The White Priory Murders: Carter Dickson (1934) – Does having an authors entire career before you make reading ‘un-fair-play’?

I continue with my current John Dickson Carr (Carter Dickson) binge, and I have come to the conclusion that I officially love being told that a work by Carr is sub standard. Because every time I then seem to love the book!

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I was told Graveyard to Let wasn’t worth a huge amount of time, and now it’s one of my top locked room works. This also goes for The Problem of the Wire Cage, and Nine and Death Makes Ten. It seems that many of us on the bloggersphere over the last few years have had similar experiences with Carr, and that the works always seen as the top tier are being replaced somewhat by ‘lesser’ titles.

I’m not a fool though. I realise that Patrick Butler for the Defense, when I get round to it, is never going to be a surprise smash hit (although there must be good elements to it right? Somewhere?), and Blind Barber was never going to get any easier to read even with the four month break I took at the half way point. And if Ben’s recent review of Papa La Bas is anything to go by, I haven’t got much to look forward to there. However these books are talked about as simply and objectively bad. But these aside, many of Carr’s works are discussed as if they are missing something, or that they don’t compare to the heights achieved in his ‘masterpieces’. This in recent years has lowered my expectation of certain Carr books, only to have these works unexpectedly reveal something wonderful.

This has got me thinking: when we have an authors entire oeuvre in front of us, does that make reading their works a fair process?

As an example I’m looking at the The White Priory Murders, an early Carr novel and one of his first impossible crime works. In reading about this the main opinion seems to be that it’s a brilliant locked room with an amazing solution trapped in a sensationalist and dragging story. So I was geared up for that. I had held off till I had a bit more time, and at 250 pages it’s one Carr’s longer ones. I was ready for a real wrestle just to get to the solution. But, I ended up having the reverse experience.

It felt to me that each scene made sense being there, characters or dialogue didn’t seem superfluous, and even with the extended page count, each piece fitted together in a gorgeous plot with simple but shocking turns over the chapters that it kept me going at high pace. The glamorous Hollywood Movie Star Marcia Tait has traveled to England to make a new film. Staying at the gorgeous White Priory, she insists on sleeping the night in the Pavilion. A building set in the middle of a huge lake, with only one footpath to reach it. The lake is frozen solid. Both the ice and the path are covered with fresh snow after Tait goes in for the night, and it’s proved that no one went in with her. However early morning comes and Tait is found beaten to death, with no footprints left in the snow. The cast surrounding Tait, her agent, lover, play write and all the other trappings of fame, all wanted to control her, but was she playing a roll or was she the one in control?

A great set up and I couldn’t wait to get to the solution. I had heard it was highly original and a real kicker. But alas it was ruined for me. Another lesser author had stolen the solution for another work, and done it so much worse, which meant that I was onto it from early on. But Carr does it so so well, and the misdirection and the clicking of pieces together by the end is luscious. How the dog keeps coming into play is a particular favourite, and there are large amounts of false solutions and ideas presented. It felt as if Carr at this early stage of locked room writing was saying, “I see your no-footprints solution and I raise you 3 more solutions, all of which are false.”

Seeing the solution coming in the distance was another reason why I had a reverse experience with this book. I wasn’t plowing to get to the end and although many say that the middle drags, I was waiting for that moment but didn’t find it myself. Maybe I was in a good mood, and I’ve got it wrong, I’m not sure. There are certainly some sensationalist parts to this book, some misogyny, and some early Carr verbosity (but not to the level of It Walks By Night), but Carr is dealing with the world of Hollywood meats British academia which in itself is a pretty farcical setup. And he lets the caricatures have their day. Carr also knowingly subverts this; Merrivale making a few comments on how people are talking ‘as if they are in a stupid detective play’, so maybe this is the early stages of his subversion that we would see in the more post-modern breakdowns in the likes of The Hollow Man. With that in mind lets head back to the question of Oeuvre .

I have spoken in mine and JJ’s locked room podcast about how strange it is that we are almost always looking back when reading classic GAD. We are looking back on authors’ entire bodies of work in one go, it’s a unique experience. But being able to stand back from an entire life’s work can have negative effects on how certain works are seen. It is much easier for works to become unfairly mythologised (Hollow Man / Murder of Roger Ackroyd) and become supposedly representative of what the writer was trying to achieve in their entire writing career. My feeling is that by not being there at the time of the release of a book, we miss something about what the writer was trying to achieve in that one work at that time, and not over a whole career.

In a funny way I had built a strange anxiety about reading Carr, in that I wanted each one I read to be ‘the one’. The one I could give to people to draw them into GAD, the one that would be representative of his career, and of the ‘master of the locked room’. But I think sometimes these mythologised titles we give to GAD authors and the context of the ‘masterpieces’ they achieved, is unhelpful in approaching their work. We can miss what gems there are in each work by unfairly laboring them with what is to come.

When myself JJ and Ben did our podcast two-parter on the Ages of John Dickson Carr it opened my eyes to see his work in a totally fresh way. I have stopped trying to look at Carr as a locked room master but as an experimental crime, supernatural and suspense author, who was trying out new things with each work and constantly stretching and challenging the boundaries of his genre.

But in saying all this, I know that as I read these lesser known works I can enjoy a ‘substandard’ Carr more because I know that he wrote even better. I can see the light shimmering in the cracks knowing what is to come. So maybe then it’s not a struggle with contextualising an author in terms of their career but maybe a false contextualising that makes you think that a writer had a certain type of writing focus that they actually didn’t, and therefore reading their books in that context isn’t entirely fair-play to them?

This may come under the huge mental subheading of ‘things that only I think are interesting’ but I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Speak soon friends

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Hags Nook: John Dickson Carr (1933)

Back to another Carr. This one is from his early years and the first novel to feature one of Carr’s titanic series detectives Dr Gideon Fell.

Love this Penguin cover, the illustration is lush and has a great balance of story telling while not giving away too much

Hags Nook concerns the terrors of Chatterham Prison, or rather it’s ruins, that stand on the site of the Starberth family home. The Starberths have the history of being governors of the ancient prison, but they also have the history of all being found dead from broken necks. Chatterham, that was built by the hands of prisoners that were to die there, has below it’s faceless main wall a huge and endlessly deep pit cut out of the ground, known as The Hag’s Nook. It was into here that witches and heathen’s were thrown from a balcony above, a noose slipped over their head, the drop deep enough to allow their neck to break if they were lucky.

The Starberth family have another historical haunting to their family line. To inherit the estate, the eldest son must spend one night at Chatterham Prison, and at an appointed time they must open the safe in the governors room and look at what ever is inside. The contents of the safe are unknown to anyone except the family lawyer.

Against the rest of the more modern Starberth families’ wishes, the eldest son takes on the tradition. Dr Gideon Fell is called in to make sure all goes as suspected, and the room is watched from the outside the whole time. But when the light in the window goes out too early panic sets in, and when they find the eldest son below the balcony, his neck broken on the edge of the Hag’s Nook, it’s just the beginning of the terrors.

As you can tell from just this bare plot outline Hag’s Nook is absolutely soaked in gothic macabre. It’s still those early bright eyed days of Carr where he is riding on the back of his love for Poe but has surpassed the more heavy handed and overwritten prose of It Walks By Night, and the plotting, misdirection and sheer breadth of ideas that would make his later novels absolute masterworks of the genre are starting to shine through.

It was very interesting to read Hag’s Nook in the light of myself and fellow blogger JJ’s most recent podcast two parter, where Ben from the Green Capsule set out a new way of looking at the career of Carr. As I mentioned at the start Hag’s Nook is the first novel to feature Dr Gideon Fell, the series detective who would go on to be the lead in some of Carr’s most famous works like The Hollow Man and The Problem of the Green Capsule. Ben brought out in our podcast how different the early Fell character and the developed Fell character are, and how Fell almost switches places with Sir Henry Merrivle, Carr’s other series detective (under his Carter Dickson pseudonym) in terms of the types of characters. Those who have read any of the best Merrivale works like The Judas Window, She Died a Lady, The Reader is Warned or Nine… and Death makes Ten will know Merrivale as a blusteringly brilliant comic figure filling any page he appears on. But in Hag’s Nook, Fell is so much like later career Merrivale it’s uncanny. We even see Fell’s home, meet his wife and hear of his obsession with the study of drunkenness in every culture – all of which are points of comedy fodder that have the finger prints of Merrivale all over them.

Having said that I have just finished The White Priory Murders (review to come soon), the second Merrivale novel, and although the humour is there, there is a more refined and satirical edge to it than is apparent here in Hag’s Nook. Again you can see in this book that Carr is beginning to work everything out including his use of humour.

To come back to the plot – and I feel like I say this kind of thing a lot – but just go an read it! It’s bloody brilliant! I love the kind of solution that Carr weaves with Hag’s Nook. Not the main deception and misdirection of the crime – although that is brilliant and I can imagine even then it might be a fairly original idea for the time, and it has been copied to death since – but the way the deception is carried out in the face of difficulty and complexity for both the killer and the victim. There is a nice link to be made to the solution(s) here and some of what Hake Talbot was trying to do with the impossibilities in The Rim of the Pit.

What I also loved about this book was the real terror that Carr draws out. Carr does macabre very very well, but genuine terror is less of a feature. But it’s here in spades, enough to send genuine chills down your spine. The setting and the build up of tension is superb and there is one description of a character trying to pick up the victim at the edge of Hag’s Nook and feeling his broken neck in his hand which I will never ever be able to forget. Interestingly the first Merrivale story The Plague Court Murders is also properly terrifying. Carr liked to set his detectives off with a strong dose of fear, you could even say the same for Bencolin… another post maybe.

Hag’s Nook is certainly early career Carr so for those who have read his best you will see the gaps and issues here (although a lower tear Carr would still beat most other detective books hands down), but you still won’t be disappointed. Watching the early days of the master at work is such a joy to behold.

The Men Who Explain Miracles – Episode 7: part 2 -The Ages of John Dickson Carr

Part 2 is of our most recent podcast looking at John Dickson Carr’s incredible output of works is now up and ready for your listening ears! For the second round, myself and fellow bloggers JJ and Ben, take on the second half of Carr’s career finishing up with a few indulgent chats about favourites from his oeuvre. Enjoy, and as ever do get involved in the comments and discussion.

You can listen and find all our other episodes right here over at JJ’s blog

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The Best Second Hand Bookshops in London – Updated 2018!

Since starting this blog my post on my top 5 second hand bookshops in London has been one of my most popular articles. But since writing it I have found more wonderful and hidden bookshop gems in the big smoke, so it was time for an update!

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The list now includes such treats as the Black Gull bookshops, Pages of Hackney and Walden Books. You can see the post here. Next time you are in London make sure to check these spots out! If you know of more or have visited any of these shops let me know what you found.

After The Funeral: Agatha Christie (1953)

It’s wonderful to be back in the world of Christie. My last read from the Queen of Crime was Death on the Nile for the Carr vs Christie fists out face off with JJ and Brad (spoiler heavy so watch out!) And I must say that after Death on the Nile I felt a little deflated. It is indeed a wonderfully clever book, but I found the plot to be pretty see-through and easy.

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I had gotten therefore into the (oh so false!) mindset that maybe Christie was an easy plotter, and that having now read more in the genre I would now find her books lacking. And then I read After The Funeral… What a fool I have been! This book knocked my block off and it was such a joy to be back in the hands of the Queen.

The story considers the complex inner workings of the Abernethie family as they gather in the country manor Enderby Hall, after the funeral of the infamous Richard Abernethie. That evening the family come together for a tension filled reading of the will and it is then that the well meaning but ridiculous Aunt Cora utters her earth shattering exclamation: ‘but he was murdered wasn’t he?’ 

The book from here explores each family feud and secret, every dark look and false word to their limits. Sucking in many characters on the way this builds into a rich and layered ocean of a plot to explore what Cora’s chilling sentence could have meant, and if it was true, who did it.

After the Funeral has some of the best observed characters in Christies’s books I have read so far. Published in 1953, towards the later end of Christie’s output (although she still wrote 23 books after this one!), Poirot is shown as an ageing figure, totally unknown to the crowd of suspects, and therefore just a ‘ridiculous foreigner’, a status which he uses to his advantage to draw out information from the suspects, and a tool that Christie uses as an acidic piece of satire on 1950’s British values, and the views of other nations.

There is a striking passage that in these unsettling times of Brexit here in the UK seems to be more relevant than ever. At this point in the novel, Poirot is posing as the buyer for a refugee charity looking to purchase the family home, now that Sir Richard has died, to develop it into a post war refugee centre. Here he is talking to the Butler Lanscombe, a man who has seen everything and reflects on the destructive results of war:

“If it has to be an institution of some kind, I’ll be glad to think it’s the kind your mentioning… We’ve always welcomed the unfortunate in this country, sir, it’s been our pride. We shall continue to do so.” 

If only welcoming the unfortunate were still our pride here in the UK.

But what impressed me more than anything with this book was the solution. Oh man the solution! The reason for the murder, the motivations, and the reasons for those motivations are exquisite and relate much to my last post in that as you read the solution – which is gorgeously paced – the depth of misdirection continuously reveals itself and blows you away.  It’s one of those books that you can bask in the memory of as you think back to it. Very excited for my next Christie when I get to it. Crooked House or Death Comes as The End are on the Horizon!

How a Solution Becomes a Story – The Curse of the Bronze Lamp: Carter Dickson (1945)

A stone cold classic set-up for a stone cold classic work from Carter Dickson, aka John Dickson Carr. Clearly inspired by the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, the story centres around an ancient Egyptian lamp bearing a curse: anyone who tries to take it out of Egypt will be ‘blown to dust’.

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Love this old 1950s hand painted cover from Pan-books

This threat is made to the young Lady Helen Loring, a fiery, hyper-intelligent woman travelling back from Egypt to England after a 1930s, world famous archeological dig. Helen is told that she will not make it home to her room, and that before she arrives she will dematerialise.

Helen is seen walking into her house by two witnesses, the bronze lamp in hand, ready to prove the curse wrong. Someone on the inside hears her arrive, her footsteps making echoes on the flagstones of the lobby. But the footsteps suddenly stop, the sound disappearing. Two others arrive in the lobby seconds later to find the bronze lamp laying on the floor and no sign of Helen. There are no hiding places in the house (we are repeatedly shown) and every single exit – whether window or door – was watched, there being many hired hands working on the grounds of the house at the time.

A really unique set up – and, it was great to read a disappearance / dematerialisation / impossible set up from Carr. In a dedication written by Carr to Ellery Queen at the beginning of the book, this ‘miracle-problem’ of a person vanishing is, in his own words, ‘perhaps the most fascinating gambit in detective fiction’. He then goes on to say ‘I will do no more than make cryptic reference to Mr James Phillimore and his Umbrella. You have been warned.’ A gorgeous and enticing dedication, and fans of Sherlock Holmes may know that this character of Mr James Phillimore of whom Carr refers, is taken from a line by Dr John Watson in the Sherlock Holmes story, The Problem of Thor Bridge. On talking about cases in his overflowing files that he has not yet the time to write up he states:

‘Among these unfinished tales is that of Mr James Phillimore, who, stepping back into his own house to get his umbrella, was never more seen in this world.’

There are mixed opinions about this book, but I enjoyed it a lot. It seems that it is simply Carr enjoying himself, playing with ideas and characters and having fun with them, at a solid time in his career. Either side of this book we see top rating novels like Till Death do Us Part, He Wouldn’t Kill Patience and He Who Whispers, arguably some of his greatest works. He was certainly in his stride, and although this book doesn’t have the pace, terror or complexities of plotting that these surrounding books have, you can see and feel he his enjoying the exploration of this (at the time I guess) very current subject matter, and the myths surrounding it, while also dedicating a huge amount of time to observing the snapping nerves of the characters as the days go by and Helen isn’t found.

And the solution to the disappearance? How did I feel about it? Well… to be honest I was unsure… At first. But, as things moved on and more elements slotted into place, the plot tightening to it’s extreme, I grew to love it. Those final three chapters served to take the single line that untangled the mystery and expand it into new regions of thought and forehead slapping.

And this got me thinking. I kind of knew this subconsciously, but hadn’t thought enough about it – namely, that the solution in a mystery novel is not just an answer, but is itself a narrative tool and piece of plotting. In a funny a way I had thought that the plot ended at the beginning of the ‘reveal’ and then from there it was the solution until the end, which unravelled the ‘plot’, a separate, distinct element from the solution. But when you look at a writer as good as John Dickson Carr, you realise that this is not the case.

Carr, and many other brilliant writers, use the solution itself as a plotting tool. They pace the solution out to reveal things at just the right moment for the reader, to be the most impactful and meaningful, and they vary these solutions as much as the mysteries they set out at the start.

Take for example the last few chapters of Nine and Death Makes Ten. The solution absolutely blows your mind for how much it reveals to you that you missed, and actually strengthens everything preceeding, re-contextualising all of it. Another stone cold classic Carr The Crooked Hinge has simply a four word reveal to blast open everything. But when you first read them, they seemingly make absolutely no sense, as it takes the whole mystery and all that you think you understand in to a completely different direction. As these four words are expanded in the final chapters the horror and instability that unfolds is wonderful, which reinforces the macabre nature of the story built by the mystery up till that point. It’s in these kind of examples that Carr has incredible fun with the steady revealing and piecing together of the solution, in many cases still misdirecting you and throwing you read herrings even as he reveals what has occurred.

Of course there are many works that subvert the whole idea of the solution, or where the entire plot is a solution, or multiple solutions as with The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkley. But in this instance I am talking about the more ‘traditional’ mystery set up, with a solution that shifts all that you have just read.

Maybe that’s what a solution is, a ‘re-contextualising’ of everything that has come before. A piece of plotting that shifts all previous plotting into a new lens of viewing. Maybe this is obvious to everyone but me, but I find that my appreciation of these works has grown, thinking about how a writer uses a reveal as a narrative tool. A tool not exclusive to mystery fiction, but pushed to it’s limits by the genre.

And often, as I am taken slowly through the reveal by the author, I grow to love the solution even more.

So tell me friends, what works have some of your favourite and uniquely written reveals? And keep it spoiler free!

Reflections on parody in detective fiction – Case for Three Detectives: Leo Bruce (1936)

Well this has been a long time coming! This little gem has been burning a hole on my bookshelf since I found this gorgeous, beaten up penguin edition in a second hand bookshop at the beginning of the year.

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In the most recent episodes of our locked room mysteries podcast The Men Who Explain Miracles, myself and fellow blogger JJ discussed our top 15 locked room novels and Leo Bruce’s Case for Three Detectives this was on JJ’s list. That inspired me to finally get to it and I’ll tell you now that I was not let down one bit. The story:

After a night of hearty food, drink and rather preeminent discussions about committing and solving murder, the ever genteel, and ever rich Mary Thurston leaves her house guests to go to bed. A short times passes and screams are heard coming from her bedroom. Everyone in the house darts to her door from different angles. It is double locked on the inside with two sliding bolts, and once a panel of wood is smashed through the bolts are slid back (by a reliable person I may add) and the crowd rush in. They find a hideous sight of deep, blood soaked pillows and bed sheets, Mary lies with her throat slit. One of the crowd runs to the only other opening in the room, the window, and slides it open. No one to be seen. There are no footprints in the flower bead beneath, the other windows are too far away to climb to, and there was no way that anyone could have got out in time without being witnessed by the others.

In all aspects then, an absolutely classic locked room set up, and this is the point. For the book from here on will be a wonderful comedic parody and critique of classic detective story set ups, their characters and their mechanics.

The theme of parody begins the next day when three investigators, seemingly from nowhere, have appeared in the house. Each of these characters is a larger than life version of a famous fictional detective. Characters that would have been hugely popular and known at the time, even as they are now.

First we meet Lord Simon Plimsol, a parody of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey. He is stiflingly and hilariously upper class, groaning at beer, sickened by bad decor and having never heard of a strange game called ‘darts’. Secondly we meet the inimitable Monsieur Amer Pecon, which you probably already guessed from the name is our parody of Hercule Poirot, created by Agatha Christie. Amer Picon is an absolutely wonderful name for this character as Amer Picon is the name of a sweet french aperitif, which in many ways sums up Poirot 100%. Picon is uncontrollably french, and wipes off and organises dust at every possible opportunity. Finally we meet Monsignor Smith, a little catholic priest of seemingly no significance. Smith is of course our Father Brown, G.K.Chesterton’s marvellous series creation, and the parody here is wonderful. Smith speaks only in verbose parables and idioms which at times are totally unfathomable. Each sentence is an opportunity for reflection upon humanity and spirituality, and most of the time he seems totally uninterested or is simply asleep during proceedings.

And then of course we have our um… hero, of sorts, the plodding, East Londoner Sergeant Beef. Bain of the local police force, avid darts player and beer drinker, friend to all, but seemingly dunderheaded when it comes to the art of detection.

Once we have met our investigators things start to get very interesting in terms of form. You are aware that with these three famous detectives on the case that you are going to get three different solutions from them. But of course, you are also aware, with the format of the story, and with the presence of Beef from the off, that they are going to be ultimately wrong. Beef says from the first few pages of his appearance that he has already worked it out, but being non charismatic and of the group of simpletons known as the police force, he is constantly told to be quiet or pushed aside.

The fact then that you know that these three detectives are going to be wrong, but not knowing quite how much or why, gives you a very unique, and ‘meta’ reading experience. Instead of trying to keep up in the race with them to the solution, you are instead in a place of critique, trying to see what is incorrect about their deductions rather than what might be leading to the truth. Knowing the end before you start, but not knowing it’s shape puts you in this strange premonitory relationship in regards to the characters. And of course, even though Sergeant Beef keeps getting cut off, when he does get a word in edge ways, it is pregnant with even more significance. But exactly how much people are wrong, and in what way leaves you second guessing yourself.

At the same time, we are aware that we are actually going to get three different solutions from these eccentric investigators, so we are also trying to work out what on earth will be their perspective. And their perspectives in the end are not some weak or comedic piece of detection, but each solution is strong, believable and high quality, and then comes Beef to blow them all away. What is amazing about this is that Bruce had to come up with four different solutions to a locked room problem in one novel, with multiple murderers, motives and clues, all of which were believable and credible. No small task.

But the intelligence of this book doesn’t end here. Not only are the characters parodied, but their detection styles also. Lord Plimsol focuses on details gained through conversation and amiability, Picon looks at ‘matters of the heart’ in his search for truth, and Monsignor Smith ties up his case looking at the spiritual and moral angle.

Bruce then takes this a step further by giving the three detectives solutions that as well as being totally credible and succinct, are parodies of the types of solutions their authors would give them. What really impressed me thinking about the plot at the book’s climax was that Bruce also builds parody into the way that the other characters react to these detectives. Lord Plimsol is deeply admired and respected at all times, Picon draws out everyones emotional secrets and they all confide in him, Smith is ignored and seen as of little consequence until things start to get supernatural. And Beef is seen as the blithering policeman, a classic trope of detective fiction. And Bruce even takes this a step further, in that these parodied responses from the cast are not just a simple send up of the author he is referencing, but they are also pieces of genuine clueing.

How the whole piece rounds up, particularly with Beef’s solution and how he responds to the three other theories is marvellously charming.

My criticisms? When the only strong female character is killed it leaves a super male heavy cast, some of which do blur together because they are so similar. This is frustrating as Bruce was obviously a brilliant writer and creator of character so he could have done a lot more with broadening his cast. But maybe this is parody too? I would also have liked to have seen more of Monsignor Smith. Of course his quiet presence is meant to reflect Father Brown’s, but he is often left a bit till last.

All in all a winner, and I can’t wait to get to the rest of Bruce’s oeuvre.