“I came up here to make a dead man change his mind.”
I have a heavy suspicion that at some point, nearly every review of Rim of the Pit includes that immortal first line of the story. And how could you not? It’s a perfect quote to set the stage for the ensuing madness that unfolds. Famously cited as the second best impossible crime novel of all time in a 1981 poll, Rim of the Pit has a heavy reputation to live up to. Curiously, it’s one of only two full length mystery novels published by Hake Talbot, making you question the potential of what might have been.
I’ll just cut to the chase and declare that it’s well worthy of its legend. The second best impossible crime novel? Mmm, I’ve no room to judge in my limited mystery reading career. I’ll tell you though that if you’re a fan of the genre, you’re in for a treat that you’ll remember for a long time.
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Before there was Merrivale and Carter Dickson, there was Carr Dickson. You see, John Dickson Carr was cranking out books at such a ridiculous rate that he was producing more than his publisher would bear (2 books a year). Rather than let up the gas or build a backlog, Carr created his first pseudonym and started releasing works under another publisher. The Bowstring Murders was the first of these efforts, and the only work published under the name Carr Dickson. His original publisher complained that the name was too similar, so Carr adopted the much less similar Carter Dickson. Superman himself would be proud of such a clever disguise.
The Bowstring Murders catches Carr at an interesting transition in his early career. He’s recently wrapped up his main Bencolin works, only resurrecting the detective once more in 1938’s The Four False Weapons. 1933 has given us the first two Dr Gideon Fell works – Hag’s Nook and The Mad Hatter Mystery – providing a glimpse of the fledgling series detective. We stand at the precipice of greatness – 1934 will start a landslide of killer puzzles that doesn’t let up for the better part of a decade. The early Merrivale works will find Carr at a completely new level in terms of the impossibilities that he offers.
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If I could wrap up everything that I’m looking for in a Carr work perfectly, it would be The Plague Court Murders. No, it’s not his absolute masterpiece – that designation is better bestowed on works such as The Problem of the Green Capsule, He Who Whispers, or even a short story like The House in Goblin Wood. Yet, in many ways, The Plague Court Murders excels in dimensions that each of those titles doesn’t quite reach. To that effect, this title – the first Merrivale tale – is the purest representation of what I search for in the author.
Let’s start with the puzzle. After all, that’s why we read these things, right? Carr’s reputation centers around the impossible crime, and he delivers more often than not. His best puzzles don’t just perplex, they leave you fixated on the problem for every last page until the solution is finally revealed. The Plague Court Murders offers that two-fold with a single crime. A man is found violently stabbed to death in a stone hut that is completely locked down. The only door is tightly barred from the inside, the fireplace is impenetrable, and the small dwelling is so barren that there isn’t a place for a culprit to hide. As if the classic locked room set up wasn’t enough, Carr add in a footprint puzzle. You see, the hut is surrounded by an expanse of untouched mud. Not a single footprint is present and none other than Chief Inspector Masters (a staple of Merrivale mysteries) was watching the grounds and could hear the murder being committed.
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The definitive locked room mystery novel. For an author whose name is so entwined with the locked room genre, The Judas Window showcases Carr at the top of his game. Too often, the label “locked room” is applied loosely, covering a range of impossible crimes in which a murder occurs in an inaccessible location. Not so here – this is text book locked room. Steel shuttered windows. A door thoroughly bolted from the inside. No conceivable way in or out of the room. And, yet, as Henry Merrivale repeatedly states, every room has a Judas window.
Carr wastes no time, presenting us with the impossibility immediately. A man is found dead in a comprehensively locked room, stabbed through the heart with an arrow that had been mounted on a trophy display. There’s a twist though – the victim is not alone. Young Jim Answell is found passed out on the floor, a gun in his pocket and his fingerprints on the murder weapon. Upon coming to, he swears to his innocence, claiming that he had been drugged and that the victim was still alive when he slipped out of consciousness. Yet no trace can be found of the whiskey tumblers and decanter that he swears delivered the dose that put him under.
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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 has some books where the title alone draws you in – The Nine Wrong Answers, The Reader is Warned, The Four False Weapons,… The names suggest that the reader is going to be played with – presented with a set of clues that promise to be false. Amongst these ranks, we find The Case of the Constant Suicides. The title suggests deaths – multiple of them – and they’re going to look like suicide. But this is Carr, so we know it’s not going to be that easy.
This is a classic that I’ve been holding onto for a while. For one, I simply had to get a copy with the best cover. Second, this is one of the handful of Carr works that I have left that are unanimously considered among his top works. I’ve come to learn that I enjoy Carr in general, even if I’m not dealing with the more popular works, but I’ve also come to appreciate that with many of those revered stories, everything just snaps into place.
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On rare occasions, I’ll be several chapters into a book when I realize that I’m reading something special. I got that sense two chapters into The Burning Court – I knew that I was in for a fun ride and I almost regretted knowing that it would at some point end. I was fortunate enough to experience that feeling again with Till Death Do Us Part, and even more fortunate that it was an intuition that turned out to be correct.
Having surveyed reviews on a number of sites, I categorized the book as Highly Recommended Carr. This was a mistake, it is a Classic. As with He Who Whispers, everything about this story just works. Riveting impossible crime – check. Excellent pacing – check. Memorable characters – check. The feeling that the rug is constantly being pulled out from under you – che…well, this is a Carr novel, so I suppose that’s a given
Continue reading “Till Death Do Us Part”