How on earth was The Skeleton in the Clock not on my radar? Well, I mean, I obviously knew about the book – I’ve owned it for a few years and it’s shifted positions in my To Be Read pile enough times as it is. It’s just that I didn’t realize it was going to be this good. Let me explain.
Although I’d describe myself as being more of a fan of John Dickson Carr’s series detective Dr Fell, my favorite run of books may well be the near dozen early Sir Henry Merrivale novels published under the name of Carter Dickson between 1934 and 1940. The set ups to those books were classic – confounding puzzles that set the standard for the genre of impossible crime. Better yet, Carr wrapped these stories in a smothering atmosphere of pure dread. Rooms that kill, ghostly hangmen, killers who commit their crimes by mere thought; I just love this stuff. Granted, there’s a natural explanation behind it all in the end, but these are stories that make you question whether you’re dealing with something much more sinister.
Continue reading “The Skeleton in the Clock – Carter Dickson (1948)”
The Magic Lantern Murders
When I first started reading John Dickson Carr, I leaned heavily on the top tier titles. Part of that was intentional – wanting to read the best while first exploring an author – and part of it was the dumb luck of stumbling on a few not-as-renowned titles simply because they were readily at hand. The consequence though was that I burned through nearly all of the early Henry Merrivale books published prior to 1940. As I would later come to realize, this run of Carr’s novels features his most over the top impossibilities.
Each of the early Merrivale titles (published under the pseudonym Carter Dickson) stands out for an outlandish puzzle. A man stabbed to death in a locked hut surrounded by untouched mud (The Plague Court Murders); a woman found dead surrounded by untouched snow (The White Priory Murders); a room that kills anyone who spends the night inside (The Red Widow Murders); a man stabbed by an invisible force in plain view of multiple witnesses (The Unicorn Murders). These are simply the first four plots in a nine book run. Not only is Carr delivering some of his best impossibilities, but his books pack a brilliant pace and some of his best writing.
Continue reading “The Punch and Judy Murders – John Dickson Carr (1936)”
When I look back at my early days of reading John Dickson Carr’s work, it’s almost obscene. Hit after hit after hit after hit. This wasn’t exactly an accident – I had done my research on the author. At the same time, I wasn’t exactly being greedy. My goal was to mix up the consensus classics with some well regarded books that flew a bit below the radar. It just so happened that a lot of those below the radar books are astoundingly good.
My early days were also constrained by the books that I owned at the time. One particular bulk purchase that I made towards the beginning was a package of early Merrivale titles in 1960’s Berkley Medallion editions. Not only did these prove to be solid selections, but they had some great cover art as well.
Continue reading “Death in Five Boxes – Carter Dickson (1938)”
The 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 Cage. Seeing 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.
Continue reading “The Cavalier’s Cup – Carter Dickson (1953)”
How unfair is it for me to have to write about a book featuring a dash in the title? Or, I suppose, how awkward is it for you to have to read it? I’ve already done my time with the comma in Fire, Burn, and now I take another turn with Nine — and Death Makes Ten. I could of course refer to it by it’s alternative titles – Murder in the Submarine Zone and Murder in the Atlantic – but, hey, that would be confusing because of the edition that I own, so here we go.
I’ve been holding off on reading this one for quite some time. In fact, a post about my Carr To Be Read pile from seven months ago features this in the fourth position, and about eight books have since passed it by. I’ve held off for a reason. With only 25 Carr titles left to go, this is one of the last great ones. At least that’s what popular opinion would leave me to believe. Nine — and Death Makes Ten crops up on enough Top 10 Carr lists that I’ve been holding out hope that this will be a true classic.
Continue reading “Nine — and Death Makes Ten – Carter Dickson (1940)”
Lord of the Sorcerers
A recent thread of conversation over at The Invisible Event had me thinking about what I desire from a Merrivale story as opposed to a Fell. Well, ok, it wasn’t that this post exactly inspired that line of though – it’s always kicking around somewhere in the back of my mind. For a John Dickson Carr fan like me, it’s a natural question. Having read somewhere in the vicinity of 40 JDC novels, my mind starts to dissect and categorize what I’ve read. With only five Bencolin novels, and the historicals being such a separate category, the Fell/Merrivale split is a natural point to fixate on.
My current thesis is this – the early Merrivale novels are decidedly heavy on the “how done it” dimension, laying out some of the most mind-spinning impossible set ups in the genre. The early Fell novels, on the other hand, tend to forego the impossibility in favor of mysteries that are of apparently plainer sorts. “Apparently” being the key word, as the plots often pull themselves inside-out by the end, leaving the reader wondering how they ended up so far astray.
Continue reading “The Curse of the Bronze Lamp – Carter Dickson (1945)”
If 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.
Continue reading “Night at the Mocking Widow – Carter Dickson (1950)”