The Devil in Velvet – John Dickson Carr (1951)

devilinvelvetLet me get this out of the way really quick so that you can decide if you want to read further.  The Devil in Velvet is not a mystery novel.  Yeah, it kind of features the puzzle of a semi-impossible poisoning, but that’s merely a backdrop to a book that must have captured every last passion of late career John Dickson Carr’s infatuation with history.  Why read further?  The Devil in Velvet is often cited as one of Carr’s best historical mysteries (which I’ll refute), and understanding what the author was aiming for provides an interesting insight into his wider career.

Carr spent the last two decades of his career focusing primarily on historical mysteries.  The most well regarded, published between The Bride of Newgate (1950) and The Demoniacs (1962) were swashbuckling affairs – light on Carr’s trademark impossible crimes, but heavy on adventure and sword play.  I’ll admit that the description doesn’t appeal to me on the surface, but just read Fire, Burn or Captain Cut Throat, and I think most golden age mystery fans will find themselves turned on to a type of novel that they didn’t know they wanted.

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The Case of the Seven Sneezes – Anthony Boucher (1942)

CaseOfSevenSneezesYou’re always looking for that next best thing, right?  That next John Dickson Carr, Agatha Christie, Christianna Brand, or pick your poison.  The author that delivered not just one or two mysteries that knocked you over, but enough of them that you could gorge on the wealth of their library.

Lord knows we put them through their paces.  A puzzle that both captures and confounds the imagination.  A solution at once complex and yet mind numbingly simple.  To top it off, you have to back that all with enough story and character to make it feel worth something.

The author on my radar since last summer has been Anthony Boucher.  I got hooked with his most famous novel, Nine Times Nine, as I can imagine many a reader has.  As a send up to John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man, it is a locked room mystery for locked room mystery aficionados.  My second read with Boucher is what really got me addicted.  The Case of the Solid Key is just as solid of an impossible crime as Nine Times Nine, plus it features a “why didn’t I think of that?” forehead slapping solution.  What sealed it though for me was that both novels read really well – almost like an American version of John Dickson Carr.  Err… well, Carr was American, but you know what I mean.

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Sad Cypress – Agatha Christie (1940)

SadCypress“Come away, come away, death, and in sad cypress let me be laid”

Although I’ve recently started an effort to read Agatha Christie in order, I’ve always intended to cheat on my diet.  It isn’t so much that I’m determined on reading Christie completely sequentially, but rather that I’m curious to read the first decade of her work in that way.  My reasoning is her first ten or so books don’t quite enjoy the same reputation as her 1930s-40s period (with the obvious exception of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd), and so if I’m going to tackle them, it might as well be with the added appreciation of where the author was in her career.

Sad Cypress has been a title that I’ve been eying for a while, and so it seemed like a good candidate as a diversion from my chronological affair.  I was lucky to track down a Dell map back edition for about a dollar a few months ago, and as you can appreciate, it’s pure torture to leave a map back sitting on the To Be Read pile.  It’s worth noting that there is actually another Dell edition with a very different cover and a different map on the back.  I would have preferred that other edition because I love the cover, but hey, you can’t argue with a one dollar map back!

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The Five Matchboxes – John Russell Fearn (1950)

TheFiveMatchBoxesAn anonymous letter tips police off that a man will be killed at an exact time and place.  The police stake out the location, even posting a man in a hall right out the murder room.  Right on time, a shot rings out, and as police break down the door, they find a victim lies dead of a gunshot in an airtight locked room.  And sitting there, on the table, are ten teacups.

Er, actually it’s five matchboxes.  Forgive me though if I make the obvious comparison to The Ten Teacups by John Dickson Carr.  John Russell Fearn’s novel was published thirteen years after Carr’s, and it checks all of the boxes when it comes to the set up.  Man shot in a locked room?  Check.  Detective posted directly outside the door, with even more police watching the building from outside?  Check.  Mysterious note announcing the exact circumstances of the murder?  Check.  Puzzling collection of objects found at the crime scene (five matchboxes rather than ten teacups)?  Check.

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Death and the Maiden – Q Patrick (1939)

DeathAndTheMaidenThis is my second novel by the author collective most commonly known as Patrick Quentin.  My previous read (Death’s Old Sweet Song) was the GAD equivalent of a mindless 70s slasher flick – enjoyable for what it is, but a bit shallow throughout.  I’m intrigued by Quentin nonetheless.  There’s a respectably large library of books for me to track down and I can’t help but search for that elusive “next great author”.

Death and the Maiden caught my attention as one of the more consistently recommended works by Quentin.  It’s a bit tricky to track down the author’s library for cheap, but I somehow managed to get my hands on this 1944 hard cover edition for a steal.

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The Dead Man’s Knock – John Dickson Carr (1958)

deadmansknock“Fly open, lock, to the dead man’s knock”

The Dead Man’s Knock marks a return of John Dickson Carr’s series detective Dr Gideon Fell following a nine year hiatus.  Carr had published Fell novels on at least a yearly basis throughout the 1930’s, and almost as reliably in the 1940s, aside from a smattering of gaps.  Below Suspicion (1949) marked an end to the detective’s run, as the author took a detour into historical mysteries starting in 1950 with The Bride of Newgate.  It’s interesting to note that although Dr Fell had been abandoned, Carr’s other contemporary series detective, Sir Henry Merrivale, would still feature into a smattering of books up until The Cavalier’s Cup in 1953.

At that point, Carr was pretty much focused exclusively on the historical mystery genre.  While locked rooms and other impossibilities would make fleeting appearances in each book, the stories were more plot driven swashbuckling adventures soaked in historical trivia – not something that appeals to me on paper, but with Carr at the helm they hit the spot.  Interestingly enough, only one contemporary mystery was published between 1952 and 1958.  Patrick Butler for the Defense (1956) was a spiritual sequel to Below Suspicion, but didn’t actually feature Dr Fell.

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The Rose in Darkness – Christianna Brand (1979)

RoseInDarkness“The rose in darkness: with the last darkness, closing, closing in.”

Wow.  Just wow.  If I were to claim that The Rose in Darkness has Christianna Brand’s best ending, I’d probably be wrong.  Hell, I’d probably find myself combatting an alternate version of myself.  Between the “I’m going to lie in bed for two weeks crying” conclusion of Green for Danger, the shocking final sentence reveal amidst the blitzkrieg that is Suddenly at His Residence, the slow sickening realization of Fog of Doubt, the jaw on the floor finale of Tour de Force, or even the rat-tat-tat neck-twisting ending of Cat and Mouse, Christianna Brand has paved a trail of stomach punch endings.  In that respect alone, she may be amongst the best of the golden age.

Still, excuse the enthusiasm of my still shell shocked mind as I rave with fan boy enthusiasm that The Rose in Darkness features one of Brand’s most powerful endings.  Of course, I’m not going to tell you any actual details about the ending, other than it was like watching a slow cascade of dominos without actually grasping how the remaining ones would fall.  Oh, and it’s one of those emotional ones that will stick with you – but again, most of Brand’s do.

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