Tag: John Dickson Carr

Review – The Lost Gallows

Posted June 17, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Review – The Lost Gallows

The Lost Gallows

by John Dickson Carr

Genres: Crime, Mystery
Pages: 288
Series: British Library Crime Classics
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

John Dickson Carr lays on the macabre atmosphere again in this follow up to It Walks by Night in which Inspector Bencolin attempts to piece together a puzzle involving a disappearing street, a set of gallows which mysteriously reveals itself to a number of figures traipsing through the London fog, and the bizarre suggestion that a kind of fictional bogeyman, Jack Ketch, may be afoot and in the business of wanton execution. An early gem from one of the great writers of the genre. Also includes the rare Bencolin short story "The Ends of Justice."

The Lost Gallows is, I think, one of John Dickson Carr’s earlier novels, so I went in with fairly low expectations — the melodrama and bombast of his other Bencolin books isn’t entirely for me, but he’s still a plotter of ingenious mysteries. I don’t know if it was because I went in fully prepared for that, or maybe I’ve learned more sympathy through enjoying his later books, but this one wasn’t so bad.

It is of course very colourful and highly dramatic, with some surprisingly prosaic explanations; it’s full of atmosphere, using the London fog as a device in a similar way (though a very different tone) to Christianna Brand’s London Particular. It’s funny thinking about how ubiquitous that fog was, and yet I can barely imagine fog being so thick, so awful.

If you like a bit of adventure in your mystery novels, this one has that as well — the narrator puts himself in the thick of things, and there are a couple of very breathless scenes.

It all ends up feeling almost too prosaic for the fantastic atmosphere, but it works out interestingly enough.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Corpse in the Waxworks

Posted April 18, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – The Corpse in the Waxworks

The Corpse in the Waxworks

by John Dickson Carr

Genres: Crime, Mystery
Pages: 288
Series: British Library Crime Classics
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

"The purpose, the illusion, the spirit of a waxworks. It is an atmosphere of death. It is soundless and motionless... Do you see?"

Last night Mademoiselle Duchêne was seen heading into the Gallery of Horrors at the Musée Augustin waxworks, alive. Today she was found in the Seine, murdered. The museum's proprietor, long perturbed by the unnatural vitality of his figures, claims that he saw one of them following the victim into the dark—a lead that Henri Bencolin, head of the Paris police and expert of 'impossible' crimes, cannot possibly resist.

Surrounded by the eerie noises of the night, Bencolin prepares to enter the ill-fated waxworks, his associate Jeff Marle and the victim's fiancé in tow. Waiting within, beneath the glass-eyed gaze of a leering waxen satyr, is a gruesome discovery and the first clues of a twisted and ingenious mystery.

John Dickson Carr’s The Corpse in the Waxworks was surprisingly in the middle for me — usually I quite dislike John Dickson Carr’s earlier work and books involving Henri Bencolin, though I’ve later come to enjoy some of his Gideon Fell stories.

This one’s not one of his more famous, and isn’t a locked room mystery, meaning it actually felt less contrived than some of them. And Bencolin wasn’t quite as annoying as I usually find him, though I wasn’t a huge fan either; his sidekick (Marle) is just kind of vanilla, really, though he gets his own little action sequence (predictable as it is).

In the end, it felt relatively straightforward as Carr’s mysteries go, and without any femmes being too fatale, and it did have an intriguing sense of atmosphere around the masked club and the waxworks — a little bit creepy, a little bit high-strung.

Not a new favourite by any means, but more enjoyable than I expected.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Till Death Do Us Part

Posted January 22, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Review – Till Death Do Us Part

Till Death Do Us Part

by John Dickson Carr

Genres: Crime, Mystery
Pages: 245
Series: British Library Crime Classics
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

"Who can I trust?"

Love-sick Dick Markham is reeling. He's set to marry Lesley Grant -- a woman whom he learns is not who she appears to be. She seems to have been associated with three poisonings, all of which were in locked rooms. Another crime has been committed and we will watch the great Dr. Fell investigate through Markham's watchful eyes.

That night the enigmatic fortune teller-and chief accuser-is found dead in an impossible locked-room setup, casting suspicion onto Grant and striking doubt into the heart of her lover. Lured by the scent of the impossible case, Dr. Gideon Fell arrives from London to examine the perplexing evidence and match wits with a meticulous killer at large.

I should preface this by saying (for anyone just tuning into my reviews now) that I really didn’t like the first couple of books by John Dickson Carr that I tried. After I read He Who Whispers, though, something clicked, and I determined to give him a little more time. Now that I’ve finished this one, I’m feeling a bit more complicated about it.

First, his female characters often leave something to be desired. There’s a certain almost femme fatale character type that he uses a few times (including here and in He Who Whispers) that I really don’t enjoy, though it can be difficult to explain exactly why not. Something about the overwrought helplessness of them, I think: the highly emotionally charged scenes where I favour a practical character who just steps up and takes control for herself. Which… not everyone or every character has to be like that, but when an author leans into the overwrought female stereotype multiple times, you really start to notice.

And of course, there’s his locked room mysteries, and his detectives. He tries so hard to come up with ingenious mysteries where you need to notice the tiniest clues and draw inferences from them if you want to treat it as a fair-play mystery — and to me, it feels sometimes like a rabbit just gets pulled out of the hat.

This one does get explained well, but there was a while where it was just too frustrating for words (I made a lot of cranky noises at it; my wife was definitely laughing at me). I don’t know quite what I’d want to make it hang together better for me: maybe just a bit more sense of the detective (and those around him) as humans. I’m not sure what drives Gideon Fell, beyond the love of a puzzle, yet on several occasions he shows a very human and humane side. I think a little more of that would do wonders for me.

Anyway, my newfound faith in John Dickson Carr isn’t quite shaken, but I hope the next book of his that I read takes a slightly different tack.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Black Spectacles

Posted December 2, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Review – The Black Spectacles

The Black Spectacles

by John Dickson Carr

Genres: Crime, Mystery
Pages: 222
Series: British Library Crime Classics
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

A sinister case of deadly poisoned chocolates from Sodbury Cross’s high street shop haunts the group of friends and relatives assembled at Bellegarde, among the orchards of ‘peach-fancier’ Marcus Chesney. To prove a point about how the sweets could have been poisoned under the nose of the shopkeeper, Chesney stages an elaborate memory game to test whether any of his guests can see beyond their ‘black spectacles’; that is, to see the truth without any assumptions as witnesses.

During the test – which is also being filmed – Chesney is murdered by his supposed accomplice. The keen wits of Dr. Gideon Fell are called for to crack this brazen and bizarre murder committed in full view of an audience.

It’s still funny how I thought I really disliked John Dickson Carr’s writing, and now here I am inhaling his books in a day. The Black Spectacles has quite a bit going on, with the police detective getting deeply emotionally involved with the whole thing and Gideon Fell coming in all sympathy and understanding. He’s rather human for one of the Great Detective types, albeit you never learn much about his personal life or opinions outside of crime.

The crime isn’t the locked-room mystery that Carr specialised in, but it is an “impossible crime” — though I realised quickly what was up with that (a similar device used in a couple of other crime novels that I happen to like). It’s fun to work out what’s going on and why.

There is something rather dark about the motivations and the way a particular character is treated, that left me wanting a little more at the end of the novel — something to set the world properly to rights for her. Maybe an epilogue or something. But the mystery is resolved well.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Seat of the Scornful

Posted November 17, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Review – The Seat of the Scornful

The Seat of the Scornful

by John Dickson Carr

Genres: Crime, Mystery
Pages: 240
Series: Dr Gideon Fell #14
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

Judge Horace Ireton didn't care about the letter of the law. He was interested in administering absolute, impartial justice as he saw it. To some, his methods of meting out justice made him seem hardly human, for they were coldly calculated - the same type of "cat and mouse" technique that he used in his chess games with Dr. Gideon Fell, the elephantine detective. The system, as he explained it, consisted in "letting your opponent think he's perfectly safe, winning hands down: and then catch him in a corner." But the system was not infallible. One day Judge Ireton was found with a pistol in his hand, beside the body of his daughter's fiancé, a man he had every reason to dislike, as many people knew; and he found that when one was on the inside looking out, the game had to be played differently.

I really thought I disliked John Dickson Carr’s writing, and didn’t pick up most of his books republished in the British Library Crime Classics series. It seems I was wrong: after I enjoyed He Who Whispers, I decided to give a couple more a shot, and this is the first one I got to. It concerns a judge who is particularly merciless in court, dealing out justice according to his own sense of it, who becomes entangled in a murder case — the murder of his daughter’s undesirable fiancé.

It’s not the usual locked-room puzzle, but more of a puzzle of how people work, and how appearances can be made to serve one narrative or another. It has a bit more humanity to it than some of Carr’s other books (perhaps ones written earlier), and the characters feel a little more real, a little less like archetypes acting out their stories.

It made for a fun puzzle, at least, and I’m convinced enough to try reading John Dickson Carr’s other novels — clearly they can be either hit or miss for me, and must each be judged on their own merits, despite my run of bad luck with his other work that I’d read before.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – He Who Whispers

Posted October 23, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – He Who Whispers

He Who Whispers

by John Dickson Carr

Genres: Crime, Mystery
Pages: 270
Series: British Library Crime Classics
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

'It almost seemed that the murder, if it was a murder, must have been committed by someone who could rise up unsupported in the air…'

When Miles Hammond is invited to a meeting of the Murder Club in London, he is met instead with just two other guests and is treated to a strange tale of an impossible crime in France from years before; the murder of a man on a tower with only one staircase, under watch at the time at which the murder took place. With theories of levitating vampires abounding, the story comes home to Miles when he realises that the librarian he has just hired for his home is none other than Fay Seton, a woman whose name still echoes from the heart of this bizarre and unsolved murder of the past.

I don’t normally get along with John Dickson Carr’s work. In fact, I don’t even buy the British Library Crime Classic editions — it’s one of only three gaps in my collection (a few of the short story collections, which I’m slowly picking up, and the Sergeant Cluff books are the others), because I just haven’t got along with the others.

It’s hard to say why this was an exception. I think in part it’s that it’s a fair-play mystery. Though there is a Great Detective (Gideon Fell), the POV character isn’t treated too much as his side-kick, and there’s some interesting attempts at psychological realism (even if it’s unfortunately in part about a “nymphomaniac” girl). I was able to form theories about it, and feel like I had the clues that fell into place at the right moments, and I didn’t universally hate the characters. There’s nothing so straightforward as some of Carr’s other female characters and snap romances.

It’s enough to give me hope for some of the Carr books I haven’t picked up yet: maybe some of those will equally have some joys for me. I was glad I gave this a shot thanks to my British Library Crime Classics subscription!

Rating: 4/5

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