Death in Five Boxes – Carter Dickson (1938)

deathin5boxesWhen 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.

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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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Nine — and Death Makes Ten – Carter Dickson (1940)

nineanddeathHow 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.

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The Curse of the Bronze Lamp – Carter Dickson (1945)

Lord of the Sorcerers

bronzelampA 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.

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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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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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