John Dickson Carr: where to start?

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(Credit: Britannica.com)

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.)
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5 thoughts on “John Dickson Carr: where to start?

  1. I have 16 Carr novels standing in the way of A Graveyard to Let, which is somewhat of a comfortingly high number as the stack keeps getting shorter and shorter. I’m happy to hear that you keep it in high regard. As a later era Merrivale, I imagine it’ll have some painful slapstick humor, but I’m hoping I enjoy the mystery.

    When it comes to a first experience with Carr, I think there are two dimensions a reader should experience:
    1. A completely perplexing puzzle that has their mind churning through endless dead end solutions.
    2. A solution to the puzzle that triggers a satisfied sensation of “oh, I should have thought of that”, or “oh, I was thinking about it completely wrong!”

    Of course, Carr has a lengthy list of books that meet both qualifications, and yes, most fall in the time range that you suggest. I’d say that the first books to possess these qualities are Hag’s Nook and The Bowstring Murders (both 1933). Well, It Walks By Night actually qualifies as well, but it isn’t a title I’d recommend as a first experience – not because it’s bad in any sense, there are just better choices for a first Carr.

    As for the last books to really nail those qualities, well, that’s a conversation for a different time…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment! Graveyard, like the other late H.M. novels, has some slapstick humour, but not all that much. For my money, Night at the Mocking Widow and The Cavalier’s Cup are the only ones where it really gets out of hand.

      It also has a puzzle and solution that meet qualifications 1 and 2 above… there’s one major thing about it that keeps it out of the top drawer, but that might be venturing into spoiler territory!

      Interesting point you raise about what the last books are to nail those qualities. I’m going to start thinking about that for a future post…

      Like

  2. I would agree conpletely with you on appeoach and book choices. I started with THE READER IS WARNED, PANIC IN BOXC and FIRE, BURN – the very late Fell is probably nobody’s favourite but I could see in all of these what I would continue to love: the staggering ingenuity, the terrific sense of atmosphere and above all a desire to entertain. This was 35 years ago and I have bever looked back

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Panic in Box C was only my second Fell novel, and I have a lot of affection for it. One part of the solution I can’t swallow, but the impossible crime is pretty good! Reading it certainly helped keep me on the path that I started with The Three Coffins.

      Liked by 1 person

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