John Dickson Carr put out a stellar run of 18 Gideon Fell novels between Hag’s Nook in 1933 and Below Suspicion in 1949, with a solid dozen of the titles being absolute classics, and the rest still being well above the status quo. The detective wasn’t heard from again until nine years later, with the unfortunately awful return to the page in The Dead Man’s Knock (1958). Fell closed out his career over four additional novels, being retired for good with 1967’s Dark of the Moon. Sadly none of those final books are really worth reading except for the Carr completist.
The House at Satan’s Elbow finds us in the middle of the final five Fell novels, and I’m surprised to say that it may be the best of the lot. We get a country house, a ghost, a locked room mystery, and some glimmers of the personality that made the gargantuan detective so fun to read. It’s a muddled affair though, which is frustrating, because if you strip away the cobwebs, this could have been a solid read.
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After a nearly 10 year gap following Below Suspicion (1949), John Dickson Carr’s best series detective Gideon Fell returned for a final run of five novels starting with The Dead Man’s Knock in 1958 and stretching through Dark of the Moon in 1967. Consider that a similar span of time towards the beginning of his career would see the author produce three times that many Fell novels, and you can kind of sense that Carr’s heart wasn’t with the great detective.
Well, obviously. Carr had spent the past decade going all in on the historical mystery genre, and his few contributions to the contemporary impossible crimes on which he had built his name feel more like something he was nudged into by his publishers. The Dead Man’s Knock isn’t worth reading. Panic in Box C is passable, but a chore due to all of the tangents Carr goes on. Dark of the Moon is a meandering mess that at least features an interesting impossible crime and a somewhat shocking reversal of expectation. His historical mysteries from the same period are actually pretty good, with the exception of Scandal at High Chimneys (released a year before In Spite of Thunder). But the contemporary stuff? Nah.
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The Blind Barber seems to be a title that divides fans of John Dickson Carr. Some will list it as one of his all time best titles, while others dismiss it as a drunken farce worthy of a worst of list. Without question it’s an unusual novel for the author – leaning so heavily in the direction of comedy that it is probably only eclipsed by The Punch and Judy Murders.
Now, Carr and comedy itself is a bit of a divided topic for me. The Case of the Constant Suicides and The Arabian Nights Murder have some extremely funny moments built respectively on uncomfortable predicaments and over the top characters.. The aforementioned Punch and Judy Murders is an excellent read specifically for the situational comedy that never stops placing the main character in increasingly horrific jams. When Carr gets it wrong though, boy does he get it wrong. Post 1940s Merrivale books always have to feature some dreadful bit of slapstick that is anything but funny. It reaches an absolute low with The Cavalier’s Cup, a novel where Carr clearly went all in on the comedy and didn’t even draw a smirk.
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“Fly open, lock, to the dead man’s knock”
The Dead Man’s Knock marks a return of John Dickson Carr’s series detective Dr Gideon Fell following a nine year hiatus. Carr had published Fell novels on at least a yearly basis throughout the 1930’s, and almost as reliably in the 1940s, aside from a smattering of gaps. Below Suspicion (1949) marked an end to the detective’s run, as the author took a detour into historical mysteries starting in 1950 with The Bride of Newgate. It’s interesting to note that although Dr Fell had been abandoned, Carr’s other contemporary series detective, Sir Henry Merrivale, would still feature into a smattering of books up until The Cavalier’s Cup in 1953.
At that point, Carr was pretty much focused exclusively on the historical mystery genre. While locked rooms and other impossibilities would make fleeting appearances in each book, the stories were more plot driven swashbuckling adventures soaked in historical trivia – not something that appeals to me on paper, but with Carr at the helm they hit the spot. Interestingly enough, only one contemporary mystery was published between 1952 and 1958. Patrick Butler for the Defense (1956) was a spiritual sequel to Below Suspicion, but didn’t actually feature Dr Fell.
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“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)”