Death Watch

deathwatch2Having been slowly working my way through the top 1/4 of Carr books, I’ve decided to become a little more adventurous.  In part, this was due to accidentally reading Fire, Burn (a typically low rated Carr work) and enjoying it.  Another influencer was JJ, over at The Invisible Event, who included both Death Watch and The Man Who Could Not Shudder in a list of Carr books to try.  The recommendations seemed unusual – both of these books have a somewhat diminished standing on review sites.  When first building my reputation-based list of Carr novels to avoid, both of these titles were in heavy consideration for inclusion.  Death Watch in particular is regularly panned in reviews, but I stumbled upon several other blogs that positioned it as a worthy read.  As such, I’ve been mixing up my To Be Read stack a little, and recently took on Death Watch instead of Till Death Do Us Part.

Death Watch revolves around the murder of a detective who was investigating a brazen killing in a crowded department store.  The detective is found dead, stabbed in the neck with an unusual weapon – the minute hand of a clock.  He has seemingly been lured to a clockmaker’s house under the pretense of receiving evidence exposing one of the inhabitants as the killer from the department store.  It is at this house that Dr Fell discovers the crime scene and Carr introduces us to a cast of suspects.  Immediately, we get the sense that not all is as it seems – something is clearly being hidden and it isn’t hard to detect that nearly every character’s account is laced with lies.

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Fire, Burn

fireburnTrapped in time, a detective from the 1950s struggles to make sense of the world when he finds himself in 1820’s London.  In charge of London’s fledgling police force, he applies his knowledge of modern forensic science to solve a seemingly impossible crime.

It is only out of my own sheer stupidity that I read this book.  My intended target was The Burning Court, which is commonly held to be one of Carr’s best.  Perhaps it was the reference to flame in the title, or maybe it was the knowledge that The Burning Court involved murders from past centuries.  I was about 1/3 of the way through when it dawned on me that I had made a mistake.  And what a fortunate mistake it was.  No, Fire, Burn doesn’t reach the heights of The Burning Court, the later of which I read immediately after.  Rather, my pleasant error led me to part of Carr’s catalogue that I wouldn’t have touched for a long time – the historical novel.

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The Ten Teacups

thetenteacupsAs soon as I got this book it went to the top of my reading list.  How could it not?  The premise is so intriguing – the police receive a cryptic letter warning “there will be ten teacups”.  The address indicated in the note leads to an abandoned house containing a dead man amidst an odd crime scene.  Only one room of the house is furnished, and in the center is a table with ten teacups arranged in a circle.  The crime is never solved.  Two years later, a similar note is sent, and the circumstances repeat themselves, despite the address being under heavy police surveillance.

It was the mysterious notion of the ten teacups that drew me to the book.  Why were the two crimes set up in such a particular way?  How could something as innocent as a teacup play into murder?  Although this Merrivale novel, also published as The Peacock Feather Murders, doesn’t seem to make top 10 lists, it does appear to have a strong underground following.  After reading it, I can say that the reputation is well deserved.

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The Red Widow Murders

redwidowI’m surprised that I don’t read more about this book.  It doesn’t show up on many Top Carr lists and I haven’t seen it reviewed on many of my favorite sites.  It seems to occupy a strange limbo alongside The Ten Teacups, The Unicorn Murders, The Reader is Warned, and The Mad Hatter mystery – I find very little mention of these books, and yet they seem to be held in fairly high regard.

My verdict?  This could have easily been Carr’s masterpiece.  Could have…  The atmosphere is gripping – possibly his best.  The puzzle is mind bending – possibly his best.  The pace is riveting – again, possibly his best.  Similar to The Judas Window, each successive chapter seems to include its own shattering revelations.  There is even a long fascinating passage set in the time of the French Revolution, dripping with Carr’s usual historical details.

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She Died a Lady

Juliet died a lady

shediedaladyI don’t know why, but I love the name of this novel.  I’ve seen it placed high on top 10 Carr lists and was curious to see if it would live up to its reputation.  Short answer – mmm, I don’t know.  The puzzle is fascinating, yet the solution wasn’t quite fulfilling (more on that later).  The story lacks the atmosphere and urgency of other works, but is still an enjoyable read.  The reveal of the killer is uniquely done and I really liked how the novel closed out.

Published in 1943, this Merrivale tale takes place in 1940, as the threat of German air raids on England looms large.  A woman schemes to leave her older husband and escape to America with a younger man.  During a small gathering, the lovers slip out the back door and vanish – into thin air.  Their footprints are found in a dirt path leading to Lovers Leap – the edge of a 70 foot cliff, with rocks and crashing waves below.  Suicide is the original verdict, until the bodies are recovered from the sea.  Both victims were shot at close range, and yet the murder weapon is found 1/2 a mile inland.

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Rating John Dickson Carr – The Middle Ground

I’ve done a series of posts where I’ve looked at the reputation I’ve been able to determine for Carr’s works, dividing them into categories:

  1. The Classics
  2. Highly Recommended
  3. Recommended
  4. Commonly Criticized

Now I expose my true plan, my hidden agenda in all of this…   I have to think that many readers take their “to be read” backlog seriously.  Maybe I’m weird, but I tend to mine.  I admire the stack, fret over the order, and constantly move books around, all in the hopes of achieving the perfect list.  I don’t necessarily want to blow through only the best books all at once, so I try to spread things out – hence my lists.  To give an example, here are the top four books on my list today:

  1. The Peacock Feather Murders
  2. Death Watch
  3. Castle Skull
  4. Till Death Do Us Part

Three days ago, my top four looked like:

  1. Till Death Do Us Part
  2. Castle Skull
  3. Nine – and Death Makes Ten
  4. The Crooked Hinge

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Rating John Dickson Carr – Commonly Criticized

I’ve done a series of posts where I’ve looked at the reputation I’ve been able to determine for Carr’s works, dividing them into categories:

  1. The Classics
  2. Highly Recommended
  3. Recommended

Now the pendulum swings the other way, and I cover the books that are consistently criticized.  These are books that almost everyone seems to dislike.  Here they are in order of reputation:

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Rating John Dickson Carr – Recommended

I’m partway through a series of posts where I categorize Carr’s books based on the reputation that I’ve found on line.  You can read my previous posts on The Classics and Highly Recommended books.

For this post, I’ll be looking at “Recommended”.  These books show up occasionally on Top 10 lists, but not nearly at the rate of my previous categories.  Here they are, listed in order of reputation.

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Rating John Dickson Carr – Highly Recommended

I did a recent post where I’ve started to break down the John Dickson Carr books based on reputation that I’ve found on the internet.  To review:

I’ve created these categories based on the vibe I’ve gotten from blogs, forums, and other lists that I’ve found.  I’m obviously sensitive to avoid sources that tell me too much about the stories or could spoil the puzzles.  Here are some examples of the resources I’ve used:

For this post, I’ll be looking at “Highly Recommended”.  These are books that almost everyone seems to recommend, but they don’t cross over to the point of unanimous classics.  I don’t recall seeing anyone suggest that any of these books should be avoided.  Here they are, listed in order of reputation

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Rating John Dickson Carr – The Classics

Out of all of the impossible crime author’s I’ve read, John Dickson Carr has grabbed my obsession.  My entry point for most author’s has been the short story, although the mere premise of Leo Bruce’s Case for Three Detectives was enough to pull me in.  Satisfied with The Wrong Problem and Blind Man’s Hood, and tempted by reviews, I started my reading with Hag’s Nook and The Nine Wrong Answers, which seems somewhat humorous in retrospect.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed both novels, but looking back, these are curious entry points.  I chose Hag’s Nook because the plot seemed interesting, and being the first Fell book, it seemed like a natural starting point.  I was intrigued by the premise of the author taunting the reader directly, which drew me into The Nine Wrong Answers.  Oh, and the fact that I found both books on eBay for like $2 helped influence my choice a bit.

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