The Gilded Man – Carter Dickson (1942)

gildedmanIt’s funny how some books don’t really draw your attention.  With 70+ John Dickson Carr books to choose from, some stand out as obvious reads.  Others have a reputation as being the bottom of the barrel.  Then there is the great middle ground.  Even there, some books just jump out at me more than others.  Perhaps it is the title, the cover art, or just the brief background that I know about the story.  Who knows what my brain is up to, but it’s up to something

The Gilded Man is a prime example of my brain saying “I’m not interested in reading that book”, and I couldn’t even tell you why.  Some part of me probably came to that conclusion when I had an awkwardly high TBR pile on my desk and I had to make some priority decisions.  And then that reputation just stuck, and the book sat there, way down on my reading list…until now (cue dramatic music).

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My Late Wives

MyLateWivesRoger Bewlay has made his fortune by marrying women who have a habit of disappearing without a trace.  His use of aliases has allowed his first two crimes to pass by unnoticed, but a slight slip up with his third wife has drawn the attention of the police.  Under the close observation of the law, Bewlay goes on holiday with a fourth lover.  She vanishes from a guarded house, and the next day, Bewlay is gone, never to be seen again.

That was 11 years ago.  The police were never able to track down the killer, nor did they ever figure out what happened to any of the bodies.  Now, a script for a play shows up at a theatre company in London.  The author is unknown, but the play tells the tale of the infamous wife-killer’s life, both before and after the murders.  The script reveals too much – facts that would only be known by the police…or the killer.

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The Plague Court Murders

PlagueCourtIf 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 Judas Window

judaswindow2The 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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Seeing is Believing

The Cross of Murder

seeingisbelievingPublished in 1941, the same year as The Case of the Constant Suicides, Seeing is Believing falls in the middle of an amazing eleven year stretch for Carr.  Starting with Death Watch and The Hollow Man in 1935, and finishing with He Who Whispers in 1946, the author churned out 31 novels, many of them considered to be his best work.  Consult a Top 10 Carr list and they’re almost all guaranteed to come from this era.

One could question if Carr experienced a brief dip in quality around the time Seeing is Believing was published.  Although the period from 1939-1941 features some of his best work (The Problem of the Green Capsule, Nine – and Death Makes Ten, and the previously mentioned Suicides), it also features a string of titles that were less well received (The Problem of the Wire Cage, The Man Who Could Not Shudder, Death Turns the Tables, And So to Murder,….and Seeing is Believing.  In fact, pretty much all of the “weak” titles from the 10 year period came out during these three years.

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The Unicorn Murders

unicornmurdersLike its namesake, The Unicorn Murders is an unusual beast.  Part spy caper, part impossible crime, it’s a unique entry in the Carr library.

The story revolves around a duel between a master thief and a master detective.  The thief publicly boasts of his intentions to steal a mysterious object, referred to as “The Unicorn”, during a flight to Paris.  The detective, in turn, issues a public exclamation that he will be onboard the flight as well, with the intent to capture the thief.  Both hero and villain are masters of disguise and nobody knows what they look like.

Not your standard Carr set up, am I right….?  The whole premise of a super villain playing cat and mouse with his nemesis feels somewhat cardboard and out dated, although I suspect that this is Carr’s homage to The Mystery of the Yellow Room.

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Till Death Do Us Part

tildeathdouspartOn 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

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