09 July 2020

Language in John Dickson Carr's Gideon Fell mysteries

John Dickson Carr authored 23 novels featuring Dr. Gideon Fell, starting with Hag's Nook in 1933 and finishing in 1967 with Dark of the Moon.  These include several of his most famous locked-room stories, like Till Death Do Us Part.   The Crooked Hinge uses a truly remarkable disguise for the murderer.  In The Eight of Swords the murderer is absolutely the last person you would suspect; the same in To Wake the Dead and He Who Whispers, which I rated the highest of all the books in this group.  Death Watch is almost unsolvable.  I was disappointed to note that the solution to The Case of the Constant Suicides was given away by the artist who created the paperback book cover.

Lots of interesting words and phrases.  No need to sort them by book, so I'll group them all together in this one post.

"The ancient rain of England, which brought out old odours like ghosts, so that black-letter books, and engravings on the wall, seemed more alive than real people."  I'm not sure if the hyphen was intrinsic to the word, because it was at the end of a line of text, but maybe it's this: The Letter-Books of the City of London are a series of fifty folio volumes in vellum containing entries of the matters of in which the City of London was interested or concerned, beginning in 1275 and concluding in 1509.  Or else this: Blackletter (sometimes black letter), also known as Gothic script, Gothic minuscule, or Textura, was a script used throughout Western Europe from approximately 1150 until the 17th century. 
"It's just a lot of crackbrain poetry--"
"Verse," corrected Dr. Fell.
[a distinction that escapes me.  Maybe he's saying poetry has to rhyme?] 
"That hat - well, hang it!" the manager exploded, volplaning down into honest speech..."  In a steep controlled dive, as an aircraft with the engine off [from the French for "gliding flight."
"There he stood, looking taller, more shrunken and bony in his shirt sleeves... the sleeves tucked up on corded arms, his tie askew...  Presumably muscular, with tendons and muscles defined. 
"Possibly, with time to lend joke and point, a sense of adventure on the high seas would come in retrospect."  [need help with this phrase] 
"You couldn't imagine her on a party or doing anything that wasn't strictly according to Hansard."  (Hansard is the traditional name of the transcripts of Parliamentary Debates) 
"And this was not bravery, for he was frightened green and he could hear a thick beating in his ears."   A quick Google =  nothing.  And elsewhere: "I detest new processes, particularly chemical ones; they exalt the brains of fools and they bore me green." 
"... the thing seemed so obvious that he wondered how mind co-related with eyesight could have gone so far astray."  I suppose "correlated" is just a modernized "co-related."  [but the grammar Nazi asks - is "co-related" internally redundant?] 
"... a squat grey fortress, fourteen acres ringed with the strength of inner and outer ballium walls."  Fortification, from the Latin. 
"It was not so much that a man had been found dead at the Tower of London.  He had eaten horrors with a wide spoon during those days of the Starberth case... [previous murder case]"  Presumably means he had taken in a lot; rather an odd way to phrase it. 
"Sir William was jammed into the tonneau between Hadley and Dr. Fell."  Rear compartment, or a vehicle with such a compartment.  From the French. 
"A sentry, in the high black shako and grey uniform of the Spur Guard..."  A stiff military headdress. 
[pocket contents] "Bunch of keys.  Fountain-pen and stylo pencil..."  Ballpoint pen or biro.  Derived from stylus
"... he had tried to impress a policeman with a casual retort, and instead he had been flicked across his poise." [need help with this one]
"And when I left it I came out and started to snoopy up the stairs..."  Seems to be an adjective used as a verb.  "Snoop" is from Dutch snoepen (“to pry, eat in secret, sneak”)

"That's better, but it's not over yet by a long chalk."  A phrase of emphasis.  "Not by a long chalk' is a 19th century expression that originated in Canada but first became commonplace in England. It is the equivalent of the variant that is more used in the USA - 'not by a long shot'. The chalk that is referred to is that used to mark up scores in pub games and at horse races.  And this is interesting:
'Long chalk' only ever appears in the negative, like 'laughing matter', 'rest for the wicked' and 'all the tea in China'.

"Since one of the lights of the window stood open, I heard it distinctly."  Probably a panel in a mullioned window.

"The same, with knobs on, applies to the proprietor of the Witching Water Mill."  In context, "even more so" 
"They'll condole with me so..."  obviously the verb for giving condolences; have never seen it used as a verb. 
"He wouldn't ride on any of the swings or giddy-go-rounds or things..."  In context probably a merry-go-round/carousel.  I wonder if the "giddy" implies the presence of horses as in "giddyup", or more likely the circling makes one giddy. 
"I should like to thank you for taking this very awkward and unpleasant business in such good part...  I take it in devilish damned bad part, and you might as well understand that."  Apparently "in good humor". 
"There is something in our Mr. Welkyn's statement which tends to give me a cauld grue."  From Thrawn Janet: "it "sent a cauld grue [shudder] along my bones".  Obviously related to "gruesome." 
"You've got me in a cleft stick.  If I say he hated such things..."   Trapped, presumably, as one might capture a snake? 
"It brought things home to the jury as certainly as sixpence and two wrong."  [need help from a Brit on this one]
"Where were you then?"  "I was couped down beside the fence, out in front."  I need help with this one. 
"The result was, they had a hell of a slanging match which went on for more than three minutes..."  Not sure on this one either. 
 "I came over and stayed at Daddy's bungalow."  Borrowed from Hindi (baṅglāBengali), referring to the Bengali-style (one-storey) house. 
"So it is to your lucubations, sir, that we are indebted for what we think we have learned now?"  Probably a typo for lucubration "intense study" from the Latin for "working by artificial light." 
"Nobody could be more cynical as regards the powers of darkness and the lords of the four-went-ways."  There is a location in Cambridge with this name.  I presume the term refers to an intersection of two roads.  Not sure the reference to the powers of darkness although I think intersections were once locations for hangings and perhaps witchcraft. 
"It had no such high ambition; or, to put it more properly, no such high-falutin."  Common word, but I wondered the etymology.  Definition pompous, arrogant.  Etymology implied related to high-flying. 
"Were the Parcae, do you say, giving me some particularly nasty breaks?"  "In ancient Roman religion and myth, the Parcae (singular, Parca) were the female personifications of destiny who directed the lives (and deaths) of humans and gods. They are often called the Fates in English." 
"Yours sincerely, John Farnleigh (whilom Patrick Gore)."  Once-upon-a-time, formerly, from Old English. 
"... it concerns the Bishop of Mappleham.  Quite a big pot, I understand."  In context, referring to the person.  ?derived from potentate? 
"... friend would be measuring out gin drops, with the fierce concentration of a scientist, into a glass jug containing half-a-gallon of alcohol and half-a-gallon of water."  Why hyphenated?
"... Shira is no' a canny place."  "Canny, I suppose," observed Alan, "being the opposite of uncanny?"  "Aye."  "But if Shira isn't a canny place, what's wrong with it?  Ghosts?"  Knowable, pleasant, fair. 
"I've heard the Scotch were booze-histers, of course..."  Booze-hoister (drinker). 
"She said she thought it was only decent to redd up the room."  In context, tidy.  Probably a back-formation from "ready." 
"Depping was rather a blister, wasn't he?"  A cause of annoyance.
"It was in a hollow of somewhat marshy ground, with a great ilex tree growing behind it..." 
"Oh, I know!  I've had it dinned into me a dozen times."  To repeat continuously, as though to the point of deafening or exhausting somebody [from Middle English]. 
"A general murmur, like the church's mumbled responses when the minister reads the catechism, answered the toast.  The Martini's healing chill soothed Hugh Donovan..."  Capitalized, presumably manufactured by Martini and Rossi? 
"Actually, he was as superstitious as they make 'em.  And the taroc was his favorite."  "The deck which English-speakers call by the French name Tarot is called Tarocco in Italian, Tarock in German and various similar words in other languages." 
"This, it occurred to him, would be an excellent house in which to play any sort of game that entailed wandering about in the dark; say that noble pastime called sardines."   One derivative in game is called "Sardines", in which only one person hides and the others must find them, hiding with them when they do so. The hiding places become progressively more cramped, like sardines in a tin. The last person to find the hiding group is the loser and subsequently the hider for the next round. This game is best played at night in a big area like a park, or in a dark room..." 
"The latter was... too full of new alcoholic courage... His foot groped vainly for a rail under the bar."   Discussed at Mixopedia.  I read somewhere recently that this is more a feature of American bars than British ones (the character in the story is an American in Britain).
"I swore Dibbs to silence with a new, crisp jimmy-o'-goblin - and I'll bet he hasn't betrayed me yet."  Rhyming slang for golden sovereigns
"... in fiction... they are always haughtily aristocratic, or languidly epigrammatic, or dodderingly Wodehouse..."  Brief, witty, from French from Greek. 
"Somebody mentioned an American thing called 'screens.'  We don't have 'em in England, but we ought to have."  Novel written in 1944.  Interesting that England didn't yet have window screens
"The inside of the safe, not much bigger than a large biscuit barrel, was empty."  The contents of the safe were small pieces of jewelry, and the biscuit barrel would be a term for a cookie jar. 
"... sat up all night telling incredible yarns, which were all the funnier in his strong squarehead accent."  "A foreigner of Germanic origin, especially a German, Dutch, or Scandinavian person."  Also "Squarehead' is a literal translation of the term tête carrée used by French-Canadians to describe English-Canadians, especially those who do not or prefer not to speak French." 
"She paused as a white-coated steward struggled out of a door near by and peered round..."  [unusual as two words] 
"She still seemed hurt by the behaviour of the eminent soaks; but her protective instincts had been roused..."  Drunkard, souse. 
"Stanley, who had been brushing one sleeve across his eyes in a sort of wabbling torpor, whirled round."  Equivalent to "wobble" unsteady. 
"... he looked startled out of his five wits..."  "In the time of William Shakespeare, there were commonly reckoned to be five wits and five senses. The five wits were sometimes taken to be synonymous with the five senses, but were otherwise also known and regarded as the five inward wits, distinguishing them from the five senses, which were the five outward wits...  the five (inward) wits were "common wit", "imagination", "fantasy", "estimation", and "memory"." 
"He only told Dr. Watson, who was gabbling under his breath, to go on with the silent work that had to be done."  Idle chatter; fast and foolish talk. 
"Why write that? - and concludes at 5 p.m., Thursday, the 4th inst., G. F. Ames..."  I've only ever seen this in British literature.  Hard to look up, but some reader must know. 
"... a frogged smoking-jacket over the pyjamas."  "Ornamental fastening for front of coat made of button and loop."  
"They gave them short shrift in England.  Three clear Sundays after sentence, and then the walk at dawn [to execution]."  Originally, a rushed sacrament of confession (shrift) given to a prisoner who was to be executed very soon.  Now, A quick rejection or dismissal, especially one which is impolite and undertaken without proper consideration. 
"... the group fell silent, but terror was here as well as tensity..."  Tension (from the Latin).

"The next person we saw was Inspector Grimes.  He came pelting across a field to the west..."  To move rapidly, maybe related to "pellet."

"Clarke wanted to compass Logan's death."  To wrap his mind around; to embrace.

"Not being an actor of outstanding merit, I feared that my expressive dial might betray me..."  Face, typically of a clock, but Brit/Aus used for human face.

"There Mr. Campbell will find a portrait, by Lely, of this handsome termagant."  Originally a god thought by Christians to be worshipped by Muslims, but  used in modern English to mean a violent, overbearing, turbulent, brawling, quarrelsome woman; a virago, shrew, vixen. In the past, the word could be applied to any person or thing personified, not just a woman.

"... it takes a bit of doing to come out flat with it.  You're rather a gimlet eye, you know.  Or at least you have that reputation."  "To have a gimlet eye or to cast a gimlet eye means to stare at someone or something in a piercing manner, or to stare in an extremely watchful manner. The term gimlet eye is derived from the gimlet, a small piercing or boring tool first used in the mid-1300s."

"Good evening, sir!... Come to beard the lion in his den, you see!"  Challenge someone on their own ground, especially to ask a favor.  Beard as a verb is to bravely oppose, probably implying to grab by the beard.

"You knew, after that phone call, that the police would be coming in a brace of shakes, along the only road they could come."  A brace is a pair, so two shakes ?of a lamb's tail?

"With all due respect to the clock in the car belonging to Dr. Fellows ... I submit that his statement is tosh and eyewash."  Rubbish, trash, from 19th century British thieves' cant.

[at a community charity bazaar] "From the coconut-shy to the so-called "pond" where you fished for bottles..."  A coconut shy (or coconut shie) is a traditional game frequently found as a sidestall at funfairs and fêtes. The game consists of throwing wooden balls at a row of coconuts balanced on posts. Typically a player buys three balls and wins each coconut successfully dislodged. In some cases other prizes may be won instead of the coconuts.

"Even now Middlesworth did not comment or obtrude into the conversation."  To intrude, impose, cut in (Latin "thrust against")

"[in the Army]... you get, unheroically, that form of Diesel-oil-poisoning which in the Tank Corps is nevertheless as deadly as anything Jerry throws at you.  Typically hydrocarbon intoxication comes from ingestion; maybe fumes can be inhaled in the tank??

"... the uniformed commissionaire at the entrance to Beltring's [restaurant]"  A uniformed doorman [French].

"... rather like an intellectual Charles the Second, and (God's fish!) just as unprepossessing."  I couldn't find anything.

"That was why he had dossed down here in the chair."  Sleep; a place to sleep, esp cheap lodging house (Scand dorsk = "sleepy")

"Then I knew there was a greasy cord around my neck."  With reference to a dream about hanging.  Interesting; would imply that nooses used for hanging were typically greased = presumably to overcome friction and allow the noose to tighten maximally.

"A single drugget of brownish carpet ran along the wooden floor..."  Inexpensive cloth, from the French drogue ("cheap").

"He had been told to search; and, by the six horns of Satan, he would search."  ??? was Satan supposed to have six horns?

"... looking forward to the explanation Dr. Fell promised, when the Gargantuan doctor had said he would accompany Brian..."  [note in a preface to one of the books when Fell was described as "Chestertonian," that was also capitalized.]  Certainly Chestertonian should be capitalized, since it references G. K. Chesterton.  And Gargantua was of course a proper name, but to be honest I don't remember ever having seen "gargantuan" capitalized.

"She was staying incognita at a hotel overlooking the Quai du Mont Blanc."  The feminine form of incognito.

"He drew up at a white-painted barrier across the entrance to the open auto lobby." [in context, parking lot]

"With a certain desperation, they foregathered in the hall..."  Scottish "assemble".

"Set cater-cornered in the south-west angle of the room... was a piano..."  Cf. kitty-corner, catty-corner, cater-corner.  All the words come from the original base word cater which means “four” and comes from the French word for four: quatre... The Dictionary of American Regional English has even more variants: kitty-cross, kitty-katty, kittering, and kitty-wampus, which means “askew” instead of “diagonally across” like all the others

And finally, this remarkable passage is from Chapter 17 of The Three Coffins:
"I will now lecture," said Dr. Fell, inexorably, "on the general mechanics and development of the situation which is known in detective fiction as the 'hermetically sealed chamber.' Harrumph. All those opposing can skip this chapter. Harrumph. To begin with, gentlemen! Having been improving my mind with sensational fiction for the last forty years, I can say--" 
"But, if you're going to analyze impossible situations," interrupted Pettis, "why discuss detective fiction?" 
"Because," said the doctor, frankly, "we're in a detective story, and we don't fool the reader by pretending we're not. Let's not invent elaborate excuses to drag in a discussion of detective stories. Let's candidly glory in the noblest pursuits possible to characters in a book." 
This "Locked Room Lecture" from that chapter is excerpted here.
"The Three Coffins is one of several--perhaps many--Carr novels that one ought to read twice in succession: the first to be bamboozled, the second to see how it was done." [Joshi]
Note: Most of these books will probably be available in public libraries.  For those who want to own personal copies for reading, I have listed this group of 16 paperbacks on eBay as a single lot (opens $16 + about $5 shipping, bidding to end next Sunday).


  1. Some of these are really idiosyncratic. As a British person who reads widely, I've never come across "certainly as sixpence and two wrong", and can't make head nor tail of it. Same for "lords of the four went-ways" although I'm sure you're right about the link to diabolical goings-on at crossroads. "Redd-up" and "God's fish" (related to the representation of Christ with the fish symbol?) are new to me as well and I love "Jimmy O'Goblin". I've never seen "incognita" or the six horns of Satan either... I can confirm that "slanging match" is a common term for a heated argument/exchange of insults. "Inst." in correspondence is short for "instanter" meaning "of the current month".

  2. Also, check your local public library for ebooks. Mine has three Carr ebooks available, from a publisher that is apparently no longer in business.

  3. Verse is metrical. Poetry need not have meter. Neither need rhyme. In some times and places, "verse" has been a sneer aimed at something deemed simplistic/demotic (think of the school of American poetry represented by John Ashbery, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Mark Strand, Robert Hass, etc. -- if any of them had ever written two lines that scanned alike, they'd have had to change their name and take up a new profession blocking hats). Somehow I don't think Dr. Fell would indulge in that kind of cheap shot.

    1. Your comment reminded me about Robert Penn Warren's "Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices" that I read decades ago. Maybe I should reread that.

  4. I have a thought about the reasoning behind "And this was not bravery, for he was frightened green and he could hear a thick beating in his ears." A quick Google = nothing. And elsewhere: "I detest new processes, particularly chemical ones; they exalt the brains of fools and they bore me green."

    'Green' is often associated with feeling ill, especially nauseous, so he could be construed as saying a fancier version of 'until I was sick of it'. A more... colorful phrase, if you'll pardon the pun.

    1. I just tried a quick Google of "scared green" and found this excerpt from Three Soldiers (1921) by John Dos Passos:

      "Hell, I came to warn you this bastard frawg's got soused an' has been blabbin' in the gin mill there how he was an anarchist an' all that, an' how he had an American deserter who was an anarchist an' all that, an' I said to myself: 'That guy'll git nabbed if he ain't careful,' so I cottoned up to the old frawg an' said I'd go with him to see the camarade, an' I think we'd better both of us make tracks out o' this berg."
      "It's damn decent. I'm sorry I was so suspicious. I was scared green when I first saw you."

      And then this: "A Google book limited to books published before 1950 (to get closer to the time the book was written) finds plenty of results in which people are scared green by any number of things: enemy snipers, scandal, and flunking their finals. It's not common now to be scared green now, but apparently it once was."

  5. 'Correlation is just a MODERNISED co-relation' ?
    I too have a grammar nazi squattering in my brain, though its education is scant better than my own, and therein't lies the problem.
    Lol (learning our language)

  6. I think you're on to something here. 2/6d = half-a-crown = 1/8th of £1. aka tosheroon among people who would call a single sixpence a tanner and two of them a bob.

  7. according to Hansard = [boringly] conventional . . . by the book
    green about the gills = bilious = feeling ill; used by my vintage 1917 father
    in such good part implies more equanimity than [haha] 'humour'
    England still doesn't have window screens, we prefer to give flies a sporting chance
    pelt was originally applied to rain/missiles; then to run full pelt; then the full got dropped to leave pelt = run
    diesel-oil poisoning sounds like carbon-monoxide buildup from exhaust in the unventilated tanks

  8. slanging match: shouting match. A row or argument in which strong language is used.

    Four went ways: cross roads. Hangings took place there so any returning ghosts would be confused.

    In some parts of the US folks will “redd up the room” or company. My grandmother used to say this.

    screens: on visiting neighbors who had moved to the England, I was shocked that they didn’t have screens in the windows, and they were wide open in summer. Far, far fewer bugs.


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