Having recently read The Arabian Nights Murder (1936) by John Dickson Carr, the time seems ripe to rank the first ten of Carr’s novels featuring the gargantuan Dr. Gideon Fell. Why the first 10? Well, we’re a decimal-obsessed society, and I’ve not read the eleventh, so this seems a natural jumping-off point. It’s not technically a top ten, right? It’s a little more interesting than that…right?
Maybe this is just a little too fresh in my mind, but the brilliant middle third is dragged down by a dull, dull, dull third third that reads like everything people tell you Freeman Wills Crofts is at his worst. Fell’s barely in it, too, so it’s a little like those later Poirot novels where Christie got sick of him, except this was early Carr and you feel it just needed Fell to give it some pazzazz. My fuller thoughts are at the link above.
9. The Blind Barber (1934) [Fell #3]
I think this gets a bad rap on account of how hard it strains to be funny without actually managing it most of the time. The central puzzle — concerning a dead body appearing on a cruise ship without any of the people on board having, y’know, died — is genius and deserves to be in a far better book. Carr learned a lot from this, I maintain, since he became actually funny when he meant to be in the books that followed. Fell’s barely in this one, too, as it happens.
8. Hag’s Nook (1933) [Fell #1]
Contains one of the most soul-freezingly terrifying pieces of writing I’ve yet encountered in GAD as the Generic Young Man Protagonist so beloved of Carr explores the spooky castle at the heart of this tale. The plotting is a little basic and the Macguffin appallingly pedestrian, but this superbly updates the Gothic of Carr’s early Henri Bencolin novels and juggles the tone of a far warmer, more personable, but no less savage detective expertly. A good start, with much better to come.
7. To Wake the Dead (1938) [Fell #8]
A man sees a piece of paper flutter down from an open hotel window and, finding it to be a registration card, enters the hotel and sits down to breakfast as if he is a guest. Circumstances then compel him to go up to “his” room, where he finds a dead body…and everything only gets more entertaining from there. Falls down in stature because there’s one huge coincidence I was expecting Carr to justify with a genius twist that’s never forthcoming, but shows the puzzle plot at near-peak. A great crime scene diagram, too, that explains a lot of you’re paying close enough attention (I never am…).
6. The Mad Hatter Mystery (1933) [Fell #2]
Dead bodies turning up all over London with top hats placed on them, with one such appearing in the Traitors’ Gate at the Tower…a simple idea, beautifully explored. No impossibility, and all the better for it, with pea-souper fogs, missing documents, phone calls, and a profusion of mysterious types deployed to make Fell’s second case rather more creative than his first. I solved this one and remain ineffably smug about that to this day, though others will tell you it’s not that big a deal. I mean, jeez, people have babies all the time, so why can’t I get a little respect for an actual achievement…?
A controversial one, perhaps, on account of the direction its solution takes, but viewed backwards once you know the answer it makes a lot of sense and is arguably best reimagined as a retrospective horror story. If anything I don’t think Carr does quite enough to set up the impossible death, and the automaton is wheeled out for far too much verbiage come the closing stages, but it’s easily one of the most inventive takes on this genre and deserves recognition for that.
Somewhat highly regarded, this one, sort of The Beatles of Carr’s career: everyone so busy banging on about how revolutionary it is that you’re not really going to be able to come to it pure and so make your own mind up. It’s great, if a little over-hyped by deign of being almost the only Carr book most people have heard of, and contains some of the most elaborate (and, yes, consequently flawed) schemes yet seen on paper, but again works especially well from a horror perspective. Dense, creepy, infernally clever, but not the be-all-and-end-all of Carr that some will have you believe.
3. The Eight of Swords (1934) [Fell #4]
I’d move this up a place but for two late chapters where, I seem to remember, one character follows another around for…avoidable reasons. That aside, this is pretty close to perfection: the problem is baffling, the answers inspired, Fell’s one-upmanship with the bishop hilarious, the detective novel writer a playful swipe at the conventions of this type of plot, all beautifully juggled. Why this isn’t more talked about I really don’t know.
2. Death-Watch (1934) [Fell #5]
You will probably disagree with this placement, but I love Death-Watch. Take that slight issue in the prologue out and it’s just solid gold all the way through: the first half winds tighter and tighter, the problems ever more stacked and insuperable, and the atmosphere of oppression so finely managed as to be stiflingly intense at times. Then light begins to dawn, and the multitudinous resolutions are so goddamn sensible that you wonder how it ever seemed baffling to begin with.
Surprise! This is, of course, the single best novel of detection ever written. Village poisonings, a demonstration followed by ten question that each of the three observers give different answers to, and Fell as the maestro at the centre of the brilliance. Cements your expectations solidly and then show them all to be wrong in the most joyous way, a magisterial performance. If you only read one book in this genre, what the hell’s wrong with you? I, er, mean, make it this one. Obviously.
You will, I hope, have some thoughts on this. You may not, and that’s fine. We can just assume that this is the definitive listing and allow it to stand as gospel for all time henceforth. Everyone okay with that?
67 thoughts on “#295: Fell/Murder – Ranking the First Ten Gideon Fell Novels (1933-39) by John Dickson Carr”
Maybe I read your list wrong, but you placed The Blind Barber above The Arabian Nights Murder? And you placed The Eight of Swords and Death Watch before The Hollow Man!?
I hope you’re suffered from an old-fashioned case of brain fever when you compiled this list, JJ. Because otherwise, I can’t take your opinions seriously anymore!
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Wow, someone out there has been taking my opinions seriously? 😛
The Eight of Swords is masterful, c’mon: there’s a staircase up the outside of the house, so why doesn’t the visitor — who wishes to visit the occupant of the room at the top of the staircase — simpl walk up those stairs rather than knocking at the front door? The whole setup is genius, and manages to pile up those clever little twists that the best puzzle plots find in the unlikliest of places wthout havig to shout about how Big And Difficult And Impressive its plot is. I’m telling you, it’s an early-career masterpiece and should be appreciated as such.
I regret nothing!
Dearly beloved, we have gathered today to mourn the early passing of JJ’s credibility… 😦
If someone had also told me I had credibility I would have retired by now and left you all lamenting the loss of a great mind in GAD blogging. Turns out Harvey Dent in thay Batman film was right…adieu, internets…consider me retired in shame.
Absolutely right — ne regrette rien. I had a look at Eight of Swords in January of this year and finally figured out what my issue was … the first half is comedic and the second half is horrific, and they don’t mesh well.
But I will never forget that moment where the gunman gets shot through the head just as he’s heaving up his dinner. That was an unforgettably horrific idea.
…his passing was so sudden that it hasn’t even registered yet. As if it never happened. Like it all was a bad dream. Sometimes, it feels like he’s still responding to me.
I don’t have to keep approving these comment, you know, if all I’m going to get is abuse… 😛
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Ok, ok, I shall cease the shenanigans.
Haven’t read many of these books, in fact I’ve only read two, so on that small basis I can concur in agreeing that The Hollow Coffin is better than The Crooked Hinge!
Well, it’s nice to know that I’m in 100% agreement with someone… 😀
Much as I utterly love The Black Spectacles (UK titles, please) there is a very clumsy misdirection towards the end with a shooting – unless I’m remembering the wrong book…
Still the definite number one though, of this bunch. Of course, it’s not the finest Fell novel… I can think of two clear rivals
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I…don’t remember a shooting towards the end. But the poorness of my memory has become something of a feature of these comments of mine (along with my terrible typing). If anything, I’d say the misdirection around the shooting in Till Death Do Us Part — which I’m imagining is one of the Fells you’d put up to rival this one, and I heartily agree it’s a close-run thing — is more than a little cumbersome. Carr does make it just about work, but retrospectively it falls below the excellent standards elsewhere in that sublime piece of work…
“I…don’t remember a shooting towards the end”
Yes, there is a shooting incident, wildly improbable and totally unnecessary !
Ah, well, in my defence there’ve been a lot of books, and a lot of shootings in said books, since I read this…
Absolutely unnecessary, wildly improbable, and you can almost see Carr thinking, “Well, the action is sagging a bit, and SOMETHING has to happen, so — a gun will go off!!” Nobody gets killed, nobody cares for longer than a chapter. Bah. I’m not surprised it slipped your mind.
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Yeah, but you’d think it would leave some sort of impression. Ah, well, can’t be that much of a problem, or my notoriously fickle nature would’ve efinitely held it in mind for future criticism. I’ll be sure to pay closer attention when I next come back around to this one…
The bit with fun in the car is really short and irrelevant. 5he book is clearly a classic!!!
Oh definitely. Just saying that the bit in the car is rather pointless and just seemed to be there as a very clumsy piece of misdirection.
Oh dear, for ‘Arabian Nights Murder’ to come after ‘Blind Barber’, given the near-uniform criticisms levelled against the latter title, dampens my excitement for the former title. And for ‘Mad Hatter Mystery’ and ‘To Wake the Dead’ to come after ‘Crooked Hinge’, which I was not overly fond of, dampens my excitement for the two titles.
I do agree with the superior ranking of ‘Death-Watch’, and in fact I would have given it 0.5 to 1 full star more than ‘Problem of the Green Capsule’ – much as I very much admire the bizarre and tricksy premise of the latter novel.
Well, it turns out I have no credibility now anyway, so I could be wrong. Cling to that faint hope…!
I feel for you, JJ. I realize that I have read ALL of these titles, and yet the passage of time has made all fade in my memory except the two I have read in the past year: The Hollow Man and The Black Spectacles. The first impresses me more for its atmosphere than anything else; the last is, I agree, a wonderful, wonderful mystery novel (but the best of every mystery ever?!? Shirley, you jest!)
As you know, there are far too many mysteries out there that must be tackled – new discoveries, the few titles by favorites that haven’t been caught – for me to promise to re-read this First Ten. But the one I really feel I must re-read at some point is The Crooked Hinge because I absolutely loved that one when I read it, and I can’t understand why it slips lower and lower in fans’ estimation each year. Both the “Brat Farrar”-esqe premise and the delicious intermingling of a witch cult, all in the lovely British countryside was creepy fun. Maybe I shouldn’t read it again and just let my dim memories of greatness suffice.
The problem that I have with Crooked Hinge – can’t speak for anything else – is the massively stupid resolution to the impossibility. Not only is it basically unguessable, but the fact that nobody else would have suspected… the rest, including the fake solution, is pretty good – very atmospheric. But the ending undoes all the good work done previously…
I must have been 15 when I read it, PD. I don’t think my mind could grasp the flaws – I was just slam-dunked by the surprises (especially the witchcraft issue.)
The fake solution is a lot of fun retrospectively, but I was furious when I first read it and thought that was the actual answer…thankfully snaer minds prevailed!
Sorry, the real solution is saner???
In the realm of this sort of story, yeah — it’s exactly what I read this sort of thing for. You’re absolutely right that it’s unguessable, but given that the fake solution — SPOILERS FOR THE CROOKED HINGE FOLLOW — revolves around a razor blade on a fishing line of some other such Midsomer nonsense — SPOILERS FOR THE CROOKED HINGE END — I’d much rather have somehting of the inventiveness and elaborateness that Carr gives us. If I want boringly unrealistic stuff I can read Herbert Resnicow…give me excitement with my salt!
I just finished TCH tonight. You are both wrong!
PD is wrong because the fake solution has no snap, no panache, no audacity. The real solution has that in spades. He is also wrong about the automaton being superfluous, “just” a clue to howdunit. But in fact it’s a Christie clue, and a great one, that in retrospect makes you feel stupid for missing it. Except with Christie you rarely do miss it.
You are wrong because a cheat is always but always a huge black mark, and because the solution piles on too many extraneous implausibilities.
I’m quite used to being wrong. The more praxctice I get at having opinions, the more people disagree with me Man, and you think I’d get the hang of it, too, after all this time…
I don’t love the cheat, but — as I’ve pointed out elsewhere — a huge nu,ber of impossibilities rely on deliberately inaccurate testimony, and so several classics could well be wiped off for cheating in this regard. As cheats go, I find it one of the more forgivable…but we’ll definitely agree that it should be avoided altgether if it can be.
Well, the consolation is PD is wronger!
I thinkit’s fair to say that The Crooked Hinge is a better idea than it is a novel; Carr published five books that year and that one is proof that, no matter how damn good you are, sometimes you need to spend a little more time filling an idea out. The concept is great, the nature of the solution is extremely inventive, but in execution is lacks. But for mood and threat and menace it’s superb and can be commended even if modern tastes are noving against it (and never forget that I’m not a great fan of He Who Whispers overall, so my perspective is subject to the usual, er, subjectivity…).
Fair assessment. But it actually started quite well as a novel I thought. Up until the murder.
Yeah, that’s usually the way with a lot of GAD…!
It’s encouraging to see that I still have four of these yet to read. I have a temptation to think that I’ve blazed through much of the highlights of Carr’s Fell catalog. My attempt to balance the time periods seems to have paid off. I very much enjoy the Fell books that I’ve read in this span, and so it’s nice to know that I still have a few to savor.
And this isn’t even the best Fell period (although it overlaps with it). I’m no authority – having quite a few books left to go, but I get the sense that the prime Fell run started with Death Watch (1935) and ended with He Who Whispers (1946). Of course, I’ll return to that theory once I’ve completed that run and the surrounding territory.
To contrast, my favorite Merrivale period is easily the earlier atmospheric books – starting with The Plague Court Murders (1934) and carrying on to The Reader is Warned (1939).
As to the books that you’ve identified – I can naturally only rate what I’ve read, but I have a somewhat similar order.
6. The Mad Hatter Mystery – for me, this is the weakest mystery. As you point out, there is no impossible crime, and so things really just (appear to) come down to timetables and alibis, which is less interesting for me. Of course, what really happened is vastly different than what the reader is led to believe, which is a nice (and common) touch by Carr (and that you saw it coming amazes me). I don’t like one aspect of the solution (detailed in my blog post spoilers section) that regards something seemingly conspicuous that no witness saw.
5. To Wake the Dead – Excellent book, only at position #5 because of the strength of the competition.
4. Hag’s Nook – Early-Merrivale-style atmosphere – check. Reverberations of mysteries from centuries past – check. A solution that makes you aghast at how badly you were deceived and misdirected – check. I really love everything about this book.
3. Death Watch – I’m with you as far as the book being under appreciated. As you say, the mystery coils tighter and tighter in the first half, and then unravels in brilliant fashion. Fell’s lecture at the end is why I love him as a detective and my only complaint is that it wasn’t longer.
2. The Crooked Hinge – This story is near flawless and no excuse is needed for any part. The whole automaton part builds the atmosphere I love and does serve a purpose.
1. The Problem of the Green Capsule – I’m with you on this – best novel of detection ever written. It has the flaw of the gun scene, but I can look past that because the rest of it is so insidiously brilliant. It isn’t even that I’m that in love with the solution – it is the entire plot proceeding it that is so brilliant.
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Your point about prefering the earlier Merrivale books is an interesting one, because I’m on the verge of writing something about thow the early Merrivale books are essentially Fell plots with a different main character so that Carr was allowed to publish more than x books a year.
It’s only really around Punch and Judy that Merrivale begins to distinguish himself from Fell in terms of structrue and approach, and that’s when a lot of the most inventive H.M. plots emerged. So, hey, maybe you’re a Carr classicist! We may have found an algoritihm for the JDC books you’ll like the most…!
I suppose that the courteous thing to do would be to wait until you’ve written that article, but you’ve dangled too tasty of a treat for me to resist. Perhaps this will give you food for thought for a post that I’m certainly already looking forward to.
My gut reaction to your assertion that “early Merrivale books are essentially Fell plots with a different main character” could be described as tempered outrage. Of course, my secondary reaction after spinning it in my head for a bit is “JJ’s probably right and he is going to soundly prove me wrong in his post.”
You most certainly are correct that Carr took the Carter Dickson path in order to publish more books each year. It’s just that I see too much difference in the Merrivale books and the Fell books. In some sense, yes, you could make some tweaks to the filler to account for the differences in personalities between the two detectives. And yet, I don’t know if that completely works.
I just can’t see Merrivale in The Mad Hatter Mystery or Death Watch. Nor do I really see Fell fitting into The Red Widow Murders or The Unicorn Murders. Yes, Carr appears to slip and has Merrivale utter “Archons of Athens” in Unicorn, but he also relies heavily on Merrivale’s background to justify the spy-tinged plot.
Really though, I see the core differences in early Fell/Merrivale books having to do with the nature of the puzzle. Now, I haven’t read several of the Fell books, so I’m going out on a limb, but here goes:
Early Merrivale books focus heavily on an air tight impossible crime. The Plague Court Murders, The White Priory Murders, The Red Widow Murders, The Unicorn Murders – these stories revolve around impossibilities that astound the reader. Each certainly deserves a spot in a “top 10 Carr impossible premises” list.
The early Fell books strike me as different, although admittedly I haven’t read them all. I would characterize these Fell stories as having strong (yet not impossible) mysteries, which are then unravelled to show that the reader had completely different expectations than the reality that occurred. From what I understand, this distinction actually carries on after The Punch and Judy Murders, and probably ends with 1939’s The Problem of the Wire Cage. Of course, I’m taking some liberties there and ignoring a few convenient exceptions, but that’s how I’d capture my outlook at this time.
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I think your differentiation works, Ben! I avoided the Merrivales when I started reading Carr because they seemed too tightly focused on the “how” while the Fells had marvelous set-ups, better atmosphere, deeper characterization. Now, I wasn’t old enough and wise enough to figure all of this out; I just got a strong sense of it. I only started reading Carter Dickson over the past two years. I thoroughly enjoyed The Judas Window, and it prompted me to continue. I’ve had a good time so far, and I think some of the best is yet to come, but I still hold that the Fell novels are a richer experience than the Merrivales. Over the past two years, I’ve read The Three Coffins, The Problem of the Green Capsule, and He Who Whispersfor the first time. I didn’t love the first as much as I should, although I admire its atmosphere and complexity. But the other two rank as probably my best Carr experiences ever. (Although I loved The Crooked Hinge when I first read it and have to call it my best youthful experience – my first favorite Carr, so to speak.)
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I’m a big fan of the how-done-it, much more than the straight forward who-done-it. Well, perhaps that’s because I always find the “who” in a Carr how-done-it just as puzzling as the “how”.
With that said, there is something special about the plots in the early Fells (well… all the Fells for the most part). I think that Death Watch is the embodiment of that. It certainly lacks elements possessed by Hag’s Nook or The Problem of the Green Capsule, but the fact that it is so strong in spite of that speaks to what Carr could do with a seemingly vanilla premise.
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Yes, exactly! Why does no-one else see this about this book? It’s a potentially fatally dull premise spun into absolutely wonderful patterns and implications. There’s plot in there enough for like five other GAD novels, and seemingly all anyone can talk about is that issue in the prologue — I don’t deny that’s weird, but the prologue is far from essential; you can start at chapter 1 and be no worse off.
I have a feeling that I will be defending this book for years to come. And then I’ll finally reread it and hate it… 😀
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Well, I mean, H.M. wouldn’t need to fit into the Fell novels, as Fell came first…it’s a far easier fit to put Fell into the first 6 or so H.M. books. But, well, some planning and research may be required before this is any more than pure surmise on my part. Watch this space perhaps, but maybe I’ll never get round to writing this…
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The Green Capsule is fantastic at showing how most people observational powers work (or don’t work). And the killer was a real surprise, to me at least. But the whole ridiculous love plot lets it down some. Crooked Hinge, I can’t remember but I think I liked it quite a bit. And Hollow man I liked a lot the first time but less so the second time. Very impressive atmosphere, though. Haven’t read the rest, though the Blind Barber will probably be last on my list of Carrs to try. Though maybe it’ll surprise me and be a unfairly maligned comic masterpiece.
Oh, no, a moic masterpiece The Blind Barber most certainly isn’t. But it does get overlooked on account of how unfunny the comedy is. The mystery, and the misdirection, deserve more praise that the book gets, and that’s like refusing to admit you had a good meal because it was served on ghastly plates.
Most of the love plots in GAD are fairly bad, let’s be honest. And how healthy can a relationship be when forged whilst one of you was under suspicion of, and the other investigating, a deeply baffling and horrible crime? The need for romance feels like a verty 1903s talking pictures things. It’s a thread I’d happily rip wholesale from a great many of the books I adore in this genre.
” …that’s like refusing to admit you had a good meal because it was served on ghastly plates.”
I suppose this all depends on how easy it you can find it to overlook the less successful parts of the book. If the attempts at being funny are really intrusively awful then I think it would be a case not so much of ghastly plates but a whacking great slug smirking up at you and despoiling the lettuce.
I’ll just have to try it someday and see. Perhaps when I’m not very hungry. 🙂
As for romance, totally agreed it is largely unnecessary and rarely done well in GAD. But there are the standard, fixture-and-fittings, unrealistic love stories and then there are a few which just seem to go that extra mile of awful. This one stuck out to me. I did like the rest enough not for it not to be more than a bit of annoyance though ( unlike the unspeakable Flora).
I do not remember Flora being so unspeakable, but then I don’t remember an entire shooting from Green Capsule. And possibly I don’t even remember precisely which JDC books I’ve read. Honestly, I’m even beginning to doubt my own existence.
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I dare say you knew you might get some stick on the bottom end of the list? But I love what you have done here JJ- And the point surely is that they are all truly worthwhile 😀
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Hey, look, I would have considered this a complete failure if everyone had just gone “Yup, looks good”. The multiplicity of perspectives is what gives us all something to do — there are even people out there who thing Green Capsule is a bad book, for pity’s sake. I’m here for the conversation and conversation I’ve got. Mission accomplished!
Though, of course, I also stand by every word…!
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If I understand you correctly, you have only read 10 novels by John Dickson Carr? In that case, it’s too early to make a list, especially since some of his best are still missing:
– The Judas Window
– He Who Whispers (!! In some ways his best)
– She Died A Lady
– Until Death Do Us Part
– The White Priory Murders
From your list of 10, I’d order them as follows:
10. Death Watch. I share your liking of Death Watch, although it’s not just the slight in the prologue which harms it. There are two other aspects of the book which makes it really deserving to be titled One Of His Worst. To avoid spoilers, I’ll describe them in a Fellian way:
– The Issue of the Evil Statement
– The Issue of Fu Manchu.
(Also: if anyone can explain to me, without mystifying theatrics what the motive really was, I’d be amazed)
The only reason I do still like the book is because of the bitter fight between Hadley and Fell, where Hadley gives a glorious speech about who he thinks is guilty and then after him Fell gives his “poultry” speech. That speech is brilliant. The book for the rest is terrible.
9. The Blind Barber. As you already say yourself: trying too hard to be funny. Having people getting drunk and hitting bottles on other people’s heads is only funny when you are Wodehouse. If not, don’t do it.
8. To Wake The Dead. Disappointing. I’d go back to the Fu Manchu issue.
7. The Eight of Swords. I don’t remember a lot. Some of it was okay, but:
– bishops that fall from stairs is not funny either when you’re not Wodehouse
– The Issue of Obscure American Gangs (which I consider a variation of the Fu Manchu theme)
6. Hag’s Nook. Yes, very good.
5. The Mad Hatter Mystery. Also very good. It probably deserves a higher place.
4. The Crooked Hinge. Very good, but probably should switch place with the Mad Hatter Mystery. I like this one, because I like a certain person in it (I am not sure I am supposed to like him, but knowing Carr, I guess I should). You’re right that the stuff of the automaton is a bit tedious. Great atmosphere though.
3. The Arabian Nights Murder. One of his very best.
2. The Problem of the Green Capsule, a.k.a. The Black Spectacles. Also one of his very best (although I still think that He Who Whispers is even better)
1. The Hollow Man, a.k.a. The Three Coffins. You’re right that there are some flaws in it. But that doesn’t matter. Just for the sheer fantasy and imagination of it, the atmosphere, the cleverness, the bewildering puzzle, it’s an outstanding piece of work. The only flaw is that Carr had ridiculous political ideas and also a lunatic prejudice against science, which made him create this Milk-drinking Socialist Mathematician character, which is not even as a charicature convincing, but luckily, it’s not really important for anything.
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Worry not, I have read 42 Carr novels (I just checked); this is simply an ordering of the first ten Gideon Fell books having finally tracked down and read the tenth, The Arabian Nights Murder.
Thanks for your thoughts on the books, too. I’m not entirely sure I get your Fu Manchu reference, but I’ll think on it some and get back to you…! As to the motive of Death-Watch — I, uh, seem to remember it was about, uhm, a…I’ll get back to you on that, too 😉
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Ah yes, I am sorry, I misunderstood. In any case, He Who Whispers is a Fell mystery, and if you haven’t read that one, you definitely should.
About Fu Manchu, I don’t know how to say it better without giving something away. I think in Fell’s essay “The Grandest Game In the World” (which one would suspect to be on the internet by now, but it isn’t as far as I can see), he gives a list of 10 things One Should Never Do in a whodunit. (However, he inmediately admits that some of the best mysteries he knows are breaking at least one of those 10 rules, and still are great.) In any case, as I recall, both in Death Watch as in To Wake The Death, he breaks one of those rules. (My Fu Manchu comment is misleading, because one of his rules is against mysterious chinamen with exotic poisons, but that’s not the rule I meant).
Brad and I did a spoiler-heavy look at HWW and Death on the Nile together earlier this year. In summary: I like it more the first time I read it; I still have a lot of respect for it, but it wouldn’t make it in my top 10 Carrs at this moment in time.
I’ve not heard of Carr’s 10 Things — this is a different list to the Knox Decalogue, yes? I’d be amazed this isn’t more famous, seeing at it came from the finest proponent of detective fiction who will ever live, but the general dismissal of Carr and his work seems to be something we’re just stuck with at present.
“The issue of Fu Manchu” ??
Could you be more explicit with a spoiler alert warning ?
I’m imagining — and I could be wrong here, as it’s not my pont — that this is a reference to their being one all-controlling influence or figure behind everything that happens, as if something like this could be masterminded from a single brain with that much power and influence on the situation as it is encountered. I could be wrong, but I get the sense that’s the point being made here…
The essay The Grandest Game In The World was written by Carr in 1946, but it was first published in 1963 and that too in abridged form in March 1963 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. The complete essay was first published in 1991 in The Door To Doom collection edited by Douglas Greene.
I have gone through the essay, but I find he has given only 4 main rules and not 10. In addition, he has stressed on fair play. The rules regarding Chinamen and exotic poisons are actually both rules of Knox.
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Thanks, Santosh, it sounded like there was a little too much in the way of crossover for these to be separate lists. Shall have to track down The Door to Doom….
Did you receive my email ?
Just seen it, much appreciated. And I completely agree with what you say about Brad Friedman in it, too.
Whoa . . . what?!?!?
Oh, sorry; forget I said anything.
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I pushed “like” because there’s no option for “perturbed.”
Playing catch up here, but this was a very entertaining ranking/list-making exercise and backed up by some really good commentary.
I don’t have a lot to add to the discussion apart from expressing my own surprise that Arabian Nights was left propping things up, and the fact The Blind Barber came in ahead of anything!
I’m also intrigued enough to plan a reread (after a good 15 years have passed) of Eight of Swords. I remember being vaguely dissatisfied with that one but it’s so long ago…
And then there’s The Crooked Hinge. I remember really looking forward to the book, having been aware of all the praise it had had heaped upon it – I’ve a hunch it’s not anywhere near as well thought of now – loving the atmosphere and build-up, and then the sense of disappointment at the end. It unsettled me for sure but I thought the solution was, well… pants.
Arabian Nights is so much squandered potential, I think that’s my problem with it: it starts out intriguing, becomes awesome, and ends up so so so dullllllll that it was difficult to care too greatly come the end.
Blind Barber at least represents a learning step in Carr’s development — no, the jokes aren’t funny, but he did become terrifically funny (on purpose) thereafter, and the trik would go down as one of his very best if the novel around it was such a knockabout farce.
8oS was, to my mind, a superb early one — two late chapters of following some guy around nothwithstanding. It’s the sort of book that, had anyone else written it, would be praised as a masterpiece of the GAD era; Carr went on to such great heights, however, that it gets dismissed far too easily for my liking. The “backwards room” conceit is detective fiction genius, and a far more intriguing setup than many of his more famous and more heralded works.
Crooked Hinge I enjoy, but the automaton is a somewhat looming presence, and the final reveal lacks for sufficient work in advance to establish the necessary response. Where I think Carr wanted you to shudder, instead a lot of people just went, “Uh….what the hell??!”
What I liked most about this list, and what makes list-making interesting in general, is the element of the unexpected, which I found both refreshing and stimulating.
While I don’t see myself revisiting Crooked Hinge or Blind Barber any time soon. I will certainly give Eight of Swords another go based on your positive assessment of it.
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Of course Capsule is his best, along with the Judas Window, so no taunting this time. I am pleased to see swords so high as it is in my TBR pile, and I have never read it (I read a lot of Carr 40 years ago).
I recall liking Death Watch.
My list would start Capsule, Coffins, Hatter.
If you rate Hatter that highly, there’s a very good chance you’ll get a lotf out of T8oS — they’re similar in execution, but Swords feels more adroitly constructed — Carr’s much more confident, and having a lot more fun.
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