The Eight Of Swords (1934) by John Dickson Carr

Strange things are afoot in Gloucestershire. After a poltergeist partakes in a piece of tomfoolery and a bishop is caught sliding down a bannister, things in the house take a deadly turn when Septimus Depping is found in his study, shot through the head and clutching the eight of swords, a tarot – sorry, taroc card that concerns bad omens.

Luckily the Bishop of Mappleham, the amateur criminologist is on the scene to sort things out. As is the Bishop’s son, Hugh Donovan is also there, freshly returned from some first-hand investigative experience in the USA (or so the Bishop thinks). And on the off-chance that they can’t get to the bottom of things, maybe – just maybe – Gideon Fell can sort things out for the best…

People might say that The Eight Of Swords, the third Gideon Fell book, gets a bad press. That’s not really fair, as it gets hardly any press at all. Without a locked room or impossibility in sight, the book gets put to one side when talking about the best or the worst of the Fell stories, sort of falling through the cracks. Which is a shame as it’s really worth a look to show Carr’s skill at constructing a non-impossible puzzle.

Carr’s skills at crafting a mystery are often, I think, overlooked due to the reader’s eye being drawn to the impossibility element. But look at, say, Till Death Do Us Part, as it has one of the best hidden (but clued) murderers that I’ve encountered. And this one is pretty well done as well. The chapter where Fell explains what in hindsight would seem to be very obvious is very well done, and I’ll admit, I spent the large part of the book looking the wrong way, and once that became clear, I didn’t have a clue. In fact, I wouldn’t put it past Carr to have constructed the potential of the wrong solution that I was looking at despite it never being mentioned. Possibly.

Having said that, it’s not perfect. It’s too talky in places, with some of the “amusing” characters existing primarily to introduce a new theory or to shoot down an old one. For me, some of these sort-of-sleuths started to merge into one after a bit. Once the book hits the home straight, though, its strengths begin to show again.

And this is, I think, the book where Carr introduced a word into the English language (unless it occurs in an earlier title) namely “ginch”.

To refer to an online dictionary : “An attractive woman, especially (frequently depreciative) one regarded as an object of sexual gratification. Also as a mass noun: such women collectively.”

Apparently the first recorded use is from Carr, presumably here. The chapter even implies to the word as “a mysterious who’s definition will presently be made clear.” It’s worth bearing that in mind, as if you look up the word, it’s slang either for men’s briefs or (oddly) a vagina. Which makes the description of Patricia Standish very odd if you assume either of those definitions… although it’s not exactly great in the first place.

Anyway, putting Carr’s inability in this particular case to provide a positive female role, this is an enjoyable read that I had sort of written off as a substandard Carr, alongside The Blind Barber, The Arabian Nights Murder and Death-Watch. It’s not exactly top-notch, but it’s definitely Well Worth A Look.

Availablity: Not good in the UK. There are copies out there, due to a reprint in the mid 1980s, but it’ll cost you at least a tenner.

Just The Facts, Ma’am: Let’s tick off “Who – a vicar/religious figure” in the shape of the Bishop of Mapplethorpe.

18 comments

  1. I came across ‘ginchy’ when I was searching for 1930’s American slang. I found a few examples when it was used the same way people use ‘sexy’ nowadays for anything they like. eg. That coffee table is sexy.

    I’ve only read about 10 Carr books. Maybe I’ll reserve a month this year to read them all. I’d be interested to see how he handles a ‘possible’ murder.

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    • Oh, for ‘possible’ murders you have complete delights available: The Seat of the Scornful, a.k.a. Death Turns the Tables is perhaps the best, but there’s also The Emperor’s Snuff-Box, The Punch and Judy Murders, The Four False Weapons, The Waxworks Murder, and I’m a huge fan of Death Watch (not many people are, it must be said).

      Good heavens, the joys that await you — it’s an aspect of Carr’s writing that is frequently overlooked, and something at his best that he did better than most of his contemporaries.

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      • Ooh, are we doing a “best Carr possible murders”? Let’s see.
        1. The Emperor’s Snuff Box
        2. Death Watch
        3. The Four False Weapons
        4. The Punch and Judy Murders
        wait, I’ve pretty much just repeated your list…
        Allow me to throw in The Problem of the Green Capsule and The Arabian Nights Murder.

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      • I swear to God, I’m going to get Green Capsule (the book, not your blog) recognised for the impossibility it is. Seriously, how is The Chinese Orange Mystery considered impossible and this not?

        Sure, I’m straying from the point, but still…

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      • Who says it’s not an impossible crime? Isn’t it established that the filmed murderer was already dead? Or is the supposition that he was killed after committing the murder? It’s been a while…

        You could make a case that the three witnesses seeing different things counts as an impossibility…

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      • Oh, just seen who says it. Really should read all the comments before replying…

        And I recall really enjoying Mad Hatter, and that’s got no impossibility in it. And So To Murder? Does that count as well – it’s got a minor one, but it’s really late on.

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      • Well, Adey lists it purely as a “(non-impossible) poisoning and death by blunt instrument”, it’s made neither of these lists, and Ben has mentioned it above as among Carr’s “possible” murders. So it seems that a lot of thought has gone into classifying it as a non-impossibility.

        But that will change. Oh, yes, that’s gonna change…

        Or not, I suppose. Takes all sorts to make a world.

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  2. And there you had me expecting you to hate it — nothing of the sort! I seem to remember a couple of late chapters that are just one guy following another guy around, but apart from that I do really love this one. Yeah, it’s talky, and yes, it’s a little nod-nod-wink-wink where the writing of a detective novel is concerned but, well, he’d hardly be the first or last to be guilty of that. And the deduce and counter-deduce scene with the bishop is one of my favourite in the whole of Carr’s pantheon.

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  3. It’s really a tale of two halves for me. The first half of the book is near perfect. If Carr had then used the second half to turn the first half inside out, this would be a classic. Instead, the second half of the book just kind of meanders around. It’s still a fine read, but just a let down after a strong start.

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    • I was convinced that around the halfway point, there would have been a reveal complicating/simplifying the disguise element, but instead it turns into various theories while Fell sits and waits (too long) until he can be bothered to unmask the villain. Still, it’s done well…

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  4. Towards the end, Dr Fell says that this is his last case. Yet he appears in the very next book by John Dickson Carr published in the same year !

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  5. I read this last summer. Good solid second tier Carr. Probably won’t win over any skeptics, but fans will like it.
    It’s not hard to find in North America as it was issued in the late 80s. I found a good copy for $1 — Canadian, that’s 50p to you. I have seen copies around often enough.

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  6. Few months ago I had a Carr marathon and read 10 books of his one after another. You can tell,I really liked him even though I started with dud called blind barber. I have read some great ones as well including constant suicides and green capsule . I have a probably illegal store of Carr round(hehe) which is the only way for me to read him…He is mostly OOP.
    Will start with this one to begin the next Carr feast!

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