I often turn to a British Library Crime Classic between other books, especially if I’ve been reading something intense and I’m not sure what to pick up next; they *are* the perfect palate cleanser. One of their recent releases is another title by John Dickson Carr; they’ve issued a number of his books, including the Bencolin series of wonderfully dark and atmospheric escapades. However, Carr’s best-known detective is probably still Dr Gideon Fell, master of the locked-room mystery, and the latest release, “The Seat of the Scornful: A Devon Mystery”, features that venerable detective. It’s a joy to read and very entertaining, but it does raise some interesting and thought-provoking issues!

“Seat…” was first published in 1942, but is set earlier, and interestingly its main mystery is not a locked-room one. Central to the story is Mr Justice Ireton, a high court judge with no tolerance for those appearing before him, happy to hand out a death sentence whenever possible. A widower, his daughter Constance is a nervy girl, dominated by his wishes. Unfortunately, she’s taken up with a shady type, Tony Morell, whom the judge is convinced wants to marry his daugher for her money. So when the police are called to the judge’s seaside holiday bungalow to find Morell dead on the floor, killed by a gunshot, and the judge sitting in a neaby chair clutching a pistol, it doesn’t seem as though there will be much detecting to do…

However, the case is not as straightforward as it seems; the judge declares his innocence, Constance’s story of where she was complicates matters, and there are other players in the drama who have a possible interest. There is Fred Barlow, a KC desperately in love with Constance; Constance’s friend Jane Tennant, who is in love with Fred; and the lawyer Appleby who seems to know quite a lot about the money matters of all concerned. Fortunately, Dr Gideon Fell is on hand, and the local police are able to call on him to unravel the mystery – which he does, although the book has a most singular resolution!

There’s a surprising amount to chew over with this particular Carr book, and I wanted to pick up on one aspect which is often criticised in Golden Age crime, and that’s characterisation. It’s somehow become a trope that this genre consists of paper thin characters acting out the mystery. I’ve read a good number of books which challenge that stereotype, and certainly “Seat…” does just that. All of the players are well developed, from the judge himself through Fell and the various policemen to the other possible suspects. Constance and Jane are an interesting study of two friends who are actually very unalike, and they change and develop over the course of the story. Likewise Fred and Morell, the two male protagonists, who are seen to be perceived as one kind of person but actually another – demonstrating that there’s more to most of us than meets the eye.

As for the judge, well he dominates the story in more ways than one. His character is a monstrous, cold one; eschewing the warm emotions, his pleasures seem to come from toying with his victims, playing cat and mouse with their feelings even though he appears to have none himself. His behaviour towards his daughter is very controlling, and I couldn’t help wondering what his poor late wife had seen in him. Carr does excel in painting darker characters, and the judge is certainly one of those.

At about nine o’clock on that same night, Miss Jane Tennant drove her car into the car park beside the Esplanade hotel, Tawnish. The Esplanade is a showplace, garish between the skeins of lights along the promenade and the red hills behind. Its famous basement swimming-pool, with tea and cocktail lounge attached, offered the luxury of warmed sea water in winter – and on such summer days, which were many, when only an Eskimo could have ventured into the sea without triple pneumonia.

Where Carr is also brilliant is in his scene-setting. The Devon seaside setting, the bungalow, the nearby coastal town with its hotels and swimming pools, is wonderfully conjured; and the gaiety of the young people who make up Jane Tennant’s party, drinking and fooling around, is in strong contrast not only to the harsh coldness of Justice Ireton, but also to the sinister events stalking them. Carr knows how to ramp up the tension, and there are several places in the narrative where things get quite scary and I feared for the safety of some of the characters!

… I hate the smugness of the just. I hate their untroubled eyes. I hate their dictum, which is: ‘This man’s motives do not count. He stole because he was hungry or killed because he was driven past the breaking point, and therefore he shall be convicted.’ I want a fair fight to win my case and say: ‘This man’s motives do count. He stole because he was hungry or killed because he was driven past the breaking point; and therefore, by God, he shall go free.’

“Seat..” is an interesting book on so many levels, and not least the plot’s morals and denouement. From the very opening of the book, where Justice Ireton sentences a man to death for murdering his wife, and the contrasting views of those watching the trial are picked up by Constance (who’s in attendance), Carr is clearly wanting to explore the subject of whether murder is ever justified. Martin Edwards picks up on this element in his excellent introduction, and without wanting to give anything away, after a *lot* of twists and turns, the ending of the book is perhaps unexpected. The murder victim is not painted as a particularly nice character, but then neither is the judge; and however the killing happened and whoever the murderer actually was, Dr. Fell takes matters into his own hands, in quite an imperious way, and decides how things will be resolved. According to Edwards, the ethics of the resolution have been much discussed and I can see why; it’s a satisfying end in some ways, but one that might well leave readers uncomfortable.

So “The Seat of the Scoundrel” turned out to be a standout entry in the British Library Crime Classics list. As a mystery read, it’s incredibly satisfying, full of twists and turns and revelations as the narrative goes along, and I was a million miles away from getting the solution. It’s also really well characterised, with a well-rounded cast who develop as the book goes on, revealing unexpected strengths and weaknesses. And it raises many issues, which I’m still debating with myself, as to the morals of murder, and who has the right to judge another person. As well as the perfect comfort read of GA Crime, I also found this to be a book which really made me think – highly recommended!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!)