WARNING: THIS POST WILL HEAVILY SPOIL THE HOUSE IN GOBLIN WOOD AND I HIGHLY SUGGEST READING THE STORY IF YOU HAVE NOT ALREADY BEFORE PROCEEDING
John Dickson Carr wrote many a masterpiece for the impossible crime, and mystery genres as a whole. You’ll hear the names of legendary titles from The Hollow Man to She Died a Lady referenced innumerable times by any reader whose taken the time to explore the genre to some degree, and his work has forever been lauded as some of, if not the best ever produced in the period of time that encompassed his productivity. His other work; short stories, novellas, radio plays, etc are usually thrown back into the shadows by his longer and more padded out works, but one story has always managed to stand above the rest, even being declared by some to be his greatest work – The House in Goblin Wood.
THGW starts off in stereotypical Carrian fashion. A lovestruck couple comes onto Sir. Henry Merrivale after he goes through some comedic workings, and dump a locked room mystery right onto his lap. The puzzle? Vicky Adams, a esoteric young woman, disappeared from her locked bedroom years ago, only to later reappear and say that she was whisked away by the “fairies”. Eve and Bill (the lovestruck couple) have decided to invite H.M to the titular house where it all happened, alongside the famed Vicky herself, for a lovely little picnic. While there, Vicky once again vanishes into thin air, and the puzzle is reignited once more.
Now, the basic setup pre denouement basically announces these points;
A; Eve and Bill will be the heroes of the story, follow Carr’s basic couple template
B; H.M will solve the crime and unveil exactly how Vicky managed to vanish and why
C; Vicky is the villain of the piece, and will be revealed as nothing else but a trickster at the end of it all
Heeding these points, and likely fully believing them by the time Merrivale tells all, you prepare yourself to here the explanations as to how Vicky did what she did. The solution to the first disappearance is presented, and its nothing much. How can this story be considered incredible? you may ask after reading it, but of course there is still the solution to the second crime, and that must be where all the best stuff lies.
Of course it does, and almost any reader will suddenly be hit by a shock of unimaginable proportions. Vicky was never the villain, but Eve and Bill were. All of the presumed points listed above hold no ground anymore. Everything we previously assumed is thrown out the window and a whole new narrative arises, one that was stealthily lurking beneath the surface the entire time. Little clues, such as awkward conversation bits, and certain phrases, take on a whole new meaning, all thanks to one, groundbreaking reversal.
There are two major points that create the masterpiece that is THGW and they are: the subversion of expectations and the shifting of focus to one specific, but wrong, viewpoint.
Carr had at that point and still has to this day, a reputation for creating protagonists who were young, lovelorn, and at the disposal of the main detective. The most iconic example was Ken Blake, and it became almost a needed aspect in much of his work. These characters were always above suspicion, and even to someone not aware of this particular Carrian quirk, the closeness of Eve and Bill too Merrivale also lends a hand in their perceived innocence, sending us far down the wrong path. Very few writers, especially those in the mystery genre, can use a stereotype about their work to their advantage, and Carr does just that here. From the start we just know that Eve and Bill will get their happily ever after, and Vicky will be the villainess who plagues them in traditional fairy tale fashion. That is the subversion behind the entire work. What we expect and what we assume will almost always match up to what Carr wants us to expect and assume, and therefore we will almost always be tricked.
As for the focusing of a specific viewpoint, it ties directly into the subversion. There are two narrative strands here, the correct one, and the false one created by Carr to mask the accurate one. From the start of the story, to what is basically the last page, we are constantly made to focus on the inaccurate viewpoint. It’s us looking at the wrong problem, seeing Vicky as the perpetrator, and not as the victim, seeing Eve and Bill as heroine and hero, and not as diabolic co conspirators. Both strands are always present, but we are made to only look at the one that Carr decides to put completely on display, the mannequin in a display window if you will. While we focus on it, Carr is able to weave the other thread expertly, directly underneath the one forged from assumptions and presumptions.
That is the beauty of this work. It plays directly into what we as readers will think and deduce. It does not require a legion of red herrings or a army of false suspects: it only requires our own deductive fallacy and what we will naturally assume. There is a incredibly small minority of authors who can do this, and an even smaller group who can do it to perfection. Carr creates the textbook example here, one that needs to be read by any aspiring mystery author, fan, or reader of literature in general. In about eighteen pages, a better mystery is formulated that what can be made in almost three hundred by others, and that alone speaks to the mastery of this story, and Carr in general.
The House in Goblin Wood is a dark fairy tale, and a particularly delicious one at that. I think its a encapsulated version of what everything Carr does so well in an incredible short amount of page length, and it completely deserves its esteemed reputation. To me, its his best work, and as a result, it is one of the best works from the mystery genre as a whole. Perfection is the one word that describes it in its entirety, and from the first page to the last, it never lets go of that title. Now go on, reread it, or in the case of the few unfortunate souls who just ruined the story for them by reading all these spoilers, read it for the first time and revel!
Summer has been particularly busy for me, but its been nice to return to blogging once once more. Next up I’ll be trying to look at alibis and their correlation to impossible crimes, so stay tuned!
4 thoughts on “Subverting Expectations ~ On Why The House in Goblin Wood (1947) is a Masterpiece”
“subverting expectations”: That is precisely what Carr is doing here. Even a reader unfamiliar with his “reputation for creating protagonists who were young, lovelorn, and at the disposal of the main detective,” would have been conditioned by media at large to expect a “they lived happily ever after.” Readers, such as myself, who are familiar with the Carr format could be shocked at this inversion of anticipation, and I must confess to being caught off-guard at reading “Goblin Wood.” No wonder Ellery Queen felt it to be “the perfect story to re-read, re-examine, and re-appraise.”
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This really is the best thing Carr wrote. It is the perfect example of the reader being focused on the wrong problem. I can still remember being dumbfounded by the solution.
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