John Dickson Carr wrote just shy of 80 books and, since he is the finest practitioner of detective fiction the world has ever seen, you would like to know where to start in this cavalcade of brilliance (because some of them are bound to be, er, unbrilliant). I am here to help.
Just to be clear on the rules: novels that are readily available, as always, restricted to impossible crimes because that’s why we love him, and presented in order of recommended reading (so, start with the first one). That is all, here we go…
The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941) Hey, you; yes, you, with the cup of tea. I want you to write a book about people inexplicably hurling themselves out of a window when sleeping alone in a room at the top of a tower. I want it to be creepy, I want it to be fast-moving, I want it to have an undertone of threat; it also has to be fairly-clued, the culprit resonsible must be a complete surprise and you can kill as many characters as you like. Oh, and make it funny. Make it laugh out loud, technicolour funny, but light enough to take up residence in your brain without leaving so much as a shadow and without undoing the threat mentioned above. What’s that? It’s already been done? Oh, forget it, then I’ll just read that book instead. [Available from Rue Morgue Press in print only, the recommended version as some other publishers inexplicably and unforgivably give away key points in their cover art]
With 80 crime novels and story collections to her name, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Agatha Christie had quite a few repeating characters to call upon: Hercule Poirot, Jane Marple, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, and Superintendent Battle all got to be the focus of several books. Ariadne Oliver, Colonel Johnny Race, and Mr. Satterthwaite cropped up a few times each, as arguably did James Parker Pyne and Mr. Harley Quinn through their short stories. But then what about the others, the one-offs, those sleuths who strutted and fretted their hour upon the stage and then were heard no more? What immortality do they get? Well, since you ask…
The Sittaford Mystery (1931) Damn those evil ouija demons! Up to their tricks again, predicting the death of a man alone in a house cut off by a snow drift, unsettling a friend of his enough to ski down there…and find his dead body. Makes Charlie Charlie and his spinning pencils seem rather tame by comparison (you’ve probably already forgotten that reference, that’s how behind the times I am). Possibly breaks one rule of detective fiction, and the investigation largely consists of a lot of similar conversations, but the reveal is one of the watershed moments in my reading life (yeah, no, I’m not exaggerating) and probably singled-handedly convinced me that this was a genre and an author worth pursuing.
Simple criteria: novels only, readily available, not conceived in the fertile ground of John Dickson Carr’s imagination. I’ve also restricted the impossible crime to being the comission of the murder – people stabbed or shot while alone in a room, effectively – more to help reduce the possible contenders than anything else. Several stone cold classics are absent through the inclusion of other invisible events but that’s a future list (or five…).
Carr – doyen of the impossible crime, responsible for more brilliant work in this subgenre than any other three authors combined – will eventually get his own list (or five…), I just have to figure out how to separate them out; restricting it to five novels was hard enough for this list, but if you’re looking to get started in locked room murders these would be my suggestions:
So I love my classic crime, we’ve established that, but where does this leave you? After all, having someone go on about themselves all the time gets a bit boring. You’re always saying that, aren’t you? Sensible person that you are. So, just for you – yes, you – here’s a list of five books I’d recommend if you’re thinking of getting started reading classsic crime fiction but are a little overwhelmed by all these books by dead authors (I feel the same about classical music, for what it’s worth).
My criteria are fairly simple: novels only, first published between 1920 and 1950, and widely available for purchase now. It’s all very well having someone recommend the most amazing book ever, but if it was last in print in 1932 and only changes hands in book-fair back rooms for the kind of money that it takes to keep your kids in shoes for a decade…well, that’s just someone showing off, isn’t it. Why share a love of something that can’t itself be shared? The list is alphabetical by author, too, because that just seems sensible: