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.
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 The 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?