The Phases of Carr – The Final Dr Fell Novels

Gideon Fell was featured in a run of 18 novels over 16 years, starting with Hag’s Nook in 1933.  At least one Fell novel was released each year through 1941, and then the pace slightly cooled to a book every few years, finishing with Below Suspicion in 1949.  John Dickson Carr was still producing contemporary mysteries with his other lead detective, Henry Merrivale through 1953, as well as releasing a stand alone title, The Nine Wrong Answers (1952), and a spin off featuring a character from Below Suspicion – Patrick Butler for the Defense (1956).  In light of that, the reemergence of Dr Fell in 1958 with The Dead Man’s Knock may appear like a brief gap in Carr’s contemporary novels, but it was a nine year absence for the detective.

Over this period, Carr was invested in his long held passion for historical mysteries, releasing The Bride of Newgate (1950), The Devil in Velvet (1951), Captain Cut Throat (1955), Fear is the Same (1956), and Fire, Burn! (1957).  Many would consider the books that I just listed to be the cream of the crop as far as Carr’s historical output goes, and let’s hold that in mind for later.

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He Wouldn’t Kill Patience – John Dickson Carr (1944)

It was back in 2018 when I last read a John Dickson Carr novel that really featured the author in his prime.  The last four years still featured some good reads, but they weren’t the books that drew me to Carr – the kind you press upon others to read with a religious fervor.  I front loaded my Carr reading with the very best of his work (of which there’s a lot), and since then I’ve been slowly hen pecking through the mid to low range material put out mostly during the second half of his career (of which there’s also a lot).  For the most part they’re fine books that would stand out in any other author’s library, but there’s also some stuff that’s grating to read – 50s/60s Fell novels and his last four historicals – due to his writing being influenced by years of writing dialogue heavy radio plays.

With that in mind, He Wouldn’t Kill Patience was a true “coming home” moment for me.  What a breath of fresh air to once again experience the competent prose and artful plotting that first drew me to one of the best mystery writers of the Golden Age.  How enthralling to once more take in a (literally) air-tight locked room murder, after years of stories with impossible crimes that felt loose in their construction or minor to the plot.  To experience one more time what I felt in those first 40 books.

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The House at Satan’s Elbow – John Dickson Carr (1965)

John Dickson Carr put out a stellar run of 18 Gideon Fell novels between Hag’s Nook in 1933 and Below Suspicion in 1949, with a solid dozen of the titles being absolute classics, and the rest still being well above the status quo.  The detective wasn’t heard from again until nine years later, with the unfortunately awful return to the page in The Dead Man’s Knock (1958).  Fell closed out his career over four additional novels, being retired for good with 1967’s Dark of the Moon.  Sadly none of those final books are really worth reading except for the Carr completist.

The House at Satan’s Elbow finds us in the middle of the final five Fell novels, and I’m surprised to say that it may be the best of the lot.  We get a country house, a ghost, a locked room mystery, and some glimmers of the personality that made the gargantuan detective so fun to read.  It’s a muddled affair though, which is frustrating, because if you strip away the cobwebs, this could have been a solid read.

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Deadly Hall – John Dickson Carr (1971)

Deadly Hall was John Dickson Carr’s second to last novel and its reputation is best captured by a nickname I’ve seen thrown around online: Deadly Dull.  And yet, for all of the joking, I’ve seen few actual reviews.  There are several Carr novels with seemingly rotten reputations that I’ve really really enjoyed – The Problem of the Wire Cage and Below Suspicion being prime examples – and so I try not to let the negative comments jade me too much.  The year that the book was published on the other hand…

Carr’s last great mystery was probably The Nine Wrong Answers in 1952.  You’ll see people sling mud at Patrick Butler for the Defense (1956), but it’s an enjoyable read; the solution to the impossible crime is just disappointing.  The real descent for Carr’s mysteries began in 1958 with The Dead Man’s Knock and lasted for his remaining contemporary mysteries featuring series detective Dr Gideon Fell.  In parallel, Carr was still publishing fine work in the historical mystery vein (heavy on historical and a bit light on mystery), but even that plunged in quality starting with Papa La Bas in 1968.  The historical work became plagued by the same malady that had inflicted the late contemporary work: meandering stories that focus on everything but the core mystery; characters going on and on about some vague danger without ever simply describing what they’re worried about; every ounce of dialog unnecessarily playing out as a tense shouting match.

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In Spite of Thunder – John Dickson Carr (1960)

After a nearly 10 year gap following Below Suspicion (1949), John Dickson Carr’s best series detective Gideon Fell returned for a final run of five novels starting with The Dead Man’s Knock in 1958 and stretching through Dark of the Moon in 1967.  Consider that a similar span of time towards the beginning of his career would see the author produce three times that many Fell novels, and you can kind of sense that Carr’s heart wasn’t with the great detective.

Well, obviously.  Carr had spent the past decade going all in on the historical mystery genre, and his few contributions to the contemporary impossible crimes on which he had built his name feel more like something he was nudged into by his publishers.  The Dead Man’s Knock isn’t worth reading.  Panic in Box C is passable, but a chore due to all of the tangents Carr goes on.  Dark of the Moon is a meandering mess that at least features an interesting impossible crime and a somewhat shocking reversal of expectation.  His historical mysteries from the same period are actually pretty good, with the exception of Scandal at High Chimneys (released a year before In Spite of Thunder).  But the contemporary stuff?  Nah.

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Behind the Crimson Blind – John Dickson Carr (1952)

Whenever anyone makes a comment about the worst of John Dickson Carr’s books featuring detective Henry Merrivale, you’re pretty much guaranteed that Behind the Crimson Blind is going to get a mention.  At this stage in Carr’s career, he was just breaking ground on an excellent run of historical mysteries, but he’d already abandoned series detective Dr Fell, and his novels featuring Merrivale were in a nose dive.  Bookended by Night at the Mocking Widow (1950) and The Cavalier’s Cup (1953), I had a good idea of what to expect: a severe drop in the quality of the mystery, with the stories instead focusing on slapstick antics of a once great detective.

While my suspicions were semi-correct, Behind the Crimson Blind is a much better book than I anticipated it would be – although I’m going to have to qualify that statement.  Lop off a 60 page section roughly midway through the book, and this would be a good read by most authors standards.  It still would only be a shadow of Carr’s best – my closest comparison being maybe The Curse of the Bronze Lamp – but he’s also doing something significantly different.

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Most Secret – John Dickson Carr (1964)

mostsecretThis is my final John Dickson Carr novel in what I consider his first period of historical mysteries.  It’s a fine run of books, started twenty years into Carr’s career, with most of his better known novels already behind him.  We kick off with The Bride of Newgate in 1950, and add an additional eight titles over a fourteen year period (Most Secret being the final one).  Carr would publish four additional historical mysteries before the end of his career, but that second run was an author in decline and is made up of books of less significance and a decidedly different feel.

Carr set these historical mysteries in the years from the seventeenth century all the way up to the time of his birth (The Witch of the Low Tide, taking place in 1906).  While these are all mysteries in some sense, they’re absolutely dredged in historical minutiae.  Periwigs, fencing, and all around swashbuckling don’t normally register as a thing for me, but Carr manages to craft stories from which you can’t look away.  There is a core mystery to each of these novels, yet it’s always on the periphery; these are much more about the adventure and history.  As a fan of Golden Age detective fiction, I’d read that last sentence and click away, but honestly, read Fire, Burn and tell me that you didn’t love it.

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A Graveyard to Let – Carter Dickson (1949)

agraveyardtoletMy 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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And So to Murder – John Dickson Carr (1940)

andsotomurderThis 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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The Ghosts’ High Noon – John Dickson Carr (1970)

GhostsHighNoonThis 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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