The Carr Fan’s Lament

Recently, the Invisible Event hosted a special celebration for John Dickson Carr’s 110th birthday, for which a number of bloggers contributed a Carr inspired write up to commemorate the day.  I felt that something special was in order, not just a typical book review.  Something that captured the essence of how the author resonates with me.  Why then did I cheat and submit a review for The Man Who Could Not Shudder?  A review, that in fact, I had actually published several days earlier?

Well, for one, I unexpectedly found myself very busy in the last days leading up to the event.  More so, though, was my failed attempt to follow through on writing some “Best of” or “Top 5” lists for the special day.  As someone currently exploring Carr’s work, the Top 5/10 list has been immensely valuable.  They’ve given inspiration on where to focus my reading time.  Not only did they point my way to some prime books for my initial endeavors, but they’ve helped me uncover gems like Death Watch that would have otherwise languished in obscurity at the bottom of my To Be Read stack.

The reason that I failed at producing such a list is that it dawned on me that I don’t have anything to say yet.  Well, of course, I know that is being overly hard on myself, but consider the task at hand.  It doesn’t feel quite right to produce a list of “the five best of the seventeen Carr books that I’ve read…..oh, and by the way, I haven’t read 1/3 of the established classics.”  Sure, I still could have done it, and I’m sure it’s close to what many of the writers of the lists I’ve most admired have done.  After all, Carr wrote a staggering 70-80 books (depending on whether you count short story collections).  I can only assume that most of us haven’t made it all the way through.

Of course, you don’t really have to make it through 70 books to write a Top 5 list.  There are a set of books that most readers seem to agree are somewhere on the list of top reads:crookedhinge

13 books!  13 books that almost anyone who’s read them would seemingly put on a top 10 list!  Add to that other books that are very likely to crop up on someone’s list and we get 27!poisoninjest

Now, maybe some of you are looking at the titles selected and saying “hey, he forgot to include….”  Well, that is in part my point.  Just marvel at that list.  27 books that, as far as I can ascertain, are practically guaranteed to be a satisfying read and potentially vie for a top spot.  Ok, maybe I’m being a bit generous there…  I’ve definitely read reviews where people turn up their nose at some of these, whether it’s too much reliance on coincidence, or an overly complex/unlikely solution.  But for my part, I’ve really enjoyed the ones I’ve read.  Yeah, I’m probably not going to have Hag’s Nook in my final Top 10 list, but I’ll appreciate the other’s brilliance more for having read it.

Of course, at this point, I could quickly blow through the 14 books in the lists above that I haven’t read.  But that wouldn’t be any fun, would it?  Well, actually, I’m sure it would be loads of fun, but where would it leave me?  I’d have sprinted through the best of it all, leaving nothing to look forward to.

Mmm, that isn’t quite true either.  I’ve come to learn that even the unheralded works of Carr are something to be enjoyed.  Books like Fire, Burn and The Man Who Could Not Shudder.  Yet, in a way, that adds to the problem.  Sure, the only Carr lists those are going to make are “Top 5 historical Carr” and “Top 5 Carr books taking place in a haunted house”.  Yet they were still enjoyable enough that it lets me know that the “lower” depths of Carr’s work is filled with gems.

witchofthelowtideAs good as I’m finding “lower tier” Carr books to be, I know there is something refreshing to being able to crack open a classic like The Case of the Constant Suicides after reading a few of them.  I know that I’ll probably enjoy them, but I’ll always be haunted by the desire for that next knockout ending.  As such, my current tactic is to spread the classics out a bit and take some stabs at lesser known books like The Witch of the Low Tide and The Unicorn Murders.  It kills me though to see books like The Crooked Hinge sitting there midway through my TBR stack, purposely out of reach.

In the end, it’s a nice problem to have.  An author with such depth that I’m probably going to have to have read 50 of his works before I can really wrap my mind around a feasible list.

Even then the ranking becomes a problem…  I mean, can you really rank this stuff?  Is He Who Whispers really better than The Burning Court?  It probably depends on your opinion of the ending of the later.  Is Till Death Do Us Part really better than The Emperor’s Snuff Box?  I don’t even know how to answer that.  They both excel in their own way.  My opinion on the matter could probably change depending on the day, and, to a degree, how deeply I recall each story.  The best that I imagine I can do is to categorize – “These 5 books are generally better than this other group of 5 books.

Now, now – don’t worry about consoling me – I already have a few good lists in the works that use some different angles for rating, and I imagine you might see some in a few months.  I really wanted to write this all out in appreciation of the author and the problem that he’s presented me.  For all I know, you’ve read this same ramble a hundred times on some Agatha Christie blogs…

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17 thoughts on “The Carr Fan’s Lament”

    1. What technique did you use to approach Christie’s backlog? Read them in order? Try to spread out the hits? Looking back, would you have done it differently?

      Could make an interesting blog post for you… After all, I’ll need some reference when I finally get around to her!

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  1. If lists are a concern, then reallly the only option is to wait until you’ve read everything…but even then somsone will disagree with you, so why bother? I’m somewhere around halfwayish through Carr and could at best do “The Best Five Carrs of te 1940s” or similar, which is why my sole Carrian list to date has been the my recommendation for a new reader’s first five Carrs. Don’t sweat it. As I’ve said before: my recommendation is to go in, broadly chronologically, with no expectations at all and just see what you like. Not everyone will agree, and not everyone will agree when I come to my Top Ten Carrs list, but that’s part of the fiun of these conversations. I would just ensure you enjoy the books and don’t fret too much about the grand scheme — the lists, the posts, the analysis — which is all ancillary and not really part of the intention of reading in the first place…

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    1. Yeah, I’m not really sweating it. I more found the topic to be an interesting vehicle to get some thoughts on paper and to marvel at the wealth of Carr’s work.

      I have decided to do a bit of an experiment based on comments that you’ve made about reading things chronologically – I haven’t read any Bencolin books yet, so I think I’ll do those in order. Otherwise, I was going to start with Castle Skull and then read Four False Weapons.

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  2. I tend to like to keep the best for the last, and as such have bumped the following titles right to the very bottom of my TBR pile for Carr: for Fell – He Who Whispers, Hollow Man; for Merrivale – Reader is Warned, My Late Wives; non-series – Burning Court, Nine Wrong Answers; for Bencolin – Four False Weapons. So all that’s left for me to do is to avoid spoilers that would ruin my experience of these books…

    There’s bound to be some degree of subjectivity in formulating a ‘best of’ list. For me, I didn’t especially like Crooked Hinge, and rank it below ‘Man Who Could Not Shudder’, and possibly even ‘Hag’s Nook’. I am very favourable towards Death-Watch, and rank it much more highly than many other readers seem to do; I would even say it’s one of the best titles by Carr I’ve so far read. I delighted in the puzzle for Green Capsule, but struggled quite hard with the melodrama and the writing at junctures. Plague Court Murders, which many seem to love, I found somewhat unbearable… *dodges bullets*

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    1. Wow, that is quite the list of books to keep at the bottom of your TBR stack!!! I’ve read four of them and I can tell you that you’ll definitely enjoy yourself!

      You’re right about Death Watch being a top Carr book. Perhaps it doesn’t get the limelight it deserves because it isn’t actually an impossible crime. Plus, I can imagine some people consider an aspect of it to be a cheat. I didn’t mind though, because the entire book is so good.

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      1. I don’t mind keeping all these titles at the bottom as I still have quite a few titles to go through first: Mad Hatter’s, Arabian Nights, Five Boxes, Lost Gallows, Bowstring Murders, Seat of the Scornful, To Wake the Dead, In Spite of Thunder, Witch of Low Tide, Bride of Newgate, Fire Burn… To prevent diminishing returns I shall attempt to pace my reading of these titles, and leave the best for the last. 🙂

        I don’t recall anything that struck me as compromising the rules of fair-play, but then again, Death-Watch was so complicated that I feel like it deserves a second read. In fact, it’s probably the only Carr title I’ve read so far that I want to return back to in the near future.

        What is next on the TBR pile for you? 🙂

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      2. Well, I can tell you what is next on the TBR pile at the moment, but I constantly swap things around so it may change. The book at the top of my stack right now is The Witch of the Low Tide, and I’m 99% confident that I will read it next. It sounds like an interesting impossible crime, and I love the idea that it’s mildly historical. Plus, it seems to be one of those titles that kind of flies under the radar.

        I adjust my TPR pile quite a bit though, especially when I get new books. I just bought The Case of the Constant Suicides and The Mad Hatter Mystery, and I have yet to figure out where to truly position them. I suspect it will change several times.

        Poor Castle Skull has made it to the very top of my TBR stack 3 times and currently sits at position #5. Even that is going to change because I recently decided to read all of the Bencolin’s in order.

        The breadth of Carr’s work is a fun problem for me, and it is really what I wanted to get at with this post. I’m like a kid in a candy store. I can’t decide what I want to eat next. I enjoy that I’m in this position now, because I know that one day it will all dry up.

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  3. I’ve enjoyed reading through this piece, particularly the enthusiasm for Carr’s work that you display. I’ve tried ranking titles over the years but find it hard to decide and then stick to my guns. Ultimately though, it doesn’t really matter – it’s enough for me that I get pleasure from his writing.
    BTW, I shouldn’t worry too much about running out of new titles one day. I’ve found that the details of a fair number of the books I read ages ago have actually slipped my mind and I can read quite a few again with almost the same pleasure.

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  4. I quite recently finished reading my last Carr, after being a fan of him for over a decade. There was a tinge of sadness with the realization that there were no more Carr classics to discover, so I envy you somewhat for what you have left. I do however have many radio plays left to discover. I do hope Carr’s many efforts in that area become more easily available.

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      1. The last book I read was actually “Captain Cut-throat” because I had forgotten about it before. I think the book before that may have been the “Third Bullet”, a collection of short stories that it took me a while to find a copy of.

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      2. I’ve only read a few of the stories in The Third Bullet so far. It contains my favorite Carr work so far – The House in Goblin Wood. Unfortunately my copy is missing a page, so I’ll have to find another.

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  5. Wow, sometimes I’m flabberghasted by you guys. You’re the biggest locked-room/impossible crime fans in the world, and then you come out with a statement that you’ve only read 20%/50%/(insert whatever here) of Carr’s output. For someone like me, who’d read all things Carr – maybe with the exception of “The Hungry Goblin” which was very hard to get hold of before the advent of internet – 20 years ago, it’s a source of amazement that some people still haven’t read everything, or even close to everything.

    Obviously, I’m painting with a broad brush here, and I absolutely do not mean this in a negative or criticizing way. It’s just a big wow moment for me. (Also, it makes me realise that although I’m “just” 42 years old, I’m oooooooold.)

    As for me, I’ve read everything Christie, Carr, Queen, Crispin, Sayers, Marsh, and several other authors, and I’m having a hard time finding new authors that excite me. That’s why I get extra disappointed, for instance, when some newer re-publications are praised and turn out to be not quite excellent (Farjeon’s “Mystery in White”, I’m looking at you, you hugely disappointing failure of a mystery novel), because I want to find new authors, or at least authors that I haven’t read, and enjoy delving into their works.

    I’m also fairly disappointed that Ngaio Marsh gets such short shrift in the bloggosphere lately, but I chalk that up to groupthink. 😉

    Sorry, this rant could’ve really ended up on any blog, but the wow moment was what set me off, so there you go.

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    1. Well, count me among those that don’t rate Marsh highly as a mystery author, even though I find her books fairly enjoyable. Her depiction of characters can be quite good, but the mystery itself does not grip me and I don’t recall any solution being particularly clever.

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      1. I think that’s part of the problem. The thing of the day in mystery reading and criticism seems to be that there has to be fireworks and clever stuff all the time. I also see quite a lot of criticism that her books are filled with a lot of talking and interviews with the suspects, which I’ve kinda never understood. This is cerebral stuff, we don’t want a lot of action here! 😉

        With Marsh you’re never going to get any of the above. What you’ll get is a solid mystery novel – there’s not much difference in quality between Marsh’s best and her worst, as opposed to many others in the mystery field.

        Sorry about the continued off-topic discussion of Marsh on a Carr blog. 🙂

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