John Dickson Carr Top Five – Gideon Fell

The majority of Carr’s work was published under his own name, including all of the Gideon Fell novels. Not everything is an impossible mystery – there is some period swashbuckling in his back catalogue as well, so if you’re on the hunt for a mystery, don’t buy any Carr book without checking. To complicate matters, some of his non-Fell work consists of period locked room mysteries… In terms of the top five, I’ve decided to split them into Fell and non-Fell.

1.       The Hollow Man, aka The Three Coffins

There’s no way you can ignore this one, so let’s put it at number one. Two impossible murders for the price of one – a masked killer is admitted into a room with no other exits by his victim and then vanishes; a second man is shot from close range in a snow-covered street, yet no footprints are nearby. Is there a ghost-killer at large? Of course not, but the solution is one of Carr’s greats. Especially worthwhile is Chapter 17, where Gideon Fell basically delivers a lecture on Locked Room Mysteries. A fascinating read.

2.       The Black Spectacles, aka, The Problem of the Green Capsule

Definitely prefer the first title, but I think the second one is more common. Quite a complicated plot to explain, but basically, to prove that no-one is a reliable witness, Marcus Chesney puts on a little stage play for some friends with ten questions to answer, to prove that all three friends will answer the questions differently. Part of the play involves a masked man walking on the stage and force feeding Chesney a green capsule. Guess what happens! The masked man murders Chesney with a poisoned pill in plain sight of everyone, so it’s up to Gideon Fell to work out what happens. I think this is probably my favourite of the Fell books – there’s some very clever sleight of hand and the method does actually make sense.

3.       Till Death Do Us Part

Is Dick Markham’s fiancee a serial murderess? A retired Home Office pathologist is certainly sure, but before he can specify his concerns, he is found locked inside his study after injecting  himself with hydrocyanic acid. So why did someone shoot a rifle into the study? Another classic, combining the country village mystery with the locked room genre and a genuinely surprising, if completely logical, murderer. Definitely one of the highlights.

4.       He Who Whispers

A vampire story, apparently, due to a local legend, given credence when a man is seen climbing a tall tower alone and then being found stabbed to death. The hero’s sister is then found near death in a locked room, having been nearly scared to death by someone whispering in her ear… A masterpiece of the genre, one of the best Fell mysteries, with an attempt by Carr to produce some psychological motivation for the occurrences as well. Not to be missed.

5.       The Case of the Constant Suicides

A lovely mystery with some dodgy science, but still an absolute favourite of mine. People from Scotland might want to look away though…

There are a number of other great books, and a number of weak ones – I’m not a fan of The Blind Barber, as Fell is hardly in it. Death Watch, The House at Satan’s Elbow and Dark of the Moon also won’t make anyone’s Best Of lists, but I must mention The Crooked Hinge. Lots of people love this one, and if it had stopped at the first solution, it would be great. This is dismissed though for what I consider a monumentally stupid solution – clearly based on a true story but despite this, completely unbelievable. As such, I really don’t like this book.

Overall, I think there are more clunkers in the Fell series than in the Merrivale books, but the best ones in the series are true greats of the genre.


  1. Another excellent choice, bravo! THE HOLLOW MAN has to come out on top, no question about it, but you are absolutely right about TILL DEATH, which often gets overlooked but which I agree is absolutely splendid. On Carr’s non-series historical books I remember FIRE, BURN especially fondly for its deft use of time travel, while the use of fantasy in THE DEVIL IN VELVET and THE BURNING COURT remains an object lesson in how you can have your cake and eat it with a satisfying formal puzzle that plays fair with the reader and a little bit of fantasy sprinkled on top to give it extra flavour – a bit like Branagh’s DEAD AGAIN (though I may be in a minority in my admiration of the latter).

    Roll on the top 5 Carr Historical mysteries and the top 5 Ellery Queen books!


    • Thanks again. No question on Till Death.. as I think to be honest it’s my favourite. Too often with Fell the gimmick is too complicated (Problem of the Wire Cage) or ludicrous (Crooked Hinge). Strangely, despite an equally daft gimmick, I don’t mind “The Man Who Could Not Shudder” which often gets slated.

      Top Five non-Fell stories is in preparation, but Ellery Queen will have to wait. Even though I’ve read most of the Dannay-Lee Queens, which I’ll be focussing on, and enjoying them, I find I’ve forgotten most of the content, so I’ll need to refresh my memory.

      And you’re not alone in appreciating Dead Again – fantastic film, absolute love it. Very silly, though.


      • For me the converse of a film like DEAD AGAIN, which uses fantasy elements around a fair-play detective story is WHAT LIES BENEATH, which is technically impeccable and has a nicely unexpected ambiguous performance by Harrison Ford but which, to my mind, cheats by using the supernatural just to resolve the story.


  2. […] Bloodhounds by Peter Lovesey Posted on February 14, 2011 by puzzledoctor After being somewhat disappointed with The False Inspector Dew, I was determined to give Peter Lovesey another try, so I figured Bloodhounds, featuring Lovesey’s current series detective, Superintendent Peter Diamond and also a locked room mystery – in fact the whole book could be seen as a tribute to John Dickson Carr. […]


  3. My top five Poirots are quite different from yours, but my Fell list is nearly identical, except for the order. My list would read:

    1. HE WHO WHISPERS – It has one flaw, IMO (it depends on a rather whopping coincidence), but is not only one of his most interestingly clued and plotted books, but also one of his most atmospheric and emotional.

    2. TILL DEATH DO US PART – I agree, this is probably his most over-looked work, and perhaps his least flawed (the sleepwalking thing is kinda stupid, but too minor to be a problem).

    3. THE CASE OF THE CONSTANT SUICIDES – Fun and easy to read, brilliantly-plotted… even if (I’m told) the science of it doesn’t hold up. The final murder is kind of uninteresting, but the rest is great.

    4. THE MAD HATTER MYSTERY – Another beautifully, intricately-plotted work.

    5. THE HOLLOW MAN – I actually think it’s a bit over-rated, and makes the others on this list look like the height of plausibility, but I can’t deny its greatness… and the explanation of Pierre Fley’s “I did not escape” line is one of the “sudden retrospective illumination” moments of the genre.

    Also in the running for me, and perhaps knocking out HOLLOW MAN from the fifth spot are THE ARABIAN NIGHTS MURDERS, and DEATH TURNS THE TABLES.


  4. Interesting reviews. One remark though. You say that in the “The Black Spectacles”, it’s the masked man that is found dead. It’s been a while since I read the book, but as far as I remember, actually it’s Chesney who’s found dead. That’s what makes the plot so original: the murder is done deliberately under the eyes of a number of witnesses.


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