Till Death Do Us Part by John Dickson Carr

Till Death Do Us PartDick Markham seems to have it all. In Lesley Grant, he has a beautiful fiancée who he faces a long and happy life with. An encounter with a fortune teller at the Six Ashes village fete soon puts paid to that. After Lesley has an upsetting encounter with the seer, he tries to tell Dick the truth about his wife-to-be – only for Lesley to shoot him through the side of the tent.

Luckily, the fortune teller – actually Sir Harvey Gilman, the Home Office Pathologist – survives and tells Dick what he knows about Lesley. She has been married twice and engaged once, and each time her husband/fiancé killed themselves. Oddly, each of them injected themselves with prussic acid inside a securely locked room – a remarkable coincidence. It seems Lesley has a foolproof method of murder, one that Sir Harvey will soon have first-hand experience of. But a revelation soon turns everything on its head. Is Lesley truly a murderer? And if not, who killed Sir Harvey – and how?

After that recent post, which has managed to already be my most commented on post ever, I thought it was time to revisit a book that should be read by anyone who has already devoured the canon of Dame Agatha. John  Dickson Carr (and his pseudonym Carter Dickson) wrote many a fine classic well-clued mystery (and the occasional duffer) with larger-than-life sleuths in the form of Gideon Fell (23 novels) and Sir Henry Merrivale (22 novels). Not many of the best are readily available as ebooks, I’m afraid, but they’re well worth seeking out.

This is a Gideon Fell novel, by the way, and is on my list of Top Five Fell novels. It’s a fairly odd style – almost a caper novel in the style of The Punch And Judy Murders, although not as bizarre. I’ve made a point of not mentioning the twist in the narrative, by the way, so commenters, if you could avoid that too, as that is one of the strengths of the novel.

It’s also a devilishly plotted mystery – the locked room is clever but workoutable and the murderer is a genuine surprise, although it makes perfect sense. The story follows Markham’s point of view for the entirety of the story, including his doubts over Lesley’s intentions, which makes Fell keeping important information quiet make perfect sense. He’s not hiding what he knows, he just isn’t telling Dick.

If I was to quibble, there are some events that are presented simply to keep the plot moving – the relevance of Lesley shooting Sir Harvey, for example, or the later attack on another character – in another book, everything would tie into the main narrative, but despite that, this is still a great read – the run up to the murder, and the subsequent revelation, in particular, is one of the most distinctive that I’ve ever read.

Not the finest Fell novel – I still think that’s He Who Whispers – but a very strong contender and well worth a look. Highly Recommended.

By the way, of the available ebooks, the best are He Who Whispers, She Died A Lady, The Hollow Man, The Burning Court, The Emperor’s Snuff Box and The Problem Of The Green Capsule. In fact, I doubt you’ll find anyone who’d quibble with the first four, at least, being on a best ever mystery novel list.

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27 comments

  1. I absolutely love it. One of my favourite Carr novels, although it seems to be talked about less than some of his others. Some of the early Carrs have rather nightmarish settings, with loads of horrific content, but this novel really does have a rather nightmarish atmosphere, with the sense that the POV character is on the verge of something horrifiying that he can seemingly do nothing about. The early parts of the narrative, with a village fete suddenly turning darker, are superb bits of writing. On top of all this, the impossible crime actually feels quite credible.

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  2. This is a brilliant novel by Carr and a favourite of mine. An ingenious locked room mystery with a highly satisfying solution. Not to be missed by mystery fans.
    In 1997, BBC did a radio play titled The House In Gallows Lane (dramatised by Peter Ling) based upon this novel.
    Regarding the best mystery books among the available ebooks, I do have a quibble with The Burning Court—-its highly absurd last chapter.

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  3. Bravo Steve – one of my favourites, not least for its wonderful atmosphere (reviews too often forget how good Carr could be in scene-setting and in building up tension). Isn’t that interesting – I was just thinking of going back to The Burning Court as I’ve only ever read it in translation. Allegedly Carr re-used some of the same characters in an additional novel – this ring a bell with you?

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    • I can find one reference to this in a comment on Christopher Fowler’s blog but it doesn’t say which book. Anyone have an idea on this one? I haven’t read many non-series Carr so I’m not the expert here

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      • I’ve read them but it’s been a long while (and not all in English) – HUNGRY GOBLIN I got about 10 years ago and, well, glad I read it, being a completist, but it is very poor …

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      • There don’t seem to be many candidates, given that almost all of the non-series books are set before The Burning Court by at least a half-century, which would make it most likely a Fell novel. Which it probably isn’t…

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      • I still haven’t read The Burning Court! I guess I probably should? But I’ve read most of the others and I can’t think which novel he could have reused the characters in. Deadly Hall? I don’t know anything about that one. Or is that one of the American ones?

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      • I have read the comment in Fowler’s blog which states,”Carr later wrote a second novel with some of the BC’s characters that carried the tale forward.” This seems incorrect. There is no sequel to The Burning Court.
        Regarding the appearance of BC’s characters in another novel, Edward Stevens of Herald & Sons is mentioned once, though inconspicuously, in Panic In Box C. Other than this, I do not think there is reappearance of BC’s characters in other Carr novels.

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      • The Burning Court is good. I didn’t mind the ending, but that’s because it’s one of those things that you can’t really hint at without it becoming extremely obvious. Still good though.

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  4. I think I should probably read this one again. It’s getting a lot of love.

    When I read it I remember thinking it was all rather prosaic, especially the impossible crime, which seemed very obvious. But now I transpires I don’t remember anything about it EXCEPT the impossible crime, so I was probably in a contrarian mood!

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