#870: The Eight of Swords (1934) by John Dickson Carr

Eight of Swords

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The recent undoing of whatever logjam had prevented the reissuing of John Dickson Carr’s novels is a cause for much celebration among fans of classic detective fiction. It Walks by Night (1930), Castle Skull (1931), The Lost Gallows (1931), The Corpse in the Waxworks (1932), Hag’s Nook (1933), The Mad Hatter Mystery (1933), The Plague Court Murders (1934), The Crooked Hinge (1938), The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941), She Died a Lady (1943), and Till Death Do Us Part (1944), can now be bought easily for sensible money, finally providing some company for The Hollow Man (1935), which had been flying the flag in bookshops toute seule for decades now.

The selection of available titles is pleasing, too — some of those above might seem unusual in light of the masterpieces still out of print, but publication order and other significant factors no doubt compelled some of those selections, and with Carr a more established presence in the mind of the reading public there’s now scope for some of his more interesting work to see the light again. The excellent The Seat of the Scornful (1941) will soon follow in the British Library Crime Classics Range, and this recent reprint of The Eight of Swords (1934) was as unexpected as it is delightful. See, I’m something of a fan of The Eight of Swords; I think that it’s the best of Carr’s first ten books, and one of the several unjustly overlooked books in his oeuvre, so the opportunity for others to discover it is a source of great excitement.

The core setup of this is easily among my favourites in the whole of Carr: a murder in a house where the contrasting details make no sense — windows left open in a rainstorm, a killer who presents themselves at the front door when an outside staircase would take them unobserved up to their victim, etc., etc. And if these contrasting elements are the heart of good puzzle fiction, we can finally see Carr growing in confidence as an author through the repeated refrain of contrasts throughout: the magnificence of the Bishop of Mappleham and the absurdity of his sliding down the banisters, the criminological hobbies of said Bishop seeing him “[investigate] the police departments of Paris, Berlin, Madrid, Rome, Brussels, Vienna, and Leningrad, driving the officials thereof to the verge of insanity” and his surprise at the “lack of knowledge, and even lack of interest, with regard to modern criminals and up-to-date scien­tific methods” displayed by the apparently brilliant Dr. Gideon Fell whom everyone seems so pleased to have looking into the matter. Every aspect has its balancing opposite, and that’s mostly a great thing.

It’s also superbly written throughout, rich in humour…

If, when Dante met Beatrice that famous time on the what’s-its-name bridge, Beatrice had smiled at him and whispered, “Look here, I could do with a slug of Chianti,” then the poor sap would have tried to find out her address and telephone number, instead of merely going home and grousing about it in an epic.

…and sprinkled in its closing stages with the sort of meta-awareness that gets fawned over in the famous lecture in The Hollow Man (“This is the last chapter, and we want to get it over with.”). Plus, there’s the wonderful moment in which bestselling author Henry Morgan, whose mystery novels cast him in the mould of Carr or John Rhode, reveals his identity as William Block Tournedos, author of “very probable and real” crime novels “where all they do is run around showing photographs to people” that nevertheless prove far more popular with the critics:

“I discovered a long time ago the way to write a probable and real story. You must have (1) no action, (2) no atmosphere whatever—that’s very important—(3) as few interesting characters as possible, (4) absolutely no digressions, and (5) above all things, no deduction. … Observe those rules, my children; then you may outrage real probability as much as you like, and the critics will call it ingenious”

Fell’s involvement is a delight throughout. Drawn into the murder of Septimus Depping despite its apparent lack of the sort of “fantastic lunacy” that usually attracts his attention, fearing is might turn out to be “a dull and stodgy piece of gang-history”, and solving at the scene of Depping’s death “a murder we don’t know has been committed”. You feel Fell’s stature growing in the eyes of the people who are meeting him for the first time and in the mind of his creator, his dazzling deductions when confronted with those baffling contrasts enough to give the Bishop’s son Hugh Donovan the “uneasy feeling that nonsense was beginning to assume the colors of ugly purpose”. Fell was about to do some of his best work in the next decade, and you get the impression Carr really knows this in advance.

As a mere stripling of 28 years when this was published, Carr also emphasises the contrast between generations, with one parent delighted that their issue has avoided marrying into a family that might have criminal history, but the younger generation represented by Henry Morgan and his wife Madeleine, Patricia Standish, Elizabeth Depping, daughter of the murdered man, and Hugh Donovan largely unconcerned beyond its impact on their immediate friends (the Morgans spend their time putting back enough booze to lay out Jake Justus). Indeed, the entire undertaking seems to have been perpetrated under the proviso that it puncture the hot air out its antecedents as much as possible, with even lawyer Theseus Langdon having his legs swept from beneath him in a narrative aside as “one of those smiling and expansive gentlemen, smooth of gesture and rather too practised of poise, who…always to impart confidences, with low-voiced diplomacy and a deprecating smile [and] can speak of the weather as though they were telling international secrets”.

The only unsightly stain on this wonderful edifice that I could remember was two dull chapters near the end in which one character follows another around because Carr didn’t know how else to communicate the solution, and I was wrong in this: there are in fact three dull chapters at the end because Carr really has no idea how else to show his readers the brilliant design behind his apparent insanity. There’s a lot of tedious shadowing — you can hear Henry Morgan’s incensed screaming in the background when he realises he’s in just such a book — and then a lot of Fell holding forth on things he’d been told so that he can then tell other people…and, man, it’s a real whimper where a bang was required. As a simple test, if you’re able to finish the book and answer the question “So, what was the significance of that footprint?” you’ve done better than I did — and I’m a fan of this book and have read it twice.

As a piece of bamboozlement, The Eight of Swords stands up superbly, and shows how much Carr had come on in his early years from the gaudy horrors of Castle Skull and The Lost Gallows; just because it stumbles in providing answers in the closing stages, don’t leave with the impression that those answers are bad, they simply need a little improvement in the telling. And when you see the great work that followed this, and will hopefully turn up in reprints before too long — Death Watch (1934), The Red Widow Murders (1935), The Unicorn Murders (1935), the bafflingly-neglected masterpiece of The Punch and Judy Murders (1936) — and then consider that those all came before what’s widely regarded as Carr’s hot streak, well, there can be little doubt that lessons were being learned. Even gods stumble, it seems — hell, the Ancient Greeks based their entire literature around that exact principle — so surely we can allow Carr the odd misstep.

55 thoughts on “#870: The Eight of Swords (1934) by John Dickson Carr

  1. Great review JJ – such good news on the Carr front (though I am old enough to have snapped up most of the IPL reprints when they were new, way back when – happy days …) I look forward to buying this edition as I have always relied on an Italian edition from the 1980s, albeit a very good one with the complete text and a great cover. In my head HAG’S NOOK felt like a stronger book than this one – now is the perfect time to see if I still think that. But as you say, early Carr is still pretty darn wonderful.

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    • Some of those IPL editions are fabulous — not all of them (TTDUP is an eyesore 😄), but they’re good quality editions that are eminently collectible now.

      Hag’s Nook I remember finding disappointing because it wasn’t up there with the Carrs I was reading at the time (Crooked Hinge, Judas Window, Shudder — the other Rue morgue reprints), but I’m looking forward to rereading it in due course, same with It Walks by Night.

      Now the question is: what else are we going to get? Classic crime fiction is going through a resurgence, meaning a lot of neglected authors are getting a second chance in the sun…but that serves in part to dilute the release of the likes of Carr and Craig Rice amidst all the other great stuff coming out. And I’m no good at being patient! I want it all now!!

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    • I feel the Italians get the best of the classic reprints: not only is everything apparently translated into Italian, it’s also graced with these wonderfully artistic and accurate covers. And the “giallo” branding of their crime stories is just a chef’s kiss of a marketing move.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Not going to disagree with you there. It was a great way to get into GAD (and much more) at the time. But they love the genre there. The covers they were doing at the time, one every two weeks, were superb.

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  2. My reread of this a little over a year ago left me with quite a positive impression of the book. The ending is weakish and some characters seem to just fade away but, taken as a whole, the book is pretty enjoyable.

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    • Yeah, that’s not unfair, and for most of the flaws this demonstrates this probably qualifies as a 3-star read…but I love the study in contrasts running throughout, and that raises it in my estimations. Weird how we’re willing to forgive certain things for certain books, innit?

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  3. Having just finished this myself I’m inclined to come down a little less positively on it than you, though it is by no means a bad book. It is already a pretty short book, but I cannot help but feel that this would have been an outstanding short story. Dr. Fell’s demonstration of what really happened in the dead man’s room is probably one of the most engrossing passages I have read in any Carr novel with more than a hint of Doyle in the crime scene that doesn’t make any sense; and, as usual, Carr is at his best when he’s flipping your expectations of a thing upside down. It’s for that reason that I think this book interestingly paves the way for a virtuoso display of the same thing in The Three Coffins ; but for all its positive points, I’m left with the feeling that there’s a lot of padding here. As you write, Carr is certainly on his way to bigger and better things and this book certainly strikes me as an important stepping stone.

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    • I cannot help but feel that this would have been an outstanding short story.

      I can’t disagree with this; the examination of the room is one of the most superbly virtuoso passages Carr wrote in his first 10 years, and that same level of reversal and brilliance doesn’t show up as strongly elsewhere.

      I do love Henry Morgan — there’s something refreshing about an author-insert character who’s just there to crack wise and drink a lot that appeals. He’s not whining on about how difficult it is like Ariadne Oliver tends to do…he’s just there to puncture the bubble of the author, get drunk, and have a happy time with his wife. And I find that very pleasing.

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  4. Read it very recently .Enjoyed it very much till those dull chapters and felt the ending was somewhat haphazard . IMHO,About the fate of the shoe, there is a discussion between Morgan and Hugh ,at the beginning of chapter 18 that provides the answer .

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    • Thanks for that — I understand where the shoe comes from, just not why the footprint is significant. It feels more like Carr thumbing his nose at the footprints-and-ash style of investigation, but the development of that thread seems to get lost in that (yes) haphazard final few chapters.

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  5. JJ, I will stand beside you, sword in hand, to defend the honor of The Punch and Judy Murders. Now there’s a book for you! A rip-snorting romp, action-packed, hilarious, with a great mystery at its core and a fabulous hidden killer. This one? This one did none of that for me. I grant you the Bishop is amusing. I agree with Nick above that the deductions of the room are impressive. But that happens relatively early on. Unfortunately, there are 1,138 pages to go – or so it seemed to me when I read it last year. Worst of all is the rule-breakage regarding the killer. Just as Ellery Queen relies too much on the Birlstone Gambit and Agatha Christie doesn’t always write books on par with the greatness of, say, Death on the Nile and Cards on the Table, Carr has, more than once, stuck killers in his books who are ONERYL VA GURZ, QNZA VG!!!!!!

    And I hate that!!

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    • So, funny story: I remembered the killer being someone different, and was watching that character thinking “Hmmm, I don’t see how any of this plays into the murder…” only for it to then turn out to be someone else who doesn’t really play into things either, for the reason you state.

      I had a similar experience rereading the AMC reissue of The Mad Hatter Mystery at the end of last year — I remembered who the killer was, but the thing that gave it away first time was totally different to the thing that gave it away second time…and, on second reading, I’m damned if I can remember how that thing that gave it away first time gave it away…!

      Who’s on first base?!

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      • I wonder if the person you mistakenly remembered as the killer was the same character I suspected when I read this recently.

        By the way, wasn’t the footprint just a red herring? It gets written off during that boring chase section with a quick explanation and no longer matters in finding out who killed Depping.

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    • Stay away from John Rhode / Miles Burton, then! Far too often, his murderers only appear in the second last chapter. (And in a lot of the others, the murderer is obvious before midway.)

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    • Don’t get me wrong, I think that Punch and Judy is absolutely terrific, and it’s probably in my top 3 Merrivales, but was I the only one who correctly suspected the killer? Granted I only thought of that person over halfway into the book, and I had no idea how to prove they were the killer (and the proof ends up being excellent)… ROT-13 (Punch and Judy spoilers) V nyjnlf znantr gb frr guebhtu gur jubyr “arj nffvfgvat qrgrpgvir vf gur zheqrere” tnzovg jurarire vg cbcf hc.

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      • I just remember being completely swept up in Punch and Judy, and then my completely delight when it turned out to have been a traditionally clued mystery all along.

        So, no, I didn’t guess the killer, partly because I forgot that I was supposed to. But does guessing make it any less great a book? Nah.

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        • My experience with Punch and Judy was about the same as you said yours was in that first paragraph… The murderer’s identity just happened to hit me in the face right about the time the book switched to detection for no good reason. And if anything, reading how Merrivale figured out the killer’s identity made up for that realization. You get to see just how much the line of reasoning leading to X was staring you in the face.

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  6. T8ofS doesn’t always get lots of love in the blogs I follow, but good to see that I am not the only one who enjoyed it. Is it perfect, no … but then what GAD truly is perfect (i.e., engaging puzzle, fair clewing, difficult to put down, interesting characters, doesn’t sag in the middle, great twist at the end where an unexpected culprit/motive/howdunit is revealed, etc.).

    I would say And Then There Was None is perfect, but perhaps that why it sold 100+ million copies. Very few other perfect titles come to mind. That would make for an interesting blog post / discussion.

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    • The difficulty with Carr, I feel, is that we tend to judge him by those masterpieces that are legitimately amazing, and so anything that comes up short is swept aside as trivial and not worthy of attention.

      It’s important, I think, to remember that the guy wasn’t always smashing masterpieces out of the park, and that at times he was learning the craft just as others had and would go on to. A little more patience when he doesn’t quite nail it would result in many people getting a lot more pleasure from his (already impressive) oeuvre.

      As to perfect books…man, anyone brave enough to wade into that semantic nightmare should be wrestling bears for a living — at least that would pay the rent!

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      • J.G. Ballard said there were no perfect books, but there were perfect short stories. I tend to agree. Wonderful as Carr is, none of his novels are perfect. “The House in Goblin Wood” though makes a good case for absolutely perfect.

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        • The central gambit of ‘Goblin Wood’ always seemed like it would be harder to accomplished than Carr thought. The idea’s wonderful, and the writing simply sublime in places, but I’d pick other examples of the short form for perfection ahead of that one.

          And, yes, now someone’s going to ask what those are and I’ll need to go and compile a list over which I’ll spend far too much time.

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          • Ryan and you are right of course. There is no perfect book in GAD. My mission though is to search out the near perfect ones so I read the best of the best. Your blog as well as that of others are invaluable to guide my reading choices.

            Goblin Wood definitely goes on the near-perfect list.

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  7. I’d put The Eight of Swords on par with Poison in Jest, The Blind Barber, and The Mad Hatter Mystery, meaning that out of Carr’s first 10 novels I think it only strongly beats out The Lost Gallows. You could probably convince me that it has a leg up on the other three early Bencolin books, but those do each stand out in my mind as having a unique element. But, man, Hag’s Nook, Plague Court, Bowstring, White Priory – I think we’re kind of crossing the 10 threshold – definitely beat out Eight of Swords in my mind.

    That’s not to say that it isn’t a great book. The bizarre problem put forth at the start of the novel, followed by Dr Fell quickly turning things inside out… talk about an opening salvo. If it could have somehow have been turned into a short story or novella, we’d all be raving about it. As it is, I don’t remember too much about the rest of it other than some random scenes.

    I somewhat see The Eight of Swords as being the prototype for The Four False Weapons, in which we’re given a crime scene that simply doesn’t make sense, and when you’ve finally seen through the misinterpretation of everything, it’s just hilarious.

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    • I somewhat see The Eight of Swords as being the prototype for The Four False Weapons.

      Oh, undoubtedly — I’d say Eight of Swords, Four False Weapons, and Death in Five Boxes are brethren in the “crime scene is not all it appears” subgroup of Carr’s writing. Is it mere chance that they all have numbers in their titles? Probably.

      I also like Mad Hatter — I thoroughly enjoyed rereading it at the end of last year — and think it’s a better, and more important, book than it gets credit for when you simply put it out of context next to the likes of The Reader is Warned and Till Death.

      I’m also no longer convinced, two days later, that this is better than Bowstring. Dammit, I’m going to end up just rereading Carr and nothing and no-one else at this rate.

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      • I forget if I’ve discussed this with you, but if you pull The Hollow Man out of the picture, all of the early Fell novels up through The Problem of the Green Capsule basically involve a crime scene that doesn’t make sense. Which is kind of funny, because Carr is obviously most associated with impossible crimes – and by way of the locked room lecture Dr Fell will be forever tied to them as well – but if you ignore The Hollow Man, Fell isn’t actually featured in an impossible crime until The Problem of the Wire Cage. On the other hand, all of the early Merrivale books (with the exception of Punch and Judy) up to The Gilded Man feature an impossibility (well, And So to Murder and Death in Five Boxes hardly qualify). And that’s why The Four False Weapons always struck me as something that should have been a Fell novel.

        Speaking of “crime scene is not all it appears to be” books – Arabian Nights and Death Watch are some prime examples, and To Wake the Dead isn’t half bad either.

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        • Interesting to note that Fell doesn’t really crop up in impossibilities early, that had passed me by. Also, are you saying that Crooked Hinge doesn’t qualify as an impossibility? Hell, some people maintain that Green Capsule isn’t an impossible crime, so these things are always up for grabs.

          Plus, elements of Hollow Man are bizarre: the wrong name in the books, the picture delivered that isn’t in evidence…I wonder if the definition of a crime scene “not making sense” might be too loose for purposes of rigour, but there’s always this element of the baroque or unexpected in the typical Carr setup. Leave the standard “found shot in his study with the window wide open” sort of thing to the mortals.

          And, yeah, I can’t deny the additional titles you add at the end, I was just taken with the titles only having numbers in and so voluntarily blinded myself to anything else 🙂

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          • Replying in ROT-13 in case there’s a ghost of a chance the comment below could spoil The Crooked Hinge or The Problem of the Green Capsule for someone.

            Tenagrq vg’f orra n ovg fvapr V ernq obgu bs gurfr, ohg urer’f zl erpbyyrpgvba:
            Gur Ceboyrz bs gur Terra Pncfhyr – juvyr vg jnf vzcbffvoyr gung nal bs gur srngherq fhfcrpgf pbhyq unir pbzzvggrq gur pevzr, V frrz gb erpnyy guvaxvat gung vg pbhyq unir whfg orra fbzr punenpgre gung jr qvqa’g xabj nobhg. Boivbhfyl gung jbhyq unir orra n qhq bs n fbyhgvba, ohg gur cbffvovyvgl jnf gurer.
            Gur Pebbxrq Uvatr – V erpnyy guvaxvat guvf jnf na vzcbffvoyr pevzr sbe zhpu bs gur obbx, ohg gura nf lbh trg n orggre haqrefgnaqvat bs gur pevzr fprar, vg vfa’g pbzcyrgryl vzcbffvoyr gung fbzrbar pbhyq unir nccebnpurq gur ivpgvz hafrra.

            And yes, “crime scene not making sense” just doesn’t capture what we want to say, right? There’s something about the bizarre contradictions in Eight of Swords, Four False Weapons, and Arabian Nights that’s so unique.

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  8. The comedy in this one is genuinely funny, an area where Carr is pretty hit and miss. The plot thread with the bishop’s antics could perhaps have been a little better resolved, but as a piece of mild satire it is pretty funny. I find Carr’s depiction of his wastrel hero, and him meeting his “ginch” pretty funny as well. On the other hand, his satire of serious writing is a little heavy-handed.

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    • The mockery of modern crime writing is a little heavy, but it’s very tongue-in-cheek, and clearly new territory to Carr in his career so allowable.

      I like the contrast of the supposed magnificence of the Bishop and the pain in the arse that everyone else sees him to be: his son, his host, Fell…the noble man of the cloth turning out to be somewhat more human than one might usually expect is a lovely addition to this.

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  9. I just finished this one! On your recommendation, I guess…
    I’d have to say it’s less than the sum of its parts. Those parts seemingly being two halves of completely different stories. The important characters at the end are basically none of the ones who started out important, and not in an interesting way, in a “well those characters really fell off the face of the earth” way. I mean really, introducing the love interest character, having one further scene, then she vanishes entirely? No resolution of any kind with the bishop and his son?
    And who was that weirdo pretending to be Dr Fell at the start? At least the real one turned up to give one of his best performances when the crime stuff started happening.
    I don’t actually agree with you about the “following” chapters. It was weirdly like Carr was doing a character study of the character being followed and I thought he ended up being the most interesting character in the book. I guess it works out badly because proportion wise it is a pretty big chunk of the book.
    I don’t often say this but I think the book could have done with being longer, working some of the initial characters back in somehow.
    You know what, I think it really is better than Bowstring Murders. Fell’s just much better than Gaunt, and the writing seemed stronger than I remember Bowstring being. Now Hag’s Nook in comparison… hmm. I think it’s been too long since I read Hag’s Nook. I can’t decide. (Of course Arabian Nights is better than the lot of them).

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    • Fell’s better than Gaunt, no doubt, but Gaunt a) doesn’t turn up until halfway through Bowstring and b) has unexplored depths. I foster half-imagined hopes that the Carr estate might employ me to write a new John Gaunt novel, because I find what little we know of his fascinating and would love to have seen him explored further.

      And, yes, I also can’t deny that certain threads are set up here — not least the conflict betwixt the Bishop and his son — and never paid off. But early Carr is redolent with these problems, which is why I think he tends to get judged so harshly in his “shoulder season”. We want them all to be masterpieces, but everyone’s gotta learn first.

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