Book Reviews

Book Review: The Seat of the Scornful by John Dickson Carr

This mystery, set in Devon in the 1930s, is a small-scale but very tight and twisty thriller that is perfect for a Sunday afternoon read!

Book: The Seat of the Scornful by John Dickson Carr

Publication date: 10th June 2022 (originally published 1941)

Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by British Library Publishing. All opinions my own.

Content warnings: violence, injury, death and murder; outdated racial language (some censored).

Over a long career in the courts Justice Horace Ireton has a garnered a reputation for merciless rulings and his dedication to meting out strict, impartial justice. Taking a break from his duty after a session of assizes, Ireton retreats to his seaside bungalow in Devon and turns his attention to family, and specifically in attempting to bribe his daughter’s lover Morrell to leave her alone so that she may instead marry the respectable clerk, Fred Barlow. It seems something about the deal with Morrell must have gone amiss, however, when the police are called to the Justice’s residence to find Morrell shot dead and the judge still holding a pistol. But would the lawman be so bold to commit a murder like this? With a number of strange items making up the physical evidence Dr Gideon Fell, himself an old friend of Ireton’s, is summoned to help with the deceptively simple – yet increasingly complex – investigation.

The blurb calls this book ‘deceptively simple’, and I think that’s a very fair assessment – the description of the plot given is, genuinely, pretty much all there is to it! However, don’t let that fool you. While the cast may be small and the mystery may at first seem clear cut, there’s still plenty going on here that will keep you scratching your head along with the investigators! What that does mean, though, is that this needs to be quite a short review, because the more I say the more I’ll give away!

What I can talk about is the characters and general feel, both of which feel quintessentially 1930s in that wonderfully tea-time mystery way. I really enjoyed the scenes we got of Ireton’s daughter Constance and her friends, which have that fun soapy feel I was talking about in my review of Green for Danger by Christianna Brand – it’s all about who fancies who and who’s friends with who for them, which is a fun juxtaposition to the very serious, stoic Justice Ireton. He himself is not a likeable character to begin with, and nor is our amateur detective Dr Gideon Fell, but both are well-drawn and interesting, and their spiky not-quite-friendship makes their scenes fascinating. The two of them are at opposite ends of the spectrum in how they feel the law should be dealt with: Ireton believes it should be carried out to the letter, while Fell believes it’s more to do with the spirit. There’s a fabulously understated, polite animosity between them that I really enjoyed.

The plot itself is pretty fast-paced, as you’d expect from a sub-300 page book, but in a way you could say that not much happens – it’s more about figuring out what exactly happened in this one seemingly simple murder, rather than a series of escalating events. Less thriller, more puzzle! Not everything is 100% plausible, and there are a lot of moments that seem to hinge on things the reader could not possibly have guessed as we had absolutely information about until it became relevant, but it does make the ending very entertaining. The final scene alone is worth all the buildup.

This is my first book by Dickson Carr, but I’m definitely interested to read more! Four out of five cats.

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