Night at the Mocking Widow – Carter Dickson (1950)

nightatmockingwidowIf you’ve read my reviews up to now, you know that I haven’t shied away from the supposedly weaker Carr titles.  The Problem of the Wire Cage – loved it.  Death Watch – I wish every Carr book was that good.  Below Suspicion – I have no clue why people dislike it.  Seeing is Believing – ridiculous ending but otherwise a strong title.  Panic in Box C – mmm, it meandered here and there with Carr’s love for trivia, but overall it was decent.  And then of course, The Hungry Goblin – not a book to enthusiastically recommend, but an enjoyable Carr historical.

Naturally, my enjoyment of these supposedly weaker titles has me second guessing myself.  Am I an unabashed JDC fanboy, so blinded by the enjoyment of a few good reads that I’m willing to choke down any mediocre swill the author felt fit to put to page?  Of course not – at least that’s what I tell myself.

Well, I hate to say it, but I’ve finally met my match.  As much as I wanted to love her, there isn’t much to appreciate about the Mocking Widow.  The comedy is bad, the characters are Carr’s shallowest, the plot feels disjointed, the mystery is meh, and the whole read feels like a phoned in facade.

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The Problem of the Wire Cage – John Dickson Carr (1939)

“This is the only case I have ever tackled in which I solved the problem before I knew what the problem was.”

problemofwirecageFrank 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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The Hungry Goblin – John Dickson Carr (1972)

HungryGoblinAdmit it, you didn’t see this one coming.  No one expects The Hungry Goblin.  Neither, truthfully, did I.  After all, this is a difficult book to track down.  Well, not exactly difficult – you can pick up a copy on eBay fairly easily if you’re willing to drop a decent amount of money.  But why would you?  There seems to be a unanimous agreement that this is hands down the weakest of all 70+ novels published by John Dickson Carr.  The book stands as a punchline in many a clever joke in online discussions of Carr’s career.

A strong and prolific writer throughout his life, common consensus is that Carr’s talent waned in his later years.  We could do entire posts debating when the shift happened, but an oft-mentioned landmark is the stroke he suffered in 1963.  From this point forward, he published only six books, one of which I’ve read – Panic in Box C.  Although nowhere near the height of Carr’s work, it was an enjoyable read and featured a mystery that was better than its reputation suggested.

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Rim of the Pit – Hake Talbot (1944)

“I came up here to make a dead man change his mind.”

RimOfPitI have a heavy suspicion that at some point, nearly every review of Rim of the Pit includes that immortal first line of the story.  And how could you not?  It’s a perfect quote to set the stage for the ensuing madness that unfolds.  Famously cited as the second best impossible crime novel of all time in a 1981 poll, Rim of the Pit has a heavy reputation to live up to.  Curiously, it’s one of only two full length mystery novels published by Hake Talbot, making you question the potential of what might have been.

I’ll just cut to the chase and declare that it’s well worthy of its legend.  The second best impossible crime novel?  Mmm, I’ve no room to judge in my limited mystery reading career.  I’ll tell you though that if you’re a fan of the genre, you’re in for a treat that you’ll remember for a long time.

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Green for Danger – Christianna Brand

GreenForDangerJohn Dickson Carr has left me with some emotional moments – the anger followed by enlightenment at the reveal of It Walks By Night; the poignancy of the end of He Who Whispers; the shock and disbelief of The Burning Court; the haunting conclusion of She Died a Lady.  Never though, have I been so impacted as the final chapters of Christianna Brand’s Green for Danger.

I was bound to delve into non-Carr works eventually and so why not take the leap with a classic?  I’ve started to accrue a backlog of books by other authors, and the temptation to branch out proved to be too much.  My first choice would have been Brand’s The Death of Jezebel, but that title has proven itself hard to find in physical form.  My tipping point was a recent purchase of Tour de Force and Green for Danger by the same author.  I desperately wanted to read the former, but worried that it may contain some end of series reveals, I opted for the earlier work.

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The Plague Court Murders

PlagueCourtIf I could wrap up everything that I’m looking for in a Carr work perfectly, it would be The Plague Court Murders.  No, it’s not his absolute masterpiece – that designation is better bestowed on works such as The Problem of the Green Capsule, He Who Whispers, or even a short story like The House in Goblin Wood.  Yet, in many ways, The Plague Court Murders excels in dimensions that each of those titles doesn’t quite reach.  To that effect, this title – the first Merrivale tale – is the purest representation of what I search for in the author.

Let’s start with the puzzle.  After all, that’s why we read these things, right?  Carr’s reputation centers around the impossible crime, and he delivers more often than not.  His best puzzles don’t just perplex, they leave you fixated on the problem for every last page until the solution is finally revealed.  The Plague Court Murders offers that two-fold with a single crime.  A man is found violently stabbed to death in a stone hut that is completely locked down.  The only door is tightly barred from the inside, the fireplace is impenetrable, and the small dwelling is so barren that there isn’t a place for a culprit to hide.  As if the classic locked room set up wasn’t enough, Carr add in a footprint puzzle.  You see, the hut is surrounded by an expanse of untouched mud.  Not a single footprint is present and none other than Chief Inspector Masters (a staple of Merrivale mysteries) was watching the grounds and could hear the murder being committed.

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The Judas Window

judaswindow2The definitive locked room mystery novel.  For an author whose name is so entwined with the locked room genre, The Judas Window showcases Carr at the top of his game.  Too often, the label “locked room” is applied loosely, covering a range of impossible crimes in which a murder occurs in an inaccessible location.  Not so here – this is text book locked room.  Steel shuttered windows.  A door thoroughly bolted from the inside.  No conceivable way in or out of the room.  And, yet, as Henry Merrivale repeatedly states, every room has a Judas window.

Carr wastes no time, presenting us with the impossibility immediately.  A man is found dead in a comprehensively locked room, stabbed through the heart with an arrow that had been mounted on a trophy display.  There’s a twist though – the victim is not alone.  Young Jim Answell is found passed out on the floor, a gun in his pocket and his fingerprints on the murder weapon.  Upon coming to, he swears to his innocence, claiming that he had been drugged and that the victim was still alive when he slipped out of consciousness.  Yet no trace can be found of the whiskey tumblers and decanter that he swears delivered the dose that put him under.

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