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.
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.
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.
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.