Friday, June 22, 2012

Forgotten Books: The Eight of Swords - John Dickson Carr

(This post originally appeared on May 4, 2007.)

I haven’t read anything by John Dickson Carr in many years, but I remember reading his famous “impossible crime” novel THE THREE COFFINS when I was in high school. I was sick at the time, and this book did a great job of distracting me. I read several more of Carr’s novels after that but then drifted away from his work, as I did with most of the Golden Age of Detection authors.

But I’ve become more interested in that sort of mystery novel again recently, so I picked up several of Carr’s books. THE EIGHT OF SWORDS is the first one I’ve read in this go-round. It’s an early novel of his, originally published in 1934, and features his best-known series character, Dr. Gideon Fell, who was the detective in THE THREE COFFINS and the other Carr novels I read long ago.

This one features Fell investigating a murder at the guest house of an English country estate. I don’t recall Carr as being a particularly humorous writer, but this one is full of comedy, so much so that it seems in places more like a satire of a Golden Age detective novel. It’s full of eccentric characters like a booze-guzzling mystery novelist and his wife, who banter like a British Nick and Nora Charles; a bishop who fancies himself a criminologist; a sleazy lawyer; and an American gangster. The title refers to a Tarot card found with the body, one of what turns out to be a veritable slew of clues. I like the fact that the book is pretty fast-paced. All the action takes place in a single day – and I use the term “action” loosely, because for most of the book that consists of people sitting around talking. Carr’s skill with words makes the pages flip pretty quickly, though, and toward the end of the book there’s some genuine action and suspense. I don’t mind admitting that I didn’t have the killer spotted at all. The plot is very complicated, but Carr plays fair and all the clues are there. Dr. Fell is a fine detective and a colorful character.

I gather that Carr aficionados aren’t very fond of this book and consider it a minor work. I thoroughly enjoyed it, though, and plan to read more of his novels soon, so I guess I’ll see for myself how it fits in. (I never got around to it. Maybe one of these days.)

1 comment:

John said...

The bulk of Carr's books are loaded with humor. He's not only the Grand Master of the locked room mystery he is the Grand Farceur of the detective novel. Many of his books are outrageous farces in addition to being puzzling mysteries. This one would have more appeal to mainstream readers who dislike the Monty Pythonesque silliness and absurdity of his later books sicne the humor is relatively subdued. It's not one of his stronger detective novels as far as the plot, but as a novel and a commentary on what constitutes the kind of detective novel Carr likes to write (there is that lecture by the mystery writer Henry Morgan who acts as Carr's proxy) it makes for an entertaining read.