“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?
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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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The second Dr Fell novel, The Mad Hatter Mystery finds us in fog-soaked London. Ted Rampole (previously in Hag’s Nook) reunites with the doctor as they investigate a string of hat thefts plaguing the city and confounding the police. We’re also introduced to Chief Inspector Hadley, who will go on to be the Fell equivalent of Merrivale’s Chief Inspector Masters – a likable investigator lured to false conclusions by the clues of the crime, only to eventually be shown the light by the omniscient series detective.
The stolen hats go beyond just simple theft – someone is snatching hats from people in positions of powers and placing them in conspicuous places. On top of that, we have the theft of a rare manuscript by Edgar Allan Poe – a lost story featuring the first appearance of detective Auguste Dupin. All of this in the first chapter of the book, plus one more thing – murder.
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“In a detective story, no person is above suspicion. But there are several types who are below it.”
I did it. I finally did it. I knew that if I explored some of Carr’s less popular works, I’d find a gem worth savoring. A book that for some reason has fallen out of favor, leaving it a neglected treasure to be stumbled upon. Below Suspicion is that book. Let me explain how I got here.
Several months back, I took a chance on The Man Who Could Not Shudder, based on a comment from JJ at The Invisible Event that it had an audacious ending. The book definitely had a few weaknesses, such as a plodding first half and a surprising lack of atmosphere for a plot that revolves around a haunted house. Still, I enjoyed it. The pace picked up in the second half and the finale was truly enjoyable. To be clear, it wasn’t top tier Carr, but it didn’t strike me as deserving of the derision it receives.
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John Dickson Carr has some books where the title alone draws you in – The Nine Wrong Answers, The Reader is Warned, The Four False Weapons,… The names suggest that the reader is going to be played with – presented with a set of clues that promise to be false. Amongst these ranks, we find The Case of the Constant Suicides. The title suggests deaths – multiple of them – and they’re going to look like suicide. But this is Carr, so we know it’s not going to be that easy.
This is a classic that I’ve been holding onto for a while. For one, I simply had to get a copy with the best cover. Second, this is one of the handful of Carr works that I have left that are unanimously considered among his top works. I’ve come to learn that I enjoy Carr in general, even if I’m not dealing with the more popular works, but I’ve also come to appreciate that with many of those revered stories, everything just snaps into place.
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Aside from The Hollow Man, no other book is more likely to occupy a top 10 Carr list than The Crooked Hinge. Not only a fan favorite, the book has been ranked highly in some fairly famous lists and polls, even being branded the fourth best impossible crime novel of all time. And yet, in recent years, the story seems to have fallen out of favor. Perhaps that’s natural – with everyone heralding The Hollow Man and The Crooked Hinge as the top of Carr’s work, it seems reasonable that they would eventually be viewed with a higher degree of criticism. It’s like the hit single by that band that you like – everyone knows that track, and maybe it even got you into the band, but you’ve come to recognize that the true gems lie with the more obscure album cuts and b-sides. Maybe.
I’ve really been looking forward to reading this one, exercising some restraint by placing it well down in my To Be Read list. Partially, I held off on the book because I was under the impression that I had the ending spoiled for me online. I was happy to realize midway through that I must have been thinking of some other story; this truly was fresh ground for me.
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