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?