The Cavalier’s Cup – Carter Dickson (1953)

CaveliersCupThe Cavalier’s Cup doesn’t have the best reputation as far as John Dickson Carr books go.  Oft-derided, it tends to be lumped in with the other common undesirables – The Hungry Goblin, Behind the Crimson Blind, Deadly Hall, Papa La-Bas, and a handful of other titles.  Is it a fair reputation though?

I’ve become somewhat skeptical of the stigma attached to supposedly lower-tier Carr books.  I flat out loved The Problem of the Wire CageSeeing is Believing was a killer read up until an ending that I’ll admit was comical at best.  Below Suspicion?  How could anyone not enjoy it?  Dark of the Moon?  Yeah, it was a rambling slog, but the end spun me around so bad that I’m half tempted to recommend it.

Across forty-some Carr books that I’ve read up to now, I’ve only really read one book that didn’t work for me at all – Night at the Mocking Widow.  As such, I’m fairly open to trying a book with a bad reputation.  In fact, I look forward to it.  Even if the story doesn’t fire on all cylinders, maybe there’s a gem tucked in there to be appreciated.

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The Invisible Circle – Paul Halter (1996)

InvisibleCircleThe ultimate locked room mystery set up – where to start?  Is it The Judas Window, with a room so perfectly sealed you couldn’t push a pin into it, much less the arrow lodged in the victim’s heart?  Perhaps it’s Clayton Rawson’s From Another World, in which a corpse is found alongside the knife that killed him in a room with all doors and windows sealed from the inside with tape?  Or is it The Plague Court Murders, with a man stabbed repeatedly in the back despite being locked in a secure stone hut surrounded by a field of untouched mud?

There’s almost a one-upmanship in some cases, with the author tasked with laying out a crime so thoroughly impossible that the reader is left with no avenue for an answer.  In the best cases, that answer comes in the form of a simplicity that you never thought to consider.  In the weaker ones, we get a solution so overly complex that it merely rings as a hollow justification for the puzzle.

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Black Aura – John Sladek (1974)

BlackAuraIf you asked me what comes to mind when someone says “essential locked room mysteries” I’d rattle off an answer that I suspect would be familiar to many others – Rim of the Pit by Hake Talbot, Nine Times Nine by Anthony Boucher, Death From a Top Hat by Clayton Rawson, Invisible Green by John Sladek, and a whole batch of John Dickson Carr novels.  The Carr novels would be of my own opinion; the rest are more of a recitation of canonical titles, most stuck in my mind by this list compiled by John Pugmire.

I’m not going to debate the viability of that list here.  Nor should I.  I’ve possessed enough fortitude to abstain from burning through the contents, withholding the enjoyment of the titles for future days.  Instead, I’ll call attention to Invisible Green by John Sladek.  The novel sounds like an impossible crime enthusiasts fantasies come to life – members of a detective book club are picked off one by one under impossible circumstances.  Imagine my surprise when I learned that another book by Sladek – Black Aura – is held in higher regard by many.  Both books are somewhat tricky to find on the cheap, so when I stumbled upon Black Aura for a steal, I was quick to snatch it up.

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Fatal Descent – Carter Dickson and John Rhode (1939)

FatalDescentWhen I think about the true sweet spot in John Dickson Carr’s career, it’s 1938-1939.  The Crooked Hinge, The Judas Window, The Problem of the Green Capsule, The Problem of the Wire Cage, The Reader is Warned.  Not only is that a lot of books that start with the word “The”, but it’s a list that contains some of his very best work – titles matching some of his strongest puzzles with intriguing plots.  Fortunately, I’ve been disciplined enough to hoard a few titles from this period to enjoy at a later time – Death in Five Boxes and Fatal Descent.

Fatal Descent is notable in that Carr shared writing duties with another prolific mystery author of the time – Cecil Street.  Street’s writing career spanned roughly the same period as Carr, although he published quite a few more novels, mostly under the names of John Rhode and Miles Burton (I’ll use “Rhode” going forward to avoid confusion).  I’ve never read any of his work (his books typically go for $50 dollars at least), but I’ve seen him classified as part of the “humdrum” school of GAD – not exactly an exciting endorsement, especially with money on the line.  Still, some prominent members of the GAD blogosphere attest to Rhode’s quality, and so if you’re interested in learning more, I’ll have to point you to a Rhodes scholar (eh, see what I did?  Well, it is a somewhat US-centric reference…).

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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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Rim of the Pit – Hake Talbot (1944)

“I came up here to make a dead man change his mind.”

RimOfPitI 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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The Bowstring Murders

bowstringmurdersBefore 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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