along with detectives even if it continues to confuse the main murder plot line and solution as the victim is found wearing one of the stolen hats although had definitely not been wearing it when seen shortly before his death.
The inter-relationships between the characters is fairly complex, as is common in Carr’s works. Why are so many of the people living at the home of Sir William Bitton, the putative owner of the manuscript before its theft, to be found at the Tower of London when the body is found on the steps of Traitors Gate, when they had apparently gone there independently? Who had taken the manuscript from Bitton’s study, when and why? These are two puzzles that slowly unravel as Fell determines how the murder victim met his end and who did that, which needless to say is a very different solution to that reached by Chief Inspector Hadley.
I like John Dickson Carr’s crime novels, Dr. Fell rather more than the Sir Henry Merrivale tales whom I find considerably less likeable as a character. The solutions do tend to be a little convoluted, although that really isn’t the case in this book where it is unexpected but at least looking back you feel that it should have been possible for the reader to reach the same solution given the information provided although of course you don’t at the time. He is sadly neglected nowadays, no television or film adaptations of either of his great detectives have brought him back into the limelight although there is more than enough material to make several series around either of them. Several of his books have now appeared in the British Library Crime Classics series a sure sign that he is neglected by the mainstream as this series was founded to bring back into print works that have gradually disappeared from the shelves and revive interest in the authors.