Rating John Dickson Carr – Commonly Criticized

I’ve done a series of posts where I’ve looked at the reputation I’ve been able to determine for Carr’s works, dividing them into categories:

  1. The Classics
  2. Highly Recommended
  3. Recommended

Now the pendulum swings the other way, and I cover the books that are consistently criticized.  These are books that almost everyone seems to dislike.  Here they are in order of reputation:

Now, I haven’t actually read any of these stories, so I’m curious for your thoughts.  Night at the Mocking Widow shows up on the famous list of top locked room mysteries, and yet I also see it featured prominently on lists of books to avoid.  How can that be?

The list is heavy on books that Carr wrote towards the end of his career, but it also contains some stories from the 30-40’s era that I’ve enjoyed reading.  Take Below Suspicion as an example – written in the 40’s (ok, late 40’s), and the plot summary sounds fairly interesting.  Could it be that bad?

I haven’t read a bad Carr book yet, so I don’t know what to expect.  Should I dive off the deep end with one of these, or continue in blissful ignorance?  I have encountered a taste of Carr’s gratuitous use of slapstick in both She Died a Lady and The House in Goblin Wood (both of which are excellent stories, btw), and I wasn’t a fan.  I suspect though that it isn’t this humor that dragged Carr down on several of his endeavors.

So what are your thoughts?  Have any of these books been undeservingly slandered?  Are there any obvious books that I’ve left out?

15 thoughts on “Rating John Dickson Carr – Commonly Criticized”

  1. This seems like a fairly standard list of the preceived lowlights — and I, too, remain immensely curious about the diametrically-opposed views of Mocking Widow — but I have no idea what TMWCNS is doing here…it’s awesome, and contains one of the most audacious “aha, so you’re the killer!” moments in the whole of Carr’s repertoire!

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    1. Based on your comment, I’ve acquired a copy of The Man Who Could Not Shudder (as part of a larger bundle of books). I’m considering situating it towards the upper 1/4 of my Carr to-read list – somewhere between He Wouldn’t Kill Patience and The Punch and Judy Murders.
      Have you read The Eight of Swords? I’m curious as to why it seems to be commonly criticized. Carr’s work in the 1933-35 era seems to contain his strongest work. Perhaps this is the one that fell flat?
      I almost had Death Watch on this list – it seems to be Carr’s most polarizing work. Either you love it or you hate it. Just today I was reading some absolutely scathing reviews. I have it queued up next, so you’ll be hearing my thoughts soon.

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      1. I recently acquired Eight of Swords, as luck would have it, and either that or a re-read of The Red Widow Murders will likely be my next Carr. I’m eager to try RWM again given someone’s recent reassurance that it’s really not as good as I remember…and I’m in no rush to finish Carr, because I have a feeling I’ll really miss the bugger when I’m done. Sure, the books will all be there to reread, but the prospect of no new Carr is a daunting one (though thankfully still a little way off).

        TMWCNS is one of my favoutites, for all kinds of reasons. But we’ll discuss that once you’re done. And I can completely understand the lack of love for DW in some regards, but it’s such a fine example of a book that would be beyond pretty much anyone else writing in this genre; had Carr not been the one to write it, it would be a complete mess. In his hands, it just works.

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        1. I personally think RWM is one of Carr’s best and I’ll be doing a review of it in the next few days. I definitely understand why people complain about the book. With such a fascinating premise, the end was a bit of a let down.

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  2. I just admired Eight of Swords elsewhere in this blog … I like it more than others do. There are two big problems. First is, it’s the Carrian take on gangsters, and Carr wasn’t good at writing about gangsters. Second is a central piece of misdirection that is quite shocking in its frankness and not what Great Aunt Edna wants to read over her cuppa. These things, I think, have left people less enthusiastic about EOS than other books. And people like his difficult supernatural novels, and EOS is not very supernatural and not very difficult. But it has ideas and images that stuck with me for a long time. (And it used to be very hard to get, so it was a mark of the true Carr fan to have found a copy, way back when. LOL)

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  3. Personally, first i’ll save “The Dead Man’s Knock”, IMHO a late Fell masterpiece. Almost a meta-literary work, with simple but clever locked room and original culprit, and “academic clues”. Good character psychology, even the abused clichè of the “femme fatale” has a nice twist and a fresh take. Really impressed by this work, maybe just a question of personal taste, but don’t understand why it has a generally low reputation. Also liked “Dark of the Moon” and “The problem of the Wire Cage”.
    “Mocking Widow” and “Deadly Hall”, pleasant but not so great. “Papa la Bas” almost no redeeming qualities.

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    1. The Problem of the Wire Cage actually turned out to be one of my favorite Carr novels, and I really enjoyed Below Suspicion. The Eight of Swords and The Man Who Could Not Shudder are pretty good; they simply don’t stack up relative to the work that Carr was publishing at the same time.

      The Dead Man’s Knock… I did not like that one. There’s something about Carr’s writing in the Dr Fell novels that came out in the 50s/60s that I just can’t stand. People are in a constant state of worry, but they never simply say what the issue is. All of the conversations are tense arguments. And Dr Fell lost that charm from the early books and he’s more of an imitation. Perhaps if you read a translation some of these elements might not have come through in the same way.

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