Dark of the Moon – John Dickson Carr (1968)

“Dark of the moon, I think?”

darkofthemoonThe final Dr Fell novel (or Carr series novel for that matter), Dark of the Moon was published two years after Panic in Box C.  Both books enjoy somewhat of a soiled reputation, viewed as the tail end of the downward arc that the author’s writing took in the later years of his career.  Truth be told, I somewhat enjoyed Panic in Box C.  Yes, it rambled here and there, and Fell was a reduced to a caricature of a formerly great character.  Yes, there was an unforgivable hole in the solution.  But it was interesting enough.  As far as Carr goes, I’d give it a C (ooh, ooh, I feel a joke coming).  Seriously though – for all the nightmares that I had of a truly bad Carr title, Panic in Box C wasn’t it (that honor is reserved for Night at the Mocking Widow).

Dark of the Moon picks up right after Panic in Box C and makes a number of references to the previous story – although nothing spoiler related or so important enough to necessitate reading in order.  The setting has moved south across the eastern seaboard from New York and Connecticut to South Carolina, where Carr spent his later years.  Set on an island at the mouth of the Charleston harbor, Dark of the Moon has an entrenched southern feel.  Perhaps it’s that I read it while on a trip to New Orleans, but I could feel the humidity and hear the southern drawls in each page.

Unfortunately, this is a bit of a bad one – a fact that I need to make clear because it affects the way that I’ll summarize the plot.  I could give you the back of the book jacket version –  the mystery of a man found bludgeoned to death on a span of untouched sand – but really that comes so far into a garbled plot that it doesn’t seem right.  Instead, I offer you this:

Dr Fell is called urgently to South Carolina by wealthy Henry Maynard because….well…I don’t know.  Something was worrying Maynard, or something like that, but by the time Fell arrives, it seems to have cleared up.  Yet, there have been some weird occurrences at the sprawling southern manor.  A scarecrow has been stolen from a garden.  Someone may or may not have been seen standing outside the house late one night.  A tomahawk has been stolen from a weapons room.  Someone unknown was seen talking to Maynard’s daughter.

Well, there you have it, that’s about the first 90 pages.  Dr Fell hears about all of these going ons and bellows constantly that he’s very worried.  Characters storm about acting as if something mysterious is happening, but as a reader, I just didn’t have anything that interesting to latch on to.

Carr pads things out with a firehose of trivia – a technique that works wonders when woven seamlessly into his post 1950’s historical novels, but feels out of place in “modern day” tales such as Dark of the Moon and Panic in Box C.  We get a history of the various forts around Charleston, trivia on the Civil War, an unnecessary sequence about baseball, a character constantly spouting limericks about the newspaper industry.  Anything but a real solid mystery to bite into.

There is a glimmer of interest sprinkled through the first third of the book – a few references to the mystery of “the thing that follows but leaves no trace”.  You see, the Maynards have a long history in South Carolina.  In 1698, a relative was found dead on the island with the right side of his head battered in, as if by a tomahawk.  “His own footprints, only his, were in the soft mud roundabout.”  Years later, in 1867, another relative is found dead under similar circumstance – the right side of his head bashed in and 30 feet of untouched sand in every direction.

And so, it comes as no surprise when Henry Maynard is found dead in the exact same way.  Well, it did come as a surprise because I was 90 pages in and wondering if there was ever going to actually be a crime.  There is, and it’s a good one.  Maynard’s body is found lying on a terrace in front of his mansion.  The right side of his head is crushed in and he’s surrounded by damp sand touched only by his own footprints.

Ok, this I can live with happily – a classic footprints impossibility, amplified by the ghost of similar crimes of the distant past.  Thankfully, Carr doesn’t squander the situation, giving ample focus to just how puzzling the circumstances are and ruling out a number of possible solutions.

Unfortunately by the time the crime occurred, I was somewhat fatigued by all of the filler in the first portion of the book, and I had difficulty switching modes to critically spotting the relevant information.  That’s the trick with these Carr books, right?  You have to pay attention to every last word and seemingly unimportant nuance, and that’s difficult to do when you’re reading a 250 page book that feels like it should have been about 180.

Although the story picks up after the murder, there’s still some of the mess of the beginning spread throughout the remaining pages.  Characters are constantly huffing about, fetching Dr Fell for what ultimately turns out to be a non-issue.  Most chapters end in a seeming cliff hanger that is then cleared up in the first paragraph of the subsequent chapter as “oh, nothing to be worried about, never mind.”  And, unfortunately, Carr has started to describe scenes through forced dialogue to the effect of “You see this door towards the front, in the middle of a long blank wall?” – a habit he carried with him through his final novel, The Hungry Goblin.

And then the final 40 pages happen.

I don’t want to oversell you on this.  I accept that I had slogged through 210 pages of mediocrity studded with a few gems here and there.  My mind was hungry for substance.  It got it.

Seemingly out of nowhere, Carr drops an absolute jaw dropper of a revelation.  The kind that makes your mind instantly play back over the last 200 pages of garbled plot and realize that it all made sense.  It was all relevant.

Talk about feeling conflicted.  As much as I’ve ragged on the first 4/5 of the book, I didn’t hate it.  I’d maybe drop it a step below Panic in Box C – Dark of the Moon rambled a lot more, but it had a much more intriguing impossible crime.  Still, it was mediocre Carr and a book destined for the bottom 10.  And so here I was, all ready to rip into it, and then the end just shocked me.  I don’t even know what to say.

I’m not going to tell you that Dark of the Moon has a Top 10 Carr solution – not by a long shot.  But it does a special thing that only some of his books accomplish.  Carr somehow provides that one sentence that makes your brain suddenly put together a number of puzzle pieces that you didn’t even know were lying in front of you.

Don’t go rush out and read this one.  If you’re not really into Carr, maybe you shouldn’t ever read it.  But it would be sad if you didn’t get to experience that ending.

I have some more to say, but I have to reserve it for spoilers.  If you’ve read this one, please be sensitive with your comments below so that we don’t spoil things for others.

Spoilers

I figured out who the daughter’s secret lover was about midway through the book.  Nothing really clued me in, it just struck me that if I ruled out the obvious contenders, there was someone…err…obvious.  Of course, the secret lover didn’t have to be the killer, although I kind of assumed that might be the case.

In case it isn’t clear, the revelation that I loved was Henry Maynard’s secret.  That one I didn’t seem coming at all.  In skimming some reviews of the book after my read, I unfortunately learned that this plot twist is shared by another author’s book – a book that I haven’t read.  Hopefully that one isn’t ruined for me, but I suspect it might be.  Anyway, please don’t mention the other author or title directly in the comments.

The trick to Henry Maynard’s murder was ok, although it really could have benefited from a diagram.  I’m 95% sure that I understand how it worked out, but a sketch would have helped.

The outcome of the historical murders was disappointing.  We don’t get any explanation for the one in 1698.  The solution to the 1867 one was a total let down.  Yeah, I found the comment about the seaweed to be weird when it was mentioned, but really?!?!?!

End Spoilers

Advertisements

12 thoughts on “Dark of the Moon – John Dickson Carr (1968)”

  1. I’ll admit that it has been a VERY LONG TIME since I read this one. The grown-up me who reads all the barbs from true Carr fans about how awful it is has to reconcile himself with the youngster who thought this one was amazing! I was floored by the secret you allude to and what it meant regarding that first meeting between Miss Maynard and her lover. I gave the book away long ago and don’t know if I’ll ever re-read it, but I’m glad you at least found some joy at the end, Ben. I feel like I did about The Crooked Hinge which I also read long ago and which I also loved: I don’t want to spoil that early enjoyment by re-reading and re-evaluating and thus finding them wanting, even if I’m an older and wiser reader now.

    Like

    1. I have a hard time with how to characterize Dark of the Moon. I have a feeling that as more time goes on, I’ll end up with an elevated opinion of it. It does raise an interesting question – which do you rate higher?
      – A book that is a bit of a chore to get through for the first 80% and then delivers a satisfying ending (Dark of the Moon)
      – A book that has an absolutely killer set up and is a fun read, but then fails in delivering a satisfying ending (Seeing is Believing)

      Of course, there is no clear cut answer and you’d have to evaluate on a case by case basis. I suppose that I see the silver lining in both. Perhaps I’m more forgiving than most bloggers, but I tend to like almost everything I’ve read so far for one reason or another.

      As for The Crooked Hinge – you’ll love that book just as much if you read it a second time.

      Like

  2. I will unfortunately have to hold off on reading your thoughts until I’ve read the book…which is someway off with my broadly chronological approach…but, well, I’m curious. Though here’s hoping we don’t have another Emperor’s Snuff-Box on our hands 🙂

    Like

  3. It’s been a fair but of time since I read this but I think I ended up with similar feelings to yourself – lots of annoying and pointless stuff scattered throughout, but with enough nicely done atmosphere to hold the interest and then a nice pay-off at the end.

    Like

    1. Looking at Carr’s timeline of books, I suddenly wonder – is this his last great ending? He only published four more stories – Papa La Bas, The Ghosts’ High Noon, Deadly Hall, and The Hungry Goblin. Of those, I’ve only read The Hungry Goblin. It wasn’t a bad read, but I wouldn’t say that the solution packed a punch.

      Of the other three books, I haven’t heard too much positive, other than The Ghosts’ High Noon being respectable and Papa La Bas being dreadful. Is Dark of the Moon possibly the last time Carr left our heads spinning?

      Like

      1. I remember Dark of the Moon very differently and the ending certainly didn’t leave my head spinning. Possibly because he lifted part of the solution (i.e. impossible trick) from another writer. In my opinion, Dark of the Moon is the worst of the last three Dr. Fell novels: Panic in Box C was tired, but passable, while The House at Satan’s Elbow was boring and uninspired. But this one was a chore to get through. Something that was new experience for me with Carr at the time.

        The Ghosts’ High Noon is very respectable for a late Carr, but the last great one is arguably In Spite of Thunder, which has an original impossible situation with an equally original and surprising solution.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I have a great deal of affection for all three of the mid-60s Dr. Fell novels, even though none of them is a masterpiece. I think Dark of the Moon would have made a good novella along the lines of The Third Bullet, retaining the impossible murder and the matters discussed in the spoiler section but getting rid of the filler. (I have the same opinion of The House at Satan’s Elbow.) But writing novellas instead of novels would not have paid much!

    Like

  5. The plot twist in DARK OF THE MOON—assuming you mean what I think–is a great one; without revealing who the killer is, it changes everything you thought you knew, and it makes sense retrospectively. Unfortunately it’s recycled—Carr had used it in an early novel (where it fooled me completely). And the further “surprise” twist of the mysterious lover’s identity is also recycled—actually, the reverse of one used in a 1940s novel, so I guess if you reverse a twist, you’re not repeating yourself.

    Carr’s late novels show a decline, but I still felt they were worth reading (unlike Christie’s THE POSTERN OF FATE). THE GHOSTS’ HIGH NOON, as I recall, was pretty good. PAPA LA-BAS’s bad reputation is, I think, partly due to its political incorrectness (such as one character claiming not to understand why people object so strongly to slavery—actually I don’t think this is Carr’s opinion, since he makes it clear elsewhere that mistreating slaves was reprehensible, and the hero beats up a man for using the n-word); it’s uneven—some parts were clever, others made me wince. But it didn’t seem as padded as DARK OF THE MOON.

    I just read TomCat’s comment. I wouldn’t call IN SPITE OF THUNDER great, but I think it’s underrated; I remember being irritated by a stereotyped character who acted like, well, a sterotyped character, but a good read, and (unlike DARK OF THE MOON) completely original.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s