Death in Five Boxes – Carter Dickson (1938)

deathin5boxesWhen I look back at my early days of reading John Dickson Carr’s work, it’s almost obscene.  Hit after hit after hit after hit.  This wasn’t exactly an accident – I had done my research on the author.  At the same time, I wasn’t exactly being greedy.  My goal was to mix up the consensus classics with some well regarded books that flew a bit below the radar.  It just so happened that a lot of those below the radar books are astoundingly good.

My early days were also constrained by the books that I owned at the time.  One particular bulk purchase that I made towards the beginning was a package of early Merrivale titles in 1960’s Berkley Medallion editions.  Not only did these prove to be solid selections, but they had some great cover art as well.

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Scandal at High Chimneys – John Dickson Carr (1959)

ScandalAtHighChimneysScandal at High Chimneys is one of the John Dickson Carr novels that has remained somewhat of an enigma to me.  Prior to reading it I had never seen a review on a spoiler free site, and thus lacked any real background for the story.  I knew that the novel fell into the first period of Carr historicals – the books published between 1950 (The Bride of Newgate) and 1964 (Most Secret) that take place in 1600-1800 era England (Captain Cut Throat being a exception in location, and The Witch of the Low Tide being an exception in period).  The works tend to be better regarded than the second period historicals, which take place in the US south (with the exception of The Hungry Goblin) and are considered to have come after Carr began his later-year decline.

With the first era historicals, you kind of know what to expect.  The plot will focus on the plight of someone wrongly accused of murder – either the male lead or his love interest.  The story will follow a race against time to clear the name of the falsely accused as the law forces of the time period close in.  While the core mystery may bear some passing resemblance to an impossible crime, there will never be Carr’s trademark strength of puzzle nor cleverness of solution.

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Patrick Butler for the Defense – John Dickson Carr (1956)

PatrickButlerPatrick Butler appeared in two novels and somehow managed to become the most divisive topic of John Dickson Carr’s 70+ book career.  Why?  Well, he’s a bit of a pompous ass, perhaps known best for declaring that he’s never wrong.  He’s somewhat of a pig too, with the misguided perception that every woman in the world wants him – and he’s wont to act on that assumption.

Although Butler’s character is despised, what about the two Carr novels featuring him?  I’ve seen a number of comments declaring both to be utter garbage, yet the scarce full reviews that I’ve been able to find weren’t overly critical.

Butler first appeared in the Dr Fell novel Below Suspicion (1949), and I have to admit that I loved it.  The novel features two semi-impossible poisonings with a clever solution that I never saw coming.  On top of that, it introduces touches of the adventure elements that would come to define Carr’s historical novels, starting with The Bride of Newgate, published the following year.

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The Cavalier’s Cup – Carter Dickson (1953)

CaveliersCupThe Cavalier’s Cup doesn’t have the best reputation as far as John Dickson Carr books go.  Oft-derided, it tends to be lumped in with the other common undesirables – The Hungry Goblin, Behind the Crimson Blind, Deadly Hall, Papa La-Bas, and a handful of other titles.  Is it a fair reputation though?

I’ve become somewhat skeptical of the stigma attached to supposedly lower-tier Carr books.  I flat out loved The Problem of the Wire CageSeeing is Believing was a killer read up until an ending that I’ll admit was comical at best.  Below Suspicion?  How could anyone not enjoy it?  Dark of the Moon?  Yeah, it was a rambling slog, but the end spun me around so bad that I’m half tempted to recommend it.

Across forty-some Carr books that I’ve read up to now, I’ve only really read one book that didn’t work for me at all – Night at the Mocking Widow.  As such, I’m fairly open to trying a book with a bad reputation.  In fact, I look forward to it.  Even if the story doesn’t fire on all cylinders, maybe there’s a gem tucked in there to be appreciated.

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The Arabian Nights Murder – John Dickson Carr (1936)

arabiannightsSome 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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Time Lines – John Dickson Carr edition

With over 70 books under his belt, John Dickson Carr has a career as a GAD novelist that surpasses most of his peers.  Across the span of 42 years are littered a respectable number of classics, a handful of lowlights, and a whole slew of books you really should read if you enjoyed the classics.  Categorizing his work may seem simple on the surface – we have the first few books staring French detective Henri Bencolin (published under his own name), the Dr Gideon Fell novels (published under his own name), the Sir Henry Merrivale works (published as Carter Dickson), a handful of non-series works in a similar vein to the Fell/Merrivale stories, and a set of historical novels published between 1950 and the end of his career in 1972.

Or would you divide the work by quality?  Surely across the 70+ books there are highs and lows and various shades of in-betweens.  What are the better years in Carr’s portfolio?  Is there truly a drop off in quality towards the end?

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Poison in Jest – John Dickson Carr (1932)

poisoninjest“No, no, they do but jest. Poison in jest. No offense i’ th’ world.”

I nearly started reading Poison in Jest this past summer, but a reliable source advised me to stash it for a cold winter’s day.  Well, it’s holding steady with a high of 12 degrees Fahrenheit this week, so I figured it was time to break the ice.

Released in 1932 – the same year as The Corpse in the Waxworks – Poison in Jest is set in the winter mountains of rural Pennsylvania.  The story has a tie to Carr’s previous four books in that it’s told from the point of view of Jeff Marle.  Henri Bencolin, the great French detective that Marle accompanied in earlier mysteries, is mentioned several times, but doesn’t make an appearance.  Instead, we find Marle on his own, called to the home of Judge Quayle to review a manuscript.

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