If you have never heard of the name John Dickson Carr before, let me introduce you. Carr was generally regarded as one of the greatest writers in the ‘Golden Age’ of detective fiction, and is known as the master of the locked room mystery or impossible crime genre.
John Dickson Carr, and under his pseudonym Carter Dickson, wrote over 70 novels, almost all of which are impossible crimes or have impossible elements. Agatha Christie famously said of Carr’s work:
“Very few detective stories baffle me nowadays, but Mr. Carr’s always do.”
And one of the other queens of detective fiction Dorothy L Sayers wrote of Carr:
“Mr. Carr can lead us away from the small, artificial, brightly-lit stage of the ordinary detective plot into the menace of outer darkness. He can create atmosphere with an adjective, alarm with an allusion, or delight with a rollicking absurdity.”
And that is definitely true of his 1944 novel Till Death Do Us Part. In what I have written here I have purposefully described the plot very little, so as not to spoil your reading if you are yet to start this book. Anything I give away would slide something out of this Rubik’s cube of a novel that is so well pieced together you must have every element in all it’s delicious freshness.
I will say this much: the tale begins with the newly engaged couple, mild mannered Dick Markham and the sanguine Lesley Grant, both madly and hilariously in love, arriving late to a small village fete. All seems charged with laughter and jollity, until a storm approaches and an encounter with an alarmingly accurate fortune teller leads to the revelation of terrible hidden histories. These rumours set the pace for a possible four locked room murders so thrilling as to have you on edge of your teeth from start to finish.
Till Death Do Us Part is pieced together so well that it left me baffled as to how Carr could have constructed it. The huge amount of ideas he places in each chapter never get overwhelming, and just when you think you know what’s happening he throws you in another direction, but each thread ties together without losing speed or agility. It reads like a high paced thriller, but with space enough for locations to tremble with an underlying horror and for clues to be laced everywhere. A lot of this pace rests in the perfectly formed size of cast. This allows for the suspicion that Carr has seeded in each member to grow to a maddening fever pitch as the plot twists further and further around. Similarly well formed is the small amount of locations, each being so well described while at the same time humming with clues and plot movements, each of which, by then end, you feel you know so well.
I was equally amazed at how many ideas and extra solutions Carr knocks down and brings in as he goes. On page 212 of 224 (in my copy) Carr has one character reel off a possible set up, motive and solution to the murder in one line that could have made the plot for an entirely separate novel.
The solution to the main locked room scenario (which I am happy to say I guessed) is in a way the oldest trick in the book, but with a twist, that twist being one of my favourite types. It has been said elsewhere that one element is a little too technical, but in the end I found it satisfying. And just when you thought that element might not be needed it was explained and encased inside a lovely piece of misdirection – which called to the idea of G.K.Chesterton’s Father Brown story ‘Sign of the Broken Sword’ – and made it totally acceptable in the context, again showing off Carr’s flair and ability to ram a book with 100 ideas.
I can see why Till Death Do Us Part has been so widely praised, and I think it’s the first time I have felt on completion of a detective novel, that I could have picked it straight back up and started over again.
14 thoughts on “Masterworks: Till Death Do Us Part, John Dickson Carr”
I think your last line captures this book especially well — I had the same feeling myself when I read it, but failed to correctly express it. It’s such a clever book, so beautifully constructed, and — as you say — each chapter really does bring some new fabulous idea, and then works it into the plot effortlessly. There was not enough detective fiction of this quality, but the good news is that most of what there was to match this was written by Carr, so it’s reassuring to know that this isn’t simply a one-off: he did it several more times, too!
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Thanks JJ. Reading back over your review really helped as well. I think what you said about ‘as it gets more and more complex, it seems more and more simple; as it gets more and more unlikely, the patterns emerge’ is a great description of how the construction works in this book. I am very excited to get onto more of the high quality Carrs!
I really love this book. Every chapter ended with a jaw dropping revelation or some other game changer. The only other Carr novel that I think delivers as much in that respect is The Judas Window.
Like you, I mostly guessed the solution – but of course, with Carr, it’s never that easy. There are so many threads going on in this book that even if you figure out the impossibility, it still really leaves you nowhere.
It’s funny – I’d probably rank this as one of Carr’s top 5 novels, even though I wouldn’t say the impossibility is that strong. That says something, I think. I almost have the same feeling with The Case of the Constant Suicides (although for very different reasons) – as much as I was drawn into that book, it wasn’t necessarily the crimes that hooked me.
Thanks TGC. I know what you mean about the impossibility, and in a way being able to figure this one out a little more quickly added to the charm and pace of it, and as you say, even if you do guess it, you are pretty much no closer to guessing the murderer as it’s all so cleverly buried.
I like your comparison with Judas Window, the pacing in both of them is on a parr, proper page turners without being crass or ‘cliff-hangers’ for the sake of it, just a genuine desire to know what the hell is coming next!
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Couldn’t agree more – one of Carr’s greatest books and deserves to be much more widely known – the equivalent, in this regard, of SHE DIED A LADY in the ‘Carter Dickson’ panoply.
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Agreed! Although I did prefer TDDUP than SHE DIED A LADY, mainly because Carr’s handling of the female characters in SDAL was get more and more difficult as the book went on. TILL DEATH DO US PART if it was written this year would be a top selling thriller I’m sure, it’s pace rivals anything written now.