If there’s anything that I enjoy as much as reading GAD works, it’s reading about them. I can’t resist – if only because my phone goes with me when the books don’t. It’s that desire to discover the unknown – the story I haven’t heard of or the familiar title that I didn’t realize I need to read. The blogging community makes it all too easy. Type the name of a book/author into a search engine and maybe narrow the search to WordPress or Blogspot and you’re guaranteed hours of slack-jawed enjoyment.
Of course, the blog posts are only part of it. The comments are almost better – the debates on fair play, the piles of recommendations, and best of all, the merciless criticism. When a review of The Unicorn Murders spirals into a defense of Below Suspicion, and a post on The Emperor’s Snuff Box leads to a dissection of the merits of The White Priory Murders vs The Plague Court Murders, that’s when I’m in my element.
Unfortunately, there’s a danger in all of this – the careless comment, always innocent, that risks ruining a puzzle. I’ve had it happen a few times, I hate to say. I’ll be reading along, cautious for any language that hints of spoiler, and then wham! My eyes flick away instantly, but my brain has processed what they saw. I tell myself that I’ll forget, but unfortunately that just doesn’t happen.
Having a solution spoiled hurts. Most of these GAD works are about 200 pages, and the trick to the puzzle is that tasty morsel that lures us along the entire way. You can still enjoy an impossible crime while knowing the ultimate trick, but a key aspect of the allure is gone. Plus, we only get so many works by any given author, so having a title diminished is a painful loss.
The easy solution is to stay away from reviews of books that you haven’t read. Even that isn’t foolproof. Recently I was skimming through the comments of a post on an unrelated author when I encountered a spoiler for a Carter Dickson novel. The commenter was making a comparison on the trick that the author had used for the puzzle and unfortunately they stated things a bit too plainly.
Of course, a spoiler doesn’t have to be a flagrant explanation of how a trick was worked or who committed the act. Simply categorizing books by solution or making an analogy can be dangerous if a reader has only read one of the titles. For example, if I were to say that a book employed a solution similar to Hag’s Nook, that would clue many readers in to exactly the type of misdirection to watch out for.
For these reasons, I often find myself second guessing how my own writing will be interpreted. Is it safe to say that a story has an extremely well hidden killer? That comment could apply to most Carr novels – at least given my track record of rarely spotting the culprit. But if I were to really emphasize that a certain title has an especially well hidden villain, does that put the reader on guard to automatically suspect the very least likely of suspects? Well, any well read fan of GAD is probably doing that already, but such a comment may cause an extra layer of scrutiny on particular characters.
Some books, it seems, are spoiled more easily than others. Or, perhaps, more often than others. There are a few titles where it seems people can’t resist making a few reckless observations or hinting at a particular sensitive element of the puzzle. And so, in the hope of saving some poor soul, I offer a list of five John Dickson Carr books that you should hurry to read before they’re accidentally spoiled for you.
A woman witnesses the murder of an elderly antique collector across the street, but circumstances twist to find her to be the object of suspicion. This 1942 non-series Carr comes from the peak of his career and features a fervent pace and a twist so violent that the book should come with a safety warning.
I’ve never actually seen this one spoiled, but I can imagine it happening with an innocent comment. That would be a shame, as it’s a staple in Carr top 10 lists. I call this one out because it truly is one of the author’s classics and I weep for anyone who doesn’t get to experience it fully (plus, I needed a fifth book for this list…).
A man makes a habit of marrying and murdering women. By the time the police catch on to him, he vanishes, and the case goes cold. Eleven years later, the script for a play about the murderer’s crimes is given to a well known actor. There’s one problem – whoever wrote the play included details that only the killer could have known.
There’s an interesting bit of trivia involving a specific edition of this book that would be fun to comment on, but it reveals an aspect of the solution. Unfortunately I had read a few reviews that alluded to the trivia and put two and two together. Upon finally reading the book, my suspicions were verified as I quickly saw through some seemingly innocent clues.
Did it ruin the story? No. Fortunately Carr’s mysteries are deep enough that having one dimension exposed doesn’t spoil the book or even the entire puzzle. The element that was ruined wasn’t even very clever at all, although not knowing would have added some mystique to the plot.
The Curse of the Bronze Lamp
I’ve seen a number of comments in blogs that reveal the core solution to the puzzle of this 1945 Merrivale story, and worst of all, they were on posts that weren’t even related to the author, much less the book. This is one of those cases of me attempting to stop reading mid-sentence – the key to the mystery is that swiftly revealed.
I haven’t read this title yet, but I can’t fathom how knowing the revealed element isn’t going to destroy the core puzzle. This story came out in the vicinity of She Died a Lady, He Wouldn’t Kill Patience, Till Death Do Us Part, and He Who Whispers, so I’m banking on enough compelling plot beyond the marquee murder for me to experience some of the good reputation that it has.
Murder by hypnotism. A man is stabbed to death by his wife while she’s hypnotized. Did she knowingly commit murder, or did someone somehow switch the rubber knife used for the exhibition with a real one – despite the weapon being kept in constant view of the audience?
Pretty much every review of this book that I’ve read includes a complaint about a supposed cheat that Carr employs. I suppose that’s understandable to a degree – we all like fair play and there are certain rules we expect an author to abide by. In this case, I side with Carr and consider the “cheat” to be completely fair. Regardless, most reviews describe the “cheat” in such a manner that a reader will immediately spot it when it occurs. Unfortunately, the trick builds the foundation of the core mystery, meaning that once you catch onto it, you can decipher some key plot points.
This classic era non-series Carr title features multiple impossible crimes – a body vanished from a sealed tomb and a killer who can walk through walls. On top of that you get one of those plots where everything just comes together perfectly to create an experience – reminiscent of Till Death Do Us Part and The Crooked Hinge. As enjoyable as the entire story is, it’s best known for an earth shattering finale that lets loose one epic revelation after another.
Boy, people are just foaming at the mouth to spoil this one. It’s hard for me to read any comment regarding this book without wincing at the tightrope that’s being walked. It’s not that anyone is intentionally trying to reveal things – this is just one of those books where bringing it up when certain topics are being discussed seems dangerous. Fortunately, I think you could have the vulnerable twist spoiled and you’d still be in for an enjoyable ride and some head spinning revelations.
So, what about your experience? Have you had any titles accidentally ruined for you, Carr or otherwise? Are there any titles that you’ve noticed are particularly susceptible to a spoiler? I’ll throw out Gaston Leroux’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room as an obvious conversation starter. John Dickson Carr spoils this one in The Witch of the Low Tide, and it seems that it’s considered widely enough read that it’s key twist is a “type of solution” that people will fling around openly.