“The sand, the lock, and the sleeping sphinx”
I went into The Sleeping Sphinx knowing very little. It’s not a famous work within Carr’s library, but it’s positioned at an interesting spot in his timeline. The previous two Dr Gideon Fell novels – Till Death Do Us Part (1944) and He Who Whispers (1946) – are considered by most Carr fans to be among the author’s best work. The next entry in the series – Below Suspicion (1949) – is criminally under-rated in my opinion. Given the strength of this run, I was curious to see what The Sleeping Sphinx would hold.
Don Holden returns from WWII under unusual circumstances. Involved in espionage during and after the war, he was sent on an assassination mission in Italy and declared dead as part of his cover. He returns to a home that thinks he ceased to exist. The beginning of the story is fairly engrossing as we watch Holden reunite with his old life and attempt to rekindle a relationship put on pause for seven years by the war.
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The Eight of Swords is one of those John Dickson Carr titles that flies a bit below the radar. When I was first researching Carr’s library, I got enough of an impression that readers generally had a negative view of the work that I listed it in my article on Commonly Criticized novels by the author. Bear in mind, that list wasn’t based on myself having actually read any of the books, but rather what I had gleaned from forums and blogs I had tracked down.
I’ve noticed recently though that JJ at The Invisible Event has made repeated comments suggesting that this is an under appreciated gem. And you know what? It all makes sense. The Eight of Swords was published in 1934, the same year that Carr gifted us with The Plague Court Murders and The White Priory Murders. While neither are perfect books, they’re the first salvo in Carr’s jaw dropping run that lasted roughly until 1939. All of the author’s work that I’ve read from this period has been impressive, and so it followed that The Eight of Swords would be right up my alley.
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Some books just don’t jump out at you. When I first started collecting John Dickson Carr, The Arabian Nights Murder was one of those titles that made its way into my collection and promptly found itself nestled towards the bottom of my To Be Read pile. Why? Who knows. Some novels just don’t have that hook that grabs you until you start reading them. Across his immense catalogue, Carr has victims encased in locked rooms, corpses surrounded by untouched sand/mud/snow, and murders that defy explanation despite being committed in full view of a captivated audience. What does The Arabian Nights Murder have to offer in comparison?
Going in, all that I really knew was that it featured a murder of the non-impossible kind – a body found stashed in a carriage in a museum. Nothing especially compelling. What was compelling though was that The Arabian Nights Murder was published in 1936. As I recently detailed in a post on Carr’s publishing timeline, the author’s most inspired peak output appears to have taken place between the years of 1935 and 1939. During that time, he was cranking out 2-4 books a year, and all of them were fairly high quality.
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“Dark of the moon, I think?”
The final Dr Fell novel (or Carr series novel for that matter), Dark of the Moon was published two years after Panic in Box C. Both books enjoy somewhat of a soiled reputation, viewed as the tail end of the downward arc that the author’s writing took in the later years of his career. Truth be told, I somewhat enjoyed Panic in Box C. Yes, it rambled here and there, and Fell was a reduced to a caricature of a formerly great character. Yes, there was an unforgivable hole in the solution. But it was interesting enough. As far as Carr goes, I’d give it a C (ooh, ooh, I feel a joke coming). Seriously though – for all the nightmares that I had of a truly bad Carr title, Panic in Box C wasn’t it (that honor is reserved for Night at the Mocking Widow).
Dark of the Moon picks up right after Panic in Box C and makes a number of references to the previous story – although nothing spoiler related or so important enough to necessitate reading in order. The setting has moved south across the eastern seaboard from New York and Connecticut to South Carolina, where Carr spent his later years. Set on an island at the mouth of the Charleston harbor, Dark of the Moon has an entrenched southern feel. Perhaps it’s that I read it while on a trip to New Orleans, but I could feel the humidity and hear the southern drawls in each page.
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“You keep that for always. Then nobody will try to wake the dead.”
There’s alway a somewhat James Bond-esque moment for me when the title of a book worms its way into a narrative. It may be clumsy, it may be elegant. Whether it’s Timothy Dalton slipping in “the living daylights” or the cheesy forcing of “view to a kill” into the script, I think everyone probably does a half-hearted smirk and remembers the moment. With John Dickson Carr, we rarely get a title reference and when it happens I geek out – “The Black Spectacles” had my hair on end, “She Died a Lady” weakened my knees, and “Below Suspicion” practically had me leaping to my feet to cheer. So forgive me while I once again swoon over a title reference in 1938’s To Wake the Dead.
This book has always inhabited somewhat of a no-man’s land for me – you rarely see any references to it. I recall long ago (like, a year back, if you can fathom such a stretch) reading that it doesn’t involve an impossible crime (it doesn’t) and that it involves a rare Carr cheat (it does). Since then this book has sat somewhat out of mind, situated in my TBR pile based on whatever mad logic I applied when I last jostled the stack around several months ago.
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“This is the only case I have ever tackled in which I solved the problem before I knew what the problem was.”
Frank Dorrance is the type of guy who ends up dead in this sort of mystery novel. He’s arrogant, smug, and rumor has it that he’s brushing up with the wrong side of the law. It’s a wonder that a catch like Brenda White would agree to marry him. Well, there is the money – a sizable inheritance on the condition that the two wed. The problem is that Brenda is in love with Hugh Rowland, a clever young lawyer and our point of view character for the novel.
It’s no surprise when Frank winds up strangled to death. What is surprising are the circumstances of the crime. He lays sprawled out towards the center of a clay tennis court. Two sets of footprints in the wet clay lead out to the spot of the crime – Frank’s and Brenda’s. Only Brenda’s come back. This is the scene as Hugh Rowland discovers it. Brenda swears that Frank was dead when she found him, lying on a bare court with the exception of his solitary footprints. To accept her story creates an impossibility – how could a man be strangled to death without the killer leaving a mark in a twenty foot expanse of sand in all directions?
Continue reading “The Problem of the Wire Cage – John Dickson Carr (1939)”
I’m taking a jump towards the end of Carr’s career as I return to our regularly scheduled program. Published in 1966, Panic in Box C is the second to last Dr Fell story and the sixth to last novel by the author. Popular consensus tends to regard the previous year’s House at Satan’s Elbow as the beginning of Carr’s end of career slide, although I have seen some reviewers state that they enjoyed Panic in Box C, Dark of the Moon, and The Ghosts’ High Noon.
Panic in Box C feels different than earlier Fell works, although there is also much that is the same. At this point, the author had been living in the United States and focusing much of his output on historical mysteries. Nearly 20 years has passed since the core run of well-regarded Fell and Merrivale novels. The historical mysteries that filled the gap (as far as I’ve read) have been deep in research and adventure, but lighter on mystery. You can somewhat feel that effect on Panic in Box C. The fact that this is a Fell novel seems to result in Carr putting more focus on the mystery, yet he also applies a liberal sprinkling of trivia on wide range of subjects.
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