Rating John Dickson Carr – The Middle Ground

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
  4. Commonly Criticized

Now I expose my true plan, my hidden agenda in all of this…   I have to think that many readers take their “to be read” backlog seriously.  Maybe I’m weird, but I tend to mine.  I admire the stack, fret over the order, and constantly move books around, all in the hopes of achieving the perfect list.  I don’t necessarily want to blow through only the best books all at once, so I try to spread things out – hence my lists.  To give an example, here are the top four books on my list today:

  1. The Peacock Feather Murders
  2. Death Watch
  3. Castle Skull
  4. Till Death Do Us Part

Three days ago, my top four looked like:

  1. Till Death Do Us Part
  2. Castle Skull
  3. Nine – and Death Makes Ten
  4. The Crooked Hinge

As you can probably tell, my stack is made up of a mix of Classics, Highly Recommended, and Recommended.  As I begin to extinguish these categories, I want to make sure that my stack favors books that I’ll enjoy – once I hit a dud or two, I’ll probably start getting into other authors.  This leaves me with an interesting puzzle – there are 30 books that aren’t covered by my categories above.  What order should I use to approach them?  Here is an ordered list, based on the reputation that I’ve been able to glean from my research:

  1. The Mad Hatter Mystery
  2. The Blind Barber
  3. Hag’s Nook
  4. The Punch and Judy Murders
  5. The Devil in Velvet
  6. The Four False Weapons
  7. Death in Five Boxes
  8. It Walks by Night
  9. A Graveyard to Let
  10. The Sleeping Sphinx
  11. The Corpse in the Waxworks
  12. The Bowstring Murders
  13. Death-Watch
  14. The House at Satan’s Elbow
  15. The Skeleton in the Clock
  16. To Wake the Dead
  17. Fear Is the Same
  18. In Spite of Thunder
  19. The Bride of Newgate
  20. Fire, Burn
  21. Captain Cut-Throat
  22. Scandal at High Chimneys
  23. The Witch of the Low Tide
  24. The Demoniacs
  25. Patrick Butler for the Defense
  26. And So to Murder
  27. The Gilded Man
  28. Death Turns the Tables
  29. My Late Wives
  30. Seeing Is Believing

You’ll notice that I haven’t included the short story collections.  This is intentional because I can read a bit of those here and there.

I’ve struggled with this list, because I’m trying to order such a wide range of novels – Fell, HM, Bencolin, the historical novels.  Given that I’m purposely avoiding reading in depth reviews that spoil the stories, I’ve had to resort to the general impression that I’ve gotten from a number of sources.

hagsnookI’ve only read two of these, which I’ve marked in bold.  Hag’s Nook was the book that I somewhat randomly picked to get introduced to Carr.  The plot sounded interesting and it definitely was.  I enjoyed the feeling of adventure and gloom that Carr created out of the prison and the namesake pit, plus the sense of history that he weaves into the story.  And of course, the solution to the puzzle – I couldn’t help but kick myself.  In a way, I thought that was the perfect introduction to Carr, as I learned as a reader to at least realize the forms of misdirection I was in for.

fireburnFire, Burn is kind of a funny one for me – I intended to read The Burning Court and somehow got the reference to fire mixed up in my head and picked up the wrong book.  I was about 1/3 of the way through before I realized I was reading the wrong story.  Perhaps this was a good thing though.  I had been hesitant to approach the various “time travel” and “historical” novels, and reading Fire, Burn! let me know just how well they were done.  Carr’s writing about history is superb, and I love the sense of someone in 2016 getting insight into how the 1820’s would come across to someone from the 1950’s.  I also liked that the time travel aspect is quickly glossed over, as opposed to being given unnecessary detail.  The impossible crime itself?  Mmm, I felt that there were enough gaps in the circumstance to where any number of solutions were possible.

So, what are your thoughts on the list?  Are some of these books clearly superior to others?  Do I have the approximate order correct?

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14 thoughts on “Rating John Dickson Carr – The Middle Ground”

  1. When in doubt, and especially when faced with a catalogue as large as Carr’s, I always go chronologically. It gives you a great sense of how the wuthor developed, grew, and adapted their plotting and novels, and I’ve found it really help me appreciates the perceived lesser works of certain authors (particularly Agatha Christie) when they’re seen in the actual career context rather than jammed up against the Starlet of the Ball for everyone to point questioning fingers at while sniggering behind their hands. It’s also the one order that is guaranteed to be beyond dispute, since favourites come and go, and personal perception is so, so important.

    And, yeah, I agree that Fire, Burn! is an amazing piece of writing with a slightly ropey impossible crime. Thankfully Carr is about so much more than just the impossibilities (lovely though they undoubtedly are….),

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    1. Hmm. I appreciate the point that you and Noah make, but that wouldn’t be any fun, right? It makes things too predictable and then I don’t get to constantly shuffle my stack…

      It would be a nice way to even things out though. I’ve been very heavy on Merrivale recently – not intentionally, but it is just how my mix of classics/highly/recommended has worked out. I will be making a (unintentional) swing to Fell. Based on your reviews and comments, I have to test out Death Watch and The Man Who Could Not Shudder. I figure I’ll throw Till Death Do Us Part in between because I’ve been dying to read that one.

      Am I in any danger by going out of order? I’ve noticed that the Merrivale books tend to reference each other. These are typically minor references – I believe White Priory is referenced in The Ten Teacups, The Red Widow Murders, The Reader is Warned, and She Died a Lady..

      There is a comment in She Died a Lady where Merrivale says “I’ve seen a feller who was dead, and yet who wasn’t dead. I’ve seen a man make two different sets of finger-prints with the same hands. I’ve seen a poisoner get atropine into a clean glass that nobody touched.” I’m pretty sure one of those is a reference to Nine – And Death Makes Ten. I’m trying to flush the actual quote from memory in case it gives away too much.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I mean, it’s totally up to you what order you read them in (shock! horror!), and if you’re happy juggling them then feel free to juggle away. I’d just be wary of going into a book thinking “This is going to be a weak book” because — especially with Carr — the tendency then is to find thing about it which make it weak. Constant Suicides, for instance, is hilarous and swift and cunning and brilliantly imagined, but falls down in a couple of ways if you want to nit-pick, and if you’re told this in advance then the problems will inevitably be magnified.

        Carr stacked the deck to such an extent that sometimes you just have to roll over and accept it (whic is one of the things I particularly love about Peacock Feather Murders, for instance, or Man Who Could Nor Shudder), but I think this also means that he’s susceptible more than most to a slight nudge here or there in your perception massively alterting the view of his work. Of course, I could also be hugely off the mark with this, but the point still remains that I don’t think going into a book telling oneself it’s going to be a “bad one” is ever the way to go!

        As for spoilers…the only one that jumps to mind is TCot Constant Suicides, which makes a reference to something Fell does at the end of an earlier book…not explicitly naming the book, but making that bit of his nature less of a joyous discovery when you come to it. Others may not think it that big an issue, though, and certainly the other references I can think of are elliptical enough to be more tempting than spoilerful.

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      2. For those three books, and I think they do refer to three actual books, you’ll be asking yourself the same questions at about the midway point anyway. They don’t give away much more than you’d find on the jacket flap.

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  2. I agree with JJ — you’ll more easily understand Carr’s “periods” if you approach it roughly chronologically. I wanted to recommend one that I like that no one ever talks about, it seems: The Eight of Swords. It’s one where Carr seems to have set out to write a “small” novel — not long, not involved, not too tough — set among unpleasant criminals. A clever central premise and some good writing. Mind you, I’d ultimately recommend you read everything Carr ever wrote ROFL. The Eight of Swords just seems to be one of the less well known novels.

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  3. I suppose JJ and I are trying to estimate how one could have the most enjoyable experience if one had never read JDC; but really, both of us seem to have been hooked, and I know I for one read them wildly out of order, I suspect he may have as well. So I think your process will work well for you, and in the meantime you’ll have the pleasure of re-arranging LOL. As Nero Wolfe said, “Any spoke will lead an ant to the hub.”

    Liked by 1 person

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