Rating Carr

I’ve been working for a while on rating the novels of John Dickson Carr (as himself and as Carter Dickson), using a letter-grading system.  Omitted are: the five “Jeff Marle” novels, the historical novels (including The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey), and Fatal Descent. Because it was originally published as a standalone work, I have included the novella The Third Bullet, but nothing else of shorter than novel length.

Basically I start off giving a book a B and then start adding or subtracting points (so adding a point to a B makes it a B-plus, and so on.) Of course, it’s axiomatic that a Carr B novel, or even a C, is way above the A-plus efforts of most other mystery writers.

So what did I add or subtract points for?

The murderer

  • Did I spot the murderer using (at least some of) the evidence provided? Take off a point.
  • Did the murderer’s identity come as a genuine surprise to me? Add a point.

The impossible crime

  • Did I spot how the impossible crime was committed? Take off a point.
  • Did the solution to the impossible crime make me slap my forehead? Add a point.
  • Did it make me say “uh-huh, OK”? No points added or subtracted.
  • Did it make me say, “come on, that would never work”? Take off a point.
  • Was there no impossible crime at all? Obviously, no points added or subtracted.

Miscellaneous

  • Did the solution include some arcane fact that, had I known it, would have made it easier for me to figure things out? Take off a point.
  • Were there too many coincidences or similar plot contrivances? I give Carr a bye on the first one, but if they start piling up, take off one or more points.
  • Did Carr’s opinions get in the way of my reading enjoyment? Take off a point.
  • Did Carr spend too much time trying to be funny? Take off a point. If he was really unbearable, two.
  • Did Carr actually succeed in being funny? Add a point.
  • Did Carr’s efforts to mystify the reader cross the line into cheating? Take off three points.
  • Did the novel feel padded? Take off a point.
  • Did the plot just get too darn complicated, to a point where I kept having to check previous pages long before the solution came into view? Take off a point. (There are only a couple like this.)
  • Did I close the book thinking, “I just read a classic”? Add a point.

There were so few C’s and D’s that I didn’t bother sorting them into pluses and minuses. Occasionally, a flaw is so flagrant or a good point so very good that I subtract or add an extra point.

I’m not going to go into deep analysis of every book, but here’s how it played out…

A-plus:

  • Arabian Nights Murder
  • Case of the Constant Suicides
  • Death in Five Boxes
  • He Who Whispers
  • Judas Window
  • Problem of the Green Capsule
  • She Died a Lady
  • Three Coffins

A:

  • Burning Court
  • Hag’s Nook
  • He Wouldn’t Kill Patience
  • Man Who Could Not Shudder
  • Nine – and Death Makes Ten
  • Peacock Feather Murders
  • Third Bullet
  • Till Death Do Us Part

A-minus:

  • Eight of Swords
  • Graveyard to Let
  • My Late Wives
  • Plague Court Murders
  • Problem of the Wire Cage
  • Reader is Warned
  • Seat of the Scornful
  • Skeleton in the Clock

B-plus:

  • Bowstring Murders
  • Gilded Man
  • Mad Hatter Mystery
  • Panic in Box C
  • Sleeping Sphinx

B:

  • Crooked Hinge
  • Four False Weapons
  • In Spite of Thunder
  • Nine Wrong Answers
  • Punch and Judy Murders
  • Red Widow Murders
  • To Wake the Dead
  • Unicorn Murders

B-minus:

  • Below Suspicion
  • Curse of the Bronze Lamp
  • Dark of the Moon
  • House at Satan’s Elbow
  • White Priory Murders

C:

  • And So to Murder
  • Blind Barber
  • Dead Man’s Knock
  • Death Watch
  • Emperor’s Snuff Box
  • Patrick Butler for the Defence
  • Seeing is Believing

D:

  • Behind the Crimson Blind
  • Cavalier’s Cup
  • Night at the Mocking Widow

Even the A-plus ones aren’t perfect, of course, I could pick a nit about every one of them (even spotted the murderer in one!).  And I do reserve the right to reread a book at any point and decide I was being too generous – or not generous enough.

But for now, that’s how I rate them!

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Carter Dickson: And So to Murder (1940)

It’s 1940 and young Monica Stanton, author of the surprise bestseller Desire, is writing a screenplay for Albion Studios. Things are not going entirely smoothly; while she’s adapting a mystery novel by William Cartwright for the flicks, Cartwright’s been assigned to adapt her book. The two of them, forced to work in close proximity, get along like cats and dogs. Oh, and it seems someone keeps trying to kill her. Luckily, Cartwright knows a guy (Chief Inspector Masters), who knows a guy (Sir Henry Merrivale)…

There are a lot of things to like about And So to Murder. The pervasive atmosphere of a time when the world was plunging into war and no one knew how it was going to turn out; the running gag, actually funny, of Aaronson and Van Ghent and the awful-sounding film they’re making; and when the time comes, a pretty good impossible crime.

Yet I would never put AStM in the hands of a first-time Carr reader, because it contains a blatant (and completely unnecessary) piece of cheating that is supposed to steer us away from the actual solution… and does, but by out-and-out crossing the line from misleading the reader into outright lying.

And if Carr had slightly rewritten the passage in question, he could have stayed on the right side of that line!

I can’t say anything more without spoiling things… so be warned: the rest of this review spoils the ending of And So to Murder, and those who haven’t read it should do so before going further! (I won’t use the guilty party’s name, so there’s no danger of your eye landing on it accidentally, but I will give away enough that you’ll know who it is if you read the book after this piece. Last chance to stop…)

OK? Well, those of you who have read AStM will remember that at one point, H.M. is asked if he is pulling a double bluff – if the character he’s just cleared of being an enemy spy actually is one after all. H.M. denies it and says this person is absolutely honest. Which is a strange way to describe someone who has a history of using phoney identities, runs out on his wife after cleaning out her bank account, marries bigamously, and skulks around trying to kill the first wife before she can lay eyes on him and get him in trouble.

Now, there are mystery stories where the detective “clears” a character for a legitimate reason – for example, telling X that Y is in the clear because he knows X will immediately report the conversation to Y and unknowingly lull him into a false sense of security. That’s what Carr would call “legitimate mystification”. But H.M. has no such good reason here, or at least none I can think of. (Really, Ken Blake deserved better in his final appearance.)

And if H.M. had just said the guilty party was absolutely loyal to Britain or something, that would have been just as effective and honest to boot, since it turns out the crimes have nothing to do with espionage.

And So to Murder could have been one of the good ones, if not the great ones, but Carr really sabotaged it with that one passage. Oh, well, even the best writers slip up sometimes.

Ellery Queen: The Scarlet Letters (1953)

Author Dirk Lawrence and his Broadway-producer wife Martha were once the happiest of couples, but lately Dirk’s been flying into jealous rages over Martha’s supposed affairs with various male friends – including his colleague Ellery Queen. After a drunken Dirk sucker-punches Ellery (he later sobers up and apologizes), the writer-detective senses worse is yet to come. He enlists his secretary Nikki Porter to go work for Dirk and report back on developments…

(There are no outright spoilers in this review, but it’s impossible to discuss its flaws without mentioning something about the overall structure of the book, so if you have not read it and want to go in absolutely pure, you should skip the rest of this piece for now.)

Most of The Scarlet Letters reads like a well-written straight novel about a marriage on the rocks. It’s only late in the story that we get to a fatal shooting, a dying message… and a solution that turns a lot of what we “knew” on its head. That’s in the finest mystery tradition, of course, but the trouble is that once we are told what was really going on, a lot of the characters’ actions don’t make a lot of sense in retrospect. As well, what comes before the big reveal is so well done that it seems a shame that so much of it turns out to be a deception.

As well, Ellery’s logical reasoning in this one is pretty speculative, a classic case of “no, there are other ways you could interpret those facts…”

Another thing: I have trouble believing that the shooting victim would have left the dying message in the way shown in the book, but to say why would be getting us into full-spoiler land.

On the plus side, this book is like a trip back in time to Manhattan, 1953, the exciting stuff like Broadway and night clubs and gossip columnists and prize fights. Back on the minus side, it’s also a trip back to the attitudes of 1953: a gay man is described to Ellery as a “fairy” with “a broad streak of lavender”, and he doesn’t have a problem with either characterization. And while domestic violence is presented unequivocally as a bad thing (unlike in Night at the Mocking Widow), nobody seems to consider it to be crossing the line into criminal behaviour. (Realistically, that probably would also have been the attitude of the police if anyone had reported it.)

Ellery and Nikki seem awfully… cuddly… for a boss and secretary. My personal head-canon is that, like Jerry and Elaine on Seinfeld, they’re an ex-couple who are still friends, and occasionally friends with benefits. (Come to think of it, if someone had made a movie of this book 20 years ago, I could see Jerry Seinfeld and Julia Louis-Dreyfus playing the parts.)

So as a mystery, The Scarlet Letters is just so-so, but as a pretty good novel that sadly goes off the rails near the end, it’s worth a read.

Carr Dickson/Carter Dickson: The Bowstring Murders (1933)

Lord Rayle, that more than half-cracked master of Bowstring Castle, enters the armour hall, to which all entrances are sealed or being monitored. This does not stop someone from strangling him and apparently vanishing. Retired detective John Gaunt takes a break from drinking himself to death long enough to investigate…

A few weeks ago, The Green Capsule did a review of Poison in Jest. I commented that it and the first four Bencolin novels were Carr’s apprentice works: good solid mysteries, but in an overwrought style that differentiated them from his mature books.

I just re-read The Bowstring Murders and though the writing is more restrained, I think I’m also going to file this one under “he was still learning his craft”. Which may seem strange, because it follow the pattern of many other Carrs to come: an isolated, spooky setting; a varied group of suspects; an impossible murder; a great detective who makes his entrance partway through the story. So why didn’t I find it as satisfying as, say, Nine – And Death Makes Ten or The Sleeping Sphinx?

Well, for one thing, while I enjoyed Lord Rayle during his brief time onstage, the suspects are a rather lifeless lot. We’re supposed to laugh at brainless pretty-boy Larry Kestevan and be repulsed by pretentious Lady Rayle, but they’re too bland to be much fun; Carr would do a lot better with similar efforts later on. John Gaunt is okay, but if an unknown Carr novel were to somehow turn up, I’d prefer it be about Dr. Fell or H.M. Viewpoint character Dr. Tairlaine is an improvement over Jeff Marle, though, created before Carr had settled into a pattern of telling the story through the eyes of the juvenile lead who gets the girl.

At one point in the story, Gaunt says he knew who the murderer was an hour after he first set foot in the castle. For all the complications Carr throws the reader’s way, I have to say that in this case I was about equally quick to spot both the murderer and the secret of the locked room. Which still leaves the lifetime balance heavily in Carr’s favour!

The Bowstring Murders was published the same year as Hag’s Nook and The Mad Hatter Mystery. I suspect it may have been written first, as the characters in those other two novels are a lot more sharply defined. Might it have been an earlier “trunk book” that he managed to sell to a new publisher?

(The book was originally published by William Morrow as by “Carr Dickson”; when Harper & Row, Carr’s other publisher, objected, further editions were as by “Carter Dickson”. Then in the 80s, Zebra Books came out with a paperback reprint that was again by “Carr Dickson”. Not sure why.)

Carter Dickson/John Dickson Carr: The Third Bullet (1937/1947)

At Gabriel White’s trial for robbery with violence, Mr. Justice Mortlake found him guilty and sentenced him to 18 months’ imprisonment and fifteen strokes of the cat (which means a whipping; this was back in the Thirties, when this was still a form of judicial punishment). White swore vengeance, which isn’t unusual for a convicted man, but after he was paroled he came a-calling at the Mortlake home. In short order, White was found standing over the judge’s dead body with a gun in one hand. An open-and-shut case, right? Wrong, of course, given who wrote this story!

Every exit from the building where the murder took place was either sealed shut or under observation by the police. White went in; nobody else went in or came out; nobody was hiding inside. But while there were two guns found in the room (one held by White and one hidden in a vase), ballistic evidence shows neither one fired the bullet that killed the judge. Colonel Marquis, Assistant Commissioner of the C.I.D., takes over the investigation…

The Third Bullet has some things in common with The Problem of the Wire Cage, which was published a year later, although the impossible crimes are very different. Both take place in upper-class domestic settings. Both are set in suburban London. Both have someone found right by the body, but are they guilty? However, while I always thought Wire Cage was padded out to book length and should have been a novella, The Third Bullet is just long enough for a story of its complexity.

And the impossible crime is a beauty, one of Carr’s best. It seems there is no way Mortlake could have been murdered, and yet when Colonel Marquis explains what really happened (“There is one thing, my lads, you have forgotten…”) you realize all the clues were there if only you’d had the wit to spot them. (If you did spot them, you’re a better detective than I am!)

Two criticisms, though… There are a couple of coincidences as we go along, which for me is one coincidence too many for a detective story. But they didn’t get in the way of my enjoying the story as I read it.

Also, something we find out partway through the story makes me dubious that the White trial would have proceeded as described… can’t say more without risking a spoiler.

This novella has a curious publishing history. It was originally published in 1937 under the Carter Dickson byline, as a standalone book in a line of thrillers called “New at Ninepence”. There were several works by different authors in the same series, but apparently it was not a success.

A shorter version, about 80% as long as the original, was published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 1947 as by John Dickson Carr. Frederic Dannay did the abridgement with Carr’s blessing; he thought he had been “uncomfortably verbose” around the time he wrote it.

The abridged version was the one included in The Third Bullet and Other Stories, which is where I first read it. The longer version was included in the posthumous anthology Fell and Foul Play (1991). I read that version several years ago and from what I can remember, Dannay did a good job of abridging, because I didn’t remember feeling the condensation left out anything crucial, nor did the pace feel choppy. I don’t have a copy of the longer version handy, so consider this a review of the shorter one. At some point I will have to compare the two and see if my memory is accurate.

Some random notes:

  • Do the Carr and Dickson books take place in the same universe? Sir Edward Gordon-Bates is a famous barrister mentioned in a couple of Dr. Fell books (including Wire Cage), and here there’s a barrister with the same surname who’s briefly name-checked. Dr. Blaine, the police surgeon in a few H.M. novels, is also mentioned as “doing the post-mortem,” although the physician who actually reports on its findings is a Dr. Gallatin. An error in editing?
  • I doubt anyone writing a story in 2018 would create a “super-gigolo” character and name him Ralph.
  • Colonel Marquis is obviously a prototype of Colonel March of the Department of Queer Complaints, who would make his debut a year later. The main difference between them is that Marquis’ physique is described as “stringy” while March was a big fat man like Dr. Fell and H.M. Did Carr prefer that his series characters be overweight?
  • It’s a shame Carr didn’t write more at this length, as it seems to me a natural for him. Rex Stout wrote lots of novellas, but most were originally published in the general-interest American Magazine, and I get the feeling its readers weren’t the natural audience for brain-crackers of the Carr variety. (Some Ellery Queen novels weren’t serialized before book publication simply because no magazine wanted them.)

Ellery Queen: Calendar of Crime (1952)

This is a collection of twelve stories, each set in a different month of the year. All were adapted from scripts written for the Queen radio series, which explains why Ellery’s secretary Nikki Porter is in them. I’m not a big fan of the modern trend of giving the detective a detailed private life that evolves from book to book, but I do wish Queen had told us what happened to Nikki that took her out of his life. And the same goes for Djuna!

All the stories’ titles begin with “The Adventure of” but I’m going to spare myself typing them over and over.

The Inner Circle: By the time I started Calendar of Crime, I’d already read a couple of much shorter Queen stories that essentially had the same setup as this one (all members of this group but one have something in common; what is it?). As a result, although this story is a good read, it seems overlong for the slight mystery that underlies it.

The President’s Half Disme: “Disme” is an old spelling of “dime,” by the way. Queen’s slices of Americana are always fun, but the solution to this story about George Washington won’t baffle many readers.

The Ides of Michael Magoon: A neat problem with a subtle solution and plenty of laughs along the way. One of the best Queen short stories.

The Emperor’s Dice: Even if you don’t deduce the ending, you’ll probably guess it. Not worth the time spent reading it.

The Gettysburg Bugle: Another slice of Americana, but this one is a beaut with a surprising but fairly clued solution.

The Medical Finger: While Ellery is expounding his solution to this case, Nikki raises an objection which I think is well founded, even if the great man brushes it aside. It’s a good thing Inspector Queen finds some hard evidence against the murderer, because Ellery’s logic is far from airtight.

The Fallen Angel: the writing style of this story is a throwback to Period One, and it could easily have fit in one of the earlier Queen collections except for the fact it has Nikki in it. It’s one of the better stories in the book, although what the murderer does to deflect suspicion might seem more obvious now than when it was written.

The Needle’s Eye: The puzzle is OK, but I just found this one dull reading, surprising as I usually have no trouble with 1950’s Queen.

The Three R’s: Ellery’s solution relies on a fact you either know or you don’t. If you know it, you’ll solve the case straight off, and if you don’t, forget it.

The Dead Cat: Another good one. By the way, I sometimes see this listed as an impossible-crime story, but it isn’t. Well worth reading, but not something in the John Dickson Carr line.

The Telltale Bottle: The solution to this one is pretty obvious. Not a classic.

The Dauphin’s Doll: Unlike The Dead Cat, this one really is an impossible-crime story, and a good one. Interestingly, Francis M. Nevins Jr. says this is the only Ellery Queen story that was written entirely by Manfred B. Lee, who was not a fan of the detective genre, and yet it’s a simon-pure mystery! The writing is Lee at his most florid at times, but fight your way through it and you’ll get to the good stuff.

So the Ides, the Bugle, the Angel, the Cat and the Doll make this one worth picking up, and completists will want to read the rest as long as they’ve got a copy!

Carr/Queen: Books that spoil earlier books

The one thing you don’t want to know when you’re beginning a fair-play mystery is the ending. I’m sure John Dickson Carr and Ellery Queen knew this… and yet in each case you’ll find passages in certain books that allude to the solutions to previous books. Sometimes these passages point you at the right person; other times they point you away from one of the wrong people, or give away a surprise that isn’t directly related to the murderer’s identity.

So, as a public service, here is a list of these spoilers and partial spoilers. If anyone reading this can think of any I’ve missed, please let me know.

In each case I’m going to start with the title of the later book, then give the title of the earlier book and the general nature of the spoiler (i.e. I’m not going to name any killers). So if even that is more information than you’re comfortable with, stop reading here!

I’m erring on the side of caution. Not everyone might consider all these passages to be spoilers, but in each case I’m either sorry I read the later book before the earlier, or glad I read the earlier one first.

Carr/Dickson:

  • Blogger thegreencapsule points out that you shouldn’t read The Lost Gallows until you’ve read It Walks by Night, as doing so will eliminate a suspect in IWbN from contention. Thanks!
  • The Judas Window: one character makes a remark, alluding to the solutions of The Unicorn Murders and The Punch and Judy Murders, that might point you toward the respective killers.
  • The Reader is Warned: passing references eliminate a couple of suspects in Death in Five Boxes from contention.
  • The Man Who Could Not Shudder: a special case. It spoils Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd!
  • The Case of the Constant Suicides: does not reveal the solution of The Man Who Could Not Shudder but does give away a major twist.
  • Seeing is Believing: really the jaw-dropper of this class. I read this one more than 30 years ago, and I’m still mad at Carr for writing an unnecessary passage that actually names the murderers in The Plague Court Murders and The Reader is Warned, and partly spoils The Peacock Feather Murders. If you take anything away from this post, it’s this: don’t read Seeing is Believing until you’ve read those earlier books. (It’s good but not great, so it’s not as if you’re putting off reading one of the masterpieces.)
  • The Cavalier’s Cup: tells you a bit too much about the solution to The Curse of the Bronze Lamp for my liking.
  • Patrick Butler for the Defence: strongly hints at the ending of Below Suspicion.
  • The Witch of the Low Tide spoils Gaston Leroux’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room. Thanks again, thegreencapsule!
  • Panic in Box C: cameo appearance by a suspect from He Who Whispers that will basically have you saying, “well, I can cross this person off my list when I read HWW”.

Carr did this more than Queen, but Queen did it a few times:

  • The New Adventures of Ellery Queen: not really a spoiler, but one story in this collection, “Man Bites Dog”, tells you more about what happens in The Four of Hearts than you might want to know going in.
  • Cat of Many Tails: gives away a twist from Ten Days’ Wonder.
  • Double, Double: has a pointer to the solution of Ten Days’ Wonder. Did the cousins decide in retrospect that they had something against this book?