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Literature / Dr. Gideon Fell

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Dr. Gideon Fell is an Amateur Sleuth who features in numerous novels and short stories by John Dickson Carr. Fell's appearance and personality was loosely modeled on writer G. K. Chesterton.

His best-known outing is probably the Locked Room Mystery The Hollow Man (US title: The Three Coffins).

This series contains examples of:

  • Actually Not a Vampire: In He Who Whispers, one character is convinced that the main suspect is a vampire who carried out an impossible murder by flying to the top of the tower where it took place. She isn't, and the cause of the murder is far more mundane.
  • Alcohol-Induced Idiocy: the MacGuffin in The Blind Barber is a film of a lot of drunk politicians behaving sillily and saying inflammatory things about foreign governments.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: In The Sleeping Sphinx, Doris Locke finds a new admiration for her one-time boyfriend when she learns he's a murderer.
  • Amateur Sleuth: Dr. Gideon Fell.
  • And You Thought It Was a Game: In The Arabian Nights Murder, a set of friends putting on an act to trick one of their buddies hires an actor to play a professor in an Arabian museum. They are surprised when a real professor, a friend of the museum's owner, arrives for a meeting and is treated as an actor who looks just like the real thing. In the meantime, the professor thinks that the actors are real, and attacks one of them in an act of misguided heroics.
  • Beneath Suspicion: The killer in Below Suspicion was in a prison cell when the murder was committed.
  • Bodybag Trick: In the backstory of The Hollow Man, this is part of the story that leads to the killer's vengeful motivation. Three brothers escaped from a prison by feigning death and allowing themselves to be Buried Alive, but the one who managed to escape from his coffin first ran away and left the other two to die.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: In The Hollow Man, one chapter consists of Dr Gideon Fell giving a lecture on Locked Room Mysteries in fiction. When asked what relevance this has to the situation, he replies "Because we're in a detective story, and we don't fool the reader by pretending we're not."
  • Buried Alive: Part of the backstory of The Hollow Man was a jailbreak by live burial. There was a plague epidemic going on in that prison, and the escaper counted on the burial detail being in too big a hurry for little details like nailing the coffin lid tightly or shoveling very much dirt on top.
  • The Case of...: Carr uses this template for The Case of the Constant Suicides.
  • Clock Discrepancy: A vital part of the solution to The Hollow Man. The reported time of the second murder is so far off that it took place before the first murder, and the victim of the first murder was the killer.
  • Clock Tampering: Double Subversion in The Black Spectacles. There is a suspicion that the clock could have been tampered with, but when the police examine it they find the adjustment spindle has snapped off, so the position of the hands couldn't have been changed. However, it was still possible to remove the minute hand completely; what the people looking thought was the minute hand was actually the shadow of the hour hand.
  • Dead Person Impersonation: A major plot twist in The Hollow Man involves a killer briefly posing as his victim.
  • Deceased Fall-Guy Gambit: A variant occurs in The Mad Hatter Mystery; the killer tries to frame the mad hatter, knowing that the dead man is the mad hatter.
  • Derailing Love Interests: Carr both exemplifies and subverts this trope in many of his mystery novels.
    • One great example is in The Problem of the Green Capsule / The Black Spectacles, in which the lead police detective, after falling in love with the woman who is one of the main suspects of the murder, daydreams about arresting her fiancé (who is also another major suspect) and swooping in to save the woman. As it turns out, the fiancé was the true killer the entire time, and the police detective gets the pleasure of arresting him in front of everybody. The final page of the book strongly hints that the police detective and the woman will get together.
    • This is subverted completely in The Mad Hatter Mystery. Two important characters have been engaged to be married from before the events of the book start. The fiancé ends up being the murderer, but he is Let Off by the Detective, in this case Fell and Hadley, because it turns out he really committed a manslaughter which was less his fault than the victim's; they leave the case officially "unsolved".
  • Did You Die?: Invoked by Pierre Fley in The Hollow Man:
    "Three of us were once buried alive. Only one escaped!"
    "And how did you escape?"
    "I didn't, you see. I was one of the two who did not escape."
  • Expy: "The Empty Flat" is a short story which opens with academic rivals Douglas Chase and Kathleen Mills meeting for the first time, not realising who the other is. A couple of years later, The Case of the Constant Suicides gives Alan Campbell and Kathryn Campbell similar personalities and the same Meet Cute, and (being a full-length book) allows their relationship to be developed in more detail.
  • Fair-Play Whodunnit: Carr's stories always showed you all the clues. The only problem was usually that the murder was impossible to begin with, so you couldn't figure out how, much less who. Carr even lampshaded the tar out of this in The Hollow Man when Dr. Fell stops in the middle of the novel to explain all the ways you can do a locked room mystery, because there was no point in pretending they weren't in such a novel. At the end of the chapter (yes, it's a full chapter of all the ways to pull one off) the other characters tell him that the two murders don't fit into any of his categories. They're really wrong.
  • Friend on the Force: Superintendent Hadley.
  • Fright Deathtrap: His locked room mysteries, which might be called "howdunnits", included a couple like this, where the mystery was largely just how the victims had been scared to their deaths.
    • In The Case of the Constant Suicides, everyone who stayed in a certain room in a castle for a night would wind up falling down to their deaths from the dangerous balcony, as if something scared them into attempting to escape. There was nothing special in the room aside from a box with a cage door such as might be used to carry a small animal that had been brought in recently and left under the bed — but which people had looked into and found it to be empty. Actually it wasn't empty, but contained something nearly invisible — carbon dioxide ice, which would start to vaporize as the temperature got lower at night, leaving the occupant of the room unable to breath and cause them to panic for some air.
    • In He Who Whispers, just after it has been suggested that one of the characters is a vampire and was able to commit a previous impossible murder by flying, a shot is heard, and one character is found in her bed scared so badly she has nearly died (and is incapable of explaining what has happened, of course). She's holding a gun and appears to have shot at something ouside the window, which is, of course, so far above the ground and inaccessible that only something flying could have been behind it. The would-be-murderer — who would have succeeded if he had had the right, much more sensitive target instead of the wrong person in the dark — had in fact been in the room with the victim, pressed a gun to her head in the dark, and whispered to her a long time about how he was going to shoot her — then fired the other gun he had towards the window, expecting her to die of shock when she thought she was being shot, but with it looking like she fired the gun herself.
  • Genre Savvy: Dr. Gideon Fell is well aware that he's in a detective novel. The locked room mystery The Hollow Man famously has an entire chapter that consists of Dr Fell giving a lecture on locked room mysteries in fiction.
  • Hanging Judge: Justice Ireton in Seat of the Scornful / Death Turns the Tables is a Hanging Judge who becomes the prime suspect.
  • He Knows Too Much: Frequently. In The Eight of Swords near the end of the novel the murder ends up killing two separate people who know too much in one ambush. In The Crooked Hinge this is discussed and subverted, with the murderer being aware that Dr. Fell can solve the case through sufficiently questioning two people (one of whom is deliberately shielding the killer, while the other simply has some innocent knowledge) but has no grudge against either of them (and rather likes them) and instead of killing them, chooses to flee the country, while leaving behind a note explaining the details of the crime.
  • His Name Is...: Dark of the Moon has one suspect go through this. Subverted in that she survives (though obviously she doesn't recover enough to say anything until after the killer's already caught) and the fact that she was about to accuse someone of multiple crimes - including incest - that the accused didn't do.
  • Inspector Lestrade: The recurring character of Chief Inspector/Superintendent David Hadley toys with the archetype. He's generally a highly competent and fairly open-minded investigator, and is close friends with Fell, although he can be rigid at times.
  • The Killer Was Left-Handed: Death-Watch: An early clue establishes the killer was left handed. Lampshaded / Subverted: It was part of a frame up by the real killer, and the detective has a brief rant about left-handed / right-handed clues.
  • Leave Behind a Pistol: At the end of Hag's Nook, Dr Gideon Fell cuts a deal with the murderer: a full confession in exchange for a handgun with one bullet in it. The last chapter of the book is the murderer's written statement. The trope gets twisted in the final two sentences, when the murderer is too afraid of death to raise the gun to his temple, so will still have to face the hangman.
  • Let Off by the Detective:
    • In The Mad Hatter Mystery, Dr. Fell knows who the true murderer is despite the crime having been blamed on another (conveniently dead) character. The true killer confesses to Hadley out of guilt, against Fell's advice, but on the final page Hadley, Fell, and Ted Rampole decide to let the case remain officially unsolved and let the culprit, whose really committed a manslaughter more at the victim's instigation, go free.
  • Locked Room Mystery: Carr, the acknowledged master of this back in the golden age of crime fiction, provided all sorts of different ways to accomplish this. In The Hollow Man, Dr. Gideon Fell actually gives a lecture on the different ways a locked room mystery can be created. If the detective is Fell, there is an excellent chance you've got a locked room or impossible crime on your hands.
  • Never Gets Drunk: Dr Gideon Fell can put away enough booze to land any two normal men in the ER with alcohol poisoning without showing any sign. Probably because of pure body mass (if there's an Obese Detective trope, he's one of the poster children).
  • Never Heard That One Before: The police surgeon in The Mad Hatter Mystery is called Doctor Watson, and complains that he's been the butt of Sherlock Holmes jokes for thirty years.
  • Obfuscating Disability:
    • The killer in The Problem of the Wire Cage uses his recent car accident, and its attendant injuries, to pull off a murder he seemingly couldn't have physically committed. Unfortunately, circumstances turn it into a murder NO ONE could've committed.
    • The killer in To Wake the Dead has a physical disability which at first seems to make it impossible for them to have physically committed the murders. However, the strange nature of the murder methods ends up proving in part that they were indeed the killer.
  • Poor Communication Kills: Literally in Seat of the Scornful — the victim died because, rather than being straightforward with Judge Ireton (and his daughter, who overheard their conversation), he deliberately gave them a false impression of his position.
  • Put on a Bus: Hard-drinking amateur detective Gideon Fell is married to a rabid teetotaler. Once the first novel was finished, Carr didn't so much put Mrs. Fell on a bus as he renovated the bus into a nice RV for her and sent her off for most of the series.
  • Red Baron: Boxer the Bermondsey Terror, an ally of sorts in “The Blind Barber.”
  • Relieved Failure: At the end of The Hollow Man, Dr Fell narrates his reconstruction of how the murders took place: Grimaud killed Fley, but was wounded in doing so. He returned to his house and tried to set things up, as he had previously planned, so that it would look like Fley had attempted to kill him. This involved moving a huge mirror, which, with the wound he had received, was too much for him, and he collapsed, realising that he was about to die. "And, stranger than any of his dreams, he was glad."
  • Saved by the Coffin: In the backstory of The Hollow Man, this is part of the story that leads to the killer's vengeful motivation. Three brothers escaped from a prison by feigning death and allowing themselves to be Buried Alive, but the one who managed to escape from his coffin first ran away and left the other two to die. One survived and pursued him.
  • Shotgun Wedding: Discussed in The Black Spectacles. When two characters reveal that they've just come back from the registry office, one of the witnesses makes a joke about a shotgun wedding. The local police superintendent takes him at his word, and asks if that's actually what happened, provoking a bitterly amused response from the bride.
  • Shout-Out: Fell's chapter-long lecture on locked room mysteries in The Hollow Man naturally refers to many examples of the genre — some by name, some by plot outline.
  • Sinister Minister: The 'helpful' clergyman of Hag's Nook.
  • Sleep Cute: In The Case of the Constant Suicides, the first time Alan and Kathryn meet, the chapter ends with them sitting up at night arguing an academic point. The next chapter opens the following morning, with them waking from a Sleep Cute.
  • Smart People Play Chess: At the beginning and end of Seat of the Scornful, Mr Justice Ireton is playing chess against Dr Fell, alluding to their battle as suspect and detective in the mystery.
  • Spit Take: Dr Fell recalls this as his reaction to Miss Grimaud's You Need to Get Laid remark in The Hollow Man:
    Unfortunately, I tried to keep a straight face by swallowing water. This, my friends, is a practice to which I am unaccustomed. The result had the general aspect, to eye and ear, of a bomb exploding in an aquarium.
  • Spoiler Cover:
    • The cover of the HarperCollins printing of the novel The Case of the Constant Suicides features a dog carrier with strange fumes rising out of it. This essentially gives away the murder method used in the book — a block of dry ice hidden in a dog carrier that releases carbon dioxide gas as it sublimates.
    • At least two covers of To Wake the Dead show a man in uniform at the climactic cemetery fight. One shows a man in uniform with a helmet. One of the covers even portrays a physical characteristic which pertains to the murderer and only the murderer!
  • Taking You with Me: In The Hollow Man It turns out the two victims shot each other. One, Fley, was Left for Dead but lived long enough to stagger onto the street looking for a doctor, and when he saw his killer standing their shot him.
  • Time-Delayed Death: Used (in combination with a few other things that complicate it) in The Hollow Man. Also part of the explanation of the impossible murder in He Who Whispers, and as a complicating factor in Seat of the Scornful.
  • Tomato Surprise: Below Suspicion has an opening scene from the point of view of a young woman accused of murder. In the narration, the woman desperately thinks to herself that she's not guilty of the crime, and is despairing of anyone believing her. Since this is an internal narrative, the reader can be assured that she is perfectly innocent, and she is. Of the murder she's accused of. She is, in fact, guilty of another murder, and part of her despair is that her perfect alibi for the one she committed has left her open to the accusation of the one she didn't. Gideon Fell, the detective of the story, even lampshades this trope by noting that if anyone had been able to "read the thoughts" of the young woman, they would've seen a completely sincere and truthful plea for her innocence of the murder she didn't commit.
  • Trouble Entendre: Occurs in a key scene in The Hollow Man.
  • Varying Competency Alibi: In The Hollow Man, Grimaud's caller claims to be a family friend, Pettis, so that the other members of the household will leave him undisturbed. During the investigation, the actual Pettis tries to argue that it couldn't have been him because he wouldn't have been foolish enough to give his real name. However, the police point out that they don't use logic like that to decide who to eliminate.
  • You Need to Get Laid: In The Hollow Man, Dr Gideon Fell recalls a time he was chairing a debate on women's rights:
    "... You were on the side for Women's Rights, Miss Grimaud, and against the Tyranny of Man. Yes, yes. You entered very pale and serious and solemn, and stayed like that until your own side began to present their case. They went on something awful, but you didn't look pleased. Then one lean female carried on for twenty minutes about what woman needed for an ideal state of existence, but you only seemed to get madder and madder. So when your turn came, all you did was rise to proclaim in silvery ringing tones that what woman needed for an ideal existence was less talking and more copulation. Or perhaps you didn't say copulation."
    Later in the book, Fell's assistant suggests that she should have taken her own advice.