I previously covered what I consider to be the first period of John Dickson Carr’s Sir Henry Merrivale mysteries. These novels, published from 1934-1940 lean hard into impossible crimes, which distinguishes them from Carr’s Dr Gideon Fell novels from the time. The focus on impossible crimes is also a dividing factor between the first two periods of the Merrivale novels, and we’ll cover the second period here.
Carr published 22 Merrivale novels over a 19 year span, beginning with The Plague Court Murders in 1934 and finishing with The Cavalier’s Cup in 1953. My split between the era’s of the Merrivale novels takes place in 1940, which coincidentally divides these into two equal groups of 11. The latter 11 novels differ from the first 11 in terms of the focus on impossible crimes, as well as the role of humor in the novels. The first 11 novels are all about the impossible crime (with a few exceptions already covered), whereas impossibilities play a middling role in this second half. The novels also take a step down in quality. Before getting into that, let’s first take a look at the books that make up this second phase.
The Judas Window. The White Priory Murders. The Ten Teacups. The Red Widow Murders. Nine, and Death Makes Ten. Five heavy hitters that trump the best of most any other mystery writer’s library. John Dickson Carr published these all in his first decade, and the one hand tied behind his back is that these are just a selection of the Sir Henry Merrivale mysteries from the time period; I’m not even looking at the equally (if not more) revered Dr Gideon Fell series. Carr had a career that spanned five decades (granted most output came during the first three), but it’s the 30s where he’s swinging fast and landing his punches. While his alternate detective Dr Gideon Fell will always remain my favorite, I hold that Carr’s best streak came in the first stretch of eleven Henry Merivale mysteries that constitute the era we’ll cover here.
Carr opened his career with four Henri Bencolin novels before releasing two standalone mysteries: Poison in Jest and The Bowstring Murders. That brief exploration forked into the Fell and Merrivale series, with two Fell novels being released in 1933 before introducing Sir Henry Merivale in 1934. After that, both series took off like rockets, with Carr releasing two books from each in most years up until 1941. At that point, the pace slowed a bit, but we’re still talking a novel per year in each series for the most part.
It was back in 2018 when I last read a John Dickson Carr novel that really featured the author in his prime. The last four years still featured some good reads, but they weren’t the books that drew me to Carr – the kind you press upon others to read with a religious fervor. I front loaded my Carr reading with the very best of his work (of which there’s a lot), and since then I’ve been slowly hen pecking through the mid to low range material put out mostly during the second half of his career (of which there’s also a lot). For the most part they’re fine books that would stand out in any other author’s library, but there’s also some stuff that’s grating to read – 50s/60s Fell novels and his last four historicals – due to his writing being influenced by years of writing dialogue heavy radio plays.
With that in mind, He Wouldn’t Kill Patience was a true “coming home” moment for me. What a breath of fresh air to once again experience the competent prose and artful plotting that first drew me to one of the best mystery writers of the Golden Age. How enthralling to once more take in a (literally) air-tight locked room murder, after years of stories with impossible crimes that felt loose in their construction or minor to the plot. To experience one more time what I felt in those first 40 books.
Whenever anyone makes a comment about the worst of John Dickson Carr’s books featuring detective Henry Merrivale, you’re pretty much guaranteed that Behind the Crimson Blind is going to get a mention. At this stage in Carr’s career, he was just breaking ground on an excellent run of historical mysteries, but he’d already abandoned series detective Dr Fell, and his novels featuring Merrivale were in a nose dive. Bookended by Night at the Mocking Widow (1950) and The Cavalier’s Cup (1953), I had a good idea of what to expect: a severe drop in the quality of the mystery, with the stories instead focusing on slapstick antics of a once great detective.
While my suspicions were semi-correct, Behind the Crimson Blind is a much better book than I anticipated it would be – although I’m going to have to qualify that statement. Lop off a 60 page section roughly midway through the book, and this would be a good read by most authors standards. It still would only be a shadow of Carr’s best – my closest comparison being maybe The Curse of the Bronze Lamp – but he’s also doing something significantly different.
My three remaining Carter Dickson novels all find me towards the end of the Sir Henry Merrivale series.The very best of Merrivale’s work is unfortunately at the opposite end – the run of macabre impossible crimes spanning The Plague Court Murders (1934) through Nine – And Death Makes Ten (1940).The mysteries published in the 40’s were lighter fair, with the elements of brooding horror giving way to unnecessary spurts of slapstick comedy.That’s not to say there aren’t strong entries there – many would list She Died a Lady (1943) amongst Carr’s best work (I wouldn’t go that far) and The Skeleton in the Clock (1948) is quite the return to earlier form.
The stories tend to get weaker over time though, and as we hit the final three books – Night at the Mocking Widow (1950), Behind the Crimson Blind (1952), and The Cavalier’s Cup (1953), you’ll be hard pressed to find many positive comments.It’s on the precipice of this decent that I find myself with A Graveyard to Let (1949).The two books that it straddles – The Skeleton in the Clock and Night at the Mocking Widow – are dramatically different in terms of quality.Which would I get with this one?
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.
How 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.
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.
When 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.
The 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 Cage. Seeing 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.