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.