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:
- The Hollow Man
- The Problem of the Green Capsule
- The Judas Window
- The Crooked Hinge
- The Case of the Constant Suicides
- The Burning Court
- The Emperor’s Snuff Box
- Till Death Do Us Part
- He Who Whispers
- The Nine Wrong Answers
- Nine – And Death Makes Ten
- She Died a Lady
- He Wouldn’t Kill Patience
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!
- The Plague Court Murders
- The White Priory Murders
- The Red Widow Murders
- The Ten Teacups
- Death in Five Boxes
- The Four False Weapons
- The Mad Hatter Mystery
- The Arabian Nights Murder
- Death Watch
- To Wake the Dead
- Poison in Jest
- Hag’s Nook
- Captain Cut Throat
- The Bow String Murders
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.
As 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…