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.

Forgotten Authors – Holly Roth: The Mask of Glass (1957)

I love finding a mystery writer that I have never come across before, which as you dig deeper into this ol’ world of classic crime fiction is sometimes easier than you think. It’s even better to come across one in a second hand bookshop and, for some whimsical reason, to be taken with the title, the cover or description (though I try not to read those too much) and decide to go with it. So begins my relationship with Holly Roth.

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Very little information exists online about Roth (any experts on her work out there I would love to hear from you), but what I gleaned about her from this 1957 paperback of The Mask Of Glass and other online sources is very interesting. Roth was a highly intelligent woman of the world, born in Chicago and moving between America, England and Europe, she finally resided in New York. Beginning her career as a model she left that for newspaper and magazine work before settling on the mystery and suspense field, publishing 12 novels under three different names and writing a number of television and film mysteries. Her works were serialised in magazines and very much are part of the pulp genre, although with a GAD feel and twist.

Roth composed extremely tightly plotted stories and The Mask of Glass is no exception. Clocking in at only 154 pages and containing really only two main characters this is a pacy, contained piece. The Independent in their forgotten authors series ‘Invisible Ink’, described Roth’s thrillers as ‘high-concept before the term had been created’, and The Mask Of Glass fits that bill perfectly:

Jimmy Kennemore of the US Army Counter-Intelligence Corps, wakes up in hospital to find himself unable to move, bandaged and cast all over, his head wrapped up with a few spaces for eye holes. He has been saved by a Doctor Steinfeld (‘Doc’) a long term family friend, but the Doc doesn’t know what has happened and by the looks of it neither does Jimmy. As he slips in and out of consciousness Jimmy is forced to mentally reconstruct the last few days events, that lead to the intense night of violence he experienced. As each piece of the story unravels it builds into an exploration of corruption, murder and the haunting nature of a shifting identity, as Kennemore decides what action he can take in the wake of this terror.

I find it very frustrating when reviewers say things like ‘I wasn’t sure at first but then it turned out to be brilliant’, but in this case this really sums up my experience with this book. As you begin the writing is deceptively sparse, extremely tight, with absolutely no fuss, and therefore quite quiet in how it initially comes across. But it’s this restraint of description, plot and dialogue that carries you as the reader into a intriguing and refreshing space, and the simplicity in her writing allows the tension to be turned up to high when it comes; something that Roth was also a deft hand at. We follow Kennemore the entire time, each chapter only serves to advance the story, with very little deviation away from stepping forward.

There are some lovely ideas in terms of counter intelligence mixed with detection style deductions and reveals. The cypher and solution to the six pages of stencilled black dots found in a stolen file, and Kennemore’s ability to decipher telephone numbers by listening to the clicks on the dial through the wall are satisfying examples.

The whole book had that feeling (can you relate to this?) where something about it gets under your skin and when you are not reading about it you are thinking about it. Not so much a ‘I must know whats going to happen’ but just something about the precise and stripped back context she has created makes me want to get back to that world and to inhabit it again.

My one objection to Roth’s style is her desire for naturalism in dialogue. The dialogue is not ‘novelistic naturalism’ but reads like actual dialogue you would say or hear, and therefore can be so natural it becomes obvious, unneeded or stilted. But on the other hand this ‘slice of life’ style works well in setting up the atmosphere of New York, and the little instances in cafes, taxi’s and sidewalks serve the narrative well.

Roth came to a tragic and mysterious end herself. In 1964 she was sailing on and living aboard a ketch with her Czechoslovakian husband Joseph Franta, when a large ship hit the boat and sailed on into the night. Roth fell from the side and her body was never recovered. The strangest coincidence here is that in Roth’s book Operation Doctors, written just two years before her death, a woman falls from a boat and loses her memory. Frank Roth, Holly’s brother, a rare coin dealer, said at the time of her disappearance that he hadn’t seen her since she got married in 1960. The Mask Of Glass, written in published in 57, is dedicated to Frank ‘with love’.

The Invisible Ink piece closes with this notable passage:

In the Fifties, female suspense writers proved very popular, and Roth was compared with Mary Stewart, Charlotte Armstrong and Margaret Millar, frequently tackling the kind of Cold War-influenced subjects that have now become a strictly male province. Her books were critically overlooked at the time, and if the plots seem far-fetched, her ability to turn up the tension is unquestionable.

I’m looking forward to reading another Roth, and although much more in the pulp/thriller genre, there was a lot about this little book that won me over, I hear as well that others count Shadow Of A Lady as her best work so I hope to find a copy of that soon.

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A little after thought, I am yet to read any Earl Stanley Gardeners ‘The DA…’ series, but from what I have read from the rest of the GAD community, this tight and sparse beauty of writing and plotting that I see in Roth could be said to be a similar experience in reading Gardener? Many of the ‘DA’ books clock in around the 150 page mark as well. Any thoughts anyone?