It’s been a while since I looked at The Quintessence of Queen #1 – an anthology of “best prize stories” from Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. It was originally published alongside these entries as part of a larger collection, but my Avon editions find the compilation split in two. We get some reasonably big names in part two – Nicolas Blake, Helen McCloy, and John Dickson Carr, plus entries by less renowned authors. Similar to part one, you get a wide range of styles, although not too many of the stories really stand out. Two of them do though. Both Carr and Jorge Luis Borges provide excellent entries well worth tracking down.
I wouldn’t normally write about a single short story. At least, I think I wouldn’t. As much as I love a short mystery, I’ve mostly avoided the form since I started reading through John Dickson Carr’s library. I know that a few of his shorts share elements with a novel or two, and I’d rather ruin the abbreviated form if it comes to that. Of course, that shouldn’t keep me from digging into other author’s short stories, but somehow I’ve formed a bit of a habit.
Well, here I am, talking about a short story… by John Dickson Carr no less. I’ve been making my way slowly through The Quintessence of Queen #2 (#1 is reviewed here), and figured I might as well read the one Carr story contained within. Suffice to say, it was good enough that I’m actually writing more than a blurb about it.
The Blind Barber seems to be a title that divides fans of John Dickson Carr. Some will list it as one of his all time best titles, while others dismiss it as a drunken farce worthy of a worst of list. Without question it’s an unusual novel for the author – leaning so heavily in the direction of comedy that it is probably only eclipsed by The Punch and Judy Murders.
Now, Carr and comedy itself is a bit of a divided topic for me. The Case of the Constant Suicides and The Arabian Nights Murder have some extremely funny moments built respectively on uncomfortable predicaments and over the top characters.. The aforementioned Punch and Judy Murders is an excellent read specifically for the situational comedy that never stops placing the main character in increasingly horrific jams. When Carr gets it wrong though, boy does he get it wrong. Post 1940s Merrivale books always have to feature some dreadful bit of slapstick that is anything but funny. It reaches an absolute low with The Cavalier’s Cup, a novel where Carr clearly went all in on the comedy and didn’t even draw a smirk.
Let me get this out of the way really quick so that you can decide if you want to read further. The Devil in Velvet is not a mystery novel. Yeah, it kind of features the puzzle of a semi-impossible poisoning, but that’s merely a backdrop to a book that must have captured every last passion of late career John Dickson Carr’s infatuation with history. Why read further? The Devil in Velvet is often cited as one of Carr’s best historical mysteries (which I’ll refute), and understanding what the author was aiming for provides an interesting insight into his wider career.
Carr spent the last two decades of his career focusing primarily on historical mysteries. The most well regarded, published between The Bride of Newgate (1950) and The Demoniacs (1962) were swashbuckling affairs – light on Carr’s trademark impossible crimes, but heavy on adventure and sword play. I’ll admit that the description doesn’t appeal to me on the surface, but just read Fire, Burn or Captain Cut Throat, and I think most golden age mystery fans will find themselves turned on to a type of novel that they didn’t know they wanted.
“Fly open, lock, to the dead man’s knock”
The Dead Man’s Knock marks a return of John Dickson Carr’s series detective Dr Gideon Fell following a nine year hiatus. Carr had published Fell novels on at least a yearly basis throughout the 1930’s, and almost as reliably in the 1940s, aside from a smattering of gaps. Below Suspicion (1949) marked an end to the detective’s run, as the author took a detour into historical mysteries starting in 1950 with The Bride of Newgate. It’s interesting to note that although Dr Fell had been abandoned, Carr’s other contemporary series detective, Sir Henry Merrivale, would still feature into a smattering of books up until The Cavalier’s Cup in 1953.
At that point, Carr was pretty much focused exclusively on the historical mystery genre. While locked rooms and other impossibilities would make fleeting appearances in each book, the stories were more plot driven swashbuckling adventures soaked in historical trivia – not something that appeals to me on paper, but with Carr at the helm they hit the spot. Interestingly enough, only one contemporary mystery was published between 1952 and 1958. Patrick Butler for the Defense (1956) was a spiritual sequel to Below Suspicion, but didn’t actually feature Dr Fell.
How on earth was The Skeleton in the Clock not on my radar? Well, I mean, I obviously knew about the book – I’ve owned it for a few years and it’s shifted positions in my To Be Read pile enough times as it is. It’s just that I didn’t realize it was going to be this good. Let me explain.
Although I’d describe myself as being more of a fan of John Dickson Carr’s series detective Dr Fell, my favorite run of books may well be the near dozen early Sir Henry Merrivale novels published under the name of Carter Dickson between 1934 and 1940. The set ups to those books were classic – confounding puzzles that set the standard for the genre of impossible crime. Better yet, Carr wrapped these stories in a smothering atmosphere of pure dread. Rooms that kill, ghostly hangmen, killers who commit their crimes by mere thought; I just love this stuff. Granted, there’s a natural explanation behind it all in the end, but these are stories that make you question whether you’re dealing with something much more sinister.
“The sand, the lock, and the sleeping sphinx”
I went into The Sleeping Sphinx knowing very little. It’s not a famous work within Carr’s library, but it’s positioned at an interesting spot in his timeline. The previous two Dr Gideon Fell novels – Till Death Do Us Part (1944) and He Who Whispers (1946) – are considered by most Carr fans to be among the author’s best work. The next entry in the series – Below Suspicion (1949) – is criminally under-rated in my opinion. Given the strength of this run, I was curious to see what The Sleeping Sphinx would hold.
Don Holden returns from WWII under unusual circumstances. Involved in espionage during and after the war, he was sent on an assassination mission in Italy and declared dead as part of his cover. He returns to a home that thinks he ceased to exist. The beginning of the story is fairly engrossing as we watch Holden reunite with his old life and attempt to rekindle a relationship put on pause for seven years by the war.