Where should someone interested in John Dickson Carr/Carter Dickson start?
I read most of his books for the first time as a teenager in the 70s, long before you could order books online… I basically read them in whatever order I happened to find them in used-book stores. (Sometimes I’d find two or three at once so I’d get to choose.) Ah, the luxury of being a first-time Carr reader today and being able to read them in whatever order you please.
That said, if I were advising someone on what to read first, I’d say, “Start with a classic.” Some possibilities:
- Death in Five Boxes (not one of his best-known, but for my money one of his best)
- The Case of the Constant Suicides (two good impossible murders, wonderful setting, plenty of humour). Both of these are full of fine clues and deductions, but don’t have as many twists and turns as some of Carr’s mid-30s efforts like The Arabian Nights Murder or The Unicorn Murders, which a total newcomer might find intimidating.
- Another good starter might be the novella The Third Bullet, which has an impossible crime worthy of a full-length book, but isn’t as long, so if you hate it, you’ll know Carr isn’t for you without having invested too much time.
If you can’t find one of those…
- The Black Spectacles/The Problem of the Green Capsule
- He Who Whispers
- She Died a Lady
- He Wouldn’t Kill Patience – what I said about my top two can be applied to these four as well.
- As a dark horse, A Graveyard to Let, the first H.M. novel I ever read. It’s a flawed book in ways these others aren’t, but a man dives into a swimming pool and vanishes! How can you resist an impossible situation like that?
Not that you can go too far wrong with a Carr from between 1935 and 1950. The earlier and later books are more of a mixed bag, and although a lot of the historicals are worth reading, I wouldn’t start a newbie off with one of them unless they were already a fan of historical fiction. And Carr’s series characters don’t evolve from book to book, so reading their books out of order is more of an option than it would be for a lot of series today. That said:
- Even though it’s one of the classics, I wouldn’t start with The Judas Window, because there is a passage in it that partly spoils a couple of earlier novels. (Seeing is Believing, by the way, does the same with no fewer than three of H.M.’s previous cases.)
- I also wouldn’t start with The Three Coffins/The Hollow Man, simply because it’s the most complex puzzle he ever devised and I’d want to start with a few others and work up to it. That said, it was my first Carr novel and I’m unscathed! (I had already read a number of his short stories, so I wasn’t going in entirely unprepared.)