To Wake the Dead – John Dickson Carr (1938)

“You keep that for always.  Then nobody will try to wake the dead.”

towakethedeadThere’s alway a somewhat James Bond-esque moment for me when the title of a book worms its way into a narrative.  It may be clumsy, it may be elegant.  Whether it’s Timothy Dalton slipping in “the living daylights” or the cheesy forcing of “view to a kill” into the script, I think everyone probably does a half-hearted smirk and remembers the moment.  With John Dickson Carr, we rarely get a title reference and when it happens I geek out – “The Black Spectacles” had my hair on end, “She Died a Lady” weakened my knees, and “Below Suspicion” practically had me leaping to my feet to cheer.  So forgive me while I once again swoon over a title reference in 1938’s To Wake the Dead.

This book has always inhabited somewhat of a no-man’s land for me – you rarely see any references to it.  I recall long ago (like, a year back, if you can fathom such a stretch) reading that it doesn’t involve an impossible crime (it doesn’t) and that it involves a rare Carr cheat (it does).  Since then this book has sat somewhat out of mind, situated in my TBR pile based on whatever mad logic I applied when I last jostled the stack around several months ago.

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Five books to read before they’re spoiled for you – John Dickson Carr edition

If there’s anything that I enjoy as much as reading GAD works, it’s reading about them.  I can’t resist – if only because my phone goes with me when the books don’t.  It’s that desire to discover the unknown – the story I haven’t heard of or the familiar title that I didn’t realize I need to read.  The blogging community makes it all too easy.  Type the name of a book/author into a search engine and maybe narrow the search to WordPress or Blogspot and you’re guaranteed hours of slack-jawed enjoyment.

Of course, the blog posts are only part of it.  The comments are almost better – the debates on fair play, the piles of recommendations, and best of all, the merciless criticism.  When a review of The Unicorn Murders spirals into a defense of Below Suspicion, and a post on The Emperor’s Snuff Box leads to a dissection of the merits of The White Priory Murders vs The Plague Court Murders, that’s when I’m in my element.

Unfortunately, there’s a danger in all of this – the careless comment, always innocent, that risks ruining a puzzle.  I’ve had it happen a few times, I hate to say.  I’ll be reading along, cautious for any language that hints of spoiler, and then wham!  My eyes flick away instantly, but my brain has processed what they saw.  I tell myself that I’ll forget, but unfortunately that just doesn’t happen.

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Night at the Mocking Widow – Carter Dickson (1950)

nightatmockingwidowIf you’ve read my reviews up to now, you know that I haven’t shied away from the supposedly weaker Carr titles.  The Problem of the Wire Cage – loved it.  Death Watch – I wish every Carr book was that good.  Below Suspicion – I have no clue why people dislike it.  Seeing is Believing – ridiculous ending but otherwise a strong title.  Panic in Box C – mmm, it meandered here and there with Carr’s love for trivia, but overall it was decent.  And then of course, The Hungry Goblin – not a book to enthusiastically recommend, but an enjoyable Carr historical.

Naturally, my enjoyment of these supposedly weaker titles has me second guessing myself.  Am I an unabashed JDC fanboy, so blinded by the enjoyment of a few good reads that I’m willing to choke down any mediocre swill the author felt fit to put to page?  Of course not – at least that’s what I tell myself.

Well, I hate to say it, but I’ve finally met my match.  As much as I wanted to love her, there isn’t much to appreciate about the Mocking Widow.  The comedy is bad, the characters are Carr’s shallowest, the plot feels disjointed, the mystery is meh, and the whole read feels like a phoned in facade.

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The Problem of the Wire Cage – John Dickson Carr (1939)

“This is the only case I have ever tackled in which I solved the problem before I knew what the problem was.”

problemofwirecageFrank Dorrance is the type of guy who ends up dead in this sort of mystery novel.  He’s arrogant, smug, and rumor has it that he’s brushing up with the wrong side of the law.  It’s a wonder that a catch like Brenda White would agree to marry him.  Well, there is the money – a sizable inheritance on the condition that the two wed.  The problem is that Brenda is in love with Hugh Rowland, a clever young lawyer and our point of view character for the novel.

It’s no surprise when Frank winds up strangled to death.  What is surprising are the circumstances of the crime.  He lays sprawled out towards the center of a clay tennis court.  Two sets of footprints in the wet clay lead out to the spot of the crime – Frank’s and Brenda’s.  Only Brenda’s come back.  This is the scene as Hugh Rowland discovers it.  Brenda swears that Frank was dead when she found him, lying on a bare court with the exception of his solitary footprints.  To accept her story creates an impossibility – how could a man be strangled to death without the killer leaving a mark in a twenty foot expanse of sand in all directions?

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The Hungry Goblin – John Dickson Carr (1972)

HungryGoblinAdmit it, you didn’t see this one coming.  No one expects The Hungry Goblin.  Neither, truthfully, did I.  After all, this is a difficult book to track down.  Well, not exactly difficult – you can pick up a copy on eBay fairly easily if you’re willing to drop a decent amount of money.  But why would you?  There seems to be a unanimous agreement that this is hands down the weakest of all 70+ novels published by John Dickson Carr.  The book stands as a punchline in many a clever joke in online discussions of Carr’s career.

A strong and prolific writer throughout his life, common consensus is that Carr’s talent waned in his later years.  We could do entire posts debating when the shift happened, but an oft-mentioned landmark is the stroke he suffered in 1963.  From this point forward, he published only six books, one of which I’ve read – Panic in Box C.  Although nowhere near the height of Carr’s work, it was an enjoyable read and featured a mystery that was better than its reputation suggested.

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Fear is the Same – Carter Dickson (1956)

“In all ages, everything changes.  Manners, customs, speech, views on life, even morals – all change.  But fear is the same.  Only fear is the same.”

FearIsTheSameThe only historical John Dickson Carr book published under the name Carter Dickson, Fear is the Same is the one full length novel in which the pseudonym is used without featuring Henry Merrivale.  It feels very much like the other Carr historicals that I’ve read – The Demoniacs and Fire, Burn (I don’t quite count The Witch of the Low Tide as being in the same category).  In fact, Fear is the Same neatly straddles these two novels, featuring the adventure and swordplay of The Demoniacs, while mixing in the time travel aspect of Fire, Burn.

Yes, you read that correctly, time travel.  If you haven’t read a historical Carr, much less a time travel one, you’re probably hastily scrambling to change the page.  Whoa there, it’s alright.  I had the same healthy skepticism for this type of story before I accidentally mistook Fire, Burn for The Burning Court.  The notion of a historical mystery on its own is actually fairly easy to swallow.  Take a good GAD storyline and drop it back in the past a hundred years or so.  The times may have changed, but we’re still dealing with the same thing, right?  Ok, now comes the part that I’m not going to convince you on.  Let’s say that the main characters of said mystery inhabit the 1950s and suddenly just find themselves back in the past.

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The Gilded Man – Carter Dickson (1942)

gildedmanIt’s funny how some books don’t really draw your attention.  With 70+ John Dickson Carr books to choose from, some stand out as obvious reads.  Others have a reputation as being the bottom of the barrel.  Then there is the great middle ground.  Even there, some books just jump out at me more than others.  Perhaps it is the title, the cover art, or just the brief background that I know about the story.  Who knows what my brain is up to, but it’s up to something

The Gilded Man is a prime example of my brain saying “I’m not interested in reading that book”, and I couldn’t even tell you why.  Some part of me probably came to that conclusion when I had an awkwardly high TBR pile on my desk and I had to make some priority decisions.  And then that reputation just stuck, and the book sat there, way down on my reading list…until now (cue dramatic music).

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