Crippen and Landru recently released The Kindling Spark, a collection of John Dickson Carr’s earliest stories. The nine pieces collected within were published between 1922 and 1929, while Carr was still in high school and college. The plots range from horror to adventure to mystery, and this is really a deep cuts collection for the reader who wants to get into every last bit that the author wrote.
I was lucky enough to order The Kindling Spark early, and managed to get my hands on one of the first 200 copies, which are clothbound and signed by editor/contributor Dan Napolitano. This limited run also comes with an exclusive pamphlet featuring Carr’s second story – The Cloak of D’Artagnan. Given that this story is unlikely to be published elsewhere, I figured I’d provide an overview for the curious.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This 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.
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?
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.