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?
The 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:
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.