A group of related bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’re now going to continue looking at a different Golden Age mystery writer each month; Tuesdays in March, 2016 will be devoted to John Dickson Carr.
My five most and least favourite John Dickson Carr novels
(and why I think so)
It’s been a while since I sat down to the pleasant contemplation of a large group of interesting mysteries with the task before me of identifying my five most favourite/least favourite books within the group. There are a few things that have to come together. First there has to be a fairly large body of work from which to select; second, a somewhat uneven quality of work so that there actually are good and bad books; and finally, there has to be a reasoned way of making a decision. By this last I mean that it has to be possible to discern what the author in question had as strengths and weaknesses, and to look for books where the strengths are mostly present and the weaknesses are mostly absent.
John Dickson Carr, of course, meets all these criteria. He has such a large body of work that I’ve given myself the pleasure of splitting this task into books published under his own name and that of his principal pseudonym, Carter Dickson. (Part 2, on Dickson, will be published later this month, and I’ll go back and add links.) JDC has a decidedly uneven quality of work, such that he has a few magnificent years when he’s at the top of his form, and his later books show a steep decline that is obvious.
In terms of strengths I’ll suggest the following. JDC’s writing is the most interesting to me when it has these qualities: (1) A strong well-thought-out puzzle structure, which is usually for him based on a locked-room/impossible crime scenario. (2) A balance among setting, characterization, and plot, so that there are interesting characters doing interesting things against an interesting background, all well-written in their way but nothing overwhelming the book in any of those directions. (3) Some sort of creepy quasi-supernatural element; or, if not supernatural, something that creates a sense of menace or impending doom. This is something that JDC handled extremely well and he had excellent skills at creating these elements within the solid logical structure of a detective novel.
As far as weaknesses go: (1) JDC’s sense of humour and mine are rather different; I don’t think he wrote humour well and there is a kind of sniggering adolescent quality to his jokes that I find distasteful. So for me the less humour, the better. (2) Occasionally JDC’s books are unbalanced in one direction or the other. Sometimes the setting takes over and you wind up reading an evocation of his historical research. Sometimes the characters are merely sketched in, and you don’t care what happens to them. And sometimes the plot is so convoluted and difficult that it overwhelms any kind of realism, because there are simply so many plot points that must be gotten across. And (3) — this one is hard to describe — I occasionally get the feeling with Carr’s work that there’s more in his head than he managed to get on the page. It’s as though he feels he’s given me enough information to understand what he’s getting at, but I haven’t managed to grasp it without re-reading multiple times. I admit this one could be just me being inattentive, but it’s happened enough times to me with Carr’s work that I suspect it’s not all on my side.
With those in mind, here are my choices. I’ll paraphrase myself when I performed this exercise with Ngaio Marsh: as always in situations like this, your mileage may vary. My own experience tells me that I cherish one of JDC’s novels because I read it at a young age and it made a deep impression on me that is perhaps not borne out by the quality of the work itself. Sometimes we like things for reasons that would mean little to anyone else; I like mysteries that take place in bookstores and tend to mark them higher. I cannot gainsay your feelings, folks, and I won’t dare to try. If you have a reason for liking a book that you particularly like, that’s fine with me. Merely allow me mine, is all.
My five most favourite John Dickson Carr novels
And, as you will soon note, in reverse numerical order. My favourite JDC novel is at the end of this list.
5. The Dead Man’s Knock (1958)
This is the story of a crumbling marriage between two people who each think the other is having an affair. He’s a college professor (and expert on the work of Wilkie Collins) whose supposed mistress, the voluptuous and vicious Rose Lestrange, is found in a locked room with a sharp dagger plunged into her heart. Meanwhile there’s a series of nasty practical jokes that came very close to murder. Is Rose Lestrange’s death connected with mysterious notes that Wilkie Collins left about a locked-room mystery he proposed to write? Dr. Fell sorts it all out. I think this book is quite well-balanced among plot, setting, and characterization; the characters seem more human than is usual for JDC and you can believe that people committed acts for the very human reasons that are provided, rather than merely to further a puzzle plot. As well, the supernatural overtones are held to a minimum, which makes the practical joker’s subplot more realistic to me. I didn’t find the mechanics of the locked-room mystery ultimately very satisfying, but there’s a lot more humanity in this novel than many of Carr’s other mysteries.
4. The Sleeping Sphinx (1947)
Upon his release from the armed forces, Donald Holden discovers that he’s been presumed dead, which makes his relationship with his fiancee, Celia Devereaux, considerably more strained. Celia’s sister Margot died in peculiar circumstances about a year ago, after a dinner party at which everyone wore the death mask of a historical murderer. Everyone seems to be hinting to Holden that Celia’s mental stability is less than perfect … someone has opened up the disused office of a fortune teller in order to conduct some sort of tryst … and someone or some thing is moving the coffins around inside a sealed mausoleum. While Donald and Celia get to know each other all over again, Dr. Fell investigates and explains Margot’s death as well as all the other mysteries. This one meets my three criteria for a strong puzzle, excellent balance among the story elements, and a strongly creepy atmosphere. Added to which, this is one of the few GAD mysteries where Carr allows himself to be somewhat more frank about sexual matters than was commonly the case; the ideas of hysteria and a concomitant sexual dysfunction are key elements to understanding the motives in this novel. I think it was very brave of Carr to put it in and very laudable of him to have gotten it right, instead of making up the details to suit the story.
3. The Nine Wrong Answers (1952)
This is a non-series novel in which young, broke, and fairly stupid New Yorker Bill Dawson inveigles himself into a position where he agrees to travel to England impersonating Larry Hurst, the heir to a large fortune. Larry is promptly poisoned; Bill tries to fulfill his part of the bargain by leaving immediately for London and meeting with Larry’s wealthy wheelchair-bound uncle, Gaylord Hurst once a week. But Uncle Gaylord and his vicious manservant Hatto are not fooled and begin to play murderous games with Bill. After another death, Bill confronts the very surprising villain in a dramatic denouement. Again, a strong puzzle plot with a truly surprising ending; an excellent balance of story elements; and the escalating conflict between Bill and Gaylord Hurst that provides a nearly unbearable tension by the end of the novel. The element of this story I liked the most is where Carr breaks the fourth wall nine times during the book with footnotes, saying, in essence, “I know you’re thinking I’m trying to fool you in this particular way, but I’m not.” Meanwhile he is pulling the wool over your eyes in nine other ways, all of which are detailed in the final chapters.
2.The Black Spectacles aka The Problem of the Green Capsule (1939)
The subtitle of this novel is “Being the psychologist’s murder case”, and I think it’s a major clue to the type of entertainment you receive. Wealthy Marcus Chesney believes that the testimony of eyewitnesses is unreliable, and invites witnesses to be present while an event takes place, not only in their view but in that of a movie camera. It’s intended that each witness will answer ten written questions after the event, which appears to be the faked poisoning of Chesney using a large green capsule by a masked and disguised figure wearing black spectacles, who promptly vanishes. To everyone’s surprise except the experienced Carr reader, Chesney is dead, the masked figure has vanished into thin air, and no one can agree on any of the answers to any of the ten questions, including what time it was. It’s my favourite story hook in all of Carr. Meanwhile, in the nearby village of Sodbury Cross, Chesney’s niece Marjorie is suspected of poisoning some children with chocolates in the same way as historical criminal Christiana Edmunds. Gideon Fell investigates the crimes while waiting for the movie film to be developed. At its first showing, the climax of the book is reached and Fell identifies the murderer. The puzzle is the star here, although the characterization has a good deal of merit (it assumes that lots of ordinary people would be familiar with the the Chocolate Cream Killer, but I can live with that). There are not many overtones of the supernatural and I think Carr could sustain the reader’s interest quite well without them, as he proves here.
1. The Crooked Hinge (1938)
This might be one of the instances where I have a fondness for a book because I read it when I was much younger and it had a profound effect on me. Definitely this one did … I read this when I was about 16 and can remember having a mostly sleepless night because my dreams involved the fingers of the mechanical hag reaching out for me! But really, folks, I think this is one novel where HDC brought it all together and it clicked. Spooky atmosphere? Top of his game. Puzzle story, magnificently thought through and difficult but not impossible to solve. Perhaps not the most memorable characterization but the plot surrounding the puzzle is wonderful; complex, interesting, and with lots of elements that don’t necessarily contribute to the puzzle but further the action. The pace is great, the book is beautifully constructed — all in all, this is the one I try to hand people when they want a good place to start with JDC.
My five least favourite John Dickson Carr novels
Also in reverse numerical order. My least favourite novel is at the end of this list.
5. Fire, Burn! (1957)
John Dickson Carr wrote some great historical mysteries; this isn’t one of them. He certainly had a great deal of knowledge and expertise about the ins and outs of London society in 1829, and that’s the big problem with this book for me; everything is in there. He’s so proud of how much he knows about this topic that there are seven pages of notes at the end of the novel for all the stuff he didn’t manage to cram in! Yes, I learned a lot. Yes, it’s accurate and interesting. But my feeling is that here, Carr lost track of the idea that you actually have to have an interesting novel to sustain all the research and this one is slow, simplistic, only marginally believable, and BORING.
4. The House at Satan’s Elbow (1965)
I regard this novel as the precise point at which it became clear that Carr’s writing powers were henceforth to be on the decline. I’m not old enough to have read this when it first came out (I was about ten in 1965) but I do remember hitting it in my teenage quest to read everything that the greatest writer EVER had ever written (smiling now at my youthful passions). And I remember thinking, “Wow, that one is really not very good at all.” Which it isn’t. There is a point in Chapter 10 in which a minor character is casually said to have an unusual talent — she can perfectly imitate anyone’s handwriting. I found that hard to accept as a teenager, and today it’s just the point at which I close the book and move forward with something else to read, because that’s just bullshit. Or as I call it elsewhere, “mystery cement” (put in to make the puzzle harder). This book has all the elements of classic Carr — ghostly hugger-mugger in the dead of night, a puzzle, unusual characters. But the elements never coalesce to form a decent readable book. This is what I was talking about when I mentioned that sometimes Carr’s novels don’t always make it entirely onto the page; there’s a good mystery in here somewhere, but Carr didn’t manage to write it.
3. Patrick Butler for the Defense (1956)
There’s a lot wrong with this book, but one of the major things is that the protagonist is … well, let’s say “hard to accept”. For me Patrick Butler is made of the purest cardboard, and if you take out all the padding about “I am never wrong” and “I always defend the innocent,” there’s bugger-all that makes any sense as a human being. Here, the spooky atmosphere is almost entirely absent and replaced with salacious leerings at a halfwitted female stage performer with a “funny” French accent which requires Carr to write ridiculous dialogue throughout the book. Everyone runs around at top speed for no real reason. And the mystery element depends on something that is so damn stupid … it’s just ridiculous. (And it depends entirely upon this being a book. If it was a film, the mystery would be over in 30 seconds.) This is a book about cardboard characters doing stupid things against a boring background.
2.The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey (1936)
I’m on dangerous ground here, because the very eminent mystery critic and John Dickson Carr expert Douglas G. Greene — hell, he literally wrote the book on Carr, found here — thinks this is a great book. So I’ll say right off the bat, he’s probably right and you should take his word for it rather than mine. My issue with this book is personal. When I was reading my way through JDC’s complete works, this was the last one remaining on what birders call their “life list” … and this was before the internet, and before International Polygonics republished it. So I ended up paying what I recall as a huge amount of money for what was at that time the only paperback edition from Dolphin in 1962. I unwrapped the parcel from a faraway bookseller with trembling hands, because this was the very last John Dickson Carr I’d ever get to read … and oh my god it was boring. Stupefyingly, dreadfully, yawn-provokingly boring. This is, in fact, non-fiction, although JDC brought fictive techniques to it. But since it is a retelling of historical fact, he wasn’t allowed to twist characters and events to make the narrative a little more exciting. Yes, again, as I noted in my comments on Fire, Burn! above, Carr knew a LOT about historical fact. But no amount of historical accuracy could bring this corpse back to life for me. For me, this was like reading a textbook for a course you didn’t want to take but had to. I finished the book in an evening and set it aside forever, extremely disappointed.
1.The Blind Barber (1934)
There are people who like John Dickson Carr’s sense of humour, which depends largely upon a broad sense of farce reminiscent of the Marx Brothers, or perhaps P. G. Wodehouse. When he can restrain it (as in, for instance, the ghost train sequence in the Carter Dickson title The Skeleton in the Clock) it can provide a useful silly interlude within a larger, more serious story, and relieve some tension only to let it start building again. But here, there is nothing other than pure unadulterated farce, leavened with horrific and bloody violence. The principal figure of fun is an elderly alcoholic puppeteer — I don’t think alcoholism is something to encourage people to think is funny, in this context. Everyone in this book drinks a lot and does silly things against their own best interests in order to further the plot and keep it moving so fast that you aren’t supposed to notice that really, nothing useful is going on. And the most annoying part for me is that, early on, a minor character says something about the official actions in regard to the murder that, as far as I’m concerned, ruins the ending. The reader was told that something had happened and the solution depends on that not having effectively happened. (I’m again on dangerous ground here because I don’t have a copy at hand to give you chapter and verse; this is my memory speaking.) This book isn’t as funny as Carr thinks it is, the mystery is a cheat, the characters are unrealistic in the extreme, the violence is unnecessarily horrible, and a lot of the humour is based on how funny alcoholics are. Ugh.
A note on omissions
I’m sure it will surprise some people to realize that there are two very significant John Dickson Carr novels that are not on my list of favourites: The Three Coffins and He Who Whispers. Most commentators on JDC would, I think, at least have those in their top ten. I have to say that if I had done ten favourites rather than five, He Who Whispers would have been a solid sixth place and Three Coffins might have been ninth or tenth.
He Who Whispers has a lot of great things about it; notably it’s one of the instances where JDC was frank about sexual matters, and I have to think that improves the book when compared to the rank and file of his work. For me — and I know I differ from almost everyone on this — the vampire element just doesn’t work. Perhaps it’s something about me personally, but it was perfectly clear to me from the outset that the crime was not committed by someone with magical powers and so the reader had to look at what actually happened without JDC in the background making moaning noises and saying, “Oooooo, scary stuff over here!”. The puzzle is clever, the writing is good, it’s just this particular volume didn’t work for me from the get-go because I didn’t believe the premise.
The Three Coffins is another one with the same problem for me. Do I have something against vampires? Maybe so. All I know is, Carr can bring me to the point of screaming out loud when he writes about, say, the mechanical hag in Crooked Hinge, and here the vampire stuff is just silly. The reason why this book would make it into my top ten list is because of the magnificent chapter where Dr. Fell stops the action, breaks the fourth wall, and delivers a lecture about how locked-room mysteries work. It truly is great. And I think it would have been even better in a work of non-fiction, because what it does for me is slow the action of this novel to a complete and grinding halt from which it never really recovers. Act 1 raises a lot of questions, then there’s a lecture about, essentially, how to read the book, then Act 2 goes off on a tangent about the second crime, then Act 3 is so full of explanations that it’s just three chapters of lecturing by Dr. Fell. Without spoiling it for anyone, I have never liked the reason why no one except Dr. Fell can figure out the second murder; it just doesn’t seem possible to me that everyone overlooked that certain something. The characterization is simplistic (“good” people and “bad” people are easy to identify). And once you clear away the guff about people rising from their graves, what you really have is a book where most of the backstory is crammed into the final third of the book in order to explain the first two-thirds; readability is sacrificed to the goal of making the first third of the book spooky as hell and inexplicable.
Nevertheless, as I say, both these books have lots and LOTS of fans. They may not be to my specific taste, but they might be to yours, so you should definitely give them a try.