The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941) by John Dickson Carr

Case Of The Constant Suicides: 9781846974595: Books

When I first discovered the wide, wonderful world of impossible crimes and locked room murders, it shouldn’t be anyone’s surprise that the very, very first name I was introduced to — and one which I’d come to hear, and speak reverently, many more times for years to come — was John Dickson Carr. He’s the veritable king of the locked room mystery! The master of impossible crimes! A masterclass in atmospheric ghost stories-cum-murder mysteries. However, despite the fact Mr. Carr is best known for The Hollow Man (or The Three Coffins, if you prefer going against the tide), I was first introduced to him through a friend’s emphatic review of The Case of the Constant Suicides. For reasons unknown even to myself, I had still decided to put off reading The Case of the Constant Suicides for four whole years, even as I read other Carr novels, but the book was always in the back of my mind. So, finally, in 2020, I decided to do right by myself and my enthusiastic friend and give the book a read.

Having now read it, though, I’m stuck with a bit of a conundrum. As a first Carr novel, The Case of the Constant Suicides is difficult to recommend because the cluing, plotting, narrative and tone are so far-removed from anything traditionally “John Dickson Carr” that it doesn’t offer a good indication of what to expect from his writing. However, those very same problems may also makes The Case of the Constant Suicides a hard read for purists, not only of Carr but also locked room mysteries in general. The book is best served as either a middle read, enjoyed after you’ve developed a casual acquaintanceship with locked room mysteries and your standards and tastes aren’t so rigid, or a nearly-last read, enjoyed after you’re exhausted of reading contrived, winding puzzles and want a mystery more social in natural. Alas, neither of those apply to me, and I can safely say The Case of the Constant Suicides is not one of my most favorite of Carr’s works and, in fact, may be one of my least favorite reads from the author.

In Scotland, the Campbell clan gather at the Castle of Shira to mourn the passing of Angus Campbell, who died after a fall from the highest room of the castle’s tower. Because the room was perfectly sealed from the inside, his death is presumed a suicide, but some among the gathering believe that his recent life insurance policies (which would be annulled in the case of suicide) are proof that Angus hadn’t committed suicide, but was indeed murdered!

Fortunately, as it would so happen, Colin Campbell has connections to Gideon Fell, a renowned amateur-expert in the area of locked rooms and how to commit murder in them. Upon arriving, he confirms the mourners’ worst suspicions… Angus Campbell was murdered!

The Case of the Constant Suicides is a bizarre entry into Carr’s portfolio, but if nothing else it proves that if Carr wrote in the modern world he’d always have television comedy to fall back on should the locked room market collapse. Indeed, the novel’s tone is incredibly out-of-place in the Fell series, which often features a haunting, oppressive atmosphere. Instead, many of the most memorable scenes of Constant Suicides would feel right at place in, believe it or not, an episode of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.

To put it in paradoxical terms, the humor in Constant Suicides is incredibly funny, but at the same time my least favorite part of the book. Despite being one of the shortest Carr’s I’ve read recently, no less than a third of the novel is spent in sitcom-space introducing us to the perspective characters of Alan and Kathryn Campbell, feuding academic-writers and unbeknownst cousins, their odd “will-they-won’t-they”, and their quirky distant family. In this way, Constant Suicides is remarkably similar to the earlier Christianna Brand novels, but even then the handling of the murder is frankly bizarre. Once Fell finally gets to make an appearance the problem of the “it could be murder” is given some attention, but then after not so much as a rudimentary physical investigation he divines the solution to the problem, some time is spent with the drama of not believing the room is dangerous and the book carries on with some interrogations to fill some gaps in the story. Unlike any other locked room Carr, where the main article is a winding trail of clues and red herrings leading you along to the solution, Constant Suicides leaves the solution nearly immediately apparent and leaves it at that. And, while there are two more impossible crimes, one is a direct repetition of the original problem and the other is a very disappointing piece. The main article is easily the interactions between characters, their drama and the humor — absolutely not the constant suicides, as the title and any blurb would have you believe — making The Case of the Constant Suicides a social mystery of the highest order, from a man who rarely if ever dabbled in the school.

This unconventional focus in narrative and plotting isn’t bad by any stretch, but it makes The Case of the Constant Suicides feel counter-intuitive to the sort of work Carr did in much of his other 70-plus mysteries. It’s hard to recommend this book to anyone looking for “another Carr” or a puzzling locked room problem, but those who don’t suffer the curse of purism may find here a pleasantly entertaining comedy in the form of an impossible crime.

11 thoughts on “The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941) by John Dickson Carr

  1. scottkratner August 12, 2020 / 6:15 am

    It’s been a while since I read this novel, but as I recall, the central impossibility – – that is, the one involving an aspect of science – – is not resolved until the final dénouement. I must admit that a later impossibility- a death in a cage sort of thing— was a distinct disappointment.

    One thing I really enjoyed about this book was the motive for a certain supernatural (if not impossible) aspect of it. It’s a usually overlooked motive of impossible crime, but one that is shared by the earlier spree ofImpossible crimes in Till Death Do Us Part.


    • Isaac Stump August 12, 2020 / 7:36 pm

      Sorry, the wording was a bit unclear in my review. It isn’t explained until the final denouement, but the solution is intuitive from the information given in the first once-over of the crime — as evidenced by how quickly Fell reached it.

      I agree that the spoken-of motive is very strong in this book — the book is a great social-comedy mystery — but even then I preferred it in the very book you mentioned, Till Death Do Us Part!


      • scottkratner August 13, 2020 / 2:59 am

        I prefer the use of the technique in Till Death Do Us Part, but then I prefer just about everything in that book.

        To clarify, what I meant was the motive of an impossible crime to act as a catalyst for the action of another. Cleverly used in both books.


  2. nbmandel August 12, 2020 / 9:45 am

    The conjunction of the words “John Dickson Carr” and “comedy” is enough to make me throw the book off a high tower. But that’s just me.


    • Isaac Stump August 12, 2020 / 8:26 pm

      Just be careful to make it look like the book committed suicide, and you’ll be golden!

      Liked by 2 people

    • thegreencapsule November 9, 2020 / 8:06 pm

      I don’t think Carr went south with his comedy until She Died a Lady. Up until then, his books were rarely humorous, but when they were (The Case of the Constant Suicides, The Punch and Judy Murders, aspects of The Bowstring Murders and Nine and Death Makes Ten), they were hilarious. But yeah, all of that slapstick stuff in the post 1940 Merrivale’s is just awful.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Christophe August 15, 2020 / 6:02 pm

    This was the first JDC I read, and I liked it for the reasons you mention.

    I think your evalutationnis based on confounding two things: the book as a mystery, and the book as an introduction to JDC. Whether it succeeds or fails as the latter has little to do with whether it succeeds or fails as the former.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Isaac Stump August 15, 2020 / 11:59 pm

      Thanks for your comment! It was my personal belief that a book so out-of-the-ordinary wouldn’t make a good introduction to an author’s works. After all, it doesn’t represent any of the norms with Carr’s writing!

      However, I appreciate the comment correcting me on that. I’ll admit, my own bias leaked through a bit and I’m glad you liked the book where I didn’t!

      Liked by 2 people

  4. thegreencapsule November 9, 2020 / 8:12 pm

    Well…. that’s an unusual reaction to this book. Honestly, yeah, if I were to list the top 20 impossible crime solutions in a Carr novel, this wouldn’t make the list, but as a page for page story, I have to think it’s one of Carr’s finest. I loved the humor, I recall the story moving right along, and you get three impossibilities (even if they aren’t Carr’s best solutions).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Isaac Stump November 9, 2020 / 9:06 pm

      I admit, I’ve been having trouble just enjoying locked room mystery novels lately. I wonder if I’d enjoy the novel more if I came back to it in the future with a different mindset.

      Liked by 1 person

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