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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:

  • 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.
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  • 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.
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  • 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.
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  • Dead Person Impersonation: A major plot twist in The Hollow Man involves this.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Time-Delayed Death: Used (in combination with a few other things that complicate it) in The Hollow Man.
  • 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.
  • 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.

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