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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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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Being the End of Bencolin

I’ve documented my obsession with reading order before.  John Dickson Carr has books covering all sorts of ranges – various detectives (Bencolin, Fell, Merrivale, non-series), subgenres (historical, time travel, locked rooms), and five different decades.  How to tackle it all?  Well, I have my own evolving maniacal method that I’ve discussed on here from time to time.  For this piece though, I’ll be focusing on my deviation from it.

It all started with some sound advice from JJ over at The Invisible Event.  Reasonable guidance, along the lines of “just read them in order.”  Well, I can’t quite argue with something as simple as that.  What better way to experience an author than to watch them evolve?  To watch the arc of Bencolin, the introduction of Fell and Merrivale, and then to understand if and how the stories linked together or matured over time.  Still, I had my inner turmoil.  There were a few problems that jumped out at me:

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John Dickson Carr – Five beguiling puzzles

When it comes to evaluating impossible crimes, there are two super obvious criteria.

  • How gripping the puzzle is
  • How clever the solution is

It isn’t surprising to note that the two aren’t always the same.  The best solutions aren’t alway preceded by the most bewildering impossibility, and the most rapturing puzzle doesn’t alway leave you satisfied in the end.  I’ve previously covered some astonishing solutions, and now I’ll be looking at five beguiling puzzles (hint: where the two lists intersect, you’ll find some killer impossible crimes).

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John Dickson Carr – 5 brilliant solutions

If you’re reading John Dickson Carr, the master of the locked room, chances are you’re in it for the impossible crime.  Over the course of his 70+ novels, you’ll encounter a broad range of beguiling puzzles.  Not all are locked rooms, and not all are impossible crimes.  Across such a spectrum, how do you rate them?

One obvious measure is the solution.  Yeah, a good puzzle can draw you in, but if it doesn’t pay off with full satisfying glory, then you’re left grasping for the shadow of an idea that never fully materializes.

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