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 Men Who Explain Miracles – Episode 7: part 1 -The Ages of John Dickson Carr

It is as always, with great joy, that I announce that myself and fellow blogger JJ have the next episode of our locked room mystery podcast online. This one is going to be a two parter over the two weekends, and has been one of my favourites to make. Not just because we are discussing the career of the wonderful John Dickson Carr in detail, but because the facilitator of our conversation is a very exciting special guest and a good friend. But… no spoilers about that! You can listen to the episode here over at JJ’s blog. Enjoy, and as ever join us in the comments section for discussion and debate.

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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!

The Men Who Explain Miracles – Episode 4 (part 3): The top 5 locked room mysteries of all time?

It is with great joy that I announce that the third podcast episode of myself and JJ’s deconstructed look at the so called top 15 locked room mysteries of all time, is online for your listening pleasure. You can listen to it right here.

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A little late to the game here as it has been online since Saturday 24th, but a bout of illness has kept me away from the blog, can you ever forgive me!?

The locked room novels in question for this episode are:

The Judas Window (1937) by Carter Dickson
The Crooked Hinge (1938) by John Dickson Carr
The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1907) by Gaston Leroux
Rim of the Pit (1944) by Hake Talbot
The Hollow Man, a.k.a. The Three Coffins (1935) by John Dickson Carr

There has been some wonderful and full hardy discussion over at JJ’s blog so do go and check it out.

Enjoy!

John Dickson Carr: The Men Who Explained Miracles (1963) – Part 1

After finishing Carr’s short story collection The Department of Queer Complaints I was devastated. Not because it was bad, but because it was brilliant, audacious and ridiculous, and contains some of the most original impossible crime set ups going.

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I wish Carr had kept producing Colonel March stories in his spare time (which I doubt he had any of, sometimes writing 7-8 novels a year, plus radio plays), and that there were another 10 collections of Queer Complaints where he could have let loose on his most mad locked room ideas. Ideas that he couldn’t try anywhere else.

With this in mind, and with my recent Carr kick going on, I was super excited to find on my last London second hand bookshop walk the collection The Men Who Explained Miracles, which contains another two Colonel March stories, alongside 4 more shorts and a novella.

As there is so much content here the short stories will have to wait till the next post, and today I will go to the end of the collection for some thoughts on the novella, a Henry Merrivale story titled All in A Maze. To have a Merrivale story alongside Colonel March, may seem odd, but in fact the collection contains his detectives March, Merrivale, Dr Fell, French detective Monsieur Lespinasse – written much in the same way as Carr’s first detective Henri Bencolin – alongside a stand alone historical short thriller. Why and how this mix-and-match collection came together, and quite late in Carr’s career, is unknown to me and if any of you have more info out there it would be great to hear it, as I imagine many of these stories were not written as late as the 60’s?

All in a Maze is a gorgeous little piece, with Carr flexing his plotting and impossible muscles to try a few more original ideas out. The story begins with Jenny Holden running out of St Paul’s cathedral, so terrified that she is flying down the main steps at unnatural speed. Journalist Tom Lockwood, seeing her impending fall, manages to catch her. They both run to the safety of a local cafe where Holden tells Lockwood that she believes someone is trying to kill her. For a story of just under 60 pages Carr manages to weave in international spies, switches of identity, double clues and a great dose of humour all round.

All in a Maze also presents us with two impossible problems. Firstly, how could Jenny, in the whispering gallery of St Paul’s cathedral, hear a voice tell her that she will die, when there is no one that could have spoken it? And secondly, later that evening, how did someone enter her locked room, turn on the gas from her fireplace to gas her to death and then escape while the room was securely locked and bolted from the inside?

I would love to know more about how Carr reached his impossible crime ideas, as it often feels he must have been inspired by a location or a generally interesting domestic occurrence to create an impossible puzzle. You can imagine him on a day out with his wife and kids, or at a friends house and seeing the cogs suddenly turning as an new idea comes to mind when someone tops up the electric meter or shuts a window in a funny way. It’s those relationships to a particular setting, atmosphere or everyday situation that gives much of Carr’s work it’s original feel, and the puzzles their unique quality.

The whispering gallery solution is basically the only one there could be, but I won’t fault Carr for that, and the locked room solution is super tidy, and could have been a sub mystery to a larger novel if Carr had wanted. The proofs for the locked room are also really tight, and I appreciate the dedication to plot and solution that Carr strives for even in a short story. It’s not going to blow your mind, but it will leave you feeling satisfied for sure.

But a really memorable part of this novella, is a brilliant and super clever connection between the first impossible problem and the second, with the misunderstanding of a single word uttered by Merrivale. It’s a genius move by Carr as it could throw you off the scent in a clever way, and feels like it could be a part of a central mystery in a Jonathan Creek episode. I’ll leave you to find that one out. The final few pages are a high-speed finish, from which the story gets the nice double meaning of it’s title.

Part two, the short stories, to follow soon.

UPDATE: You can now read part two of my review here.

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P.s – I am also aware of the Merrivale, March and Murder collection, which I hope to get at some point, although it doesn’t contain any other new Colonel March stories that are not in this collection or Department of Queer Complaints. Although the other pieces in there look great.