Getting started with John Dickson Carr

Ok, so you saw something that got you interested in John Dickson Carr.  Perhaps he was repeatedly featured in a list of top impossible crime novels, or maybe you saw him labeled as the king of golden age detective fiction.  The later description would be more appropriate – despite his name being synonymous with the impossible crime genre, Carr wrote plenty of non-impossible mysteries and many of them were classics.  Regardless, the big question is – what books should you start with?

hollowmanThe easy answer would be The Hollow Man (also released as The Three Coffins).  This is without question Carr’s most popular book – the title that tends to be tightly associated with his name and even with the very genre of impossible crime fiction.  Certainly not a bad place to start – it would be akin to jumping into Agatha Christie via And Then There Were None or Murder on the Orient Express.  Although, if you’re a Christie fan, you might find yourself questioning whether those really are the launching points you’d recommend…

John Dickson Carr published about 70 novels over his career, at times cranking out four or five books a year.  While that may sound like an author churning out cheap copy as fast as he can, most fans would agree that his best work stems from those most prolific years.  Although the quality of his output did vary (and slipped in later years), I estimate that I’d enthusiastically recommend over a third of his books.  The rest are mostly fine reads that fall just under the threshold of recommendation.

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The Poisoned Chocolates Case – Anthony Berkeley (1929)

PoisonedChocolatesFrom time to time I’ll mention my To Be Read pile – a stack of books that I plan to read next.  It’s positioned on the desk that I work at so I can gaze longingly at it throughout the day and imagine the mysteries awaiting within all of those titles.  Ok, ok, it’s actually five TBR piles – two devoted to John Dickson Carr (it would be way too tall if it was one stack), two devoted to Agatha Christie (and only a fraction of her library), and one stack of books by assorted authors (Christiana Brand, Michael Gilbert, Edmund Crispin, etc, etc, etc) that I’ve decided on a whim I’ll be reading some time soon.

What I haven’t mentioned are my To Be Read shelves.  Oh, I know you have them too.  If we piled up all of the books that we have yet to read we’d look like straight up hoarders and…er…we’re not hoarders, right?  We’re aficionados!  My TBR shelves are well packed because there are too many authors that blogs like Beneath the Stains of Time, The Invisible Event, Noah’s Archive, or Cross Examining Crime have convinced me that I need to buy.  Plus, I have an insane number of Ellery Queen books that I’m not exactly going to get through this decade…

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The Eight of Swords – John Dickson Carr (1934)

eightofswordsThe Eight of Swords is one of those John Dickson Carr titles that flies a bit below the radar.  When I was first researching Carr’s library, I got enough of an impression that readers generally had a negative view of the work that I listed it in my article on Commonly Criticized novels by the author.  Bear in mind, that list wasn’t based on myself having actually read any of the books, but rather what I had gleaned from forums and blogs I had tracked down.

I’ve noticed recently though that JJ at The Invisible Event has made repeated comments suggesting that this is an under appreciated gem.  And you know what?  It all makes sense.  The Eight of Swords was published in 1934, the same year that Carr gifted us with The Plague Court Murders and The White Priory Murders.  While neither are perfect books, they’re the first salvo in Carr’s jaw dropping run that lasted roughly until 1939.  All of the author’s work that I’ve read from this period has been impressive, and so it followed that The Eight of Swords would be right up my alley.

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The Quintessence of Queen – Edited by Anthony Boucher (1962)

QuintessenceOfQueenI acquired a substantial portion of my Ellery Queen library through bulk purchases of 15-30 books at a time.  Swept up in the tide were several “associated by name only” compilations such as The Quintessence of Queen – assortments of short stories published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and probably tossed into the bundles by some seller who didn’t know much better.

I’m admit I’m a fan of the short story.  As a child I read a fair amount of Ray Bradbury and similar authors who walked the tightrope between science fiction, mystery, and horror.  As an adult, I found my way into the locked room genre via the short story form.  Since going full in with my reading of John Dickson Carr, I’ve stuck to novels based on the knowledge that authors such as him recycled story ideas occasionally – The Gilded Man being a well known example to appear in both short and long form.  Better to ruin a twenty page read than a two hundred page one…

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The Tragedy of Y – Barnaby Ross (1932)

TheTragedyOfY2Ok Ellery Queen, you finally won me over.  I’ve been your critic up to now, but from this day forward, some part of me will always be your fan.  The Tragedy of Y did something for me that none of your books have ever accomplished – it kept me engaged from cover to cover.  More importantly, this is the one that’s sticking with me for a long time to come.

I recently abandoned my attempt to read Ellery Queen in order because it was just plain boring.  The four first period stories that I made it through were dry, overly long, and never really paid off in the end.  The same could be said for The Tragedy of X – my one encounter with Queen writers’ alter-ego Barnaby Ross.  Published in 1932 (the same year as The Greek Coffin Mystery and The Egyptian Cross Mystery), The Tragedy of X was a marathon of exhaustive police work and… weirdness.  You see, the amateur detective of the series, Drury Lane, is an odd character.  An actor residing in a storybook castle situated on the Hudson river, Lane exists somewhat outside of the realm of standard Golden Age reality.  His gnome-like servants, his positioning as a 60 year old adonis,… I really have no clue what the authors were going for.

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The Case of the Solid Key – Anthony Boucher (1941)

CaseOfTheSolidKeyHaving enjoyed Anthony Boucher’s locked room classic Nine Time Nine, my natural next stop was Rocket to the Morgue.  Right?  I mean, that’s the only other title by the author that ever really gets mentioned.   That struck me as odd.  Boucher was a well regarded writer of both science fiction and mysteries, yet I only really associate his name with two mystery novels.  Instead, I typically think of him as the mystery critic who wrote forwards in reprints of other authors’ novels, or assembled short story compilations, such as The Quintessence of Queen.

Recent reviews of The Case of the Crumpled Knave and The Case of the Seven Sneezes turned me on to the fact that Boucher had an actual library of books aside from those published under the pseudonym of H.H. Holmes (Nine Time Nine and Rocket to the Morgue).  A comment by Tomcat from Beneath the Stains of Time pointed me towards The Case of the Solid Key – a novel I’d never heard of, and one that Tomcat suggested had a particularly interesting solution.  The ante was raised when JJ from The Invisible Event replied that the book was nearly impossible to find at an affordable price.

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A Murder is Announced – Agatha Christie (1950)

MurderIsAnnouncedIf there’s a better village mystery than A Murder is Announced, please tell me so I can scramble to read it.  Admittedly, I haven’t read many of these, so that statement might come across as hopelessly naive.  I don’t mind – all I know is that this one provided everything I was looking for.

I’ve enjoyed my nascent reading of Agatha Christie so far.  When picking my least favorite novel has me scratching my head between The Hollow and Cards on the Table, you know I’ve been having a good run.  That run keeps going with Murder is Announced.  It doesn’t pack an emotional punch that’s going to stay with me like Murder in Retrospect, but this may be the most fun I’ve had with Christie so far.

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