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.
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Here we have another Carr book that seems to be held in decent regard but doesn’t garner too much attention. The title alone was too much for me to resist. I had enjoyed The Nine Wrong Answers, in which the author breaks the fourth wall and directly challenges the reader. The very title of The Reader is Warned suggests a similar approach, but, alas it isn’t. Ok, to be fair, there are a few footnotes that qualify, but not in a way that is so essential to the story.
This Merrivale tale involves a series of murders that happen under vexing circumstances. A self proclaimed psychic warns a party that he can kill by the sheer will of his mind. Murder follows, repeatedly. In the case of each death, evidence proves that the psychic couldn’t have been directly involved in the murder.
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Some books challenge me in terms of how to rate them. There are stories, like the Judas Window, which hold their excellence throughout and are a no brainer on a Top 10 list. Then there are stories like The Red Widow Murders, which have the promise to reach such spiraling heights, but are held short by one aspect of the story. How do you rate a book such as this? Can a story be top 10 worthy based purely on one dimension? If so, The White Priory Murders certainly qualifies.
A Merrivale story, The White Priory Murders inhabits the “footprints” category of impossible crimes. An actress is found murdered in a pavilion surrounded by freshly fallen snow. Only a single set of footprints lead to the crime scene – those of the man who found the body.
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Having been slowly working my way through the top 1/4 of Carr books, I’ve decided to become a little more adventurous. In part, this was due to accidentally reading Fire, Burn (a typically low rated Carr work) and enjoying it. Another influencer was JJ, over at The Invisible Event, who included both Death Watch and The Man Who Could Not Shudder in a list of Carr books to try. The recommendations seemed unusual – both of these books have a somewhat diminished standing on review sites. When first building my reputation-based list of Carr novels to avoid, both of these titles were in heavy consideration for inclusion. Death Watch in particular is regularly panned in reviews, but I stumbled upon several other blogs that positioned it as a worthy read. As such, I’ve been mixing up my To Be Read stack a little, and recently took on Death Watch instead of Till Death Do Us Part.
Death Watch revolves around the murder of a detective who was investigating a brazen killing in a crowded department store. The detective is found dead, stabbed in the neck with an unusual weapon – the minute hand of a clock. He has seemingly been lured to a clockmaker’s house under the pretense of receiving evidence exposing one of the inhabitants as the killer from the department store. It is at this house that Dr Fell discovers the crime scene and Carr introduces us to a cast of suspects. Immediately, we get the sense that not all is as it seems – something is clearly being hidden and it isn’t hard to detect that nearly every character’s account is laced with lies.
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Trapped in time, a detective from the 1950s struggles to make sense of the world when he finds himself in 1820’s London. In charge of London’s fledgling police force, he applies his knowledge of modern forensic science to solve a seemingly impossible crime.
It is only out of my own sheer stupidity that I read this book. My intended target was The Burning Court, which is commonly held to be one of Carr’s best. Perhaps it was the reference to flame in the title, or maybe it was the knowledge that The Burning Court involved murders from past centuries. I was about 1/3 of the way through when it dawned on me that I had made a mistake. And what a fortunate mistake it was. No, Fire, Burn doesn’t reach the heights of The Burning Court, the later of which I read immediately after. Rather, my pleasant error led me to part of Carr’s catalogue that I wouldn’t have touched for a long time – the historical novel.
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As soon as I got this book it went to the top of my reading list. How could it not? The premise is so intriguing – the police receive a cryptic letter warning “there will be ten teacups”. The address indicated in the note leads to an abandoned house containing a dead man amidst an odd crime scene. Only one room of the house is furnished, and in the center is a table with ten teacups arranged in a circle. The crime is never solved. Two years later, a similar note is sent, and the circumstances repeat themselves, despite the address being under heavy police surveillance.
It was the mysterious notion of the ten teacups that drew me to the book. Why were the two crimes set up in such a particular way? How could something as innocent as a teacup play into murder? Although this Merrivale novel, also published as The Peacock Feather Murders, doesn’t seem to make top 10 lists, it does appear to have a strong underground following. After reading it, I can say that the reputation is well deserved.
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I’m surprised that I don’t read more about this book. It doesn’t show up on many Top Carr lists and I haven’t seen it reviewed on many of my favorite sites. It seems to occupy a strange limbo alongside The Ten Teacups, The Unicorn Murders, The Reader is Warned, and The Mad Hatter mystery – I find very little mention of these books, and yet they seem to be held in fairly high regard.
My verdict? This could have easily been Carr’s masterpiece. Could have… The atmosphere is gripping – possibly his best. The puzzle is mind bending – possibly his best. The pace is riveting – again, possibly his best. Similar to The Judas Window, each successive chapter seems to include its own shattering revelations. There is even a long fascinating passage set in the time of the French Revolution, dripping with Carr’s usual historical details.
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