John Dickson Carr – Five beguiling puzzles

When it comes to evaluating impossible crimes, there are two super obvious criteria.

  • How gripping the puzzle is
  • How clever the solution is

It isn’t surprising to note that the two aren’t always the same.  The best solutions aren’t alway preceded by the most bewildering impossibility, and the most rapturing puzzle doesn’t alway leave you satisfied in the end.  I’ve previously covered some astonishing solutions, and now I’ll be looking at five beguiling puzzles (hint: where the two lists intersect, you’ll find some killer impossible crimes).

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Castle Skull

castleskullPoor Castle Skull.  How it lingered for months in the top five of my To Be Read list, only to be displaced multiple times by various events.  The arrival of The Burning Court.  The lure of Till Death Do Us Part.  The sudden insatiable urge to read The Witch of the Low Tide.  I’ve tucked Caste Skull into my luggage on four separate trips, each time planning to turn to it after finishing my current reading.  A fairly well traveled book, for me never having read it.

The final delay in starting Castle Skull was my decision to approach the Bencolin works in order.  Back down the stack it fell, and up roared It Walks By Night and The Lost Gallows.  And, now, that last set back finally leads me to its pages.

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The Case of the Constant Suicides

caseofconstantsuicidesJohn Dickson Carr has some books where the title alone draws you in – The Nine Wrong Answers, The Reader is Warned, The Four False Weapons,…  The names suggest that the reader is going to be played with – presented with a set of clues that promise to be false.  Amongst these ranks, we find The Case of the Constant Suicides.  The title suggests deaths – multiple of them – and they’re going to look like suicide.  But this is Carr, so we know it’s not going to be that easy.

This is a classic that I’ve been holding onto for a while.  For one, I simply had to get a copy with the best cover.  Second, this is one of the handful of Carr works that I have left that are unanimously considered among his top works.  I’ve come to learn that I enjoy Carr in general, even if I’m not dealing with the more popular works, but I’ve also come to appreciate that with many of those revered stories, everything just snaps into place.

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The Lost Gallows

lostgallowsEgyptian curses, notorious hangmen, phantom cars, and gallows on a street that doesn’t exist….eh, sorry, but it just didn’t really do too much for me.  Although a decent read, this probably finds its way to the bottom of my list of books by John Dickson Carr.  A pity, as I had high hopes after seeing this grace several top 10 lists on the poll at Tipping My Fedora a few years ago.

The Lost Gallows is a light continuation of the events from It Walks By Night, with narrator Jeff Marle and detective Bencolin visiting London to attend the opening night of the play mentioned in the previous novel.  While staying at the ominous Brimstone Club, they get swept up in a mystery that is going to be a bit taxing for me to explain.  This is one of those plots where you feel like you have to do a grade school book report to really capture what’s going on.

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The Emperor’s Snuff Box

emperorssnuffboxOf all the Carr books, this might be one of the most difficult to describe.  No, not because the plot is complex – like, say, Death Watch – but because it’s a fairly straight forward traditional murder mystery that lacks a definitive hook.  No deadly rooms, no coven of witches, no prowling beast, nor cursed lineages.  Not even an impossible crime.


To lay the plot out plainly — an estranged couple are in the middle of a fight late at night when they spot something horrifying in the villa across the street.  Through the opposing window, they spy the body of an antique collector slumped over his desk.  His head has been crushed in and in front of him lay the shattered remnants of an odd snuff box.  They catch just a glimpse of the killer slipping out of the room and switching off the light with a gloved hand.

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It Walks By Night

Being the Beginning of Bencolin

itwalksbynightI’m one to obsess a bit about my To Be Read stack – not just the three or four books that will be read next, but the order of the entire stack(s).  I like to read a mix of Carr – some classics, some less appreciated books.  Some Fell, some Merivale, some non-series or historical.  When I first started, one of my big questions was in what order I should attack Carr’s work.  I didn’t want to blow completely through the best of his stories – I wanted to mix things up.  But with over 70 books in the backlog, how was I to identify a proper order?  Sure, the classics, recommended, and duds are fairly easy to identify from reading various lists and blogs.  But there is a large middle ground of less reviewed books that I had a hard time evaluating.

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John Dickson Carr – 5 brilliant solutions

If you’re reading John Dickson Carr, the master of the locked room, chances are you’re in it for the impossible crime.  Over the course of his 70+ novels, you’ll encounter a broad range of beguiling puzzles.  Not all are locked rooms, and not all are impossible crimes.  Across such a spectrum, how do you rate them?

One obvious measure is the solution.  Yeah, a good puzzle can draw you in, but if it doesn’t pay off with full satisfying glory, then you’re left grasping for the shadow of an idea that never fully materializes.

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