To Be Read – John Dickson Carr edition

Part of the joy of devouring a genre (or in my current case, an author) is deciding what to read next.  I imagine we all have some weird technique behind how we do it, whether it’s fully conscious or not.  For me it verges on a hobby.  That isn’t to say that I spend grotesque amounts of time thinking about reading order, but it definitely crosses my mind more than it should.  From time to time – typically spurred by a new arrival or two – I’ll examine my stack and shift things around.

My technique has evolved over time.  When I was first filling out my Carr library, I was typically buying packs of 5-15 books off of eBay.  As each batch would arrive, I’d separate it into “books I really really want to read” and “books I might get to if I decide to keep going with Carr”.  The better books would find themselves mixed into the top of my TBR pile, with the lesser titles getting dispersed towards the bottom.  At that point, the order of my overall stack was based pretty much on my research of conventional opinion of Carr book quality, and so it tended to be a best-to-worst affair.  I didn’t rely solely on lists though – certain titles like The Reader is Warned, The White Priory Murders, and The Red Widow Murders made their way to the top, bolstered in part by an interesting premise and also… well, I owned them, and I didn’t own others.

Over time though, things changed.  My big revelation – after reading works like Death Watch, Below Suspicion, and Seeing is Believing – is that most Carr books match what I’m looking for.  Some are certainly stronger than others, but “the bottom of the barrel” so far hasn’t turned me off.

And so, over time I’ve shifted in my approach.  First, I started to pull some of the supposedly lesser titles up the stack.  I began to alternate a bit more between Fell and Merrivale. I started to intersperse the historical works more evenly.

Lately, my approach has been based on a theory about what I value most about Carr.  As I’ve become more familiar with the range of his career, it’s started to sink in that the peak of what I’m personally interested in lies between 1933 (Hag’s Nook / The Bowstring Murders) and 1939 (The Problem of the Green Capsule / The Reader is Warned).  I’m happy to accept that I’m off by a year on either side – I have yet to read Poison in Jest (1932) and Nine – And Death Makes Ten (1940).

Now, don’t get me wrong – some of Carr’s best work comes after this period – Till Death Do Us Part, He Who Whispers, and The Emperor’s Snuff Box being just a few examples.  And, as far as I’ve experienced, the rest of the work beyond this period contains some excellent writing and engaging plots.  I choose 1933-1939 because I see it as the peak of gothic-dread mixed with stellar puzzles.  That’s my sweet spot.  As I recently wrote, The Plague Court Murders is an prime representation of what I’m looking for.

This loops back to my TBR pile because it’s dawned on me that I don’t have too many works from this period left.  Well, maybe I have plenty – 11 titles remain – which would be enough for many author’s entire careers.  So what to do?  Spread them out.  But spread them out with what?  What goes in between?  Fortunately, there are other aspects of Carr that I enjoy.  The duels and intrigue of the historicals; the tight impossibilities of Merrivale novels; the final lecture in a Fell work.

This all leads to the current state of my TBR stack.  Well, stacks.  That’s actually how I keep it, split into two separate piles, merely to keep the monstrosity from toppling over.

TBR
The stack on the left is the one I’m currently working on.

The stacks are fairly evenly interspersed between Fell and Merrivale, with the odd historical tossed in every so often.  I’ve also attempted to account for a good distribution of highly rated books with those that are commonly considered to be lesser works.  As much as I claim to be trying to even things out, I’ll be the first to admit that the first stack is a bit heavier on the books that I really want to read.

Taking a look at the top of my fist stack, let me explain the method to my madness.  We start with Mad Hatter Mystery, since I haven’t read a Fell in a while, plus it has a great reputation.  I should arguably follow with a Merrivale, but I transition to Panic in Box C – the second to last Fell title.  When I finally read this 1966 publication, it will be the furthest I’ve gone towards the end of Carr’s career by four years.  I’ve seen conflicting opinions on this book, which draws my curiosity.  Some fellow commenters cut their teeth on it, while others consider it the tail of the arc of Carr’s final fall.

Assuming I enjoy Panic in Box C, I’ll follow with Most Secret – a historical work and another late career choice.  I’ve chosen it over more guaranteed historicals like The Devil in Velvet simply because I haven’t found many reviews.  Why not try something different?

Following Most Secret I know I’m going to be hungering for a strong mystery.  As much as I enjoy the historical books, the mysteries tend to be weaker.  Thus, I follow with Nine – and Death Makes Ten, a sure fire top Merrivale book.  Having taken in an assured high, I move on to a non-series with Poison in Jest and then what is broadly considered to be a weaker Fell – The Problem of the Wire Cage.  As much hate as this book gets, I’m really curious about it, mostly because it was released during Carr’s golden period.  How can a story that came out the same year as The Problem of the Green Capsule let me down?  If it is disappointing, no matter – I follow with The Bride of Newgate, one of the more popular historical works.

From this point on, you can probably detect the pattern.  Well, ok – if you’re familiar enough with all 70+ Carr books by name alone, then you can probably detect a pattern.  I intersperse Fell and Merrivale with the odd historical thrown in.  I’ve tried to even out the quality a bit – supposedly weaker works like Dark of the Moon are thrown into my first stack, but balanced out with stronger golden-era stories like The Arabian Nights Murder.  Admittedly, my second stack is a bit heavy on the lesser or medium regarded works.  In part this is because it leans towards the later years.  Only five of sixteen books come from his classic 1933-1939 period, and out of those, only The Hollow Man garners much respect.  I’ve tried to supplement them with some well regarded works from after the period – He Wouldn’t Kill Patience and Captain Cut-Throat.

So that’s my overall approach as of now.  It will change, I guarantee it.  In fact, it will probably change later today.  I have three new arrivals – The Cavalier’s Cup, Behind the Crimson Blind (I know, stow your jealousy…), and My Late Wives.  Those are all Merrivale, so they’ll need to be distributed somehow, likely leading to a chain reaction.  Beyond that, I have five more books to purchase (not counting short story compilations).

Enough about how I do it, I’m curious how you do it.  I’ve fallen into a state of being focused on a single author.  Who knows whether that will fully play out in the end – I have a whole stack of attractive works like The Poisoned Chocolates Case, The Rim of the Pit, and all of Christie that I’ll probably get to before I shell out more than $20 for The Hungry Goblin.  But I know this dedication to one author makes me the exception.

To the more widely read, how do you do it?  When it’s time to reach for a new work, does it come off of the top of a predetermined stack?  How do you mix the authors with more staying power – the Christies and Carr – with the various other authors of GAD?  Do you take a greedy approach, devouring works like Death of Jezebel, Invisible Green, and Death From a Top Hat, or do you have a more measured approach for spreading out the commonly regarded classics?  Do you know the next five books you’ll be reading, and if so, how likely is that to change by the time you actually get through them?

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20 thoughts on “To Be Read – John Dickson Carr edition”

  1. Hazard’s the name, bub, Hap Hazard! I do like variety, but lately I’ve been on a buying binge, and I let each new purchase affect my TBR. Frankly, my behavior resembles that of a kitten switching from toy to toy to toy . . .

    I will say that I don’t subscribe to the “one author only” rule, since that’s what got me here in the first place! I ran out of Christies decades ago, and the only good thing about that is that I have constantly re-read and studied and now know a little something about her. I’ve stretched out Carr for a long time and have plenty of titles still to read (or choose to read – I don’t think I HAVE to read Papa La-Bas!), but it means I approach Carr much more as a simple fan than as a scholar.

    But I’m working on it . . .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So what does your TBR pile look like then? Is it a shelf that you haphazardly grab something off, or do you have some perceived notion of an order that each successive purchase disrupts?

      Each of my purchases is certainly disruptive – two minutes after this post, I walked upstairs with My Late Wives, leaving The Mad Hatter Mystery for another day. For some reason I just couldn’t resist.

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  2. I should argue about the narrow window that’s your Sweet Spot, but it’s your Sweet Spot. So why argue over personal taste? However, I would love to see a personal favorite of mine, namely Captain Cut-Throat, move to the top of your pile, because of its gross neglect even among Carr’s fans. And would love to read someone else’s take on the book.

    You should store away Poison in Jest for when the days gets longer and colder again. It’s a superb, gothic-style mystery novel that reads like a darker, grittier imagination of The Addams Family, which even has a disembodied hand walking around the decrepit mansion like a spider! My (penguin) edition also has a photograph of Carr that eerily resembles Gomez Addams.

    As to you question, I stopped planning ahead many years ago. My backlog is big enough to simply pick what I fancy at the moment, which can be influenced by my previous read or what others have been reading/reviewed. The only drawback is that I can easily be distracted away from a series or author for a long period of time! I really should return to such writers as Erle Stanley Gardner, Anthony Gilbert and H.R.F. Keating. To name just a few.

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    1. Yeah, the sweet spot is certainly up for debate – that’s the fun of it all. I fully recognize that some of Carr’s best work was to come after the period I identified. I could see arguments to draw it out to the late 40’s (to cover He Who Whispers, Till Death, etc) or even the mid-50’s (to cover The 9 Wrong Answers and the excellent historical). The reason why I drew the line at 1939 is that it is after this period that we start to see the quality of the books being more heavily debated – And So To Murder and The Man Who Could Not Shudder both coming in 1940. Now, I personally like the latter, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I enjoy the former. Yet I will recognize that The Man Who Could Not Shudder is a dropping off from the heights of earlier works, not even capitalizing on the setting in a haunted house.

      I’ve been certain I would love Poison in Jest – it has been somewhere in the top 6 of my pile for the last 8 months. I always find an excuse to move it down. Maybe I should save it for that second stack.

      I placed Captain Cut-Throat in the second stack because you and a few others had great things to say about it. This makes it one of the few sure-fire great reads in the second stack. I’ve got to save some of the good stuff for later, right? Well, after your comment I’m tempted to swap it with The Devil in Velvet. Any opportunity to move things around…!

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  3. Great reading how someone else decides on their TBR pile. Early on I was guilty of just picking the newest books off the pile, even though some of the books which had been on the pile longer turned out to be really good once I read them. So I think for me what I have tended to do is mix up my TBR pile so books which have been around a while get a chance of getting read. Post blog though I have had to give review copy books priority sometimes so I review them in a timely manner. This year though I have been using a different system for organising my TBR pile, as I am taking part in Bev’s Follow the Clues challenge, where you need to make a link between the reads you make. I did sign up for a 12 book chain, but I have managed to keep it going beyond that. I think this has made my reads more disparate and diverse, as old and modern books get read side by side.
    As to where I keep my TBR pile I have one pile which is crime fiction, one pile other fiction and one pile Lit Crit. I have them next to a book case. I always know if my TBR pile is getting out of hand when the piles are getting too close to the top of the book case! My crime fiction pile is not doing too bad at the moment, only got 21.

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    1. There are times when I wish I had any sort of organisation to my TBR, but it tends to ebb and flow: every so often I’ll do something of a “Right, everything I’ve had for more than X years needs to be read by the end of July” type of undertaking, but then I get distracted by new things or I find something I’ve been chasing for ages and dive in there instead.

      I think, with the exception of my Carr and Christie backlogs, I now don’t have a book on my TBR that was there before 2016, and I’m quite pleased with that. The only problem is that I bought a lot of books in 2016. And as I tend to genre-hop quite a lot — a bit of SF, or some non-fiction, just to keep things even the tiniest bit mixed — I am increasingly governed by whimsey and just tend to go for what feels right.

      Next up, though, is some proof-reading, and after that TomCat’s got me realising I should return to Freeman Wills Crofts, but who knows whether that will actually happen…?

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I like this reply, and even clicked the like button to indicate the fact, as it mirrors my own approach. Being a wildly disorganized person in most areas of my life, i long ago decided to give myself up to the whimsical when and where possible. I did try having small TBR piles that could be worked through, but it wasn’t working for me. The structure it was imposing started to irk and I grew resentful, and that’s no fun. No, I just pick what catches my fancy and go with that, although I may have one book earmarked for reading next from time to time, but it’s still pretty flexible.

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      2. I once — a few of years ago now — got my TBR down to five books, and actually felt a bit miffed at the restriction it was putting on me as there were fewer and fewer to choose from. There’s a joy in freedom of choice, especially as I try to read books that won’t feature on my blog purely so I can have the freedom of not talking about something if I don’t want to, and so now while I try to keep things relatively sensible (my TBR is currently at 70 or so), I like having the disorganisation in what comes next. Sometimes I’ve even surprise myself!

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      3. I some time surprise myself too. This usually results from a startled glance in the mirror after a particularly heavy night. But that’s a whole different story. 🙂

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  4. On a side note, I think we have the same edition of ‘Gilded Man’, which was the last Carr novel I read. It was good – when the culprit(s) was/ were first revealed, I felt slightly underwhelmed, but some clever explanations followed swiftly.

    I tend to like to leave the best for the last, but sometimes I get careless… I’ve read ‘Death of Jezebel’, ‘Green for Danger’ and ‘Tour de Force’, which leaves me reluctant to conclude my time with Christianna Brand with the ostensibly mediocre ‘Heads You Lose’.

    Also, the principle of best for last that doesn’t always work when I find that I’ve not especially enjoyed a particular author, and need to pick up a strong novel to keep me going. Hence for Carr, I’ve had to dip into ‘She Died a Lady’ and ‘Till Death Do Us Part’ and ‘Nine – and Death Makes Ten’. Which means I need to be careful and keep ‘Reader is Warned’ and ‘He Who Whispers’ to the very end.

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  5. My TBR pile is three piles. Or more.

    Three, you say? Oh yes. One is not enough. Two could work, but three is more logical.

    You see, one of my TBR piles consists of mysteries I’m re-reading – I’ve been on a huge re-reading binge for the last three years (or is it maybe more? Can’t quite remember anymore…), where I’m re-reading everything I have by a huge amount of writers. Let’s see now, there’s Carr/Dickson, Ellery Queen, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, Cyril Hare, Patrick Quentin/Q.Patrick/Jonathan Stagge, Edmund Crispin, Rufus King, Helen McCloy, and probably another few I cannot recall now. And there’s also some authors where I only have one or two books: Edgar Lustgarten, Robert Player, J. C. Masterman, etc.

    In fact, there’s not that many authors that are NOT in this huge pile: There’s Agatha Christie, who was left out because I’d recently watched the Poirot series and wanted to wait a little before getting back to her books, there’s Dorothy Sayers and Michael Innes, both of whom I’m not overly fond of, and there’s Anthony Berkeley and Anthony Boucher, whom I’d fairly recently re-read when I started my re-reading-athon.

    This first pile is sorted to rotate between the authors, but has been re-arranged from time to time. For example, when I started three years ago, Ellery Queen was not in the pile because I remembered too many of his books, but after a year and a half I decided to include them anyway. 🙂 Anyway, at the moment I’m reading Patrick Quentin’s “Puzzle for Fiends”, which will be followed by Robert Player’s “Ingenious Mr Stone”.

    But of course that’s just pile no. 1 (though it is the biggest one by far, around 60-70 books left).

    Piles no. 2 and 3 consist of new books. These could obviously be just one pile, but I want to separate my mystery fiction from my SF/fantasy, so that’s two different piles. These are regularly reshuffled as I buy new stuff. They are more or less sorted in order of interest – most interesting books towards the end, natch. Which means that Ellery Queen’s collection of scripts “The Adventure of the Murdered Moths” has been residing in this pile for around 10 years, or however long it’s been since its release date.

    When deciding what to read from piles 2 or 3, I try to alternate as much as possible, first a mystery, then a speculative fiction novel, and then back to mysteries. But since the mystery pile is bigger, that doesn’t always work. There’s around 20-30 mystery novels in pile 2, and around 15 SF/fantasy novels in pile 3. At the moment, I’m reading Simon Brett’s “The Hanging in the Hotel”, and I don’t quite know what will follow. Probably something by Arthur C. Clarke or Robert Heinlein.

    Yes, I read two novels concurrently. Sometimes three. It brings variation, I find.

    But remember how I said “or more” in the beginning? Because of course there is more. For the last few months I’ve been re-reading Edward D. Hoch’s short story collections. After all, it’s easy to read a short story every now and then. But I’m down to the last two Dr Sam Hawthorne collections now, so who knows? Maybe there won’t be a pile 4 in a few weeks…

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      1. To be honest, it’s more like 6 or 7 piles, because the books have to fit lying down in my shelves… But I will never dip into a later pile, all books I read have to come from the top of the first of these piles.

        Let’s say each pile is around 30 cm high, with about a dozen books in each pile.

        Perhaps it should also be mentioned that each author’s works are in chronological order in the re-read pile. Yes, I am somewhat OCD, but at the same time it eliminates all concerns about having to space out the “good ones”. Instead I’ll have to bite the bullet towards the end of the pile and just bear it that there are a lot of bad-ish Carrs and Queens to come.

        With some luck I might have finished the whole shebang sometime next year. I’m not sure what I’ll do then, but I’m fairly certain that a re-read of Christie will be high on the wishlist by then. And perhaps Dick Francis’s thrillers. Ooh, I’m already looking forward to that… 🙂

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  6. Great write up, and really interesting to hear your approach to getting through Carr’s oeuvre.
    I am personally go with a mixture of intuition/whimsy and recommendation, though I have come to think they are often one and the same. For example I had other books on the TBR, but just recently found Berkeley’s Poisoned Chocolates Case, British crime classic edition, second hand. And having heard so much about it over the last year, I was so intrigued and decided to jump straight in.

    I think it’s strange how books get hot and cold on the pile, sometimes I am just overwhelmed to read something, and then it goes.
    Sometimes I am just not up for reading anything at all. But then often, even these whimsey’s turn out to be falsehoods and once you get started you are in.

    That makes me think of the idea of having a sense of a book from reading about it, or a feeling from it – literally judging a book by it’s cover. This often draws me to something, and I build warm feelings to a book or writer that I don’t even really know anything about, and find myself respecting them/they/it. But then read the book and it’s awful, and then the other way around as well.

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    1. Your last paragraph is a good summary of my obsession with my stack. It is those preconceived notions about the books that you draw on from their internet reputation, their place in the writer’s career, even the cover. The romanticized notion of both the story and the mystery, whether fully justified on not.

      Take The Problem of the Wire Cage for example. Reviewers seem to hate it. Yet it came out in 1939 – the same year as The Problem of the Green Capsule, and part of a jaw dropping streak for Carr. How can it not be a vintage Carr footprints mystery, even if it may fall flat with the solution? Plus, I have a gorgeous 1948 Bantam pocket edition. I honestly can’t wait to read it!

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      1. I actually think it’s the fact that “Wire Cage” is from the height of Carr’s powers that makes some reviewers find extra fault with it – in comparison to the other novels surrounding it, there are some obvious weaknesses in the solution.

        However, it was the first Carr novel I read, so in my heart it will always hold a special place. Yes, I too can see that the solution is somewhat far-fetched, but the rest of the book makes up for it. In some ways it’s also one of Carr’s most “normal” mysteries. There is certainly an impossible crime, but at the same time there’s still many aspects that connect it tighter with the offerings of other mystery writers (by which I mean Christie et al). Some of Carr’s 40s novels are arguably even more “normal” mysteries, but I think “Wire Cage” may be his first venture into this area after having produced several very dense, very tightly plotted books.

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      2. I was curious when Carr’s “normal mystery” trend started, and just this morning I was theorizing it might be with Wire Cage (yes, I spend my time thinking about such things). The Reader is Warned and Green Capsule fall into the realm of his tenser earlier works. The Man Who Could Not Shudder and Seeing is Believing seem to lean more towards the “normal” style mystery. So, I could tell that the transition must occur somewhere in the 1939-1940 vicinity.

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