On rare occasions, I’ll be several chapters into a book when I realize that I’m reading something special. I got that sense two chapters into The Burning Court – I knew that I was in for a fun ride and I almost regretted knowing that it would at some point end. I was fortunate enough to experience that feeling again with Till Death Do Us Part, and even more fortunate that it was an intuition that turned out to be correct.
Having surveyed reviews on a number of sites, I categorized the book as Highly Recommended Carr. This was a mistake, it is a Classic. As with He Who Whispers, everything about this story just works. Riveting impossible crime – check. Excellent pacing – check. Memorable characters – check. The feeling that the rug is constantly being pulled out from under you – che…well, this is a Carr novel, so I suppose that’s a given
Till Death Do Us Part qualifies as a bonafide locked room mystery, not simply an impossible crime. This is one of my favorite categories on the genre, with the sheer mechanics of how a killer could leave a crime in so vexing a state nagging at you for the entire book. Although Carr is known as the master of the locked room, I’ve actually read only a few books that technically qualify as fully sealed – The Judas Window and arguably The Burning Court. The Ten Teacups, The Red Widow Murders, and Hag’s Nook all involve puzzles that nearly qualify, but in each case there is an aspect of the crime scene that disqualifies it from being considered sealed – don’t worry, I’m not giving anything away, these facts are clearly laid out early on in each story.
In the case of Till Death Do Us part, the locked room mystery is just one of the many aspects that makes the story work. Yeah, the crime is always stuck in your mind, but there are so many more other interesting things that you’re trying to figure out. Carr neatly drops one mystery after another at your feet, leading the reader down a path that in part seems to grow more clear, while at the same time growing more shrouded. In some books in particular, the author consistently shocks with major twists at the end of each chapter. This is definitely one of those. I’m not sure if there is a single chapter that doesn’t end with something jarring.
That constant rate of twists, clues, and revelations makes Till Death Do Us Part an engrossing read. I was halfway through the book without realizing it, feeling more like I was in the early chapters Strong characters help too. I really felt like I had a clear understanding of who everyone was throughout the entire story, even in the earliest chapters.
The most standout character is the love interest of the protagonist. Similar to the female lead in He Who Whispers, we’re dealt a character who is hounded by past accusations, and upon whom suspicion falls for the latest crime. What’s different here is the uncertainty. He Who Whispers is a bit like The Judas Window – there’s always that back chance that the accused character could be guilty, but we’re rooting for them. In Till Death Do Us Part, you really don’t know. I found myself tilting back and forth in my suspicions.
The end of the story may be one of Carr’s best in terms of tension. I’m drawn into the end of every one of his books, if only to learn the secret of the puzzle. In this case, we’re treated to a riveting finale in which lives feel truly at stake and you don’t know what is happening.
When all is said and done, I’ll find it hard to believe if I don’t have this in my top 5 Carr stories, but then again, I’m loving everything I read by the author. Maybe it won’t qualify for “Best Puzzle” or “Best Solution”, but in terms of “Overall Story”, this is in the top of the pack.
A curious aside
Astute readers will notice the multiple references in the story to Goblin Wood – the setting of Carr’s masterpiece, The House in Goblin Wood. Of course, Carr self references all the time – in fact The Problem of the Green Capsule is mentioned in Till Death Do Us Part as well. However, these references are normally limited to the “universe” of the main detective. In this case, we have a Dr Fell book referencing a location from a Merrivale story.
This is actually the second book in a row that I’ve read where I noticed an out-of-universe reference. At the very end of Death Watch, Dr Fell (or was it Hadley?) mentions Bencolin. Although surprised by this, it wasn’t completely shocking – both Fell and Bencolin were published under the name of John Dickson Carr. Merrivale though was published under the name of Carter Dickson, which makes the Goblin Wood reference in Till Death Do Us Part more interesting.