A CELEBRATORY HODGEPODGE HONORING JOHN DICKSON CARR

Happy 110th birthday, John Dickson Carr. Two months ago, JJ at The Invisible Event invited everybody to share a post on this day of days for his favorite author, the Master of the Locked Room Mystery. We could write anything we wanted: a review, a poem, a celebration of the author. I had great intentions, but this has been a lousy couple of months for me. And yet, Carr was an important author in the early formation of my preference for mysteries, and so I offer a true hodgepodge of personal reflection, a “Best of “ list, and some creative writing to honor him.

PERSONAL REFLECTION

I read mysteries throughout my teens and 20’s with feverish abandon. Author after author came my way, and since these were the days when 1) the bookstore shelves were teeming with Golden Age writers, freshly re-published, and 2) there were tons of bookstores in my city, I ran through many authors and many titles. Three writers became my favorites – Christie, Carr and Queen – and, fairly or not, I tended to hold the work of others up to the high standards of this prolific trio.

A lot of literary water has passed under the bridge since my first eager days as a mystery fan, and here is what has happened:

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Christie has become my Number One. The constant re-reading of her works through the page or through audio books, coupled with a close examination of multiple film and TV adaptations and many of the books written about her has solidified my memory and understanding of her work. I am by no means an authority, but I feel I can discuss Christie’s work, down to the minute details, with some confidence.

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Queen’s luster has faded a bit for me. Going back to his older work, I’ve found that his prose is tougher to wade through – I’ll blame that on my waning attention span in the Internet Age – and he had a steeper slide in quality toward the end. Yet Queen’s central plotting ideas are bursting with cleverness. Some titles, Cat of Many Tails, Calamity Town, and There Was an Old Woman among them, remain favorites. I also maintain that, of my top three, Queen excelled most at the short form, evidenced in both the short stories and a lamentably small selection of radio plays.

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The Carr Experience is a different kettle of fish for me. I read and enjoyed most of the Dr. Gideon Fell novels without reservation. In fact, I gobbled them up. Oddly enough, this did not endear me to the impossible crime sub-genre as a whole. I can almost never remember the “howdunit” aspect of Carr’s books, although I bow to their skill. It was the element of surprise in terms of “who,” coupled with an excellent sense of atmosphere and my enjoyment of Dr. Fell, who made me laugh, that kept me coming back for more.

The problem was that Carr was not adapted for film or TV. His output of his own work on radio is small and not easily accessible. (The original scripts he wrote for radio are available, and they are wonderful.) His works were not put on audio books; instead, they started to disappear from the bookstore shelves, even the used bookstores. And while Christie is widely read, even by non-mystery fans, and is therefore open to discussion, Carr seemed to appeal to more eclectic tastes. I’ve never met a friend who has even heard of Carr, and that is appalling, given how much he contributed to the genre.

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What that means is that I haven’t revisited Carr like I revisit Christie. There are a few Dr. Fell novels that I read for the first time only recently, along with my first (and only) Carter Dickson novel featuring Sir Henry Merrivale. Other than that, my memories of the books I have read are rather fuzzy. I think a real resurgence in the availability and discussion of his works would help. Talking to some true fans like JJ and other bloggers has been a great start toward my renewed interest in Carr. Yet his books remain hard to find. Since Carr is a much better writer than many of the authors who are even more forgotten but who have been republished anyway, I have to assume that there are estate issues involved in the continued lack of available titles. What a shame if legal complications or family greed is stopping somebody from introducing Carr to a whole new generation of readers. The alternative answer is too awful to ponder: that today’s readers simply don’t want to read anything “old” except Christie. And even this huge Christie fan finds that incredibly sad.

 

“BEST OF” LIST

No, no, no, that’s the wrong title for this section. I don’t have the authority to name Carr’s best. Let’s call this list my five favorites, and remember that since some of these haven’t been read for decades, this list is necessarily a fluid one:

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NUMBER 5: The Arabian Nights Murder (1936): I don’t remember much about the mystery, except that it was my first, and I am a sucker for stories told from multiple points of view as this one is. I bought four Signet editions at once: this one, The Mad Hatter Mystery, The Blind Barber and The Case of the Constant Suicides. Of the four, I only remember who the killer is in Mad Hatter, I remember laughing at Suicides and not laughing so much at Barber. But Arabian Nights was my first Carr, and I loved the multiple points of view of several narrators. I’m sure I should reread it based on my memory of how much I enjoyed it.

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NUMBER 4: The Burning Court (1937): Eleven years before this, Agatha Christie published The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which prompted cries of “Unfair!” and “Oh no, she didn’t go there!” It changed the way people perceived the author: she was not only a master of the game, she was a rule breaker; long may she wave! I believe a similar thing happened when The Burning Court hit the shelves. It’s finale was extremely controversial, and it was the first Carr to send a shiver down my spine on the final page. The central mystery is perhaps a trifle pedestrian but eminently enjoyable. It’s that kick at the end that raises this title to a favorite.

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NUMBER 3: Dark of the Moon (1968): This will probably be the title more fervent Carr fans than I will balk at the most. I think a lot of people hate this final adventure of Dr. Fell, but I loved it. First of all, it takes place in South Carolina, and “Fell out of water” is a wondrous thing. Then there’s the conceit of a Southern belle canoodling with her beau that forms the central mystery of this tale, and as the revelations of that partnership unfold, the whole mystery up-ends in a fabulous direction just as any good mystery should. Maybe it wouldn’t hold up to re-reading, but I loved this one when I first read it.

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NUMBER 2: The Crooked Hinge (1938): For most of my life, this was my favorite Carr title, only recently supplanted. I loved the whole “which is the true heir” question. I loved the final revelation of “who” and “how”, which is summed up by the killer in a four word sentence. Most of all, Carr weaves in the supernatural element in a shocking way here. He is the best author at doing this. I wish Paul Halter, the modern author who tries to emulate Carr, had half the skill his idol possessed at incorporating the supernatural into his plots; instead, they feel disconnected or worse, extraneous. It’s not enough to say that a castle is haunted or that witchcraft abounds in the neighborhood. You have to put that backstory to good use, and I think Carr does that here very well.

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NUMBER 1: He Who Whispers (1946): Oh my goodness! How did I miss this title when I first began to read Carr? On the other hand, I’m sorta glad I didn’t get to it until I was a more mature reader. It’s a great mystery with a wonderful series of reversals. What’s more, to me it presents Carr’s best set of female characters, topped by the mysterious Fay Seton. Is she good or evil? Is she a vampire and a killer? Carr’s answer to these questions form one of the most sophisticated and shocking revelations in classic detective fiction. What’s more, once we have uncovered the killer, Carr does something extraordinary: he provides a shocking twist in the final line of the book that has absolutely nothing to do with the murder mystery but with the mysteries of the heart. In doing so, Carr reminds us that mystery fiction can shine a light on the human condition when it wants to. (Read my entire review here.)

I end this section with a plea: I have only read one Carter Dickson novel, The Judas Window (1938). I liked it well enough. I thought the courtroom scenes were hilarious. But the Merrivale books seem more firmly centered on the impossible aspects and less fully formed in terms of atmosphere and novelistic quality than the Dr. Fell books. That’s just my opinion. I would still love to read the very best of Sir Henry’s adventures. I tried The Reader Is Warned, which I know many people admire, but I wasn’t taken by it. I ask readers who are more familiar with this side of Carr’s canon to offer their suggestions, along with a justification about why I should read that one. I appreciate anyone willing to take me up on this request, and I’m sure JJ will have posts on the matter for me to peruse.

 

CREATIVE WRITING

You can stop here if you wish, but Kate at Cross Examining Crime wistfully said only the other day that it would be great if someone wrote a poem about Carr. I immediately took up the challenge. Not only would I write a poem, I would create an entire whodunit in doggerel to honor Carr. Well, I got sidetracked, and I got to the murder but nothing else. So I offer it here, and if you are so inclined, please feel free to finish it for me and solve the darn mystery of who offed Lord Burlington Brown.

 

Lord Burlington Brown

Was a man of renown,

Finding modern age devils

And hunting them down.

 

“Evil lurks,” so he said.

“I have stalked the undead!

I’ve seen sights that would fill

Any mortal with dread!”

 

At his club he held court.

And although he was short,

He weighed full twenty stone

And would not give up port.

 

There he sat like a whale,

And each member regale

With his exploits so grim

That the others turned pale.

 

Though one man you could tell

Thought the stories were swell

‘Twas Lord Burlington’s pal,

Dr. Gideon Fell.

 

“Good Lord, Brown!” Fell would say,

“I admire the way

You dispatched twenty zombies

Ere night turned to day.

 

“Now please tell me again

How you drew up the plan

To lay waste to the werewolf

Who walked like a man.”

 

“Listen, Fell,” said old Brown,

“No, sir, put your drink down,

And accompany me

Back to old Camden town.

 

“I’ve invited some friends

For a quiet weekend.

There’s a serious matter

To which I must attend.

 

“Would it give you a fright

If I told you outright

We’ll encounter the Devonshire

Vampire tonight?”

 

Fell let out a great wheeze

And cried, “Burlington, geez,

If you do know the Vampire

Then out with it, please!

 

If this isn’t a jest

And the Vampire’s your guest

Name him now! I’ll call Hadley

To make the arrest.”

 

“I will not name the ghoul.

Sorry, that is my rule.”

To which Fell simply spluttered,

“Brown, don’t be a fool!”

 

“I don’t think that I can

Quite accede to your plan

Till the last piece of evidence

Falls in my hand.

 

“With the skill of a lover

I’ll blow the fiend’s cover

By tomorrow at midnight

I’ll hand the man over!”

 

Thus, with feelings of dread,

Dr. Fell shook his head

For he sensed by tomorrow

His friend would be dead.

 

And he knew by the time

We were half through this rhyme

That he’d soon have to face

An impossible crime!

*     *     *     *     *

Fell repaired to Brown’s manse

By the seat of his pants.

He would capture the Strangler

If given the chance.

 

But his train journey led

To a dark night of dread

For the lord of the manor

Fell soon learned was dead.

 

In a hut in the wood

In that same neighborhood

They discovered Lord Burlington

Finished for good.

 

In a chair he was sittin’,

His throat had been bitten,

And the door was too small

For the late Lord to fit in.

 

And standing outside

Of this strange homicide

Were four guests who insisted

They’d nothing to hide:

 

The dead man’s stepson Mark

His fiancée Miss Park

And two builders, both brothers,

Named John and Jim Park.

 

One of this fine quartet

Had killed Brown, Fell would bet.

Were they also the Vampire?

He wasn’t sure yet.

 

That’s all I got, folks! If you have an idea of a) who killed the guy, and b) how they got this enormous man in this small room, and c) what the marks on his neck signify, then go for it! Let me know below. I can’t wait to hear what you come up with.

That concludes my discombobulated musing on the great John Dickson Carr. JJ, I wish I could have straightened out my act here, but the month was rough for me. Carr deserves better!

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25 thoughts on “A CELEBRATORY HODGEPODGE HONORING JOHN DICKSON CARR

  1. Nicely done, Brad — I shall get to the problem of the vampire in due course!

    As for Merrivale, I think it’s best t experience a few early ones when Carr wasn’t too bothered about his similarities to Fell and had him at his most dangerous; anything up to about My Late Wives is going to serve you well, and I am a huge fan of The Ten Teacups/The Peacock Feather Murders of those that are reasonably available (some Rue Morgue editions may still be kicking around…).

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  2. Thanks for drawing attention to ‘Dark of the Moon’ – I always appreciate it when lesser-known works are promoted. It gives me hope that there are still worthwhile titles awaiting to be read as I approach the bottom of the barrel. 🙂

    From what I’ve read, I would concur that the Fell oeuvre is superior to the Merrivale oeuvre. I was put off by ‘Plague Court Murders’, wasn’t overly bowled over by highly lauded ‘Judas Window’, and was somewhat dubious about the resolution to ‘Peacock Feather Murders’. I enjoyed ‘She Died a Lady’ – but not as much as I enjoyed the best of the Fell titles, such as ‘Case of Constant Suicides’ and ‘Till Death Do Us Part’. I wasn’t entirely persuaded by the science behind part of the solution to ‘Nine – and Death Makes Ten’, but I thought it was very good, and I rank it at the top of the Merrivale titles I’ve read. I still haven’t read ‘Reader Is Warned’, ‘Patience’ and ‘Late Wives’.

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    1. As I mentioned, it has been a long time since I read Dark of the Moon. I read one review that said something to the effect that it seemed too artificial to rank as really good Carr. That may turn out to be true for you when you get to it, but I remember thinking certain aspects of it were very clever.

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  3. Great stuff Brad – HE WHO WHISPERS is a great book – I love JUDAS WINDOW so am biased in Merivale’s favour (READER IS WARNED and TEN TEACUPS are fabulous too but hard to find, as you say) but you should try SHE DIED A LADY, one of the absolutely best of the Carter Dickson books and I reckon you would love it.

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    1. Thanks, Sergio! Both the title you mentioned as hard to find are in my fabulous library branch, as are a few others. I appreciate the suggestions. Oh, and I really enjoyed your review of Hag’s Nook and agree with it! An enjoyable preview of much better things to come.

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  4. Brilliant post Brad, nothing hodgepodge about it. So good I had to read it twice, especially your poem – though I think it will take the likes of JJ to come up with a solution to fit it. Left to me I’d probably accidently make Fell the murderer or something. Your list of favourite Carr novels interested me as there were a few in it that I hadn’t read. Your inclusion of The Crooked Hinge over say The Case of the Constant Suicides intrigued me, as I have read those two and definitely enjoyed TCOTCS more. Like you I have probably enjoyed more JDC novels than Carter Dickson ones – though like you I did enjoy The Judas Window. I also enjoyed she died a lady as well. Have you read The Emperor’s Snuffbox? I really enjoyed that one and I would the characterisation in it would appeal to you.

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    1. I’m is very possible that I have NOT read TES, Kate, and I seem to recall comments like “great characters,” “not so reliant on locked rooms,” and “almost Christie-like.” But that could just be a dream I had . . .

      Oh, and I have no idea who put the lord in the hut, but it ain’t Fell. Archons of Athens, do you think he’d waste the energy?

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  5. Sergio, I picked up Green Capsule for $2.50 at a local bookstore. Also an old hardback of White Priory Murders for $7.50. They’re worth what I paid for them, but at least I know the first title is quality Carr. The second seems to be a bit of a slog.

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    1. White Priory is a bit of a slog, but knowing that going in might help. And the solution is wonderful. I know I have a history of getting hopes up over my enthusiasms for particular solutions, but it really is one of the most Carrian from his early days, and it’s a shame that it’s not at the end of a better book, because it’d be a classic for the ages were that the case. Just breathe deeply and prepare to struggle at times, because (hopefully) the solution is worth it…

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    2. As JJ says, the solution to The White Priory Murders is absolutely worth it. I’ll admit it took some effort to make it through, but looking back, its one of my favorite experiences with Carr because the end was all worth it.

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  6. Excellent write up. I love top 5 lists that point out books that weren’t on my radar. JJ did this with Death Watch, which otherwise would have languished at the bottom of my TBR stack. I wasn’t planning on touching Dark of the Moon, but now I’ll make sure it at least doesn’t sit at the very depths of the Carr pile.

    As for top Merrivale books – hmm, I guess you are right that they rely a bit on the impossibility. I had never considered that. I want to recommend White Priory, Red Widow, and Ten Teacups, but they do all hinge a bit on the impossibility. In terms of pure enjoyment of the read, I’d have to go with She Died a Lady and Red Widow.

    As for acquiring Carr’s books – I’m personally in it for the reading and not for the collecting. At risk of giving away my secret, I just buy big packs of books on eBay. Every week or so there will be a bundle of 6-10 books selling for maybe $10-15. In fact, there may be a pack of 6 Merrivale books, all with the same art style, available now if you search for Carter Dickson. Granted, you’re buying the books unseen, but it allowed me to build my collection quickly and get my hands on works that I never would have bought in isolation, such as Dead Man’s Knock.

    I’ve bought a few individual books off of Amazon, but had more of a mixed experience. My copy of The 3rd Bullet has a missing page! I would have returned it, but I paid $1.50… Plus, it contained The House in Goblin Woods, undoubtably Carr’s masterpiece.

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  7. It strikes me as very strange that Carr’s work has never been adapted for big screen or small. Th BBC might well adapt the Gideon Fell books into a prestige mystery series as they’ve done with Father Brown, Miss Marple, and – numerous times – Sherlock Holmes. Is the fact that his creator was American holding them back?

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    1. That is my understanding, Ben. Carr’s status as an American seems to disqualify him, even though his output is remarkably successful at embodying the style of a British mystery (and it didn’t hurt that he lived and worked in England for many years, but that seems not to have softened the BBC’s stony heart.)

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  8. I happen to prefer Merrivale over Fell because I have a ribald sense of humor and I’m a sucker for farce. Here’s my “Best of Carter Dickson” list, in alpha order, because I dislike quantifying books with numeric or star ratings. Some of these are dupes of titles already mentioned which I think says a lot about how good they are.

    Death in Five Boxes
    He Wouldn’t Kill Patience (especially fun if you are into magic and magicians)
    The Judas Window
    My Late Wives
    The Punch and Judy Murders, aka Magic Lantern Murders (IMO the best of his farcical mysteries)
    She Died a Lady
    White Priory Murders

    Runner-ups: Nine — And Death Makes Ten (I saw through one of the main problems so much of the surprise in the end fell flat. One plot gimmick, however, is too absurd to believe. Not one of his best, but worth reading for the unusual setting of a cargo ship temporarily turned into a passenger ship during WW2.)
    The Red Widow Murders
    The Skeleton in the Clock

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    1. Thanks for the list, John. I think putting it in alpha order is great! We can’t always quantify how much more we like one title over another, and sometimes we like more than one just the same. This is great!

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