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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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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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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