Getting started with John Dickson Carr

Ok, so you saw something that got you interested in John Dickson Carr.  Perhaps he was repeatedly featured in a list of top impossible crime novels, or maybe you saw him labeled as the king of golden age detective fiction.  The later description would be more appropriate – despite his name being synonymous with the impossible crime genre, Carr wrote plenty of non-impossible mysteries and many of them were classics.  Regardless, the big question is – what books should you start with?

hollowmanThe easy answer would be The Hollow Man (also released as The Three Coffins).  This is without question Carr’s most popular book – the title that tends to be tightly associated with his name and even with the very genre of impossible crime fiction.  Certainly not a bad place to start – it would be akin to jumping into Agatha Christie via And Then There Were None or Murder on the Orient Express.  Although, if you’re a Christie fan, you might find yourself questioning whether those really are the launching points you’d recommend…

John Dickson Carr published about 70 novels over his career, at times cranking out four or five books a year.  While that may sound like an author churning out cheap copy as fast as he can, most fans would agree that his best work stems from those most prolific years.  Although the quality of his output did vary (and slipped in later years), I estimate that I’d enthusiastically recommend over a third of his books.  The rest are mostly fine reads that fall just under the threshold of recommendation.

Although there are roughly 25-30 Carr titles that I’d passionately attempt to shove down anyone’s throat, I don’t know that they would all make the grade as a starting point.  For example, The Problem of the Wire Cage is an absolutely amazing read, but I wouldn’t want it to be your first taste of a Carr solution.

My criteria for this list are the novels that really offer a representation of the essence of John Dickson Carr.  There are excellent novels that didn’t make the cut, simply because there’s some dimension that didn’t quite strike me as right.  Hey – I’ve seen people start their Carr reading with Panic in Box C or Dark of the Moon (considered by most to be lesser titles) and still sing the praises of their first experience.  There’s a lot to enjoy, but here’s what I’d recommend:

problemofthegreencapsuleThe Problem of the Green Capsule

Markus Chesney challenges his friends to watch every detail of an acted scene as a test of their recall ability.  During the exercise, a man walks plainly onto the set and murders Chesney in front of the horrified onlookers.  Despite the crime being committed in front of a captive audience, all of the witnesses describe what happened differently and nobody can identify the killer.

Series detective Dr Gideon Fell is on hand to both investigate and deliver a lecture on methods of poison.  Carr’s obviously done some research on the subject and provides a detailed account of notorious poisoners of the previous century.

I’ve had success with lending out this book a number of times as a first Carr.  It’s representative of his tendency to build a story around an utterly bizarre hook – in this case how multiple people could witness a murder yet their honest testimony doesn’t match.  While it’s not an impossible crime, it showcases Carr’s other talent – handling an incredibly small cast of suspects and still surprising you in the end.

tildeathdouspartTill Death Do Us Part

I could summarize the plot for you, but this is one of those stories where you’re better off just watching in wonder as it unravels.  It has it all – locked room murders, incredible pace, and Carr’s knack for a killer you never saw coming.  Carr was simply at the top of his game here.  If you can reach the end of any chapter and set the book down without experiencing serious agony, I’d be surprised.

Although this book has seemingly always had a solid reputation among Carr followers, in recent years it appears to have emerged as the new crowd favorite.  It’s easy to see why, as cover to cover it provides an engrossing read.  Possibly Carr’s most well rounded book.  If you want a story that you can enjoy regardless of your taste, this may be the one.

judaswindow2The Judas Window

Awaken after being drugged, Jim Answell finds himself in a nightmare.  A man lies dead nearby, stabbed through the heart with an arrow.  Answell and the victim are within a room tightly sealed from the inside – the door firmly bolted and the windows shuttered.  Someone is pounding desperately at the door to get in…

This is the definitive locked room mystery.  Throughout the novel, it will be proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that not even the slightest crack was present to allow an outsider entry or escape.  Jim Answell is destined for the gallows.  And yet, Carr’s series sleuth Sir Henry Merrivale swears that Answell is innocent and he can prove it.  Every room, he states, has a way for a killer to get inside – The Judas Window…

I’ll admit, I’ve lent this book to some other mystery fans and they didn’t like it as much as me.  I can’t even comprehend the reason, as the pacing is excellent and the locked room is Carr’s best.  It’s a blazing read, and similar to Till Death Do Us Part, it contains dramatic revelations at a non-stop rate.

hewhowhispersHe Who Whispers

How do you turn a locked room inside out?  You let it unfold in the wide open, atop a lone tower with a solitary staircase under constant supervision.  It’s on such a tower that a man is found dead, run through with a sword cane.  A family picnicking below had a clear view of the entrance from the time that the victim entered until the time that he was found dead.  No one entered or left.

This is the Carr story that probably has the most meat on the bones when it comes to the characters.  If depth in that dimension is a top priority for you then this might be a title to start with.  Of course it helps that it has a mind bender of an impossibility and a haunting ending.

hagsnookHag’s Nook

On the eve of his twenty-fifth birthday, Martin Starbeth is tasked with spending a night alone in the ruins of ancient Chatterham Prison and examining the mysterious contents of a safe.  It’s a ritual that’s men in his family have been undertaking for generations.  Unfortunately, men in his family have another trait in common – dying of broken necks.  When Martin meets a similar fate, was it at the hands of a family curse or the hands of a killer?

Carr at times dabbled in near pulp, with atmospheric stories featuring rotting castles and rooms that kill.  Of course, the horror is all window dressing and you’re dealing with a traditional GAD mystery in the end.  The fun part is separating fact from fiction and trying to figure out how a set of crimes could be linked across centuries.

With Hag’s Nook, you’re getting a fine overview of what to expect from a Carr novel – a killer plot hook, some dense atmosphere, a stab of humor, a shocking solution, and a nice lengthy unraveling of all of the misdirection in the end.  Nobody’s going to claim that this is Carr’s best book, but it provides a well stocked pantry of what to expect from the rest of his library.

emperorssnuffboxThe Emperor’s Snuff Box

A woman witnesses the murder of a man across the street, but a series of unfortunate events finds her marked as the killer.  Racing against time as the police close in on her, the witness and a sympathetic investigator must untangle a web of lies before she’s arrested.

Did I just describe the plot of 50 books published between 1940 and 1960?  You’d think so, which is why I’ll suggest this could be an interesting introduction to Carr for the uninitiated.  You’re given a fairly traditional setup to a mystery and you get a chance to see how this author spins it.  The result is a white-knuckled read with a frantic pace.  And, of course, there’s a twist that leads many to consider The Emperor’s Snuff Box to be a top 10 Carr.

Wait, what about…

Of course everyone has their own particular thoughts and fans of Carr may be spilling their brandy or smoothing their crinoline over the titles that I’ve left out.  Here’s a few obvious candidates that didn’t make my list.

burningcourtThe Burning Court

I mean, yeah, you could start here, but that would be like getting into beer by way of mainlining black tar heroin.  This is the novel you read after you have about five Carr books under your belt and you’re ready to take things to the next level.

Things start with a witness observing a man through a window being handed a cup of poison – by a killer who then exits through a door that doesn’t exist.  Throw in a body that disappears from a tomb that is flat out paved over, and you have yourself a respectable pairing of impossible crimes.  The ending of this one is beyond description – simply avoid reading anything about it and just go right into it.  Even if it was partially spoiled for you, you’d still receive more of a surprise than 90% of mysteries deliver.

crookedhingeThe Crooked Hinge

In recent years the popularity of this once classic title seems to have waned.  Why?  I couldn’t tell you.  This is Carr at his most chilling, with a seemingly possessed automaton, a coven of witches, and a solution that will send chills down your spine.  The near-horror is balanced by the intriguing hook of a survivor of the sinking of The Titanic showing up in a village and claiming that a respected community member attempted to kill him during the tragedy and has been impersonating him ever since.

While I hands down consider this to be one of Carr’s top ten novels, it doesn’t strike me as a starting point.  That’s probably an arbitrary decision on my part, but this deviates enough from a number of qualities that I think you should experience with a first Carr.  Leave this for your third book or beyond.

shediedaladyShe Died a Lady

A woman and her secret lover walk out the back door of a house and off the edge of a seaside cliff, leaving her husband in shambles.  The trouble is that when the bodies wash up some time later, it’s shown without a doubt that both victims were shot at close range, yet neither could have been the killer.

This is a variation of the impossible footprints murder, although Carr wrote his masterpiece in that matter with The White Priory Murders.  This book frequents many a Carr top ten list, and although I think it’s slightly over-rated, I’ll admit that it possibly contains his most haunting ending (besting out He Who Whispers, mentioned above).

What mostly drags it down in my eyes is the horrible slapstick that Carr started to inject into his later year Sir Henry Merrivale novels – this being the first book where it really became too much.  It’s unfortunate, as the first decade of Merrivale stories were some of Carr’s best work, and even sported some decent comedy.

caseofconstantsuicidesThe Case of the Constant Suicides

It’s weird that I’m not listing this as a first Carr – it’s pure enjoyment to read.  To start, this may be Carr’s funniest book, but of course you’re not reading this genre for the comedy.  It also features three impossible crimes, each a case where the victim seemingly committed suicide.  On those grounds alone I wouldn’t fault you if you dove right in.

And yet, as an impossible crime heavy novel, this doesn’t strike me as quite the right place to start.  The impossibilities are good, but they’re not The Judas Window or He Who Whispers good.  Of course, even if these get edged out in quality, you can’t quite argue with quantity.

whiteprioryThe White Priory Murders

Few would argue that this is Carr’s finest impossible crime, and those that would – well, I’d fight them.  The set up is dead simple – a woman is found beaten to death in a small cottage surrounded by untouched snow.  Over the course of the novel, it will be conclusively proved that the crime is utterly impossible.  In the same sense that The Hollow Man is known for its locked room lecture, this novel is almost as notable for dissecting the various manners in which a missing footprints crime could be committed.

With that said, I thought this one sagged a bit.  There are a few too many chapters that end in seemingly shocking revelations, only for the next chapter to begin with an explanation that immediately vaporizes the drama.

What was your first John Dickson Carr novel?  How do you think that initiation may have influenced your overall journey with the author?  Do you have different thoughts on what a proper introduction would be?

For me, my first experience was Hag’s Nook.  The plus was that I walked away gobsmacked and enchanted with Carr’s work, yet still had all of his “top 20” ahead of me. At the same time, I can’t help but imagine if I still hadn’t read it.  What if it was still lurking in my To Be Read pile as an undiscovered gem?  I still have a few semi-obscure titles from classic-era Carr left to read, such as The Sleeping Sphinx and Death Turns the Tables.  Electively I know next to nothing about them, and I can’t help but hope that they’ll be my next Hag’s Nook.

46 thoughts on “Getting started with John Dickson Carr”

  1. I read them as Collier started to publish them: the first was The Arabian Nights Murder, followed by The Mad Hatter Mystery, The Case of the Constant Suicides and The Blind Barber. So, yeah, I pretty much followed your advice exactly. In all honesty, I disagree with most of your choices, as this reads for me as a “best of” list rather than a start list.

    Oh, and my first two Christies, in order, were And Then There Were None and Murder on the Orient Express . . . of course, this led to my full repudiation of the woman, right? Next year, on the eighties then anniversary of its publication, I will have a lot to say about ATTWN. For now, I’ll just say that it is unlike any other book Christie ever wrote, and yet it is the perfect way to begin.


    1. I had originally meant to discuss the difference between a “best of” list and recommendations to read first. Leave it to me to somehow forgot that part…

      I see the task of a first book as capturing the reader’s interest enough that they will bother to read a second. It obviously doesn’t take a “best” book to accomplish that. As others discuss here, there’s actually an advantage to starting out with a book that isn’t the best, as that leaves you with a lot of peaks left to encounter. Honestly though, for writers with such a large library of quality books as Christie and Carr, it isn’t like you read the best five books and then have little to look forward to.

      Of course, you are right – my list does read a bit like a “best of”, although my second section tries to highlight titles I excluded that you might expect to find on a best of list. That’s why I kind of like my inclusion of Hag’s Nook – it is by no way Carr’s best book, but it is damn good and I think most people upon reading it would want more.

      That you read The Arabian Nights Murder first is kind of interesting. In a sense it isn’t too representative of the JDC that I think most of us have in our mind, but it’s definitely an excellent read. I would want more.


  2. Oh, man, so many thoughts: mainly that these are fine novels all, yet I’d only really recommend starting with two of them — Snuff-Box and Suicides. Indeed, my — ahem — own recommendations from some time back started with Suicides, but then I was limiting myself to a) what I’d read at the time and b) what was easily available.

    Clearly I think this is a great topic, and one I’d be inclined to suggest an amendment or expansion to: the best Carr to start with given your favourite non-Carr detective fiction author (soon to be replaced by John Dickson Carr, natch). Fans of John Rhode might go for the technicalities of The Peacok Feather Murders/The Ten Teacups, fans of Ngaio Marsh would enjoy the extenede character-work and fundamental simplicity of The Emperor’s Snuff-Box, etc.

    Dunno, just a thought. Though I love the black tar heroin analogy of The Burning Court. The idea that a fair proportion of people will have had that as their only Carr is somewhat mind-blowing (I have given a copy to someone who had not read any Carr…still not heard what they thought of it)


    1. Ah, yes, I remember your list well – although I think inclusion of The Man Who Could Not Shudder is a bit of an odd choice. A good enough book, but it took a while for it to really get going. I’d trade it out for Death Watch.

      I actually had the same exact idea as you – trying to fit my various recommendations to what someone might be looking for in a mystery, perhaps based on other authors that they liked. I was going to suggest that fans of Christie might start with The Emperor’s Snuff Box, but them somewhat petered out finding matches for other authors. Like, which Carr would you recommend for a Queen fan?


      1. I dunno, depends on what era of Queen: early Queen you’d go for Arabian Nights or Death Watch, but I’ve not read enough of the second period stuff yet to call that. Notice how I could have been mean and wasn’t? 🤣


    2. Interesting question about “what would be the best Carr novel to start out a fan of ___?” For a Christie fan, I might go with The Seat of the Scornful/Death Turns the Tables or To Wake the Dead, both of which have certain things in common with a lot of Christie books (I won’t be more specific).

      Ellery Queen’s books changed so much from one decade to the next that there’s no one right answer to the question. A fan of the Nationality-Object Mysteries is someone who clearly likes things intricate, so Death-Watch, Unicorn Murders or Punch and Judy Murders might be good choices. The later books have so little in common with Carr’s, beyond being mysteries, that I would just give a fan of them any Carr that I thought was a good introductory choice in general.

      An Erle Stanley Gardner fan might like The Judas Window, Carr’s big “trial” novel.

      I remember owning a 40s paperback edition of a Nero Wolfe novel by Rex Stout that had blurbs for some other books at the back. There was one for The Problem of the Wire Cage that said, “There is only one Nero Wolfe, but his admirers might like to meet Dr. Gideon Fell, Carr’s monumental solver of mysteries. This is a tricky and intricate one.”

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve said elsewhere that I started with, and became hooked by, the non-series The Nine Wrong Answers. I still think it;s a cracking book but it probably wouldn’t be anyone’s top title. I heard people say The Hollow Man/Three Coffins is too dense to use as an entry to Carr’s books but I read it soon after NWA and loved it.

    Lots of people will tell you Constant Suicides is a great way in but I don’t know. I think it’s a good enough book but a lot of the much praised humor is very hit and miss as far as I’m concerned and I find it a much less successful element than many would claim. Conversely, I have no issues with the humor in She Died a Lady; it’s not as big a part of the story and crucially or me, the book itself has far greater depth and packs a much more significant emotional wallop.


    1. I won’t argue with The Nine Wrong Answers – it was my second Carr. Although it is very different than the rest of his work, it does have that great hook of the author repeatedly breaking the fourth wall via footnotes. I almost wish I hadn’t read it yet since I’d be curious to see what I’d make of it after having a better understanding of Carr’s library.


      1. Ultimately, I think that if you want to introduce someone to a writer then the only consideration to keep in mind is: what title will give the most enjoyment?
        If you know someone’s broad tastes, then this should be reasonably easy. A person drawn to horrific/spooky stuff ought to get a kick out of Crooked Hinge or Plague Court; a I’d point Christie fans to Emperor’s Snuff-Box, She Died a Lady, and so on…

        Liked by 1 person

  4. My first Carr was “The Problem of the Wire Cage”, so that’s a great start to your post there. 🙂

    My opinion is that for someone who has no experience with classic GA mysteries, the best way to introduce Carr would be with one of the books from 1938 – 1944. I’ve argued elsewhere that this is the period when Carr was at his peak of writing. None of his journeyman tics are too intrusive, and the quality of the plots and Carr’s writing style hadn’t begun to decline yet.

    And what’s more important: I think it’s stupid to start someone off with the “best” book of an author. Everything else after that would then just be a disappointment, so the newcomer would just be less and less impressed. The book should just be good enough to keep ’em coming for more.

    So I think “Nine – and Death Makes Ten”, “He Wouldn’t Kill Patience” and “Till Death Do Us Part” are very good starting-places. I would never recommend “The Hollow Man”, “The Judas Window”, “The Burning Court” or “The White Priory Murders” as the first Carr book for a first-time GA reader. If the one you’re trying to convince of Carr’s talents is more well-read, then those novels are more suitable.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can see the reader’s intentions somewhat influencing a recommendation for a first read. Are they just trying the author out, or do they already have their mind made up to read several books? For example, when I started both Ellery Queen and Agatha Christie, it was with the full intention of reading their entire libraries. Although I hated The Roman Hat Mystery, I was still going to read another Queen. Compare that to me trying a book by, say, Michael Innes or Patricia Wentworth. I don’t have a preconceived notion that I want to read their material, and so if my first read doesn’t pan out, I’m not going to actively seek out their work.

      If you only have one shot to get someone hooked, you probably want to go with a top book. However, if your friend is willing to commit to a few titles, then you can afford to be a bit more experimental with your recommendation. At that point, yeah, you could blindly choose any title from 1934-1944 and you are guaranteed success.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Though Locked Room Murders is my absolute favourite, I’m not at all well versed in Carr’s works due to their unavailability so thanks for the list.

    Coincidentally I bought a used copy of “He Who Whispers” earlier this week (but it’ll take forever to arrive) so it’s good to find it on the list.

    I also have the Greek translation of Judas Window on my book pile for well over a year now , but I’m hesitant to read it because I am already know the solution.


  6. I started with She Died a Lady, and here I am 30 Carr books later 😉.
    In all seriousness, I read up on the book beforehand and had already prepared myself for the slapstick, leading to a much more enjoyable reading experience that wasn’t marred by any sudden and unexpected attacks of unfunny humor.
    It’s very hard to get someone into the impossible crime genre. I’ve described plot’s to many and most have simply said that it was all too fantastical and that they couldn’t read it. The lucky few that seemed interested where then berated with book after book, the most commonly suggested from Carr being The Judas Window and He Who Whispers.
    For people who had already read GAD (i.e Christie) I recommended TESB as it’s Carr at his most Christie like while still showcasing his unique features.
    Can’t wait to hear your thought’s on The Sleeping Sphinx and The Dead Man’s Knock, both are book’s that I read early on and I remember enjoying TSS while detesting TDMK.


    1. Ah – I had meant to write “Death Turns the Tables” instead of “The Dead Man’s Knock”. I’ve fixed that. The Dead Man’s Knock seems to be universally despised. I don’t hear much about Death Turns the Tables, but what I do hear tends to be positive.


      1. I had DTTT spoiled for me and that fact in combination with the books rarity means that I won’t be reading it for a while. Will enjoy reading your thoughts about it though.


  7. I had some thought on this on my blog at .

    Since I wrote that entry, it has occurred to me that if you want to give someone a taste of Carr so they can see if they would enjoy more of his stuff, you could do worse than by starting with some of the short stories. The first Carr I ever read was “The Locked Room”, and the second was “The House in Goblin Wood”. Together they set me haunting used-book stores and garage sales for copies of the novels. (This was in the 70s, when you could pick them up for 50 or 75 cents each. Ah, the good old days.) Either of those would be a good choice, or you could try the non-impossible “A Guest in the House”. Or, as I mention in my post, the masterly novella “The Third Bullet” – all the ingenuity and flavour of a Carr novel at one-third the length. If it turns out your friend hates Carr, well, they haven’t wasted much of their time.


    1. I also had my introduction to Carr via short stories – starting with The Wrong Problem and then The Blind Man’s Hood. I’m holding off on reading many more short stories until I complete his novels, as I know he recycled a few solutions between the short/long form.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It occurs to me that “The Locked Room” might not be such a good starter because (minor spoiler in rot-13) gurer vf bar pyhr gung qrcraqf ba xabjyrqtr gung zvtug frrz bofpher gb n ernqre gbqnl.

        Also, “A Guest in the House” is a Dr. Fell short story that was expanded into an H.M. novel, so whichever you read first, the other will be spoiled for you.

        “Goblin Wood,” though… that would be a good one to start someone with!

        (Hope you don’t mind the rot-13, as I think it’s a good way to post spoilers without risk. But let me know if you just find it annoying.)


  8. My first was The Problem of the Green Capsule, so I endorse your prescription.
    (Technically, my first was The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes, but that doesn’t count.)

    I know I next read The Red Widow Murders, my introduction to H.M. That’s another great place to start: a classic “room that kills”, the French Revolution, oodles of atmosphere, creepy suspects, a well-hidden murderer, and a hyperingenious solution that can be told in one sentence. It’s everything you’d want from a ’30s detective story.

    Panic in Box C, The Skeleton in the Clock, Papa Là-bas, and The Door to Doom were really early reads, too. The Door to Doom has Doug Greene’s intro to JDC, and Carr’s own “Grandest Game” essay – which introduced me to Nicholas Blake, Ellery Queen, and S.S. Van Dine, among others.

    That was all in 4th term ’97. By the end of the year, I’d also read It Walks by Night, Castle Skull, Mad Hatter Mystery, Curse of the Bronze Lamp, He Who Whispers, and The Men Who Explained Miracles (short stories again!).


    1. I’m curious what your thoughts were while reading Panic in Box C and Papa La-bas so early. Both of those are somewhat rambling and padded out, although there are nuggets of good mysteries buried inside. I’d be worried about turning off a new reader with all of the dross, although I could also imagine that maybe a new reader wouldn’t have the same expectations in terms of how tight the stories should be.


      1. I think I enjoyed them both. (Hell, the next year, I enjoyed Deadly Hall so much I promptly read The Ghosts’ High Noon!) Neither is Carr’s best, but I didn’t have much to compare them to. I think I read Panic in an afternoon.


  9. Thanks for the great list! I’ve only recently discovered Carr and have eagerly combed through the advice and reviews on your blog and on JJ’s The Invisible Event (as well as listening to your great two-part podcast primer).

    I’ve had a curious experience with Carr so far, who is my first foray into GAD beyond a couple of Christies years ago. I started with THE CROOKED HINGE and absolutely loved it (including the ending). I then read THE HOLLOW MAN and THE BURNING COURT and while I loved the set-ups and tone, I found the solutions to the impossible crimes to be something of a let-down ( know – heresy). So I’m now in a curious position – I really love Carr’s writing style, but am perhaps just not a fan of impossible crimes and the required suspension of disbelief. So as it weird as it may seem, The Crooked Hinge was actually a perfect starting point, because I seem to like Carr as a pure horror writer.

    I’m eager to keep reading – halfway through CONSTANT SUICIDES now and loving it – and will see if his impossible crimes grow on me. Thanks for the great blog!


    1. I think you’ve hit on something – some of Carr’s best work doesn’t necessarily involve his best solutions. If someone is looking for a killer solution to an impossibility, I would hardly suggest The Burning Court or Till Death Do Us Part, even though I think those are excellent overall stories and have excellent denouements. And, I’m sorry to say, I wouldn’t really suggest The Case of the Constant Suicides either. Excellent book, but doesn’t make the list for top solutions.

      Of course, you’ve now given me fodder for a whole new blog post, but here are some thoughts if you’re looking for a solution to an impossibility that will leave you satiated:
      1. The White Priory Murders
      2. He Who Whispers
      3. The Unicorn Murders
      4. The Plague Court Murders (this will half delight, half disappoint)
      5. The Judas Window (your mileage may vary on this one. I personally love it, others not so much)
      6. It Walks by Night

      Or, if you’re able to seek out the short story collection The Third Bullet, check out The House in Goblin Wood. Most people agree that’s Carr’s best.

      Writing this highlights the consideration that Carr’s best overall books aren’t necessarily the ones that impress the most with the solution. To me, an impossible crime novel is a balance between strength of puzzle, delight of solution, surprise of who did it, and the overall plotting and pacing. Throughout Carr’s library, you’ll make tradeoffs in those various degrees. In some cases, you have a weak puzzle with a shockingly strong solution. In other cases, you have a case where the solution is a let down when compared to the promise of the puzzle. Throughout most of them though, you’ll find that there is a strong element of misdirection – a trait we look for in most every mystery that we read.


      1. That’s a great point, and thanks for the list of suggestions – I have a few of those already, and look forward to diving in!


  10. Thanks for your list—interesting in itself and a great conversation-starter.

    As I said before (and I see JJ feels the same), what I’d recommend as the first read depends on a reader’s tastes. For a Christianna Brand fan, I might recommend The Problem of the Green Capsule, since I know they wouldn’t be put off (as some are) by a “complicated” plot. (The Three Coffins, as Colin indicates, also might put off the reader who likes things simple. Not to criticize such readers. Agatha Christie keeps things simple, and she’s great, and a fast read. I think Carr is her only superior, but if you try to read him—or Brand–fast, you’ll get confused and won’t appreciate them.) For an Edmund Crispin fan, I might recommend The Case of the Constant Suicides, which I agree is Carr’s funniest, and a solid mystery. For someone whose tastes I didn’t know, I might play it safe and recommend The Judas Window, which I should have thought nearly every reader would enjoy—apparently not, from what you say. Nine and Death Makes Ten is, I think another fairly safe choice; not Carr’s best but solid, short and fast-paced. As for Till Death Do Us Part—that was my First Time (with Carr), so I think it’s a great one to start with.

    On The Dead Man’s Knock: I actually enjoyed most of it, but some bits were so idiotic I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone but a hard-core fan (e.g., one character’s explanation for taking away and cleaning someone else’s guns—I thought he had to be lying, and must have had some other motive for taking the guns away, whether nefarious or well-meaning. But apparently the stupid reason he gave was the truth. Carr was setting up the ridiculous ending he wanted, which might have made more sense in a historical novel but seems anachronistic here).


    1. It’s definitely tough to read Carr fast – not just for fear of missing a critical detail, but because the non-critical ones are just enjoyable. From what I can tell, that changes following The Demoniacs. After 1962, the books become a bit stuffed with less interesting tangents and contain way too many passages where characters worry about issues they’re not willing to openly discuss. I’ve learned those are a bit easier to get through if you just keep your foot steady on the gas pedal and don’t bother taking in every last detail.


  11. First of all, congratulations for your blog. I’ve been reading it for months (as other related blog concerning GAD) and I find it very interesting.
    I’m a fan of JDC since I was a teenager. The first book I have read was Castle Skull, and I think is a fantastic way to approach Carr. So I recommended it to a starter. Obviously, when you’re a teenager, the readings impress you a lot more…but I think is a very good Carr, particulary for the dark atmosphere. Maybe the solution isn’t one of the best of the maestro, but I think is not bad at all.
    After Castle Skull I’ve read Poison In Jest, Waxworks, The Arabian Nights Murder (my favourite Carr, especially for the Dr. Illingworth masterpiece comedy section…really, really funny!) and The Skeleton In The Clock (I don’t remember it too well but I’m sure is the only one i didn’t like too much, at that time). These titles constitute my “youth readings” and note that neither of these titles are concerning “impossible crimes” or “locked room mystery” (well…I’m not sure for “Skeleto” because I’ve lost the book and I don’t remember it).
    I rediscovered Carr after turning 30, reading your first title Hag’s Nook, and now I’m looking for all those I miss (now I’ve read about thirty JDC books, more or less) but here in Italy finding Carr novels is not so easy (while Agatha Christie is everywhere…).
    So, for Bencolin series and Fell series I can recommend Castle Skull and Hag’s Nook. For Merrivale series I don’t really know…but I think the first one (Plague Court Murder) is a good way to start.
    I think is not a good idea to start with the masterpieces…let love for this author grow slowly and you will be greatly rewarded!
    So leave there for a while…not too much… books like The Problem Of The Green Capsule, He Who Whisper, The Crooked Hinge, The Case Of Constant Suicides, The Judas Window.
    Finally, I would suggest to avoid two great books as “first JDC of my life”: The Hollow Man (really good, but two aspects of the solution do not fully convince me) and The Burning Court (really a masterpiece, with a stunning ending but…I believe you understand why!!!!).
    Greetings and congratulations, again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Castle Skull has an interesting solution because it really comes out of nowhere. I was thinking we had a fairly conventional mystery on our hands and I had latched onto a red herring that gets dismissed towards the end. And then all of a sudden – wham! A solution that no one would ever see coming. Granted, it isn’t the type of clever solution that most people are probably looking for in an impossible crime, but it really shocked me. As far as a first Bencolin, I think Castle Skull would be a fine place to start.


  12. The Carr that I gave recently to a friend as a first GAD book was THE JUDAS WINDOW but that choice was based on the fact that she is a lawyer. As for myself, I simply cannot recall which book was the first Carr that I read since that occurred more than half a century ago.


  13. My first Carr was actually a Melville, The Curse of the Bronze Lamp, followed by And So To Murder. By all accounts these are considered lesser works, but I was immediately hooked. Since then I’ve been making growing my JDC library…and trying to hook others on his work. Your list will a real help with that!


    1. I’ve been enjoying your progress through Carr’s library, and think it’s interesting how you’ve been approaching the Fell books in order. It’s funny because I think only now are you really getting to the books that most people have in mind when they think of JDC – the 1935-46 period (at least when it comes to Fell). I’ll be interested in your experience with the early Merrivale work (1934-40) as you get a much heavier focus on impossibilities.

      I’d be leaving a ton of comments on your posts, but for some reason your site is the only wordpress site where I can’t get my login to load.


  14. I started with Blind Barber …and absolutely hated it. Luckily, the omnibus I had bought had crooked hinge and constant suicides as well. I enjoyed them enormously and in next 2 months read 7 more Fells(Coffins, hags, green capsule, mad hatter, shudder, wake the dead and sphinx,) and made myself sick . I enjoyed them but began to get sick of the longwinded hurrumphing and undue postponement of a revelation for inexplicable reasons .
    After a break of a year, read He who Whispers and even though I enjoyed it very much that has been my last Fell till now .
    I read She died a lady , Judas & ten teacups one after another … and since then its all H.M (Five boxes, Unicorn, Plague till now) and it will remain that way in near future.
    There is really nobody quite as good in putting a spell when Carr is at his best( Judas, Lady, Capsule, Constant, whisper ) .Its good that I have almost all the Fells & HM’s in ebook form … and quite a few classics among them .


  15. I started with Hollow Man, Judas Window, Green Capsule and ‘Til Death.. widely considered to be among his best. Followed by many held to be on the second tier i.e. Emperor’s Snuff Box, He Wouldn’t Kill Patience, Red Widow and most recently, Plague Court. Haven’t particularly enjoyed reading any post-Emperor. Still not sure how I feel about Carr – on the one hand he’s the most brilliant and prolific conceiver of impossible crimes, but unfortunately it’s paired with one of the most unpalatable writing styles of any GAD era author I’ve come across. Many of the aforementioned tend to be overdramatic, overdescribed and just plain overwritten. Still, my love for locked rooms means I keep coming back to him. I’ve got White Priory wending its way to me as we speak, and I’ve been warned about it being a slog. However I also have the promise of it containing one of his best solutions, which I’m hoping will make it worth the while.


    1. You’ve definitely read some of the more readable Carr books (although there are plenty of them), and so if you find his writing style unpalatable, I don’t think you’re really going to see an improvement. It will probably seem strange for you, but I find Carr (prior to his 50s decline) to be one of the most readable GAD authors, alongside Theodore Roscoe, Christianna Brand, Herbert Brean, and Anthony Boucher.

      I hope you enjoy White Priory.


      1. Some books have been easier to digest than others. The run from Judas to Emperor wasn’t too bad, even had me believing I’d grown accustomed to his prose. It was the other titles I mentioned which gave me cause to seriously reconsider. But I might have turned a corner with White Priority, supposedly one of his tougher reads, but which proved to be one of my better experiences reading JDC. Already onto Constant Suicides, with He Who Whispers, Death Watch, and Death in five Boxes to follow. So at the very least I’ll have many of his better works under my belt if I do decide to call it a day with this author.


        1. Constant Suicides and He Who Whispers deservedly get a lot of attention, but Death Watch is that gem that flies beneath the radar. Death in Five Boxes has a really intriguing setup, but it didn’t quite deliver in the end for me, although I have super high expectations for Carr. I’d love to hear what you make of it.


          1. I’m very excited to read Death Watch, as not only does it seem to be a firm favourite with several bloggers, but on the back of my copy the NY Times says of the book “Never has there been, either in real life or in fiction, a more elaborately planned crime than this one”. Now perhaps such hyperbole was bandied about quite a bit during the golden age, and I ought to take that with a grain of salt, but still can’t help thinking I’m in for a delightfully convoluted treat right up my alley when I do eventually get to reading it.


            1. Also, regarding Death in Five Boxes, I’ve seen (quite possibly on this very blog) it be likened to Cards on the Table, which happens to be my favourite Christie. The set up sounds glorious. And while I note the common observation about the solution being a let down, the optimist in me hopes to find a stroke of genius in there somewhere that’s hitherto gone unnoticed which will elevate it, in my eyes if no one else’s, to the ranks of some of his more lauded works.


  16. What a great Internet blog you have regarding John Dickson Carr!

    As a Norwegian my introduction to Carr was many decades ago with “The Burning Court” a recommendation from a friend of mine. I think that almost every novel between 1933 and 1948 is worth reading. Well, we have letdowns like “Seeing is believing”, “My Late Wives” and “He Wouldn’t Kill Patience”, but you can’t stay on top all the time with such an enormous production that Carr had during those years. My favorites are “The Red Widows Murders”, “The Arabian Nights Murder”, “The Burning Court” and “The Judas Window”.

    John Dickson Carr authority S. T. Joshi regards “The Arabian Nights Murder” as the best detective story ever written. But according to another Carr authority Douglas Green, Carr himself started to dislike “The Arabian Nights Murder” some years after publication, but we don’t know exactly why.

    Soo, I think that what books of Carr you should start with is very individual. I remember I had trouble with books like “The Ten Teacups” and “The Black Spectacles”. And I also think that novels like “The White Priory Murders” are underrated by many.

    I also learned to fell in love with Carr’s work when there is no impossible crime situation involved. Stories, as mentioned above “The Arabian Nights Murder”, but also “The Four False Weapons”, “The Mad Hatter Mystery”, “The Emperor’s Snuff Box”, “The Nine Wrong Answers”, etc.


    1. Thanks for sharing your experience. I agree that pretty much everything published by Carr between 1933 and 1948 is well worth reading. You’re dealing with only a handful of “average” books, and even they would stand out if published under another author’s name.

      I love The Arabian Nights Murder, and I think it may be the novel that ages best in my memory. The way that the story is told in three parts from different perspectives – especially the comical middle passage – is some of Carr’s finest writing. It doesn’t feature the impossible crime angle that many of us associate with the author, but it shows him as a master of misdirection. Like the Emperor’s Snuff Box or The Four False Weapons, it could be a good introduction to Carr for someone who is used to other Golden Age authors like Christie. Throw Death Watch in there as well.


Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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 )

Connecting to %s

Solving the Mystery of Murder

Investigating how classic crime writers plot their mysteries.

A Crime is Afoot

A Random Walk Through Classic Crime Fiction

Long Live The Queens!

About Ellery Queen and other GAD authors

James Scott Byrnside

Author of impossible-crime murder mysteries

Countdown John's Christie Journal

A review of Agatha Christie's crime novels and short stories from beginning to end

Dead Yesterday

Classic Mysteries and Domestic Suspense


The annex to John Grant's *A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir*

Justice for the Corpse

Reviews of classic fair-play mystery fiction - spoiler-free unless otherwise noted

Composed Almost Entirely of Books

Books read, books written, books I just spotted and covet like an ox

Mysteries Ahoy!

Detecting Great Crime Fiction

Only Detect

Book Reviews, Mostly

%d bloggers like this: