My three remaining Carter Dickson novels all find me towards the end of the Sir Henry Merrivale series. The very best of Merrivale’s work is unfortunately at the opposite end – the run of macabre impossible crimes spanning The Plague Court Murders (1934) through Nine – And Death Makes Ten (1940). The mysteries published in the 40’s were lighter fair, with the elements of brooding horror giving way to unnecessary spurts of slapstick comedy. That’s not to say there aren’t strong entries there – many would list She Died a Lady (1943) amongst Carr’s best work (I wouldn’t go that far) and The Skeleton in the Clock (1948) is quite the return to earlier form.
The stories tend to get weaker over time though, and as we hit the final three books – Night at the Mocking Widow (1950), Behind the Crimson Blind (1952), and The Cavalier’s Cup (1953), you’ll be hard pressed to find many positive comments. It’s on the precipice of this decent that I find myself with A Graveyard to Let (1949). The two books that it straddles – The Skeleton in the Clock and Night at the Mocking Widow – are dramatically different in terms of quality. Which would I get with this one?
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This was the final novel that I had left in what I regard to be Sir Henry Merrivale’s classic run from The Plague Court Murders (1934) through Nine – And Death Makes Ten (1940). Many would argue that Merrivale’s best two stories were yet to come, with She Died a Lady (1943) and He Wouldn’t Kill Patience (1944), but for me, the first 11 novels are an unbroken run of quality, puzzle, and atmosphere that would go unmatched in Carr’s career. Rooms that kill (The Red Widow Murders), invisible assassins (The Unicorn Murders), murder via teleforce (The Reader is Warned) – these plots provide some of the author’s gnarliest puzzles, to say nothing of the quintessential locked room murder (The Judas Window) and equally definitive footprints in the snow mystery (The White Priory Murders).
It’s funny then that I close this chapter with And So to Murder – a book that has none of those snazzy hooks and brain teasers. It’s a surprisingly straight forward mystery involving some deadly antics on the grounds of a film studio – something that I could imagine any number of GAD authors putting forth as a plot. But this is John Dickson Carr, and as vanilla as the story may sound, it still dazzles.
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This may be the longest gap in my Carr reading since I started this whole thing. I read The Blind Barber nearly three months ago, and I’ve only now gotten back to Carr. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy my last read – it was much better than everyone seems to think it is – but rather that The Ghosts’ High Noon is so damn long. Well, not that long in the scheme of things – a mere 300 pages – but longer than your typical Golden Age detective fiction (I realize we’re about twenty five years past the period on this one). Plus, it’s stuffed in this Carroll and Graff edition that packs 300 pages in twice the height of your typical 40-60’s paperback, so it looks damn formidable.
Formidable because of when it was published – 1970. John Dickson Carr’s better days had passed by the mid-sixties. His previous novel, Papa La Bas (1968) has no redeeming value and was quite a chore to get through – dragged across three weekends if I recall correctly. And so 300 pages of a potentially awful read wasn’t exactly an exciting prospect.
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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.
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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.
Continue reading “The Gentleman From Paris – John Dickson Carr (1950)”
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.
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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.
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