The Eight of Swords is one of those John Dickson Carr titles that flies a bit below the radar. When I was first researching Carr’s library, I got enough of an impression that readers generally had a negative view of the work that I listed it in my article on Commonly Criticized novels by the author. Bear in mind, that list wasn’t based on myself having actually read any of the books, but rather what I had gleaned from forums and blogs I had tracked down.
I’ve noticed recently though that JJ at The Invisible Event has made repeated comments suggesting that this is an under appreciated gem. And you know what? It all makes sense. The Eight of Swords was published in 1934, the same year that Carr gifted us with The Plague Court Murders and The White Priory Murders. While neither are perfect books, they’re the first salvo in Carr’s jaw dropping run that lasted roughly until 1939. All of the author’s work that I’ve read from this period has been impressive, and so it followed that The Eight of Swords would be right up my alley.
On the surface, the crime in The Eight of Swords is plain by Carr’s standards – a man is found dead in his study, shot in the back of the head. The room isn’t locked – in fact we soon learn that he received a visitor right before the crime was committed and the culprit seems to have left by way of an unlocked back door. While this is relatively straight forward by Carr’s standards, the mystery might easily find its way into the plot of a number of more traditional GAD authors.
Well… actually, I’ll somewhat contradict my previous assertion, because early in his career, Carr wrote a number of mysteries bereft of an impossible crime or other fascinating hook – Castle Skull, The Corpse in the Waxworks, The Mad Hatter Mystery, Death Watch. Of course, the lack of an impossibility never meant that Carr wasn’t going to get you at the end. The twist at the end of Castle Skull came so far out of left field that I still flinch to this day.
If I were to compare The Eight of Swords to another Carr novel, it would be Death Watch or The Four False Weapons – books in which the crime scene doesn’t quite add up. These later examples go to much further extremes, but the common thread is that the more the circumstances of the murder are investigated, the less that certain pieces of evidence make sense.
Why did the killer knock on the front door to gain entrance to the house when the door of the rear balcony was unlocked? Why were the killer and the victim seen opening all of the windows in the murder room during a torrential rainstorm? Why did the victim seemingly short circuit the lights in the house soon before receiving his visitor?
Dr Fell is on the scene to investigate, and this time he has competition in the form of a bishop who dabbles in criminology. The bishop is played up as a comical figure, getting wrapped up in apparent social scandals of the day such as sliding down a bannister. While the comedy didn’t quite elicit a smile from me, it wasn’t annoying like the slapstick in later-year Merrivale novels. The parts where Fell and the bishop butt heads over the investigation were amusing, although I would have liked to see them played up further.
Dr Fell makes quick work of the mystery, transforming a number of innocent clues into story-flipping revelations. By page 70 of my Berkley edition, the detective had unraveled enough mystery to fill a normal 200 page novel. I was excited at this point! We seemed to have everything but the identity of the killer figured out, and of course Carr isn’t that easy. Everything I thought I knew was certain to come crashing down by the end of the novel as Carr pulled aside another curtain of misdirection.
Except… the book kind of went flat at that point. Not in any way that I would necessarily complain about (although I’m probably about to…). It was still a fine read, but looking back there was a massive shift.
For the first half of the book, the point of view character (Hugh Donovan) is barely present. Although we somewhat follow the plot through his presence, we get none of the typical observations of a Carr character normally in the role. Instead, the story is heavy with Dr Fell and the comical bishop. At that halfway mark, Hugh Donovan takes the forefront and the focus of the story veers from the investigation to drinking and a romantic subplot. Dr Fell goes off and isn’t seen much until the end of the story. The bishop all but vanishes.
Also missing is any sense of discovery. The first half of the book had my jaw on the floor for how much of the mystery was being unraveled. The second half is fairly flat in that regard. Instead, we get a lengthy passage where Hugh expounds on “ginches” – Carr’s term for a particular sort of woman. I probably won’t get into that…
It’s very strange. It’s almost like Carr wrote an excellent novella, didn’t quite know where to take it, and then padded it out to full novel length. Had the story maintained its original pace throughout, I’d be placing it on the mantel alongside The Four False Weapons and Death Watch. As it is, it’s merely a good mystery novel – a strong effort by most other authors but a bit short for Carr.
That isn’t to say that the ending was predictable at all. I didn’t see the killer coming by a mile, but then again Carr catches me on that element 90% of the time. There’s a tense few chapters towards the end, perhaps reminiscent of The Lost Gallows. What’s really missing is that jolt of misdirection that you tend to find in all of Carr’s novels. Well, perhaps the misdirection just came early and then the story kind of flattened out.
The explanation behind it all may be Carr’s briefest, wrapping things up in a mere 10 pages – a crumb compared to some of his more delicious 20-30 page denouements. More importantly, the logic that Dr Fell uses to put together the identity of the killer is tenuous at best – the exact type of stuff I was rolling my eyes about at the end of Ellery Queen’s The Greek Coffin Mystery.
There’s a fair amount of meta-commentary on Carr’s part throughout The Eight of Swords. The novel involves an American gangster thread, and Dr Fell assures the reader that the plot won’t get caught up in it.
“I hope this little affair isn’t going to turn into a dull and stodgy piece of gang history… If there’s anything I dislike, it’s to see the classic outline of a murder case involved in any such monotonous red tape.”
Carr would prefer to avoid such cliches and instead focus on fantastical crimes, although he realizes that critics don’t buy into them.
“You see, the critics, as differentiated from the reading public, are required to like any story that is probable. I discovered a long time ago the way to write a probable and real story. You must have (1) no action, (2) no atmosphere whatever – that’s very important – (3) as few interesting characters as possible, (4) absolutely no digressions, and (5) above all things, no deduction.”
The characters flat out break the fourth wall in the finale, observing that they are in the final chapter of a detective novel:
“Somebody will have to talk for a page or two on the futility and sadness of it…”
Of course, Carr’s been known to break the fourth wall, his most famous example being with The Hollow Man.
Overall The Eight of Swords feels very much like an early Carr novel – somewhat along the lines of the original Bencolin books (It Walks by Night aside), Poison in Jest, or The Mad Hatter Mystery. Somewhat of a logical conclusion as those are the books that preceded it, with the obvious exceptions of Hag’s Nook and The Bowstring Murders (two novels that in my mind more fit with the stories that came in the years to come).
A request if you’re going to comment – there’s a comparison that can be made between aspects of The Eight of Swords and the solution to an Agatha Christie novel (that is now partially ruined for me). You could also draw a comparison to another novel by Carr. Please resist making such analogies in the comments below, as you may risk the reading enjoyment of someone else.