A year with John Dickson Carr

When I started The Green Capsule a year ago, I had no anticipation on what lay before me.  I had no real intention of starting a dedicated blog or where I might take it.  My aim was narrow – to figure out which John Dickson Carr books I should read before I turned my attention to something else.

At the time, I’d read 12 Carr novel – not many, although quite a run it had been.  The Problem of the Green Capsule, The Judas Window, The Emperor’s Snuff Box, She Died a Lady, He Who Whispers.  These are the typical “classics” that I had experienced, but more important was that next tier.  Stories like The White Priory Murders, The Red Widow Murders, Hag’s Nook, The Reader is Warned.  It was this second tier of books that provided a glimmer of just how solid Carr’s library could be.

caseofconstantsuicidesOf course, I had done my fair share of GAD blog reading by then in an attempt to unravel which of the ~70 titles to read next.  I was tantalized by the promise of agreed upon hits like The Crooked Hinge, Till Death Do Us Part, and The Case of the Constant Suicides.  Other titles didn’t get much mention at all – The Witch of the Low Tide, To Wake the Dead, Death in Five Boxes, to list just a few.  Then there were the ones that everyone seemed to detest – The Hungry Goblin, Deadly Hall, Seeing is Believing.  Apparently not everything Carr wrote was good.

That presented a bit of a challenge for me.  Not wanting to *gasp* waste my time biting into a sour title, I became fixated on which titles I should read.  It’s a silly notion looking back, but I reasoned that if I could order the titles from best to worst, I could just work my way down until I hit a dud.  At that point, I’d be out and move on to whatever lay next.

That’s not to say that I needed a definitive order of best to worst – such things are bound to be subjective after all.  Categorization would due just fine – the classics, the highly recommended, the recommended, and the commonly criticized.  I could simply avoid the last category, and then pick and choose from the first three at my leisure.

The problem was my research wasn’t perfect, and I had exposed an additional category – the middle ground.  These were the books that didn’t garner as much mention in blogs and forums, and rarely made a “best of” or “worst of” list.  The problem of the middle ground was that it was big.  For all I knew, it was littered with both gems and disappointments.  I needed help.

Having already been reading several bloggers on WordPress, it seemed like a natural place to seek guidance.  I could just sign up for an account and post some questions in the comments of a seemingly appropriate JDC review.  Well…but…my question was rather involved – this was going to take an essay to ask correctly.  In that, The Green Capsule was born, and a series of posts were created with my narrow focus in mind.

A funny thing happened a few weeks after I started posting.  Multiple people referenced my site, mentioning that I was a blogger who had set forth to read every John Dickson Carr title and post the results.  Uh, no, that’s kind of the exact opposite of what I was trying to do – in fact, I was trying to figure out what not to read.  But, challenge accepted – it sounded kind of fun.  I didn’t know if I would actually follow through with it, but by that time my Carr library was growing higher and higher on the back of some bulk purchases.

fireburnThere were a few key tipping points along the way.  The first was my accidental deviation from the more popular books when I picked up Fire, Burn, mistaking the title for The Burning Court.  Although the story was relatively light on impossible mystery by Carr’s standards, I absolutely loved it.  In Fire, Burn, I learned that I thoroughly enjoy Carr’s story telling and writing style, regardless of the puzzle

Soon after came a recommendation from JJ at The Invisible EventDeath Watch.  This book receives its fair share of criticism and I originally had the sense that it was a title I should avoid.  Instead my read was rewarded with what has become one of my favorite Fell stories.  Although a seemingly straight forward murder mystery, Carr winds the puzzle tighter and tighter until it unravels into a nest of misdirection.

deathwatch2What I experienced with Death Watch came to be a pattern – the supposed bad Carr titles were actually quite good – Below Suspicion, Seeing is Believing, and one of my favorites – The Problem of the Wire Cage.  Even Carr’s final novel, The Hungry Goblin, supposedly a prime example of his waning skills in his later years, was actually a fun read.

By now, my original thesis has been shattered.  Or has it?  There are definitely top tier books – fitting fairly neatly with what I had originally identified in my Classics, Highly Recommended, and Recommended categories.  These are the books that I’d lend to a friend who doesn’t have any exposure to the genre of locked room mysteries or GAD.  Perhaps these could be better labeled The Essentials.  It’s a deeper category than I thought – I’d probably push an additional ten or so books into it – The Problem of the Wire Cage, The Witch of the Low Tide, Hag’s Nook, The Bowstring Murders – just to list a few.

And of course, there are some Carr books that I didn’t enjoy as much.  Night at Mocking Widow is the only one that I actually disliked.  The Lost Gallows wasn’t that great, although it had some strong thriller elements at the end.  My Late Wives started out with an intriguing plot that seemed like a GAD dream come true, but it somewhat lost my interest after I immediately saw the solution.  But this is just three books out of forty I’ve read, which is a pretty amazing hit rate.

CaptainCutThroat3There is still a swath of books that I wouldn’t quite call essential, yet they’re far from bad.  In fact, they’re quite good and I’d recommend pretty much all of them.  Captain Cut Throat, The Gilded Man, To Wake the Dead – many others will attest that these are all excellent reads.  I wouldn’t suggest that anyone start with these titles, but if you never read them, you’re missing out.

I still have another 30 Carr books to go, so who knows how this will all turn out.  I’m sure I’ll provide some final categories when I’ve finally completed my run.

Of course, there are a lot of other authors to enjoy along the way.  In the past six months I’ve expanded my horizons in a way that I never would have anticipated.  If you had told me a year ago that I’d be enjoying Agatha Christie, I would have shook my head and laughed.  My preconceived notions have all been, err, poorly conceived.

A fun way to look back at the results of the past year are through the statistics that WordPress provides.  I have to laugh that for a Carr-leaning blog, my highest viewed articles are for anything but Carr.  Every post that I’ve done for Christie, Ellery Queen, or Christianna Brand dwarfs my Carr posts when it comes to views.  Perhaps that’s a telltale sign of where people’s interests lie today.

lostgallowsAnd then there is one statistic that perplexes me more than any other.  My review of The Lost Gallows (a book that I wasn’t even that crazy about) has nearly twice the views as any of my other Carr posts.  I have no idea why this would be, but it receives a fairly steady stream of traffic.

I’m curious to see where I’ll be this time next year.  At my current rate, I may well have depleted my JDC stock.  Although I look very much forward to the actual process of doing so, I realize that there will be an empty satisfaction in the end when I have nothing more to look forward to.  Well, that’s not quite true.  My non-Carr To Be Read pile grows higher and higher, with authors like Anthony Berkley, Kelley Roos, Clayton Rawson, and Henry Wade.  Plus, I have this really big stack of Ellery Queen

I’ll end this with a look back at some of my favorite moments with Carr over the past year.  These are moments that I have to think would resonate with other readers, although I’d love to hear what stood out for you.

  • The Problem of the Green Capsule – the scene where “Mr Nemo” creeps into the room and murders a man in front of a fixated audience had the hair on the back of my neck on end.  Possibly Carr’s most chilling moment.
  • The White Priory Murders – the moment that the solution to this footprints-in-the-snow murder struck me may be my favorite revelation of all time.
  • It Walks By Night – feverishly flipping back through the book to look at the map after reading the solution and then staring in disbelief as a wave of awe mixed with rage swept over my body.
  • The Ten Teacups – the detective watching outside the room when the impossible shooting occurs.  The setup just seemed so air tight that I couldn’t imagine how it could have been accomplished.
  • The Red Widow Murders – the horrifying revelation midway through the novels that explained one of the key mysteries in this locked room thriller.
  • The Red Widow Murders – the French Revolution passage came as such an unexpected jolt as I was thrust back in time, wondering how it would all tie back to the present day crime.
  • The Unicorn Murders – actually solving one of Carr’s most brilliant impossibilities mere pages after it took place, and still enjoying the hell out of the rest of the book.
  • The Emperor’s Snuff Box – the “I didn’t see that coming” moment at the end, followed by scrambling back to read a certain passage.
  • The Corpse in the Waxworks – perhaps my favorite example of Carr dangling a clue right in the reader’s face.
  • She Died a Lady – the final chapter will forever haunt me.
  • The Bowstring Murders – the passage with the dictaphone is Carr’s humor at its best.
  • Captain Cut Throat – the field of balloons.  Enough said.
  • The Lost Gallows – the harrowing scene in the dark attic.
  • Death Watch – Dr Fell’s speech at the end.  All of it.
  • The Plague Court Murders – Hard to phrase this without spoilers – “the final moment” for a certain character.
  • The Burning Court – the shear avalanche of craziness at the end of the novel.

10 thoughts on “A year with John Dickson Carr”

  1. Firstly, congratulations on a year of excellent blogging — I may not have agreed with your initial approach, but it’s been fascinating to see your expectations play out or be overturned. I don’t have the sort of mind that can deal with too much of an author in too short a time (seven or eight a year is my limit), but I’ve loved reading about your concentrated focus on Carr’s various levels of success.

    Secondly, don’t worry about what comes next: plenty of Chrisite, Berkeley, Queen (yeah, my heart sinks a little at that, too…), also Patricia Moyes being reprinted, and you’ve yet to discover the joys of Norman Berrow and Rupert Penny, Freeman Wills Crofts, the British Library Crime Classics, the Coachwhip publications, Locked Room International…Ben, this is a wonderful time for those of us into this sort of thing!

    Thanks for providing such great conversation and debate; I really look forward to what the next year brings.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. JJ, your blog was a definite inspiration, and not just the reviews. I spent plenty of time devouring your “Five to Try” posts and they definitely influenced my reading habits. Thank you for engaging in the discussions and debates – that’s the best part, after all!


  2. I’ll echo JJ’s congratulations on your first year of blogging and wish you many more to come. I’m one of the people who mistakenly assumed that your purpose was to read your way through Carr — I hope I’ve influenced you in that direction, because you bring a fresh eye and a great enthusiasm that is very enjoyable to share. I’ve read them all, and enjoy hearing what you think of them all!
    I read my first JDC title about — OMG, it was nearly 50 years ago. I remember to this day the delight I took from The Red Widow Murders that started me off on a long career of obsessive-compulsive disorder 😉 and you brought a lot of it back for me. Had we had blogging back then, I would have been doing exactly the same thing you are today. So thanks and keep going!!


  3. And TRWM is one that I have not read, nor White Priory or Unicorn, and you have become an interesting guide because you are relatively new to the mystery game (and because I love the way you write.) Congratulations, Ben! I can’t wait to see your take on some of my favorite authors. I’m sure we’ll disagree on some and revel in others- all part of why I joined the blogosphere!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Congratulations on having had the patience to tolerate our presence for an entire year and hope you can stand us a little while longer, because, as a JDC fanboy, I enjoyed your consistent reviews of Carr’s work. So here’s to twelve more months.

    Please tell me that one of the Kelley Roos titles on your TBR-pile is The Frightened Stiff! Arguably one of the best mysteries that was brought back into print by the now defunct Rue Morgue Press. Read it as soon as humanly possible!


    1. I do indeed have The Frightened Stiff, although I had been intending to read Sailor Take Warning first. Consider that plan changed. I somehow got Dell mapbacks for both books really cheap.


  5. Thanks for all the blog posts. 🙂 Your blog has been my source of encouragement for trying out hitertho overlooked or unfavourably reviewed titles. In particular, I tried out ‘Unicorn Murders’ and ‘Below Suspicion’ at your recommendation, and I think I’ll try out ‘Wire Cage’ and ‘Seeing is Believing’ too.

    Liked by 1 person

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