A year with John Dickson Carr

When I started The Green Capsule a year ago, I had no anticipation on what lay before me.  I had no real intention of starting a dedicated blog or where I might take it.  My aim was narrow – to figure out which John Dickson Carr books I should read before I turned my attention to something else.

At the time, I’d read 12 Carr novel – not many, although quite a run it had been.  The Problem of the Green Capsule, The Judas Window, The Emperor’s Snuff Box, She Died a Lady, He Who Whispers.  These are the typical “classics” that I had experienced, but more important was that next tier.  Stories like The White Priory Murders, The Red Widow Murders, Hag’s Nook, The Reader is Warned.  It was this second tier of books that provided a glimmer of just how solid Carr’s library could be.

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The Curse of the Bronze Lamp – Carter Dickson (1945)

Lord of the Sorcerers

bronzelampA recent thread of conversation over at The Invisible Event had me thinking about what I desire from a Merrivale story as opposed to a Fell.  Well, ok, it wasn’t that this post exactly inspired that line of though – it’s always kicking around somewhere in the back of my mind.  For a John Dickson Carr fan like me, it’s a natural question.  Having read somewhere in the vicinity of 40 JDC novels, my mind starts to dissect and categorize what I’ve read.  With only five Bencolin novels, and the historicals being such a separate category, the Fell/Merrivale split is a natural point to fixate on.

My current thesis is this – the early Merrivale novels are decidedly heavy on the “how done it” dimension, laying out some of the most mind-spinning impossible set ups in the genre.  The early Fell novels, on the other hand, tend to forego the impossibility in favor of mysteries that are of apparently plainer sorts.  “Apparently” being the key word, as the plots often pull themselves inside-out by the end, leaving the reader wondering how they ended up so far astray.

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The Tragedy of X – Barnaby Ross (1932)

TheTragedyOfXIs it possible to fall in love with a book?  No, not the novel contained within, but the physical object itself.  I have two copies of The Tragedy of X, and if I were to go purely by cover, I’d have read my Avon copy (the publishing year of which I haven’t been able to figure out).  This time though, I was lured beyond the cover by the pure beauty of the corpus itself.  My Pocket Book edition is the seventh printing (from October of 1942), and it is a beauty to behold.  The pages are the very definition of paper thin – the writing, and in some cases the imprint of the printing itself, is clearly visible through each page.  The feeling is incomparable to any other book I possess – the most desperate analogy that I can conjure is that of silk.  In that sense, this has been a pure joy to hold, and I’ve savored the mere turn of each page.

Ah, but as to what those pages hold…

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Crooked House – Agatha Christie (1949)

CrookedHouseIf my choice for my very first Christie book (Death on the Nile) was predictable, my follow up read is probably equally so.  I’m starting out with a bang after all, dabbling in some of the better regarded titles in Christie’s library, and checking off some of the books identified in the Five Agatha Christie Books to Read Before They’re Spoiled For You list assembled by Brad over at Ah Sweet Mystery.  Crooked House straddles the categories neatly, and deservedly so.

My experience with Crooked House is incredibly similar to my experience with Death on the Nile.  Although we’re dealing with entirely different stories taking place in completely different settings, both books swept me right in and maintained my interest throughout, despite the lack of any “impossible” hook that I typically seek out.  And, in both cases, I pretty much saw the solution the entire time, and yet somehow managed to remain enchanted.

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Death on the Nile – Agatha Christie (1937)

DeathOnTheNileIs there even a point to reviewing an Agatha Christie novel?  I mean, there must be books about books about Christie reviews.  My comments wouldn’t even by footnotes in a footnote.  Still, half the fun of reading for me takes place after the book is finished – the discussions that ensue and the insights shared by my fellow GAD enthusiasts.

In this case, I’ve completed my first Agatha Christie book, which feels like an embarrassing admission to make in this sort of forum.  Oh well.  I started my journey with John Dickson Carr and locked room mysteries, and if I spread my wings a little late in life, so be it.  I don’t mind doing it in the open.

A little research into which Christie book to start with has led me down a somewhat obvious path – Death on the Nile.  Yes, I suppose that And Then There Were None or Murder on the Orient Express would have been a bit more obvious – at least in the US, theses are the two titles that anyone on the street would associate with the author.  I spoiled the former by watching the recent movie adaptation, and the later seems like the conventional hit that I might save for later.  Death on the Nile was the middle ground – it shows up on pretty much everyone’s “best of Christie” list, plus Brad at Ah Sweet Mystery listed it as one of his “five Christies to read before they’re spoiled for you”.

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To be Read – Agatha Christie edition


I figure I only get so many of these – esteemed mystery writers with an extensive backlog of widely praised works.  There are plenty of authors who turned out 5-20 titles, but how often do you get up into the 30-70 range?  Yeah, there are a few names I could list, but the only ones in the pack where I’ve really gotten excited are John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen, and now, Agatha Christie.

Perhaps it seems odd that I’ve never read any of Christie’s work.  I suppose I have my upbringing to blame for that.  As a child of the 80s, Agatha Christie was a household name.  That’s not to say “cool”, but one of those authors that everyone knows.  So why did I never try her out?  Well, I’m going to paint with a broad brush and probably sound like an idiot, but here we go…

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Captain Cut-Throat – John Dickson Carr (1955)

CaptainCutThroat3Avast ye swabs!  Batten down the hatches!  Tonight we set sail on the high seas with John Dickson Carr’s Captain Cut-Throat!

Oh….er…you say there aren’t any pirates?  Well, forgive me for thinking so.  I’ve collected a number of copies of this book (as evidenced by my cover shots) completely by accident.  With 70+ books, the most economical means for collecting Carr’s works has been to buy in bulk.  My very first parcel of Carr included a copy of Captain Cut-Throat, and down to the very bottom of the pile it went.  I simply wasn’t interested.

I came into the works of the author with a singular focus – I wanted impossible crimes and his most famous titles provided the perfect blend of what I was looking for.  Why read a novel that trades impossibilities for a historical action romp?  I might as well read some random swashbuckler books from authors I’ve never heard of.  Sorry, but not my thing.

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