If you’re reading John Dickson Carr, the master of the locked room, chances are you’re in it for the impossible crime. Over the course of his 70+ novels, you’ll encounter a broad range of beguiling puzzles. Not all are locked rooms, and not all are impossible crimes. Across such a spectrum, how do you rate them?
One obvious measure is the solution. Yeah, a good puzzle can draw you in, but if it doesn’t pay off with full satisfying glory, then you’re left grasping for the shadow of an idea that never fully materializes.
Overall, I’ve immensely enjoyed Carr’s solutions. From the moment that the story reveals the puzzle, I search tantalized for the answer. In only one case have I figured out the core trick to the main puzzle (The Unicorn Murders), although even in this case I didn’t know who committed the crime.
In another case (Till Death Do Us Part), I had a general understanding of what how the trick had been done, but I didn’t fully grasp the mechanics . In all other cases, I’ve been treated to a solution that I never saw coming. Oh, sure, I’ve worked out a number of false solutions that Carr dangled in my face, only to have them dismissed pages later.
There have only been a few cases so far where I wasn’t entirely thrilled with the solution – I won’t mention them here because I consider foreknowledge of a dud solution as potentially ruining a reading experience. Yet, even in these few cases, I’ve enjoyed my time spent with the book. Such is Carr – you come for the impossibility, you stay for the story.
So, on to the list.
The criteria for this list isn’t necessarily the nature of the puzzle (although, believe me, these deliver in that department). Instead, I’m going to be focusing purely on the solution. The five books presented below each deliver what I feel is a truly satisfying twist, and one that will make your reading effort worth it.
5. The Judas Window
A man is found stabbed to death in a perfectly locked room, but he’s not alone. His companion, accused of the crime, swears that he was knocked out and had nothing to do with the murder. This is the quintessential locked room mystery. Despite the crime happening in the first few pages of the book, Carr is able to focus the entire story on how the impossibility could have been accomplished. The solution is clever and a bit humorous given the nature of the puzzle.
4. The Unicorn Murders
In full view of multiple witnesses, a man clutches his head and cries out in agony before collapsing – a large hole bored in his head. No weapon could have possibly reached him without being seen, and all escape routes had witnesses. Merrivale and a cast of characters trapped at flood-bound chateau explore a number of possible solutions to no avail. The true story of what happened is audacious and exhibits Carr’s misdirection at its best.
3. He Who Whispers
Atop a tower in France, a man is found dead, run through with a sword. Two witnesses left him alive, and since they exited the tower, all possible entrances were under observation. Not only is the impossible crime strong, but the entire flow of the story is one of Carr’s best. The explanation is both surprising and haunting.
Not in any way an impossible crime, but possibly one of Carr’s finest solutions. An antiquity collector is found bludgeoned to death, along with the smashed remains of a peculiar snuff box. Across the street, a pair of witnesses glimpse the killer slipping away from the crime scene. This taught thriller involves a small cast of suspects and a non-series detective. The ending is truly jaw dropping and shows Carr to be a master of the craft.
This admittedly slow moving book revolves around a victim found in a pavilion surrounded by pristine snow. How did the killer get in and out without leaving footprints? Carr maintains a strong focus on the impossibility throughout the book, exploring and then dismissing a number of possible solutions. As puzzling as the crime seems, a single comment from Merrivale dissolves it all. This story features Carr’s most elegant solution – one where you’ll wonder how there was ever any mystery in the first place.
So, what are your favorite solutions from Carr? Am I completely off base on any of these? Are there any books that you think are missing? As always, please be careful to avoid spoilers in your comments.