The Curse of the Bronze Lamp – Carter Dickson (1945)

Lord of the Sorcerers

bronzelampA recent thread of conversation over at The Invisible Event had me thinking about what I desire from a Merrivale story as opposed to a Fell.  Well, ok, it wasn’t that this post exactly inspired that line of though – it’s always kicking around somewhere in the back of my mind.  For a John Dickson Carr fan like me, it’s a natural question.  Having read somewhere in the vicinity of 40 JDC novels, my mind starts to dissect and categorize what I’ve read.  With only five Bencolin novels, and the historicals being such a separate category, the Fell/Merrivale split is a natural point to fixate on.

My current thesis is this – the early Merrivale novels are decidedly heavy on the “how done it” dimension, laying out some of the most mind-spinning impossible set ups in the genre.  The early Fell novels, on the other hand, tend to forego the impossibility in favor of mysteries that are of apparently plainer sorts.  “Apparently” being the key word, as the plots often pull themselves inside-out by the end, leaving the reader wondering how they ended up so far astray.

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Five books to read before they’re spoiled for you – John Dickson Carr edition

If there’s anything that I enjoy as much as reading GAD works, it’s reading about them.  I can’t resist – if only because my phone goes with me when the books don’t.  It’s that desire to discover the unknown – the story I haven’t heard of or the familiar title that I didn’t realize I need to read.  The blogging community makes it all too easy.  Type the name of a book/author into a search engine and maybe narrow the search to WordPress or Blogspot and you’re guaranteed hours of slack-jawed enjoyment.

Of course, the blog posts are only part of it.  The comments are almost better – the debates on fair play, the piles of recommendations, and best of all, the merciless criticism.  When a review of The Unicorn Murders spirals into a defense of Below Suspicion, and a post on The Emperor’s Snuff Box leads to a dissection of the merits of The White Priory Murders vs The Plague Court Murders, that’s when I’m in my element.

Unfortunately, there’s a danger in all of this – the careless comment, always innocent, that risks ruining a puzzle.  I’ve had it happen a few times, I hate to say.  I’ll be reading along, cautious for any language that hints of spoiler, and then wham!  My eyes flick away instantly, but my brain has processed what they saw.  I tell myself that I’ll forget, but unfortunately that just doesn’t happen.

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Night at the Mocking Widow – Carter Dickson (1950)

nightatmockingwidowIf you’ve read my reviews up to now, you know that I haven’t shied away from the supposedly weaker Carr titles.  The Problem of the Wire Cage – loved it.  Death Watch – I wish every Carr book was that good.  Below Suspicion – I have no clue why people dislike it.  Seeing is Believing – ridiculous ending but otherwise a strong title.  Panic in Box C – mmm, it meandered here and there with Carr’s love for trivia, but overall it was decent.  And then of course, The Hungry Goblin – not a book to enthusiastically recommend, but an enjoyable Carr historical.

Naturally, my enjoyment of these supposedly weaker titles has me second guessing myself.  Am I an unabashed JDC fanboy, so blinded by the enjoyment of a few good reads that I’m willing to choke down any mediocre swill the author felt fit to put to page?  Of course not – at least that’s what I tell myself.

Well, I hate to say it, but I’ve finally met my match.  As much as I wanted to love her, there isn’t much to appreciate about the Mocking Widow.  The comedy is bad, the characters are Carr’s shallowest, the plot feels disjointed, the mystery is meh, and the whole read feels like a phoned in facade.

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Fear is the Same – Carter Dickson (1956)

“In all ages, everything changes.  Manners, customs, speech, views on life, even morals – all change.  But fear is the same.  Only fear is the same.”

FearIsTheSameThe only historical John Dickson Carr book published under the name Carter Dickson, Fear is the Same is the one full length novel in which the pseudonym is used without featuring Henry Merrivale.  It feels very much like the other Carr historicals that I’ve read – The Demoniacs and Fire, Burn (I don’t quite count The Witch of the Low Tide as being in the same category).  In fact, Fear is the Same neatly straddles these two novels, featuring the adventure and swordplay of The Demoniacs, while mixing in the time travel aspect of Fire, Burn.

Yes, you read that correctly, time travel.  If you haven’t read a historical Carr, much less a time travel one, you’re probably hastily scrambling to change the page.  Whoa there, it’s alright.  I had the same healthy skepticism for this type of story before I accidentally mistook Fire, Burn for The Burning Court.  The notion of a historical mystery on its own is actually fairly easy to swallow.  Take a good GAD storyline and drop it back in the past a hundred years or so.  The times may have changed, but we’re still dealing with the same thing, right?  Ok, now comes the part that I’m not going to convince you on.  Let’s say that the main characters of said mystery inhabit the 1950s and suddenly just find themselves back in the past.

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The Gilded Man – Carter Dickson (1942)

gildedmanIt’s funny how some books don’t really draw your attention.  With 70+ John Dickson Carr books to choose from, some stand out as obvious reads.  Others have a reputation as being the bottom of the barrel.  Then there is the great middle ground.  Even there, some books just jump out at me more than others.  Perhaps it is the title, the cover art, or just the brief background that I know about the story.  Who knows what my brain is up to, but it’s up to something

The Gilded Man is a prime example of my brain saying “I’m not interested in reading that book”, and I couldn’t even tell you why.  Some part of me probably came to that conclusion when I had an awkwardly high TBR pile on my desk and I had to make some priority decisions.  And then that reputation just stuck, and the book sat there, way down on my reading list…until now (cue dramatic music).

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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 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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