10. The White Priory Murders (1934) [Merrivale #2]
If we’re ranking impossibilities this goes higher, but as a book overall I struggled with the too-dramatic tone of this. It shows Carr really embracing the complexity of his setups, sure, and spinning a staggeringly layered puzzle ever-outwards from what look like simple beginnings, but there are only so many final-line-of-chapter cliffhangers that are resolved almost immediately that I can take, and too much of too little consequence is piled on too quickly for my liking.
If Monica Stanton — new to the world of movie making — knows no-one at Pineham studios, who can possibly hate her enough to make repeated attempts on her life? Contains not only a brilliant half-way reversal, but also a final chapter where everything is seen in its true light that is punch-yourself-in-the-head clever for how much has been waved plainly under you nose. And it’s funny like The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941) is funny, so clearly Carr was in a good mood in 1940.
8. The Judas Window (1938) [Merrivale #7]
Oh, I know, I know — what am I doing? Look, it’s a good book, but has the reverse problem of The White Priory Murders above: the plot is perfectly integrated and developed, and it’s surprisingly free of most of the pitfalls of this type of undertaking, but the resolution of that impossibility is handled abysmally. I have gigantic problems with the virtual last line reveal, and think the mid-book reversal is infinitely smarter and better handled.
Three very smart short stories, not quite gelling into a full novel. I love both the impossibilities here — a man shot in a room with no-one present, and a man disappearing in a house where there’s really nowhere for him to’ve gone — but you get to the end and realise a loose thread is hanging, and once you start pulling it the whole thing just comes apart in your hands. Very clever, but imperfectly realised.
In a career stacked with great opening hooks, the five people here found poisoned around a table with unusual objects in their pockets is one of the greatest, but I do so wish this wasn’t needlessly unfair in its solution. Still, the first half is brilliantly developed, and forms a textbook all aspiring puzzle plotter should study at great length because of how easy Carr makes it look. Would qualify as a great continuation novel.
I always remember this ‘room that kills’ plot extremely fondly, and then someone reminds me of the unfortunate h*******m element. That aside, however, it’s near-flawless, containing a corpse that’s been calling out even though it’s been dead for an hour, and a very clever conceit that finds out victim dying without apparent cause. Also highlights Carr’s use of Merrivale’s tendency to stack a deck in his favour, roping in our poor protagonist into a very clever scheme.
For the ripsnorting joy of its reversal-settling-reversal-settling-reversal structure, this takes some beating. Wrong-foots you almost every step of the way, with the sort of plotting only Carr could devise — the manner of their greeting at the castle is sublime. A great ‘who is the master thief?’ plot, too, often overshadowed by the impossibility of a man being stabbed in the head by a unicorn which is simultaneously too obvious for words and complex beyond measure.
3. The Punch and Judy Murders, a.k.a. The Magic Lantern Murders (1936) [Merrivale #5]
This is Merrivale’s The Eight of Swords (1934) — an effortlessly genius piece of plotting that gets overlooked on account of more highly-regarded titles around it. Common wisdom has it that detective authors shouldn’t write adventure plots, and so of course Carr wrote an adventure plot that moves at a staggering lick and is stacked with clues. How better to spend the night before your wedding than running around the country after a man who can perform astral projection?
2. The Plague Court Murders (1934) [Merrivale #1]
Too much going on here to accurately precis in 75 words — a man stabbed in the back in a locked, bolted hut that’s surrounded by mud unmarked by the attacker’s footprints…yet the attackee was heard pleading with his attacker before being discovered alone. Plus a séance, a dead cat, and more awesomely-developed shenanigans than you can shake a rational explanation at. Virtually impossible to maintain this standard of plot, but Carr wrote at least another dozen this good.
A near-flawless execution of the ‘I can kill you just by thinking about it’ conceit, only slightly sullied for me by a big Villain Monologue at the end. Even makes adroit use of the at-times questionable attitudes towards race that sometimes occur in this era of novel, and has a psychology that is effortless in how the tricks at its core are explained. A behemoth of impossible crime fiction, but as light and difficult to pin down as a normal moth.
The obvious question is then how this folds into my ranking of the top ten Fells, to give a ranked list of these 20 novels. Well, something like this…
20. The Arabian Nights Murder (1936)
19. The Blind Barber (1934)
18. Hag’s Nook (1933)
17. The White Priory Murders (1934)
16. To Wake the Dead (1938)
15. The Mad Hatter Mystery (1933)
14. And So to Murder (1940)
13. The Judas Window (1938)
12. The Crooked Hinge (1938)
11. The Ten Teacups, a.k.a. The Peacock Feather Murders (1937)
10. Death in Five Boxes (1938)
9. The Red Widow Murders (1935)
8. The Hollow Man, a.k.a. The Three Coffins (1935)
7. The Unicorn Murders (1935)
6. The Eight of Swords (1934)
5. Death Watch (1934)
4. The Punch and Judy Murders, a.k.a. The Magic Lantern Murders (1936)
3. The Plague Court Murders (1934)
2. The Reader is Warned (1939)
1. The Problem of the Green Capsule, a.k.a. The Black Spectacles (1939)
Now, while virtually everyone will manage to have a slightly different ordering for this score of books, I imagine few would contest that Merrivale fares better than Fell in his opening ten titles — only my baffling fondness for the oft-derided Death Watch (1934) prevents the top 10 titles here being a 7:3 split in Merrivale’s favour. Does this indicate some sort of prevalence for the Merrivale style of story, and — if so — how does a Merrivale story differ from a Gideon Fell one? Or is it sheer, blind luck that Merrivale happened to be in some books and Fell in others, almost as if Carr simply allocated them in an alternating pattern as each idea occurred to him? Any and all thoughts, as ever, are welcomed.
You may consider this a light primer, too, for the upcoming return of The Men Who Explain Miracles: there’s a new episode out next week, in which we discuss the career of Mr. John Dickson Carr. Or at least there is if I can get it edited in time…
With Carr being the doyen of the impossible crime, now would be the perfect opportunity to let those of you who aren’t aware know that Robert Adey’s Locked Room Murders — a dearly desired acquisition for every right-minded fan of impossible crimes in fiction — has been republished by Locked Room International. The second edition (from 1991) has been fully revised to correct as many errors as possible, and plans are afoot for a supplementary edition to be released next year, containing all manner of new books not featured in Adey. More detail can be found at the Locked Room International site.