Nine — and Death Makes Ten – Carter Dickson (1940)

nineanddeathHow unfair is it for me to have to write about a book featuring a dash in the title?  Or, I suppose, how awkward is it for you to have to read it?  I’ve already done my time with the comma in Fire, Burn, and now I take another turn with Nine — and Death Makes Ten.  I could of course refer to it by it’s alternative titles – Murder in the Submarine Zone and Murder in the Atlantic – but, hey, that would be confusing because of the edition that I own, so here we go.

I’ve been holding off on reading this one for quite some time.  In fact, a post about my Carr To Be Read pile from seven months ago features this in the fourth position, and about eight books have since passed it by.  I’ve held off for a reason.  With only 25 Carr titles left to go, this is one of the last great ones.  At least that’s what popular opinion would leave me to believe.  Nine — and Death Makes Ten crops up on enough Top 10 Carr lists that I’ve been holding out hope that this will be a true classic.

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The Bride of Newgate – John Dickson Carr (1950)

brideofnewgateThe Bride of Newgate is the first of John Dickson Carr’s historical mysteries.  Well, in a certain sense.  It was preceded by Devil Kinsmere (published under the alias of Roger Fairbairn) in 1934 (and later republished in 1964 as Most Secret) and the non-fiction The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey in 1936.  The Bride of Newgate was the beginning of what I see as Carr’s core historical run, lasting from its publishing in 1950 through to The Demoniacs in 1962.

Most of these stories follow somewhat of a formula.  A hero is accused of a crime that they didn’t commit and must race against time and conspiring forces to solve the mystery – a puzzle that is somewhat light by Carr’s typical standards.  Along the way he’ll win the heart and protect the honor of his one true love.  There will be daring feats and duels, often involving humiliating a brash member of the upper crust.  Oh, and time travel – there may be some of that.

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The Frightened Stiff – Kelley Roos (1942)

FrightenedStiffAs I build out my library of GAD literature, it all comes down to the promise of an unknown story, sometimes by an unknown author, based on the back of recommendations I’ve seen from well regarded bloggers or an interesting comment left on some random post.  In seeking out these titles to purchase, it’s hard not to get drawn in by the qualities of the actual books themselves – the cover art, the edition, the physical format.  Yeah, I could buy some gangly modern day 10×7 copy with dreadful cover art, settle for the generic 1980s printing, pick up the ebook version for a fraction of the price, or splurge for that original hardback with a crinkly dust cover.

For me though, there is one pure form that has no equal.  The 7×5 pocket format, typically published between the 1930s-50s.  You know what I’m talking about – the Dells, Avons, Pocket Books, and occasional Berkleys or Bantams.  The size is perfect.  The paper (both cover and page) has the right feel.  And then there is the art.  I absolutely love the illustrations.  There’s something about the style that just connects with me in a way that I can’t describe.

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Dark of the Moon – John Dickson Carr (1968)

“Dark of the moon, I think?”

darkofthemoonThe 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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Black Aura – John Sladek (1974)

BlackAuraIf you asked me what comes to mind when someone says “essential locked room mysteries” I’d rattle off an answer that I suspect would be familiar to many others – Rim of the Pit by Hake Talbot, Nine Times Nine by Anthony Boucher, Death From a Top Hat by Clayton Rawson, Invisible Green by John Sladek, and a whole batch of John Dickson Carr novels.  The Carr novels would be of my own opinion; the rest are more of a recitation of canonical titles, most stuck in my mind by this list compiled by John Pugmire.

I’m not going to debate the viability of that list here.  Nor should I.  I’ve possessed enough fortitude to abstain from burning through the contents, withholding the enjoyment of the titles for future days.  Instead, I’ll call attention to Invisible Green by John Sladek.  The novel sounds like an impossible crime enthusiasts fantasies come to life – members of a detective book club are picked off one by one under impossible circumstances.  Imagine my surprise when I learned that another book by Sladek – Black Aura – is held in higher regard by many.  Both books are somewhat tricky to find on the cheap, so when I stumbled upon Black Aura for a steal, I was quick to snatch it up.

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Fatal Descent – Carter Dickson and John Rhode (1939)

FatalDescentWhen I think about the true sweet spot in John Dickson Carr’s career, it’s 1938-1939.  The Crooked Hinge, The Judas Window, The Problem of the Green Capsule, The Problem of the Wire Cage, The Reader is Warned.  Not only is that a lot of books that start with the word “The”, but it’s a list that contains some of his very best work – titles matching some of his strongest puzzles with intriguing plots.  Fortunately, I’ve been disciplined enough to hoard a few titles from this period to enjoy at a later time – Death in Five Boxes and Fatal Descent.

Fatal Descent is notable in that Carr shared writing duties with another prolific mystery author of the time – Cecil Street.  Street’s writing career spanned roughly the same period as Carr, although he published quite a few more novels, mostly under the names of John Rhode and Miles Burton (I’ll use “Rhode” going forward to avoid confusion).  I’ve never read any of his work (his books typically go for $50 dollars at least), but I’ve seen him classified as part of the “humdrum” school of GAD – not exactly an exciting endorsement, especially with money on the line.  Still, some prominent members of the GAD blogosphere attest to Rhode’s quality, and so if you’re interested in learning more, I’ll have to point you to a Rhodes scholar (eh, see what I did?  Well, it is a somewhat US-centric reference…).

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The Curse of the Bronze Lamp – Carter Dickson (1945)

Lord of the Sorcerers

bronzelampA recent thread of conversation over at The Invisible Event had me thinking about what I desire from a Merrivale story as opposed to a Fell.  Well, ok, it wasn’t that this post exactly inspired that line of though – it’s always kicking around somewhere in the back of my mind.  For a John Dickson Carr fan like me, it’s a natural question.  Having read somewhere in the vicinity of 40 JDC novels, my mind starts to dissect and categorize what I’ve read.  With only five Bencolin novels, and the historicals being such a separate category, the Fell/Merrivale split is a natural point to fixate on.

My current thesis is this – the early Merrivale novels are decidedly heavy on the “how done it” dimension, laying out some of the most mind-spinning impossible set ups in the genre.  The early Fell novels, on the other hand, tend to forego the impossibility in favor of mysteries that are of apparently plainer sorts.  “Apparently” being the key word, as the plots often pull themselves inside-out by the end, leaving the reader wondering how they ended up so far astray.

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