The Dead Man’s Knock – John Dickson Carr (1958)

deadmansknock“Fly open, lock, to the dead man’s knock”

The Dead Man’s Knock marks a return of John Dickson Carr’s series detective Dr Gideon Fell following a nine year hiatus.  Carr had published Fell novels on at least a yearly basis throughout the 1930’s, and almost as reliably in the 1940s, aside from a smattering of gaps.  Below Suspicion (1949) marked an end to the detective’s run, as the author took a detour into historical mysteries starting in 1950 with The Bride of Newgate.  It’s interesting to note that although Dr Fell had been abandoned, Carr’s other contemporary series detective, Sir Henry Merrivale, would still feature into a smattering of books up until The Cavalier’s Cup in 1953.

At that point, Carr was pretty much focused exclusively on the historical mystery genre.  While locked rooms and other impossibilities would make fleeting appearances in each book, the stories were more plot driven swashbuckling adventures soaked in historical trivia – not something that appeals to me on paper, but with Carr at the helm they hit the spot.  Interestingly enough, only one contemporary mystery was published between 1952 and 1958.  Patrick Butler for the Defense (1956) was a spiritual sequel to Below Suspicion, but didn’t actually feature Dr Fell.

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The Skeleton in the Clock – Carter Dickson (1948)

skeletonintheclockHow on earth was The Skeleton in the Clock not on my radar?  Well, I mean, I obviously knew about the book – I’ve owned it for a few years and it’s shifted positions in my To Be Read pile enough times as it is.  It’s just that I didn’t realize it was going to be this good.  Let me explain.

Although I’d describe myself as being more of a fan of John Dickson Carr’s series detective Dr Fell, my favorite run of books may well be the near dozen early Sir Henry Merrivale novels published under the name of Carter Dickson between 1934 and 1940.  The set ups to those books were classic – confounding puzzles that set the standard for the genre of impossible crime.  Better yet, Carr wrapped these stories in a smothering atmosphere of pure dread.  Rooms that kill, ghostly hangmen, killers who commit their crimes by mere thought; I just love this stuff.  Granted, there’s a natural explanation behind it all in the end, but these are stories that make you question whether you’re dealing with something much more sinister.

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The Sleeping Sphinx – John Dickson Carr (1947)

sleepingsphinx“The sand, the lock, and the sleeping sphinx”

I went into The Sleeping Sphinx knowing very little.  It’s not a famous work within Carr’s library, but it’s positioned at an interesting spot in his timeline.  The previous two Dr Gideon Fell novels – Till Death Do Us Part (1944) and He Who Whispers (1946) – are considered by most Carr fans to be among the author’s best work.  The next entry in the series – Below Suspicion (1949) – is criminally under-rated in my opinion.  Given the strength of this run, I was curious to see what The Sleeping Sphinx would hold.

Don Holden returns from WWII under unusual circumstances.  Involved in espionage during and after the war, he was sent on an assassination mission in Italy and declared dead as part of his cover.  He returns to a home that thinks he ceased to exist.  The beginning of the story is fairly engrossing as we watch Holden reunite with his old life and attempt to rekindle a relationship put on pause for seven years by the war.

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The Punch and Judy Murders – John Dickson Carr (1936)

PunchAndJudy2The Magic Lantern Murders

When I first started reading John Dickson Carr, I leaned heavily on the top tier titles.  Part of that was intentional – wanting to read the best while first exploring an author – and part of it was the dumb luck of stumbling on a few not-as-renowned titles simply because they were readily at hand.  The consequence though was that I burned through nearly all of the early Henry Merrivale books published prior to 1940.  As I would later come to realize, this run of Carr’s novels features his most over the top impossibilities.

Each of the early Merrivale titles (published under the pseudonym Carter Dickson) stands out for an outlandish puzzle.  A man stabbed to death in a locked hut surrounded by untouched mud (The Plague Court Murders); a woman found dead surrounded by untouched snow (The White Priory Murders); a room that kills anyone who spends the night inside (The Red Widow Murders); a man stabbed by an invisible force in plain view of multiple witnesses (The Unicorn Murders).  These are simply the first four plots in a nine book run.  Not only is Carr delivering some of his best impossibilities, but his books pack a brilliant pace and some of his best writing.

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Papa La Bas – John Dickson Carr (1968)

papalabasEver since I started reading John Dickson Carr, one thing was clear – Papa La Bas was a title to steer clear of.  Across a career of over 70 novels, it’s inevitable that a writer is going to have a few duds.  What’s amazing is that out of the 50-some Carr titles that I’ve read, I’d only say that two are flat out bad and a handful have problems.  Papa La Bas appeared to be a consensus bad one, although I’ve oddly never stumbled upon a full blown blog review.

As I’ve detailed a few times by now, I’ve grown leery of the bad reputation that some Carr books have.  The Problem of the Wire Cage is a near classic.  Below Suspicion is an under appreciated gem.  I wouldn’t phone home about Patrick Butler for the Defense, but it was a decent read.  Even Carr’s supposedly dreadful final novel, The Hungry Goblin, was merely a mediocre read.

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Getting started with John Dickson Carr

Ok, so you saw something that got you interested in John Dickson Carr.  Perhaps he was repeatedly featured in a list of top impossible crime novels, or maybe you saw him labeled as the king of golden age detective fiction.  The later description would be more appropriate – despite his name being synonymous with the impossible crime genre, Carr wrote plenty of non-impossible mysteries and many of them were classics.  Regardless, the big question is – what books should you start with?

hollowmanThe easy answer would be The Hollow Man (also released as The Three Coffins).  This is without question Carr’s most popular book – the title that tends to be tightly associated with his name and even with the very genre of impossible crime fiction.  Certainly not a bad place to start – it would be akin to jumping into Agatha Christie via And Then There Were None or Murder on the Orient Express.  Although, if you’re a Christie fan, you might find yourself questioning whether those really are the launching points you’d recommend…

John Dickson Carr published about 70 novels over his career, at times cranking out four or five books a year.  While that may sound like an author churning out cheap copy as fast as he can, most fans would agree that his best work stems from those most prolific years.  Although the quality of his output did vary (and slipped in later years), I estimate that I’d enthusiastically recommend over a third of his books.  The rest are mostly fine reads that fall just under the threshold of recommendation.

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The Eight of Swords – John Dickson Carr (1934)

eightofswordsThe Eight of Swords is one of those John Dickson Carr titles that flies a bit below the radar.  When I was first researching Carr’s library, I got enough of an impression that readers generally had a negative view of the work that I listed it in my article on Commonly Criticized novels by the author.  Bear in mind, that list wasn’t based on myself having actually read any of the books, but rather what I had gleaned from forums and blogs I had tracked down.

I’ve noticed recently though that JJ at The Invisible Event has made repeated comments suggesting that this is an under appreciated gem.  And you know what?  It all makes sense.  The Eight of Swords was published in 1934, the same year that Carr gifted us with The Plague Court Murders and The White Priory Murders.  While neither are perfect books, they’re the first salvo in Carr’s jaw dropping run that lasted roughly until 1939.  All of the author’s work that I’ve read from this period has been impressive, and so it followed that The Eight of Swords would be right up my alley.

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