It Walks By Night

Being the Beginning of Bencolin

itwalksbynightI’m one to obsess a bit about my To Be Read stack – not just the three or four books that will be read next, but the order of the entire stack(s).  I like to read a mix of Carr – some classics, some less appreciated books.  Some Fell, some Merivale, some non-series or historical.  When I first started, one of my big questions was in what order I should attack Carr’s work.  I didn’t want to blow completely through the best of his stories – I wanted to mix things up.  But with over 70 books in the backlog, how was I to identify a proper order?  Sure, the classics, recommended, and duds are fairly easy to identify from reading various lists and blogs.  But there is a large middle ground of less reviewed books that I had a hard time evaluating.

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The Crooked Hinge

crookedhingeAside 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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The Witch of the Low Tide

witchofthelowtideMy encounter with Fire, Burn – one of Carr’s historical works, set in 1829 – emboldened me in a way.  Up to then, I had intended to avoid the historical books, under the admittedly uninformed assumption that they wouldn’t provide what I was looking for in a Carr story.  The assumption strikes me as odd in retrospect – why would an impossible crime set in the 1930’s thrill me so much more than an impossible crime set in the nineteenth century?

For one, there is a different degree of removal.  Although most “modern” Carr books took place over 70 years ago, the 30’s and 40’s still muster a basic skeleton of familiarity to this day.  The 1800’s?  People in powered wigs or something like that…

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The Unicorn Murders

unicornmurdersLike its namesake, The Unicorn Murders is an unusual beast.  Part spy caper, part impossible crime, it’s a unique entry in the Carr library.

The story revolves around a duel between a master thief and a master detective.  The thief publicly boasts of his intentions to steal a mysterious object, referred to as “The Unicorn”, during a flight to Paris.  The detective, in turn, issues a public exclamation that he will be onboard the flight as well, with the intent to capture the thief.  Both hero and villain are masters of disguise and nobody knows what they look like.

Not your standard Carr set up, am I right….?  The whole premise of a super villain playing cat and mouse with his nemesis feels somewhat cardboard and out dated, although I suspect that this is Carr’s homage to The Mystery of the Yellow Room.

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The Man Who Could Not Shudder

themanwhocouldnotshudderWhen I started my journey with Carr, the road was laid out and predictable.  I would read through a blend of the most highly regarded books before making my way into the middle ground – books you don’t hear too much about, but aren’t derided.  Eventually, I figured, I’d hit a breaking point – slogging through a few disinteresting stories and then moving on to a different author.  But, then a funny thing happened.  I accidentally read Fire, Burn (thinking it was The Burning Court), which, while not derided, doesn’t exactly inspire stellar reviews.  Shocked that I loved the book, I decided to step further into the deep end, next picking up Death Watch, which I’ve seen on a few “worst of Carr” lists.  Absolutely loving that story, I now find myself at grips with The Man Who Could Not Shudder.  While not despised at the same level as, say, Behind the Crimson Blind or The Hungry Goblin, this book is a staple when people list their least favorite Carr’s.

What led me to the book was a comment by JJ at The Invisible Event that there is a moment of brilliance – of sheer audacity on Carr’s part – when the solution is revealed.  Ok, I’m sold.  After experiencing a euphoric moment of clarity towards the end of The White Priory Murders, I had to have another taste.

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Till Death Do Us Part

tildeathdouspartOn rare occasions, I’ll be several chapters into a book when I realize that I’m reading something special.  I got that sense two chapters into The Burning Court – I knew that I was in for a fun ride and I almost regretted knowing that it would at some point end.  I was fortunate enough to experience that feeling again with Till Death Do Us Part, and even more fortunate that it was an intuition that turned out to be correct.

Having surveyed reviews on a number of sites, I categorized the book as Highly Recommended Carr.  This was a mistake, it is a Classic.  As with He Who Whispers, everything about this story just works.  Riveting impossible crime – check.  Excellent pacing – check.  Memorable characters – check.  The feeling that the rug is constantly being pulled out from under you – che…well, this is a Carr novel, so I suppose that’s a given

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He Who Whispers

hewhowhispersConsult a list of the top five Carr books and He Who Whispers is almost guaranteed to be on it.  This is widely considered to be classic Carr, and I won’t argue with that sentiment.  It has it all – the quality of the puzzle, the sense of adventure, memorable characters, and a haunting ending.  It’s this well rounded nature that raises it above such strong competition; the many other Carr tales often sagging slightly in one dimension or another.

I’ve only read 15 Carr stories so far, with some notorious gaps (The Hollow Man, The Case of the Constant Suicides, The Crooked Hinge), but I think I can spot a classic when I see it.  There’s something about how all of the aspects of the story work together in concert.

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The White Priory Murders

whitepriorySome books challenge me in terms of how to rate them.  There are stories, like the Judas Window, which hold their excellence throughout and are a no brainer on a Top 10 list.  Then there are stories like The Red Widow Murders, which have the promise to reach such spiraling heights, but are held short by one aspect of the story.  How do you rate a book such as this?  Can a story be top 10 worthy based purely on one dimension?  If so, The White Priory Murders certainly qualifies.

A Merrivale story, The White Priory Murders inhabits the “footprints” category of impossible crimes.  An actress is found murdered in a pavilion surrounded by freshly fallen snow.  Only a single set of footprints lead to the crime scene – those of the man who found the body.

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Death Watch

deathwatch2Having been slowly working my way through the top 1/4 of Carr books, I’ve decided to become a little more adventurous.  In part, this was due to accidentally reading Fire, Burn (a typically low rated Carr work) and enjoying it.  Another influencer was JJ, over at The Invisible Event, who included both Death Watch and The Man Who Could Not Shudder in a list of Carr books to try.  The recommendations seemed unusual – both of these books have a somewhat diminished standing on review sites.  When first building my reputation-based list of Carr novels to avoid, both of these titles were in heavy consideration for inclusion.  Death Watch in particular is regularly panned in reviews, but I stumbled upon several other blogs that positioned it as a worthy read.  As such, I’ve been mixing up my To Be Read stack a little, and recently took on Death Watch instead of Till Death Do Us Part.

Death Watch revolves around the murder of a detective who was investigating a brazen killing in a crowded department store.  The detective is found dead, stabbed in the neck with an unusual weapon – the minute hand of a clock.  He has seemingly been lured to a clockmaker’s house under the pretense of receiving evidence exposing one of the inhabitants as the killer from the department store.  It is at this house that Dr Fell discovers the crime scene and Carr introduces us to a cast of suspects.  Immediately, we get the sense that not all is as it seems – something is clearly being hidden and it isn’t hard to detect that nearly every character’s account is laced with lies.

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Fire, Burn

fireburnTrapped in time, a detective from the 1950s struggles to make sense of the world when he finds himself in 1820’s London.  In charge of London’s fledgling police force, he applies his knowledge of modern forensic science to solve a seemingly impossible crime.

It is only out of my own sheer stupidity that I read this book.  My intended target was The Burning Court, which is commonly held to be one of Carr’s best.  Perhaps it was the reference to flame in the title, or maybe it was the knowledge that The Burning Court involved murders from past centuries.  I was about 1/3 of the way through when it dawned on me that I had made a mistake.  And what a fortunate mistake it was.  No, Fire, Burn doesn’t reach the heights of The Burning Court, the later of which I read immediately after.  Rather, my pleasant error led me to part of Carr’s catalogue that I wouldn’t have touched for a long time – the historical novel.

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