The Mad Hatter Mystery

MadHatterThe second Dr Fell novel, The Mad Hatter Mystery finds us in fog-soaked London.  Ted Rampole (previously in Hag’s Nook) reunites with the doctor as they investigate a string of hat thefts plaguing the city and confounding the police.  We’re also introduced to Chief Inspector Hadley, who will go on to be the Fell equivalent of Merrivale’s Chief Inspector Masters – a likable investigator lured to false conclusions by the clues of the crime, only to eventually be shown the light by the omniscient series detective.

The stolen hats go beyond just simple theft – someone is snatching hats from people in positions of powers and placing them in conspicuous places.  On top of that, we have the theft of a rare manuscript by Edgar Allan Poe – a lost story featuring the first appearance of detective Auguste Dupin.  All of this in the first chapter of the book, plus one more thing – murder.

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My Late Wives

MyLateWivesRoger Bewlay has made his fortune by marrying women who have a habit of disappearing without a trace.  His use of aliases has allowed his first two crimes to pass by unnoticed, but a slight slip up with his third wife has drawn the attention of the police.  Under the close observation of the law, Bewlay goes on holiday with a fourth lover.  She vanishes from a guarded house, and the next day, Bewlay is gone, never to be seen again.

That was 11 years ago.  The police were never able to track down the killer, nor did they ever figure out what happened to any of the bodies.  Now, a script for a play shows up at a theatre company in London.  The author is unknown, but the play tells the tale of the infamous wife-killer’s life, both before and after the murders.  The script reveals too much – facts that would only be known by the police…or the killer.

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The Bowstring Murders

bowstringmurdersBefore there was Merrivale and Carter Dickson, there was Carr Dickson.  You see, John Dickson Carr was cranking out books at such a ridiculous rate that he was producing more than his publisher would bear (2 books a year).  Rather than let up the gas or build a backlog, Carr created his first pseudonym and started releasing works under another publisher.  The Bowstring Murders was the first of these efforts, and the only work published under the name Carr Dickson.  His original publisher complained that the name was too similar, so Carr adopted the much less similar Carter Dickson.  Superman himself would be proud of such a clever disguise.

The Bowstring Murders catches Carr at an interesting transition in his early career.  He’s recently wrapped up his main Bencolin works, only resurrecting the detective once more in 1938’s The Four False Weapons.  1933 has given us the first two Dr Gideon Fell works – Hag’s Nook and The Mad Hatter Mystery – providing a glimpse of the fledgling series detective.  We stand at the precipice of greatness – 1934 will start a landslide of killer puzzles that doesn’t let up for the better part of a decade.  The early Merrivale works will find Carr at a completely new level in terms of the impossibilities that he offers.

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To Be Read – John Dickson Carr edition

Part of the joy of devouring a genre (or in my current case, an author) is deciding what to read next.  I imagine we all have some weird technique behind how we do it, whether it’s fully conscious or not.  For me it verges on a hobby.  That isn’t to say that I spend grotesque amounts of time thinking about reading order, but it definitely crosses my mind more than it should.  From time to time – typically spurred by a new arrival or two – I’ll examine my stack and shift things around.

My technique has evolved over time.  When I was first filling out my Carr library, I was typically buying packs of 5-15 books off of eBay.  As each batch would arrive, I’d separate it into “books I really really want to read” and “books I might get to if I decide to keep going with Carr”.  The better books would find themselves mixed into the top of my TBR pile, with the lesser titles getting dispersed towards the bottom.  At that point, the order of my overall stack was based pretty much on my research of conventional opinion of Carr book quality, and so it tended to be a best-to-worst affair.  I didn’t rely solely on lists though – certain titles like The Reader is Warned, The White Priory Murders, and The Red Widow Murders made their way to the top, bolstered in part by an interesting premise and also… well, I owned them, and I didn’t own others.

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The Plague Court Murders

PlagueCourtIf I could wrap up everything that I’m looking for in a Carr work perfectly, it would be The Plague Court Murders.  No, it’s not his absolute masterpiece – that designation is better bestowed on works such as The Problem of the Green Capsule, He Who Whispers, or even a short story like The House in Goblin Wood.  Yet, in many ways, The Plague Court Murders excels in dimensions that each of those titles doesn’t quite reach.  To that effect, this title – the first Merrivale tale – is the purest representation of what I search for in the author.

Let’s start with the puzzle.  After all, that’s why we read these things, right?  Carr’s reputation centers around the impossible crime, and he delivers more often than not.  His best puzzles don’t just perplex, they leave you fixated on the problem for every last page until the solution is finally revealed.  The Plague Court Murders offers that two-fold with a single crime.  A man is found violently stabbed to death in a stone hut that is completely locked down.  The only door is tightly barred from the inside, the fireplace is impenetrable, and the small dwelling is so barren that there isn’t a place for a culprit to hide.  As if the classic locked room set up wasn’t enough, Carr add in a footprint puzzle.  You see, the hut is surrounded by an expanse of untouched mud.  Not a single footprint is present and none other than Chief Inspector Masters (a staple of Merrivale mysteries) was watching the grounds and could hear the murder being committed.

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The Demoniacs

demoniacsIt dawned on me recently that it had been a while since I read a historical Carr novel.  In an attempt to draw out my remaining Fell and Merrivale library, why not reach into the author’s unique backlog of stories of the past?  My experience with the sub-genre has been limited so far, but I’ve learned it’s something to be savored.  In my two prior encounters – Fire, Burn and The Witch of the Low Tide – Carr utilizes tomes of research to layer the stories with historical nuances.  While The Witch of the Low Tide is a more conventional impossible crime novel slathered in details of the past, Fire, Burn is more of a historical novel that just so happens to include a mystery.  In both cases, you’re in for a treat – you may come for the standard Carr puzzle, but you walk away wrapped up in a certain sense of time and place.

Where to go next?  The Bride of Newgate lured me with the promise of an intriguing plot, but I figured I’d go with a title that flies more under the radar.  Out of several candidates I settled on The Demoniacs, mainly because I knew nothing about it.

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Being the End of Bencolin

I’ve documented my obsession with reading order before.  John Dickson Carr has books covering all sorts of ranges – various detectives (Bencolin, Fell, Merrivale, non-series), subgenres (historical, time travel, locked rooms), and five different decades.  How to tackle it all?  Well, I have my own evolving maniacal method that I’ve discussed on here from time to time.  For this piece though, I’ll be focusing on my deviation from it.

It all started with some sound advice from JJ over at The Invisible Event.  Reasonable guidance, along the lines of “just read them in order.”  Well, I can’t quite argue with something as simple as that.  What better way to experience an author than to watch them evolve?  To watch the arc of Bencolin, the introduction of Fell and Merrivale, and then to understand if and how the stories linked together or matured over time.  Still, I had my inner turmoil.  There were a few problems that jumped out at me:

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