There’s been a bit of discussion on the Big Finish message board about the potential to adapt John Dickson Carr/Carter Dickson’s work, so I thought it would be nice to do a couple of top fives, one for each “author”. Generally speaking, the books written under the Dickson by-line are more overtly humorous than the Carr ones, Sir Henry Merrivale in particular acting like nothing less than a clown at times. I think, in general, I prefer the Dickson novels, which is why I thought I’d do these first.
1. The Judas Window
Imagine waking up, the last thing you remember being an argument with your future father-in-law, to find him stabbed in the heart with a crossbow bolt in a room completely sealed from the inside. Not the best start to your day, obviously. Told mostly in flashback as Sir Henry Merrivale decides to defend the accused in court, this is one of the greats of Golden Age detective fiction. Get searching on Abebooks and get yourself a copy of this. You won’t regret it.
Don’t be put off by the weird title, this is a tale of psychic powers – allegedly. A guest at a dinner predicts that the host will drop dead at a given time. Later that night, his prediction comes true – the host is dead without a mark on his body. Set just before the outbreak of the Second World War, part of the book deals with the hysteria around the possibility of such a psychic weapon. Merrivale is on hand to sort it out, providing the simple but elegant solution.
When an ignored wife and her lover disappear, everyone assumes that they’ve committed suicide. After all, their footprints lead to a cliff-top and then just vanish over the edge. No other footprints are nearby. Merrivale gets involved when the bodies are found, both having been shot from close range. One of the best written of the Merrivale books, both in plot and in characterisation.
Another wartime story (Carr/Dickson really wrote his best stuff in the forties) set on a ship crossing the Atlantic, under risk of German attack. When someone is murdered on the ship, suspicion obviously falls on the nine other people on board. But the murderer left a fingerprint that matches none of the nine. (If you’re wondering, the solution ISN’T that someone is very good at hiding). Very atmospheric and a nice mystery.
An early Merrivale, it tells of a legend of a haunted room in which no-one who stays in it alone will survive the night. Needless to say, someone tries it and is dead the next morning, poisoned by curare. But there are no marks on the body, so how did he die – curare needs to be introduced directly into the bloodstream, and there isn’t a mark on the body. An atmospheric mystery with ingenious solutions to both the modern day murder and the legend that inspired it.
To avoid – most of the Merrivale stories are a lot of fun, but the later ones, especially Behind the Crimson Blind are lacking the spark of the earlier stories.
An extra mention must go to the only Merrivale short story, The House in Goblin Wood. It’s been reprinted in a few different places, so keep an eye out for it – it’s truly excellent. There’s also the novella All In A Maze, which is good fun.
EXTRA: I’ve started an index of my Carter Dickson reviews here.