John Dickson Carr – My Top Ten

John Dickson CarrWell, I had a lot of fun giving The Ten Teacups a kicking with JJ over at The Invisible Event the other day, so I thought I’d have a think about what my favourite Carr novels are. “But you’ve already done that” I hear my very long-serving readers cry, but that was way back in the nascent days of the blog. And that was three Top Fives. And, more importantly, I’ve since re-read some of them and found that the memory cheats – I’m looking directly at you, The Red Widow Murders.

But what am I using as a criteria here, as, let’s face it, Carr’s style ricochets all over the place? Well, a solid mystery and an enjoyable read. And just for clarity, the following weren’t considered – The Plague Court Murders, Poison In Jest, The Mad Hatter Mystery, To Wake The Dead and The Witch Of The Low-Tide as I remember enjoying them all, but it was so long ago that I can’t give an informed opinion of them. And not The Devil In Velvet either, as that’s the only unread one that seems to get any positive comments. So, what’s in the Top Ten?

  1. My Late Wives

My Late WivesPossibly a surprise to kick off, as there isn’t an impossibility in sight here? The “vanishing bodies” bit is obvious, especially if you’ve got my copy which has a detailed picture of where the bodies are, but the mystery is an absolute cracker, one of the real surprises that Carr managed to pull off. He was far more than just a locked room gimmicky writer and this one shows it.

  1. The Reader Is Warned

The Reader Is WarnedA psychic predicts that someone is going to die and then they drop down dead in view of reliable witnesses. Is Teleforce a real weapon? Can it be used for the war effort – or worse, by Hitler against the Allies? As the hysteria grows, it falls to Sir Henry Merrivale to unmask a devious murderer… One of my earliest Carrs and still a favourite. My review of it was written when I was in an exceptionally grumpy mood and I plan on revisiting this one soon, but it’s a clever idea done extremely well.

  1. Murder In The Submarine Zone

Nine and Death Makes TenNine passengers are crossing the Atlantic in the early days of the War when one of them is found with their throat cut. Luckily the murderer has left two bloody fingerprints. Unluckily, they match nobody on board… Another book where the impossibility is a bit irrelevant, but the mystery itself is damned clever. Like The Reader Is Warned, Carr uses the wartime atmosphere to crank up the tension and it would take a clever reader indeed to spot the killer.

  1. The Nine Wrong Answers

The Nine Wrong AnswersA book that Carr must have enjoyed writing as he poses nine questions to the reader as the story progresses only to eliminate, via footnotes, the obvious answers that the reader might have guessed at. Bill Dawson is asked to pose as the heir to a fortune. When he meets his potential benefactor, he receives a simply offer – he will receive a vast fortune if he can avoid being murdered in the next six months… and then it gets more complicated… I know some people think this book contains a massive cheat – I’m not one of those people.

  1. The Case Of The Constant Suicides

The Case Of The Constan tSuicidesAt an isolated Scottish castle, someone leaps to their death from a locked tower room. Someone else hangs themselves, also in a locked room. As two squabbling cousins try and help Gideon Fell solve the crime while falling in love (possibly), and real science takes something of a back seat to fictional science, there’s a lot of fun to be had with this one. Probably the book that got me really hooked on Carr.

  1. The Black Spectacles

black-spectaclesA stunningly clever mystery – Marcus Chesney is determined to prove that nothing is as it seems by staging a demonstration. Ten questions are to be answered about a filmed performance which can then be checked by watching the film – but when Chesney is murdered by a masked figure during the performance and the person designated to play the “killer” was incapacitated at the time, who could have changed the script? A fascinating tale of observation and mis-observation, with a simple idea underpinning everything. Often overlooked, this loses a position or two for a clumsy misdirection near the end. Otherwise, this is near perfect. Review coming soonish…

  1. He Who Whispers

He Who WhispersA woman who believes herself to be a vampire. A man who was killed while alone atop a tower, where only a vampire could reach him. A woman nearly scared to death while alone in her room – alone apart from a mysterious whisper… One of Carr’s strongest pieces of character work with another clever-but-simple murder method, one that was pinched almost wholesale quite recently (won’t say where – spoilers). With an interesting lead in Fay Seton and an intriguing ending, this is one of Carr’s finest.

Aargh… how to sort the top three? Here goes…

  1. She Died A Lady

she-died-a-lady1.jpgTwo lovers walked to the edge of a cliff and jumped over. So how on earth did that happen when they were shot from close range from the front before they fell? Their footprints clear show that nobody else was there… Sir Henry Merrivale is on hand to find the truth. A simply set impossibility, but another cracking mystery, playing a narrative game that only becomes apparent as the tale closes.

  1. The Judas Window

Judas WindowProbably Carr’s finest locked room – a young man passes out while talking to his prospective father-in-law. When he wakes up, he finds himself with a corpse, stabbed with an arrow, inside an extremely locked room. As Sir Henry Merrivale takes up the case, which, as it has already made its way to the court, involves him donning his legal wig. A clever trick, an enticing setting and, yet again, a well-hidden murderer.

And finally… well, I haven’t mentioned The Hollow Man yet, so surely…

  1. Till Death Do Us Part

Till Death Do Us PartYeah, no Hollow Man nonsense here. Till Death is, I think, Carr’s finest mystery, with its intriguing opening as Dick Markham’s fiancée is accused of being a serial killer, to the locked room – why did someone shoot at the victim after they had apparently injected themselves with poison? – to, yet again, another well-hidden murderer. Carr’s best attempt at the English village mystery and I think his finest book, because it doesn’t hide behind tricksy nonsense.

And a quick word on the lack of The Hollow Man. It’s my personal opinion that it’s vastly over-rated. It’s an average Carr with some of his weaknesses on show, bolstered by the locked room lecture. But more on that one soon – in case you hadn’t noticed, I haven’t reviewed it on the blog yet…

For more of my thoughts on Carr:

John Dickson Carr’s Great Works

Agatha Christie vs John Dickson Carr

 

 

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32 comments

  1. Interesting list. Don’t think I have read enough Carr novels to generate a Top 10, though The Nine Wrong Answers, The Case of the Constant Suicides and She Died Lady would probably feature in such a list if I ever do one. The only other which I can think of off the top of my head which I would definitely include is The Emperor’s Snuff Box.

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  2. I’m glad that ‘Hollow Man’ did not get in, and that other lesser-known works were given the chance to shine. Thanks for the recommendations! I’m especially glad that ‘Till Death Do Us Part’ got the place of honour – I very much enjoyed that one.

    Yes, I agree that ‘Red Widow Murders’ probably needed to get off the list; it certainly doesn’t rub shoulders with ‘Constant Suicides’ and ‘Nine – and Death Makes Ten’. I’m not overly-fond of ‘Judas Window’ or ‘She Died a Lady’, and might have been tempted to put ‘Emperor’s Snuff Box’ in either of its place. Personally, I regard ‘Death-Watch’ as one of the best novels by Carr I’ve read.

    I’m glad that I’ve quite a few Carr titles left to read: ‘He Who Whispers’, ‘Late Wives’, ‘Reader is Warned’, ‘Nine Wrong Answers’, etc. Saving the best for the last! 😀

    P.S. Just wondering if you’ve read ‘Death of the Gilded Man’? I just ordered it, together with ‘Unicorn Murders’ and ‘White Priory Murders’.

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    • Yup, I’ve read it a long time ago. IIRC, it’s middling Merrivale. Perfectly fine, but no classic.

      Death Watch? Each to their own – I hated it when I read it years ago. Maybe I need to revisit that one…

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  3. An interesting list and a very good one, though I have a higher opinion of The Hollow Man/The Three Coffins than you do. So glad to see The Nine Wrong Answers on the list – I think this is vastly underrated, with a last-minute trick which thoroughly pulled the rug out from under me. I agree with you about ignoring the people who think Carr cheated. I don’t think he did either.

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  4. I’m interested to find out why you have not included The Hollow in your list. Although I’ve not read it yet it is waiting high on my TBR pile and I’m looking forward to your review.

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  5. Great list Doc, these all deserve to be in the top 10. Trouble is, of me, so do HOLLOW MAN and EMPEROR’S SNUFFBOX … oh and maybe BURNING COURT too … and HE WOULDN’T KILL PATIENCE … Well, as we said when we did this last time, a top 15 may really be needed when it comes to Car 🙂

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    • All of those would be in a Top 15 – in fact, it’s interesting as I’d say there are about twenty books that people would class as “good, at least” but then there’s a huge drop off in quality. Is there such thing as a mediocre Carr?

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      • I always think people are a bit too cut and dried about these sort of things – there are lots of great ones from the 1950s, such as NINE WRONG ANSWERS and FIRE. BURN for instance. I think it is true though that from the mid thirties to the late 40s he just seemed to write one fantastically good book after another. Christie probably was more consistent for a much longer period, but I prefer his books generally by a mile (so there!)

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      • I’d say there is such a thing as mediocre, middling Carr. Most of his historical mysteries, for example. “Bride of Newgate”, “Witch of Low-Tide”, “Most Secret”.

        The early Fells would also fall into this category for me: “Mad Hatter”, “Eight of Swords”, “Hag’s Nook”, etc.

        For Merrivale there’s “And so to Murder” and “Punch and Judy”, just to name two.

        All eminently readable, but there’s lots of mysteries that are better.

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      • From memory, And So To Murder and Eight Of Swords are at the bottom of the heap, but it’s been a while. Punch and Judy, and Unicorn as well, is closer to the mark. Good call.

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  6. Great list. I’ve read all of these with the exception of My Late Wives and Murder in the Submarine Zone. I’ve had a bit of trouble tracking down a cheap copy of MLW; it seems to be a bit rarer than other books. I’ve read some good things about it and I’m glad to see that you rate it highly.

    I’ve had MitSZ towards the top of my TBR stack for months (it currently sits at #1), but I keep moving it down because I don’t want to exhaust the classics too quickly. I’ll probably wait until I read a complete dud to savor it (hey, I just started Below Suspicion…).

    I love your comment about the clumsy misdirection in The Problem of the Green Capsule. That one weak passage prevents this from being a mathematically perfect book. I’d probably still rank it as Carr’s best.

    Glaring omissions? Hmm, probably The Emperor’s Snuff Box, The Burning Court, and The Crooked Hinge.

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  7. Great work, and I agree about the Hollow Man. It was my first ever Carr and nearly put me off! I have found that when I describe to others the set-up its sounds so brilliant, but the solutions and the over complicated trickiness have always been difficult for me. Although the sense of the macabre is great.

    And great that TDDUP gets the number one spot, at this stage in my Carrian reading I couldn’t agree more! It reads like a contemporary thriller as well as a domestic GAD novel, plus a great example of the locked room scenario running through the book as a chilling impossibility, but also as a mover of plot.

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  8. In the same way that everyone has an accepted classic that they simply do not get, I just don’t get the love for Judas Window. It’s…fine, but the impossibility is nowhere near as interesting as the problem of why the father-in-law seems to take against Answell overnight despite receiving no mail and taking no phone calls: that is genius, and all on show for you to see, and then the solution to the murder is — frankly — undercut by the admission that follows the solution and throws it all into doubt in my mind. But, well, that’s just me…

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    • Oh, that’s the feeling fans of The Hollow Man feel when I have a pop at it… The Judas Window is a real favourite of mine – yes, it makes little practical sense and is probably physically impossible, but it’s loads of fun along the way…

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  9. JDC follows EQ in my personal library. I was glad to see NINE WRONG ANSWERS included in your list. I too enjoyed THE BURNING COURT (I could NOT put the book down after reading the first chapter and wish there was a way to see the televised program of this novel which aired in the mid-60’s). I do find THE HOLLOW MAN to be a great JDC vehicle, and I also like THE BOWSTRING MURDERS as I think that was the first Carr/Dickson novel I read many, many years ago. ,

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  10. I’ve never read anything by John Dickson Carr or by his nom de plumes. So let me ask you: is there one book that you would recommend as a good starting point? I’m interested and want some advice from a person, like you, who clearly knows the works of the author well. Thank you!

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    • Well, the ones that got me hooked were The Case Of The Constant Suicides and The Reader Is Warned. I think the second one shows all of Carr’s strengths, but you’ll have to go to a second hand book website to find a copy…

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  11. I clicked on your link to your review of ‘Till Death Do Us Part’ – and interestingly, at the end of the review, you mentioned that it isn’t as good as ‘He Who Whispers’. Has time changed your perception of the two books, that ‘He Who Whispers’ is now placed at 4th position and ‘Till Death Do Us Part’ at the very top spot…?

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  12. I’ve read 35 or 36 novels by JDC, my favorites are The crooked hinge (:-) )and He who whispered.
    I’ve found The third bullet very fun too and I like the Burning court (the french movie is good too).

    I’ve enjoyed most of Carr novels even if some are not so good (Patrick Butler for the Defense or drop to his death are a bit boring and I don’t get into the mad hatter mystery)

    Now I think Paul Halter is the best locked room novelist of all time 😉
    ..

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