Okay, here we go — do not read any further unless you are happy to be spoiled on the details of John Dickson Carr’s 1939 novel featuring the impossible “no footprints” problem of a man strangled in the middle of a clay tennis court.
In light of my recent favourable experience with Ellery Queen’s The Chinese Orange Mystery (1934), my thoughts turn to the benefits and pitfalls of reading GAD authors’ novels in chronological order. The old joke is that they had to write them in that order, but is there any real benefit or detriment in reading them so arrayed?
January, month of rebirth and self-recrimination. For every resolution to improve there must be some frank assessment of what debilitated you in the first place, and so the month can take on a curiously Jekyll-and-Hyde aspect for some. So my Tuesday posts for this month will be a mixture of what is good and bad in my reading, and where better to start than a celebration of the previous 12 months?
In October 1944 and January 1945, the American newspaper columnist, writer, and critic Edmund Wilson published two essays entitled, respectively, ‘Why Do People Read Detective Stories?’ and ‘Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?’. The second was in response to the exhortations from readers who, appalled by the first, sent him recommendations to improve his outlook…recommendations which, by all accounts, failed miserably.
In a career that does not exactly lack for belauded titles, The Burning Court might just be the most belauded of John Dickson Carr’s oeuvre. Opinions diverge sharply on what I would consider all-time classics like The Plague Court Murders (1934) or The Hollow Man (1935), but arguably only this and perhaps She Died a Lady (1943) seem to enjoy universal adoration. So for the Carr acolyte like myself, approaching every book fully intent on getting the most possible out of it, there’s now the extra twinge of almost needing to love this so as to be taken seriously when discussing the man and his work. Five years from now, you don’t want “Yeah, but you didn’t enjoy The Burning Court” being thrown in your face like the castigation it is.
You may (but then you you may not) be aware that I’ve started a thing here on The Invisible Event where every three months I pick a work of classic detective fiction and discuss it with another GAD blogger, being entirely unmindful of spoilers so as to really get into the details involved. Well, another is on the way — which book do you think it could possibly be?
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?
In the orchestra of John Dickson Carr’s detective fiction, his early years from It Walks by Night (1930) up to arguably The Arabian Nights Murder (1936) are very much the accordion section. Events occur in concentrated bursts, with clues and characters squeezed together to make the notes of the plot emerge, only to then be drawn apart before inexorably squeezing together again for another dense exposit you must pore over in order to follow the necessary developments. From The Punch and Judy Murders (1936) until the 1940s he wrote in the fine, clean, overlapping lines of the harp, and then the violins took over… but enough of this analogy, back to this book and the wheeze of a bellows working overtime.