The Seat of the Scornful by John Dickson Carr

I’ve had slightly mixed experiences with Carr’s mysteries in the past, but this is a good one!

First published in Britain in 1942, The Seat of the Scornful combines an intriguing mystery with some different interpretations of what constitutes justice. Central to the story is the formidable judge, Justice Horace Ireton, a man who enjoys playing ‘cat-and-mouse’ with the accused, sometimes allowing a convicted criminal to stew in their own juice before approving a stay of execution. As his colleague Fred Barlow observes:

“…He [Justice Ireton] doesn’t care twopence about the law. What he is interested in is administering absolute, impartial justice as he sees it.” (p. 23)

The judge would like his daughter, twenty-one-year-old Constance, to marry Barlow, an affable barrister with good career prospects. Constance, however, has other ideas. Much to her father’s displeasure, Constance has fallen for Tony Morell, a charismatic entrepreneur with a rather shady past.

He [Morell] was one of those self-consciously virile types which are associated with the Southern European; the sort of man who, as Jane Tennant once put it, always makes a woman feel that he is breathing down the back of her neck. (pp. 19-20)

When the couple announce their intention to marry, Judge Ireton offers Morrell a sizeable amount of money to disappear without a word to Constance about their agreement. At first, Morell appears to accept the offer. But after returning to the judge’s bungalow the following evening to collect his payment, Morrell is found dead in highly suspicious circumstances, a scenario that clearly implicates Justice Ireton as the murderer.

Before long, Dr Gideon Fell, who happens to play chess with Ireton, is called in to assist the police with their investigations – and what appears to be a relatively simple case soon throws up some very interesting complications. As it turns out, several people connected to the judge were in the area at the time of the murder. In fact, the room where Morell’s body was found was easily accessible through some open French windows – the very opposite of a ‘locked room’!

As the mystery unfolds and we learn more about the other potential suspects, the judge’s views on justice and the law become increasingly relevant. Can motivations or extenuating circumstances ever justify such a serious crime? And is circumstantial evidence ever sufficient to establish guilt? These questions and more are explored through Carr’s cleverly constructed mystery.

The characterisation is particularly good here, with Carr’s portrayal of Justice Ireton feeling authentic and believable. Constance Ireton is well-drawn too, a rather headstrong girl with a capacity for flighty emotions. Similarly, Carr does well to create some compelling supporting players, most notably Fred Barlow and Constance’s friend Jane Tennant, who also find themselves drawn into the investigations.

The solution, when it comes, feels a bit convoluted with a couple of last-minute twists that will likely divide opinion. Nevertheless, this thoroughly enjoyable mystery keeps the reader guessing right to the very end!

The Seat of the Scornful is published by the British Library as part of their Crime Classics series; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

17 thoughts on “The Seat of the Scornful by John Dickson Carr

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Glad you enjoyed this one Jacqui – I did too! I know what you mean about Carr – he was *so* prolific that really every book couldn’t be brilliant, and he does get a bit melodramatic at times. However, like you I thought the characterisation particularly good in this book, and I liked the exploration of the various moral dilemmas. Really entertaining!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, really interesting. You can tell it was the work of a relatively experienced writer, especially with the various musings on what constitutes justice etc. It reminded me a little of some of Durrenmatt’s philosophical mysteries at times. I think you’ve read his Inspector Barlach mysteries too, maybe for a previous German Lit Month or two?

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, agreed. Durrenmatt’s fiction is much darker than the Carr, but they do share a philosophical edge. I’ll be interested to hear what you think of his others, whenever you get around to them!

          Reply
  2. madamebibilophile

    I think I’ve only read The Hollow Man by Carr, which I enjoyed, but I know from other bloggers that he can be a mixed bag! I’m pleased to hear this is one of his stronger ones as I do like a Devon setting.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Someone on Twitter just recommended The Hollow Man to me as a particularly good example of Carr’s work, so I’ll have to track it down…it’s good to hear you enjoyed it too. :)

      Reply
  3. CLM (@ConMartin)

    I read several of his books in college when I found them in the stacks – clearly procrastinating. I definitely did not read this one as I would remember a character named Constance who is not the villain!

    My father was a judge and was once asked to officiate at a wedding. Just as he pulled up, the angry groom drove off in a cloud of dust, having been offered first money to disappear and then a prenup by the bride’s grandmother. They made my father follow the guy and coax him back to the wedding!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Goodness, what a story! How did the marriage work out? Did it last or was it doomed from the start?

      I probably haven’t read enough of Carr to judge whether this is one of his very best, but I certainly found it more enjoyable than some of his early Bencolin novels. (They’re a bit too melodramatic for my tastes, although other readers love them.) It’s worth a look if you’re ever thinking of going back to him!

      Reply
  4. Julé Cunningham

    Carr is a Golden Age writer I haven’t read that much by, maybe because I’m not especially intrigued by locked whatever mysteries, but this is one that caught my eye when I saw it in the BL list. The whole premise and the characters sound interesting enough that a less-than-perfect ending wouldn’t really matter so much.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The ending is interesting for sure, although it’s probably quite divisive! A good one for a crime fiction book group, perhaps, where it’s useful to have some differences of opinion to debate?
      That aside, the characterisation is pretty well developed for a Golden Age mystery, as that can often play second fiddle to the plot. I’m quite tempted to seek out Carr’s The Hollow Man (another Gideon Fell novel that other readers have recommended), although it’s not part of BLCC series as far as I can tell…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, fabulous! She’s my favourite of the Golden Age crime writers that the British Library have republished so far. Her sense of place and character portrayals are usually very good.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re the third person to recommend The Hollow Man, so I really must seek it out. (These Gideon Fell mysteries seem to be a better fit for me than Carr’s Bencolin series.)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, absolutely. And I liked Fell in this one, too. I know some other readers find him a bit annoying (and not terribly inclusive) at times, but his approach seemed to fit the bill here. A very enjoyable read all round.

      Reply
  5. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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