A year with John Dickson Carr

When I started The Green Capsule a year ago, I had no anticipation on what lay before me.  I had no real intention of starting a dedicated blog or where I might take it.  My aim was narrow – to figure out which John Dickson Carr books I should read before I turned my attention to something else.

At the time, I’d read 12 Carr novel – not many, although quite a run it had been.  The Problem of the Green Capsule, The Judas Window, The Emperor’s Snuff Box, She Died a Lady, He Who Whispers.  These are the typical “classics” that I had experienced, but more important was that next tier.  Stories like The White Priory Murders, The Red Widow Murders, Hag’s Nook, The Reader is Warned.  It was this second tier of books that provided a glimmer of just how solid Carr’s library could be.

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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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Captain Cut-Throat – John Dickson Carr (1955)

CaptainCutThroat3Avast ye swabs!  Batten down the hatches!  Tonight we set sail on the high seas with John Dickson Carr’s Captain Cut-Throat!

Oh….er…you say there aren’t any pirates?  Well, forgive me for thinking so.  I’ve collected a number of copies of this book (as evidenced by my cover shots) completely by accident.  With 70+ books, the most economical means for collecting Carr’s works has been to buy in bulk.  My very first parcel of Carr included a copy of Captain Cut-Throat, and down to the very bottom of the pile it went.  I simply wasn’t interested.

I came into the works of the author with a singular focus – I wanted impossible crimes and his most famous titles provided the perfect blend of what I was looking for.  Why read a novel that trades impossibilities for a historical action romp?  I might as well read some random swashbuckler books from authors I’ve never heard of.  Sorry, but not my thing.

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To Wake the Dead – John Dickson Carr (1938)

“You keep that for always.  Then nobody will try to wake the dead.”

towakethedeadThere’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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Five books to read before they’re spoiled for you – John Dickson Carr edition

If there’s anything that I enjoy as much as reading GAD works, it’s reading about them.  I can’t resist – if only because my phone goes with me when the books don’t.  It’s that desire to discover the unknown – the story I haven’t heard of or the familiar title that I didn’t realize I need to read.  The blogging community makes it all too easy.  Type the name of a book/author into a search engine and maybe narrow the search to WordPress or Blogspot and you’re guaranteed hours of slack-jawed enjoyment.

Of course, the blog posts are only part of it.  The comments are almost better – the debates on fair play, the piles of recommendations, and best of all, the merciless criticism.  When a review of The Unicorn Murders spirals into a defense of Below Suspicion, and a post on The Emperor’s Snuff Box leads to a dissection of the merits of The White Priory Murders vs The Plague Court Murders, that’s when I’m in my element.

Unfortunately, there’s a danger in all of this – the careless comment, always innocent, that risks ruining a puzzle.  I’ve had it happen a few times, I hate to say.  I’ll be reading along, cautious for any language that hints of spoiler, and then wham!  My eyes flick away instantly, but my brain has processed what they saw.  I tell myself that I’ll forget, but unfortunately that just doesn’t happen.

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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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