To Wake the Dead – John Dickson Carr (1938)

“You keep that for always.  Then nobody will try to wake the dead.”

towakethedeadThere’s alway a somewhat James Bond-esque moment for me when the title of a book worms its way into a narrative.  It may be clumsy, it may be elegant.  Whether it’s Timothy Dalton slipping in “the living daylights” or the cheesy forcing of “view to a kill” into the script, I think everyone probably does a half-hearted smirk and remembers the moment.  With John Dickson Carr, we rarely get a title reference and when it happens I geek out – “The Black Spectacles” had my hair on end, “She Died a Lady” weakened my knees, and “Below Suspicion” practically had me leaping to my feet to cheer.  So forgive me while I once again swoon over a title reference in 1938’s To Wake the Dead.

This book has always inhabited somewhat of a no-man’s land for me – you rarely see any references to it.  I recall long ago (like, a year back, if you can fathom such a stretch) reading that it doesn’t involve an impossible crime (it doesn’t) and that it involves a rare Carr cheat (it does).  Since then this book has sat somewhat out of mind, situated in my TBR pile based on whatever mad logic I applied when I last jostled the stack around several months ago.

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Five books to read before they’re spoiled for you – John Dickson Carr edition

If there’s anything that I enjoy as much as reading GAD works, it’s reading about them.  I can’t resist – if only because my phone goes with me when the books don’t.  It’s that desire to discover the unknown – the story I haven’t heard of or the familiar title that I didn’t realize I need to read.  The blogging community makes it all too easy.  Type the name of a book/author into a search engine and maybe narrow the search to WordPress or Blogspot and you’re guaranteed hours of slack-jawed enjoyment.

Of course, the blog posts are only part of it.  The comments are almost better – the debates on fair play, the piles of recommendations, and best of all, the merciless criticism.  When a review of The Unicorn Murders spirals into a defense of Below Suspicion, and a post on The Emperor’s Snuff Box leads to a dissection of the merits of The White Priory Murders vs The Plague Court Murders, that’s when I’m in my element.

Unfortunately, there’s a danger in all of this – the careless comment, always innocent, that risks ruining a puzzle.  I’ve had it happen a few times, I hate to say.  I’ll be reading along, cautious for any language that hints of spoiler, and then wham!  My eyes flick away instantly, but my brain has processed what they saw.  I tell myself that I’ll forget, but unfortunately that just doesn’t happen.

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Night at the Mocking Widow – Carter Dickson (1950)

nightatmockingwidowIf you’ve read my reviews up to now, you know that I haven’t shied away from the supposedly weaker Carr titles.  The Problem of the Wire Cage – loved it.  Death Watch – I wish every Carr book was that good.  Below Suspicion – I have no clue why people dislike it.  Seeing is Believing – ridiculous ending but otherwise a strong title.  Panic in Box C – mmm, it meandered here and there with Carr’s love for trivia, but overall it was decent.  And then of course, The Hungry Goblin – not a book to enthusiastically recommend, but an enjoyable Carr historical.

Naturally, my enjoyment of these supposedly weaker titles has me second guessing myself.  Am I an unabashed JDC fanboy, so blinded by the enjoyment of a few good reads that I’m willing to choke down any mediocre swill the author felt fit to put to page?  Of course not – at least that’s what I tell myself.

Well, I hate to say it, but I’ve finally met my match.  As much as I wanted to love her, there isn’t much to appreciate about the Mocking Widow.  The comedy is bad, the characters are Carr’s shallowest, the plot feels disjointed, the mystery is meh, and the whole read feels like a phoned in facade.

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Fog of Doubt – Christianna Brand (1952)

London Particular

FogOfDoubtAs much as I’ll mourn my circumstances when I finish my final John Dickson Carr novel, I think I’ll be grieving my conclusion of Christianna Brand just as much.  There’s just so much to like about her as an author.  The wit, the strange rambling prose, the puzzles, the characters.  My first brush with her, Green for Danger, showed me a depth to a GAD story that I hadn’t seen before.  Yes, the impossible crime was luscious – a man murdered on an operating table in full view of a surgical team – but it was Brand’s deft handling of the characters that really made the difference.  By the end of the story, the author had created such a bond between the cast and the reader that any solution was bound to be devastating.  And it was.

Of course, Green with Danger is probably Brand’s most famous book.  How would a lesser known title fair?  I picked up Fog of Doubt (also released as London Particular) based on a comment that it featured a similarly wrenching ending.  It definitely delivered on that.

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The Problem of the Wire Cage – John Dickson Carr (1939)

“This is the only case I have ever tackled in which I solved the problem before I knew what the problem was.”

problemofwirecageFrank Dorrance is the type of guy who ends up dead in this sort of mystery novel.  He’s arrogant, smug, and rumor has it that he’s brushing up with the wrong side of the law.  It’s a wonder that a catch like Brenda White would agree to marry him.  Well, there is the money – a sizable inheritance on the condition that the two wed.  The problem is that Brenda is in love with Hugh Rowland, a clever young lawyer and our point of view character for the novel.

It’s no surprise when Frank winds up strangled to death.  What is surprising are the circumstances of the crime.  He lays sprawled out towards the center of a clay tennis court.  Two sets of footprints in the wet clay lead out to the spot of the crime – Frank’s and Brenda’s.  Only Brenda’s come back.  This is the scene as Hugh Rowland discovers it.  Brenda swears that Frank was dead when she found him, lying on a bare court with the exception of his solitary footprints.  To accept her story creates an impossibility – how could a man be strangled to death without the killer leaving a mark in a twenty foot expanse of sand in all directions?

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The Hungry Goblin – John Dickson Carr (1972)

HungryGoblinAdmit it, you didn’t see this one coming.  No one expects The Hungry Goblin.  Neither, truthfully, did I.  After all, this is a difficult book to track down.  Well, not exactly difficult – you can pick up a copy on eBay fairly easily if you’re willing to drop a decent amount of money.  But why would you?  There seems to be a unanimous agreement that this is hands down the weakest of all 70+ novels published by John Dickson Carr.  The book stands as a punchline in many a clever joke in online discussions of Carr’s career.

A strong and prolific writer throughout his life, common consensus is that Carr’s talent waned in his later years.  We could do entire posts debating when the shift happened, but an oft-mentioned landmark is the stroke he suffered in 1963.  From this point forward, he published only six books, one of which I’ve read – Panic in Box C.  Although nowhere near the height of Carr’s work, it was an enjoyable read and featured a mystery that was better than its reputation suggested.

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Rim of the Pit – Hake Talbot (1944)

“I came up here to make a dead man change his mind.”

RimOfPitI have a heavy suspicion that at some point, nearly every review of Rim of the Pit includes that immortal first line of the story.  And how could you not?  It’s a perfect quote to set the stage for the ensuing madness that unfolds.  Famously cited as the second best impossible crime novel of all time in a 1981 poll, Rim of the Pit has a heavy reputation to live up to.  Curiously, it’s one of only two full length mystery novels published by Hake Talbot, making you question the potential of what might have been.

I’ll just cut to the chase and declare that it’s well worthy of its legend.  The second best impossible crime novel?  Mmm, I’ve no room to judge in my limited mystery reading career.  I’ll tell you though that if you’re a fan of the genre, you’re in for a treat that you’ll remember for a long time.

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