The Reader Is Warned

Masterworks: Till Death Do Us Part, John Dickson Carr

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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.

John Dickson Carr himself.

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.

 

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