And So to Murder – John Dickson Carr (1940)

andsotomurderThis was the final novel that I had left in what I regard to be Sir Henry Merrivale’s classic run from The Plague Court Murders (1934) through Nine – And Death Makes Ten (1940).  Many would argue that Merrivale’s best two stories were yet to come, with She Died a Lady (1943) and He Wouldn’t Kill Patience (1944), but for me, the first 11 novels are an unbroken run of quality, puzzle, and atmosphere that would go unmatched in Carr’s career.  Rooms that kill (The Red Widow Murders), invisible assassins (The Unicorn Murders), murder via teleforce (The Reader is Warned) – these plots provide some of the author’s gnarliest puzzles, to say nothing of the quintessential locked room murder (The Judas Window) and equally definitive footprints in the snow mystery (The White Priory Murders).

It’s funny then that I close this chapter with And So to Murder – a book that has none of those snazzy hooks and brain teasers.  It’s a surprisingly straight forward mystery involving some deadly antics on the grounds of a film studio – something that I could imagine any number of GAD authors putting forth as a plot.  But this is John Dickson Carr, and as vanilla as the story may sound, it still dazzles.

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The Skeleton in the Clock – Carter Dickson (1948)

skeletonintheclockHow on earth was The Skeleton in the Clock not on my radar?  Well, I mean, I obviously knew about the book – I’ve owned it for a few years and it’s shifted positions in my To Be Read pile enough times as it is.  It’s just that I didn’t realize it was going to be this good.  Let me explain.

Although I’d describe myself as being more of a fan of John Dickson Carr’s series detective Dr Fell, my favorite run of books may well be the near dozen early Sir Henry Merrivale novels published under the name of Carter Dickson between 1934 and 1940.  The set ups to those books were classic – confounding puzzles that set the standard for the genre of impossible crime.  Better yet, Carr wrapped these stories in a smothering atmosphere of pure dread.  Rooms that kill, ghostly hangmen, killers who commit their crimes by mere thought; I just love this stuff.  Granted, there’s a natural explanation behind it all in the end, but these are stories that make you question whether you’re dealing with something much more sinister.

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The Punch and Judy Murders – John Dickson Carr (1936)

PunchAndJudy2The Magic Lantern Murders

When I first started reading John Dickson Carr, I leaned heavily on the top tier titles.  Part of that was intentional – wanting to read the best while first exploring an author – and part of it was the dumb luck of stumbling on a few not-as-renowned titles simply because they were readily at hand.  The consequence though was that I burned through nearly all of the early Henry Merrivale books published prior to 1940.  As I would later come to realize, this run of Carr’s novels features his most over the top impossibilities.

Each of the early Merrivale titles (published under the pseudonym Carter Dickson) stands out for an outlandish puzzle.  A man stabbed to death in a locked hut surrounded by untouched mud (The Plague Court Murders); a woman found dead surrounded by untouched snow (The White Priory Murders); a room that kills anyone who spends the night inside (The Red Widow Murders); a man stabbed by an invisible force in plain view of multiple witnesses (The Unicorn Murders).  These are simply the first four plots in a nine book run.  Not only is Carr delivering some of his best impossibilities, but his books pack a brilliant pace and some of his best writing.

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Death in Five Boxes – Carter Dickson (1938)

deathin5boxesWhen I look back at my early days of reading John Dickson Carr’s work, it’s almost obscene.  Hit after hit after hit after hit.  This wasn’t exactly an accident – I had done my research on the author.  At the same time, I wasn’t exactly being greedy.  My goal was to mix up the consensus classics with some well regarded books that flew a bit below the radar.  It just so happened that a lot of those below the radar books are astoundingly good.

My early days were also constrained by the books that I owned at the time.  One particular bulk purchase that I made towards the beginning was a package of early Merrivale titles in 1960’s Berkley Medallion editions.  Not only did these prove to be solid selections, but they had some great cover art as well.

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The Cavalier’s Cup – Carter Dickson (1953)

CaveliersCupThe Cavalier’s Cup doesn’t have the best reputation as far as John Dickson Carr books go.  Oft-derided, it tends to be lumped in with the other common undesirables – The Hungry Goblin, Behind the Crimson Blind, Deadly Hall, Papa La-Bas, and a handful of other titles.  Is it a fair reputation though?

I’ve become somewhat skeptical of the stigma attached to supposedly lower-tier Carr books.  I flat out loved The Problem of the Wire CageSeeing is Believing was a killer read up until an ending that I’ll admit was comical at best.  Below Suspicion?  How could anyone not enjoy it?  Dark of the Moon?  Yeah, it was a rambling slog, but the end spun me around so bad that I’m half tempted to recommend it.

Across forty-some Carr books that I’ve read up to now, I’ve only really read one book that didn’t work for me at all – Night at the Mocking Widow.  As such, I’m fairly open to trying a book with a bad reputation.  In fact, I look forward to it.  Even if the story doesn’t fire on all cylinders, maybe there’s a gem tucked in there to be appreciated.

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Nine — and Death Makes Ten – Carter Dickson (1940)

nineanddeathHow unfair is it for me to have to write about a book featuring a dash in the title?  Or, I suppose, how awkward is it for you to have to read it?  I’ve already done my time with the comma in Fire, Burn, and now I take another turn with Nine — and Death Makes Ten.  I could of course refer to it by it’s alternative titles – Murder in the Submarine Zone and Murder in the Atlantic – but, hey, that would be confusing because of the edition that I own, so here we go.

I’ve been holding off on reading this one for quite some time.  In fact, a post about my Carr To Be Read pile from seven months ago features this in the fourth position, and about eight books have since passed it by.  I’ve held off for a reason.  With only 25 Carr titles left to go, this is one of the last great ones.  At least that’s what popular opinion would leave me to believe.  Nine — and Death Makes Ten crops up on enough Top 10 Carr lists that I’ve been holding out hope that this will be a true classic.

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Fatal Descent – Carter Dickson and John Rhode (1939)

FatalDescentWhen I think about the true sweet spot in John Dickson Carr’s career, it’s 1938-1939.  The Crooked Hinge, The Judas Window, The Problem of the Green Capsule, The Problem of the Wire Cage, The Reader is Warned.  Not only is that a lot of books that start with the word “The”, but it’s a list that contains some of his very best work – titles matching some of his strongest puzzles with intriguing plots.  Fortunately, I’ve been disciplined enough to hoard a few titles from this period to enjoy at a later time – Death in Five Boxes and Fatal Descent.

Fatal Descent is notable in that Carr shared writing duties with another prolific mystery author of the time – Cecil Street.  Street’s writing career spanned roughly the same period as Carr, although he published quite a few more novels, mostly under the names of John Rhode and Miles Burton (I’ll use “Rhode” going forward to avoid confusion).  I’ve never read any of his work (his books typically go for $50 dollars at least), but I’ve seen him classified as part of the “humdrum” school of GAD – not exactly an exciting endorsement, especially with money on the line.  Still, some prominent members of the GAD blogosphere attest to Rhode’s quality, and so if you’re interested in learning more, I’ll have to point you to a Rhodes scholar (eh, see what I did?  Well, it is a somewhat US-centric reference…).

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