Like its namesake, The Unicorn Murders is an unusual beast. Part spy caper, part impossible crime, it’s a unique entry in the Carr library.
The story revolves around a duel between a master thief and a master detective. The thief publicly boasts of his intentions to steal a mysterious object, referred to as “The Unicorn”, during a flight to Paris. The detective, in turn, issues a public exclamation that he will be onboard the flight as well, with the intent to capture the thief. Both hero and villain are masters of disguise and nobody knows what they look like.
Not your standard Carr set up, am I right….? The whole premise of a super villain playing cat and mouse with his nemesis feels somewhat cardboard and out dated, although I suspect that this is Carr’s homage to The Mystery of the Yellow Room.
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Recently, the Invisible Event hosted a special celebration for John Dickson Carr’s 110th birthday, for which a number of bloggers contributed a Carr inspired write up to commemorate the day. I felt that something special was in order, not just a typical book review. Something that captured the essence of how the author resonates with me. Why then did I cheat and submit a review for The Man Who Could Not Shudder? A review, that in fact, I had actually published several days earlier?
Well, for one, I unexpectedly found myself very busy in the last days leading up to the event. More so, though, was my failed attempt to follow through on writing some “Best of” or “Top 5” lists for the special day. As someone currently exploring Carr’s work, the Top 5/10 list has been immensely valuable. They’ve given inspiration on where to focus my reading time. Not only did they point my way to some prime books for my initial endeavors, but they’ve helped me uncover gems like Death Watch that would have otherwise languished in obscurity at the bottom of my To Be Read stack.
Continue reading “The Carr Fan’s Lament”
Carr’s work typically falls into three categories – impossible crimes investigated by Fell, impossible crimes investigated by Merrivale, and some form of historical novel offering some level of impossible crime. There are a handful of exceptions – The Emperor’s Snuff Box and Poison in Jest being prime examples. Even in these cases, your going to get something somewhat expected – a baffling crime followed by an investigation to find the murderer.
The Nine Wrong Answers stands apart in that it isn’t a whodunnit Despite the plot taking place over the span of many days, the story doesn’t really involve any central murder or investigation. There is no impossible crime, and in a way, there almost isn’t really an outright mystery. Instead, we’re treated to a chess game between the author and the reader. At nine points throughout the novel, Carr sheds the convention of story telling and provides footnotes that speak directly to the reader. Each aside serves as a guide, assuring you that if you were to jump to a predictable conclusion, you would be wrong (hence the book’s name). Although true to his word, Carr uses these comments to ensare the reader, creating a form of mystery simply by ruling out the probable.
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When I started my journey with Carr, the road was laid out and predictable. I would read through a blend of the most highly regarded books before making my way into the middle ground – books you don’t hear too much about, but aren’t derided. Eventually, I figured, I’d hit a breaking point – slogging through a few disinteresting stories and then moving on to a different author. But, then a funny thing happened. I accidentally read Fire, Burn (thinking it was The Burning Court), which, while not derided, doesn’t exactly inspire stellar reviews. Shocked that I loved the book, I decided to step further into the deep end, next picking up Death Watch, which I’ve seen on a few “worst of Carr” lists. Absolutely loving that story, I now find myself at grips with The Man Who Could Not Shudder. While not despised at the same level as, say, Behind the Crimson Blind or The Hungry Goblin, this book is a staple when people list their least favorite Carr’s.
What led me to the book was a comment by JJ at The Invisible Event that there is a moment of brilliance – of sheer audacity on Carr’s part – when the solution is revealed. Ok, I’m sold. After experiencing a euphoric moment of clarity towards the end of The White Priory Murders, I had to have another taste.
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I recall an interesting debate on a blog about which book would be the best to introduce a newcomer to Carr. Upon the topic being introduced, my mind immediately flashed to classics like The Problem of the Green Capsule and The Judas Window.
This was an obvious reaction – why not start with a story that you’re bound to love? However, as I dug deeper into the comment section, a different position became prevalent. Don’t start with the best and then leave the reader expecting every book to be perfection. Well, I’m probably doing a horrible job paraphrasing the commenter, but the basic logic was that a newcomer should start with a solid story that gives them an introduction to Carr’s writing style, hooks them with a solid impossible crime, and sets the tone for what can be expected with future reading.
As I piece together my thoughts on Hag’s Nook, it strikes me that this might fit the criteria perfectly. Perhaps I’m a bit biased – after all, this was my first encounter with a full length Carr novel. Yet it’s all there – everything that makes a Carr novel great.
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On rare occasions, I’ll be several chapters into a book when I realize that I’m reading something special. I got that sense two chapters into The Burning Court – I knew that I was in for a fun ride and I almost regretted knowing that it would at some point end. I was fortunate enough to experience that feeling again with Till Death Do Us Part, and even more fortunate that it was an intuition that turned out to be correct.
Having surveyed reviews on a number of sites, I categorized the book as Highly Recommended Carr. This was a mistake, it is a Classic. As with He Who Whispers, everything about this story just works. Riveting impossible crime – check. Excellent pacing – check. Memorable characters – check. The feeling that the rug is constantly being pulled out from under you – che…well, this is a Carr novel, so I suppose that’s a given
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Consult a list of the top five Carr books and He Who Whispers is almost guaranteed to be on it. This is widely considered to be classic Carr, and I won’t argue with that sentiment. It has it all – the quality of the puzzle, the sense of adventure, memorable characters, and a haunting ending. It’s this well rounded nature that raises it above such strong competition; the many other Carr tales often sagging slightly in one dimension or another.
I’ve only read 15 Carr stories so far, with some notorious gaps (The Hollow Man, The Case of the Constant Suicides, The Crooked Hinge), but I think I can spot a classic when I see it. There’s something about how all of the aspects of the story work together in concert.
Continue reading “He Who Whispers”