"My ambition is still to write a really
outstanding detective novel, which I honestly do not believe I have yet
achieved. When a writer says this, what he really means is that he wants to
wrote one which will make all other detective novels look silly. Of course you
can't do it. But you can always keep trying."
- John Dickson Carr
Over the past several years, I wasted a number
of opportunities, filler-posts and an immeasurable amount of basic logic by
neglecting to assemble my very own list of favorite John
Dickson Carr novels. Logically, such a list should've been one of the first
entries on this blog. But, hey, better late than never, right?
John Dickson Carr shouldn't require an
introduction, especially around these parts, but if you're one of those
uncivilized, heathenish infidels, unfamiliar with the Lord of the Locked Room
Mystery, you might want to take note of this list – or risk suffering the same
faith as Duc de Saligny. The reader has been warned!
I have broken down this best of list in three
categories: series-books, standalones and historical mysteries.
The Henri Bencolin-series:
The Lost Gallows
(1931) was the second detective-story from the mind of a young John Dickson
Carr and can be considered a premonition of things to come, which consists of a
lost street and a murderer, known as "Jack Ketch," roaming the fog-bound
streets – cumulating in one of the "prettiest fancy in the whole realm of
The Four False Weapons (1937) is the last entry in this series and moved away from the gothic,
theatrical atmosphere of the earlier books, but without being any less
mystifying or satisfying. The plot itself is fantastic: a retired Bencolin
unravels a brilliantly contrived murder in France, which was obviously modeled
Chesterton's "The Three Tools of Death," from The Innocence of Father
Brown (1910), and the Hanaud stories by A.E.W.
The Dr. Gideon Fell-series:
The Mad Hatter Mystery (1933) is the second book in the series and while not as atmospheric as
its predecessor, Hag's Nook (1933), but the plot is a lot tighter and
involves a series of pranks resulting in a crossbow-murder – committed at the
historic Tower of London. One of the plot-points involves a long, lost
manuscript by Edgar
Allan Poe and Carr "reproduces" a short passage from this hitherto unknown
Auguste Dupin tale.
The Hollow Man
(1935) is, IMHO, a fabulous Chestertonian-tale of the miraculous shooting of Professor
Grimaud in his locked/watched study and later an equally baffling crime in
Cagliostro Street, but the book seems to have lost some of its popularity in
recent years (heresy!). The solution is incredible tricky and I have seen the
fairness being called into question, but the story derives its admiration from offering
an overly ingenious and complex situation – without the plot becoming a
cluttered mess. You can perfectly understand by the end of the book how
everything went down. That's what attracted fans of fiction to this book for
over half a century: it's the fantastic and nearly unbelievable being pulled
off in an almost perfect and convincing manner.
The Arabian Nights Murder (1936) is one of Carr's Baghdad-on-the-Thames stories, in which Dr.
Fell makes his only appearances in the opening, middle and ending portion of
the book – while listening to three different narratives about a strange night at
the Museum of Oriental Art. Highly recommended!
The Crooked Hinge
(1938) is often billed as an impossible crime novel, but the eventual
explanation makes it more of an improbable murder and a
Chestertonian-nightmare, but it's a great one nonetheless. The plot-threads consist
of Tichborne claimants-type dispute, witchcraft, the Titanic and a
creepy automaton called the Golden Hag.
The Problem of the Green Capsule (1939) is one of Carr's more bizarre, but satisfying, mystery novels,
in which an amateur psychologist, Marcus Chesney, stages an observational
experiment to oust a murderer in his village – who killed several children with
poisoned chocolates. Naturally, in a Carr story, Marcus is murdered in front of
his captivated audience without anyone have spotted the murderer.
Till Death Do Us Part (1944) is Carr's most successful attempt at creating an Agatha
Christie-type of village, but with his own typical spin on – which includes a
persecuted woman and a locked room shooting. This one appears to have gained
some popularity with 21st century readers of vintage mysteries.
He Who Whispers (1946)
is considered by some as the true masterpiece from this series, because it has everything:
dark, grim atmosphere, excellent story telling, misdirection and an improvement
on the persecution-plot from Till Death Do Us Part – with a woman who's
suspected of being a vampire and therefore a natural suspect of a seemingly
impossible stabbing atop of a tower in France. I definitely liked this one, to
say the least.
The Sir Henry Merrivale-series:
The Plague Court Murders (1934) is the one that pushed me over the edge and convinced me of Carr's
brilliance as a mystery writer, which was done by murdering a fraudulent medium
on the premises of a haunted house – inside a locked room, of course! The
solution is incredible tricky, cheeky and the murderer is neatly tugged away
from the reader, but all the clues are there and that tightrope was successfully
The Unicorn Murders (1935)
has Carr balancing along a similar tight-rope in order to fool the reader, but
it's arguably even more successful as he balances between a formal mystery and
a spy-thriller – stranding a group of survivors of an air-plane crash in a
French chateau with a legendary criminal a la Arsène Lupin. There are also a
couple of interesting and original (impossible) murders: people are being gored
to death by an invisible unicorn!
The Punch and Judy Murders (1937) is a wacky mad chase story and pits Ken Blake against Murphy
Law, while the tell-tale clues march along noticed and are eventually followed
by a couple of false solutions. A very competent and amusing entry in this
The Judas Window
(1938) is arguably the most iconic book in this series and sports one of Carr's
most original trick, but the clip the length of this blog-post I'll refer you
to my full review
of the book.
Nine-and Death Makes Ten (1940) is a personal favorite of mine and possibly one of the best shipboard
mysteries, which places H.M. aboard a munitions-carrying ship crossing
submarine-infested waters and has an interesting impossible situation – that of
bloody, "ghostly" fingerprints that doesn't match with any of the passengers.
She Died a Lady
(1943) is undoubtedly the masterpiece of this series, but, again, to prevent
this post from assuming the size of bloated canal corpse, I'll refer you to the
of this book.
The Skeleton in the Clock (1948) is, admittedly, the weakest admission on this list, but the plot
is still very descent and concerns itself with poison-pen letters, an
impossible crime in the past and recent murder at a disused prison complex –
which are neatly tied together by the end of the story. But the best parts of
the story are the comedic bits-and-pieces, which genuinely made me laugh when I
read it for the first time.
The standalone-and historical mysteries:
Poison in Jest (1932)
is a gothic-style mystery novel and takes place in a decaying, Pennsylvanian
mansion in the dead of winter, which has a creepy, brooding atmosphere
depicting such horrors as a disembodied hand from Caligula's statue "run" along
the window ledges like a spider. There's also poisoned brandy pored from a
sealed bottle and dying laughter echoing through the dilapidated hallways. I
really want to re-read this one!
The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey (1936) is a brilliantly conceived and convincingly argued
reconstruction of a real-life crime from the days of Charles II, but it's
mainly included here because it perfect demonstration of the authors gift for
resuscitating the past through the written word.
The Emperor's Snuff-Box (1942) is a triumph among Carr's standalone novels, but I'll refer you
to my full review
for reasons previously stated in this post.
The Bride of Newgate (1950) is Carr's first historical mystery novel and one of his best,
but, once again, I have to refer you to my previously review
of the book.
The Devil in Velvet
(1951) was considered by the author himself to be one of his finest
achievements and how can you argue against it? The book revolves around a deal
with the devil himself, which sees an exchange of Professor Nicholas Fenton's soul
for a one-way trip to the late 1600s – in a futile attempt to prevent a murder by
poisoning. However, this capsule synopsis doesn't do any justice to the book as
(1955) is a strange, but massively underrated, hybrid-novel stitching together
the seams of the spy-and adventure stories with that of the traditional mystery
– which takes the form of an invisible assailant, the titular "Captain
Cut-Throat," bumping off Napoleon's sentries on the eve of the planned invasion
of England. If there's one of Carr's lesser-known works that deserves
recognition, it's this one! And I'll be re-reading and reviewing it before
Well, if there's one thing that became obvious
after compiling this list, it's that I'm a bit of a heretic myself, because
time has dimmed a lot of the details of the books I have read. So this list is
already a candidate for revision somewhere in the future.
On a final note, there two more, locked
room-related things: yesterday, I posted a review of Michael Bowen's Washington
Deceased (1990), which featured a shooting in locked, guarded-and
camera-watched supply room inside a prison complex. Secondly, I found an old,
beaten-up Dutch paperback edition of Det slutna rummet (The Locked
Room, 1972) by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, but I begin to regret the
purchase – because this duo almost repelled me from the detective story in my
early days of discovery. So is this one as good as some fans say it is or is it
dreadful and depressing as everything else they wrote?
I'll be back with something from the Golden Age before too long. Stay tuned!