Five books to read before they’re spoiled for you – John Dickson Carr edition

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.

emperorssnuffboxThe Emperor’s Snuff Box

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…).

MyLateWivesMy Late Wives

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.

bronzelampThe 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.

seeingisbelievingSeeing is Believing

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.

burningcourtThe Burning Court

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.

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24 thoughts on “Five books to read before they’re spoiled for you – John Dickson Carr edition”

  1. Interestingly I’ve not read any of these five, though Snuff-Box is probably imminent following a few duff books on the bounce, so I’ve skimmed even what you’ve written above lest it contain too much detail for my liking! I always think it’s best to avoid too much detail in my own comments (unless a book is awful and people need to be warned off, which I don’t think ever applies to Carr) but I’m with you on wondering how things will be interpreted…sometimes I think that in trying to avoid something I might even make it obvious! Gaaah!

    Of course the really tricky thing is when an author spoils their own books in later books — Carr does this for The Man Who Could Not Shudder by mentioning in Constant Suicides something of key importance in that earlier book. The only possible way around this is to do them all in order…by which I mean all the books you’ll ever read — pick a library for life and stick to it!

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    1. Well, the alternative title for the post was “JJ’s reading list for the next month”. This entire write up was part of my secret plan to incentivize you to finally read The Emperor’s Snuff Box and The Burning Court. The rest were cleverly planted red herrings.

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      1. Funnily enough I haven’t read any of these 5 either! Although I have almost all of them having recently found a copy of the Bronze Lamp. I also have the cover of My Late Wives. Thanks for this, so excited to start on this lot. So much Carr so little time!!

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      2. Uh…you haven’t read The Burning Court or The Emperor’s Snuff Box yet? I mean, I know JJ’s slacking, but really, you’ve got to get to this stuff. Honestly, I love pretty much all of the JDC works that I’ve read, and it would be really hard to assemble a top 20, much less a top 10. I’m fairly certain both of these titles will be on that list.

        As for My Late Wives: it could have been great. I gobbled up the first 1/3 of the book and then I just wasn’t really feeling it, although it remained a decent enough read.

        Seeing is Believing is one of the great unappreciated works in my opinion. It’s not flawless, but it comes from that time in Carr’s career when the plots really had a punch. It may have come up short, but he sprinted towards the finish line full tilt. This is a heavily divisive book, and I’d love nothing more than to read more opinions on it.

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  2. I certainly have that edition of My Late Wives and I didn’t even realize that it contained a spoiler until someone pointed it out to me . But now years and years later, every time I think of that book, no matter which edition I’m holding, I always remember that one.
    People should be aware that Wikipedia’s policy is fairly firmly, “No spoiler warnings.” As someone put it, “People come to Wikipedia to get information and we should not be trying to frustrate them from getting it easily.” I have to agree, but it can be disconcerting if you aren’t aware of their policy in advance.

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    1. I for one really appreciate the availability of spoilers and the like on Wikipedia. Though you’ve made me realise that I don’t read anything about a book I’m likely to read myself “properly” when I first find stuff online — I always skim heavily, then tentatively sweep, then make a decision about whether there’s too much there to risk…dammit, no wonder I spend so much time online when I’m reading everything four times to varying levels of depth! I still haven’t gotten over the first review of Rupert Penny’s Sealed Room Murder I ever encountered effectively telling me how the locked room stabbings was done…

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      1. I know exactly what you’re talking about – that perilous moment of decision about whether or not to read further. And it isn’t even necessarily that you’re going to be exposed to a solution. There’s also the question of whether or not you want to learn that much about the plot.

        I experienced that with Noah’s recent post on The Dutch Shoe Mystery. I could see that there was a lot of fun commentary for me to take in, but I also wanted to avoid learning too much about the story.

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      2. As a rule, I try to not even read the publisher-provided synopsis. Some of the people who write those things very clearly do not know where “tempting” stops and “spoiling” begins…

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      3. The back cover of my Dell copy of Christianna Brand’s Fog of Doubt features three brief snippets of newspaper reviews. One of them reveals a key plot point about why the victim was killed and another exposes a twist in how the solution unfolds.

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  3. I actually had The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, of all things, spoiled for me… (Yes, I know it’s not Carr, but stick with me.)

    [SPOILERS for Roger Ackroyd!]

    When I finally got around to reading it, my first Christie, I got confused because I assumed that you-know-who was Poirot’s regular sidekick. So I convinced myself that I must have mistaken the book, and was just as blindsided by the twist as the rest of the human race. So a happy ending, then.

    [END SPOILERS]

    As far as JDC goes, I’d say the absolute one not to have spoiled is probably the obvious choice, The Hollow Man/The Three Coffins. The solution is repeated in so many places that it’s difficult not to find it, but–if it is spoiled–it loses part (not all, but part) of its charm. The Burning Court, certainly. And possibly The Crooked Hinge, as its solution can be summarized so succinctly?

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    1. I’ve skipped your spoilers for The Murder of Roger Ackroyd because I haven’t read it yet, although I did have the book spoiled by none other than Carr himself in The Man Who Could Not Shudder. That was frustrating because I had TMoRA sitting right there on my TBR pile as my first Christie, and then that just got blown away.

      As for The Hollow Man – I foolishly spoiled this one for myself. When I first heard of the genre of locked room mysteries, I was curious and I sought out a few plot summaries to see how they were done. What a mistake!

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      1. Ah, too bad!

        Sorry about the spoilers. I certainly wouldn’t want someone’s enjoyment of a book spoiled by my description of how it was spoiled for me!

        The great thing is that there are still good points about both books even if one knows the central twist. That’s one characteristic on which Christie, Queen, and Carr have, say, Paul Halter beat[en], in my opinion…

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  4. Seeing is Believing should be read after the 1930s Carter Dicksons. Carr casually gives away the solutions to a few books, including The Reader is Warned.

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    1. Interesting – I read this one about 8 months ago and I don’t recall it including any spoilers for Carr’s other books, although I do recall general references. She Died a Lady contains a number of references to other Merrivale mysteries, although I recall that they’re worded in a general enough sense that they don’t give away the solution.

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      1. I have the 1966 Berkely Medallion pictured in my review of the book. After I read your comment, I looked it over and noticed that it doesn’t mention anything about being unabridged. I hope I didn’t read a truncated story – I have a whole set of that run of Carter Dickson books.

        I’m mainly surprised by your comment because I would have thought I would call something like that out in my review of the book.

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    2. Ah, Arthur Robinson’s comment below keyed me in on the right chapter and I found the reference. I probably hadn’t noticed because Merrivale merely says the names of the killers, Carr doesn’t include a footnote referencing which books they’re from. All of these character names blur together for me after a while so I didn’t pick up on it.

      You had me panicked that I was reading abridged editions of books. I just started Captain Cut-throat this morning and out of the three copies that I have, I made certain to start an edition that was explicitly marked as unabridged.

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  5. Commenting on detective stories is difficult; I try not to spoil (unless I can use the “spoiler” function that the Golden Age Mysteries forum had), but sometimes I realize later that I’ve probably given away too much. I remember reading an interview in which Edmund Crispin said that a certain book had a brilliant surprise ending that was completely fair. I got the book, and guessed the solution on the first page. If I hadn’t known it had a trick ending, I might not have figured it out (I hadn’t read the author before and had had the impression this author stressed characterization and suspense rather than plot twists).

    Also, what shouldn’t be spoiled? I assume the murderer’s identity, or the trick to an impossible crime, or an unusual twist, are sacrosanct. But once in a comment on THE MAN WHO COULD NOT SHUDDER I mentioned a certain act Fell performed near the end of the book which didn’t, in my opinion, reveal or even hint at any of these things. But I suspect this is what JJ refers to above. What about things that don’t reveal the solution, but might come as surprises to new readers? When I commented on TILL DEATH DO US PART, I didn’t hint at the twist in Chapter 10 (halfway through the book), but did mention the bombshell at the end of Chapter 3—which my paperback edition revealed on the back, convincing me to buy this book (my first Carr—he was on my list of authors to be read, but so were other authors I still haven’t read, so without this giveaway, I might never have got to Carr).

    I read Carr in the pre-Internet age, so the only books of his that were spoiled for me were the ones he spoiled himself. In Chapter 10 of SEEING IS BELIEVING, he actually names the murderers or accomplices in three books (THE PLAGUE COURT MURDERS, THE TEN TEACUPS/THE PEACOCK FEATHER MURDERS, THE READER IS WARNED. [I see now that Nick Fuller has mentioned this.] Also, in Chapter 6 of PATRICK BUTLER FOR THE DEFENCE, he spoils the previous Patrick Butler mystery, BELOW SUSPICION. The prospective reader is warned.

    THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD was one of the first detective novels I read, so I didn’t know the “rules.” I actually suspected the correct person early, but dismissed that person when a later fact emerged.

    By the way, I too think SEEING IS BELIEVING is underappreciated. I dislike what I consider the cheat (but I figured out what Carr was up to so it didn’t bother me as much as it might have), and I think the “impossibility” is ludicrous, but it’s still a great read.

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    1. I can guess what act by Dr Fell you’re referring to in TMWCNS. I wouldn’t consider that a spoiler, but it certainly is a fun surprise when it happens, and knowing beforehand might tone down some of the tension regarding the mechanism. Of course, Fell himself mentions this act in a later book – either The Case of the Constant Suicides, Panic in Box, C or Below Suspicion.

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  6. BURNING COURT is surely the one that has suffered the worst in this regard – and deep down, I think reviewers do it on purpose because it is one hell of a way to kick-start a conversation! My suspicion is that books that rely on certain gimmicks as part of the murder method (for example, CROOKED HINGE or HE WOULDN’T KILL PATIENCE and of course HOLLOW MAN) are the most likely to get spoiled directly or indirectly. Ultimately we should all post on books that were unfortunately spoiled before we read them – though, of course, one would have to avoid, er, spoilers … 😉

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