This post is part of the Reprint Of The Year nominations, being orchestrated by the Tuesday Night Bloggers, as masterminded by Kate over at Cross Examining Crime. Do look at her posts to see the other contenders, or just vote for mine, your decision. Voting will start after the second round of nominations have been posted.
The reprinting of the works of Carter Dickson aka John Dickson Carr has an odd history. I understand that a publisher might not want to republish the complete works due to a number of the later books (and in my opinion, some of the early books) being a bit rubbish. That didn’t stop Carroll and Graf in 1987 reprinting a whole bundle of titles that were mostly non-series (the exceptions being, I think, In Spite Of Thunder, Panic in Box C, Dark Of The Moon and The Curse Of The Bronze Lamp) and mostly on the disappointing side – they even reprinted Papa La-Bas – although The Nine Wrong Answers and The Emperor’s Snuff-Box were included. At the same time, Zebra published a number of titles, this time mostly Fell and Merrivale mysteries, but it was, I believe, still far from the full canon.
Jump to 2010ish, when the Langtail Press reprinted some strong titles with the least impressive covers ever – for some reason, these seem to go for a ridiculous price on Abebooks, and around the same time, The Murder Room released some of the less distinguished entries in his bibliography. It seems, if I recall correctly a conversation I had with someone from Orion at the time, that the rights for the Carr bibliography is for some reason divided into chunks. This explains why certain publishers only release part of the canon at a time, and also why nobody has stepped forward to republish the complete works.
It was pleasing to see It Walks By Night appear in the British Library Crime Classics range recently, which is an important book, being his first novel. It’s actually pretty good for a first novel, and the atmosphere is terrific, but it is very much a novice work. Castle Skull, another early Bencolin, is following next year, but I presume this is all because the great Fell and Merrivale titles are unavailable. And it’s possibly because someone else has access to them.
Last year, almost unnoticed by the blogging community, Polygon Press released The Case Of The Constant Suicides, one of my favourite Gideon Fell stories. The tale of people who apparently can’t help throwing themselves to their deaths from a tower was possibly the book to convince me that Carr was the master of this sort of thing (despite the dodgy science involved). This year, they doubled up with reprints of Hag’s Nook, the decent-enough first outing for Gideon Fell, and one of Carr’s masterpieces – She Died A Lady.
She Died A Lady tells the tale of the doomed relationship between Rita Wainwright and Barry Sullivan, who apparently walked to the edge of a cliff and threw themselves to their death. But when the bodies are found, they have been shot at close range from the front. Their footprints show nobody followed them to the edge of the cliff – so how did somebody murder them?
It’s a beautifully told tale – the impossibility is convincing, if you don’t think to hard about it – but it’s also a demonstration of Carr’s ability to hide a murderer, something that is, I believe, often overlooked in his work. Yes, he plays a little narrative trickery here, but unlike some of his uses of it – i.e. where he flat-out lies to the reader – this is beautifully done, adding to the tale rather than making it look like he was cheating.
You have to put up with a bit of nonsense from the comedy stylings of Sir Henry Merrivale in the early sections – he’s in Devon for a portrait and is confined to a motorised wheelchair, despite in other books being a bigwig in Military Intelligence – but these soon fall away to give rise to one of Carr’s most evocative mysteries. Perhaps not his very best novel – I would still rate Till Death Do Us Part as his finest work but what do I know? This was recently voted the best Henry Merrivale title on a very reputable blog and it such great news that it’s now out in the wild for the casual reader to buy and get hooked on Carr.
So now, read the other nominations, wait a week, read the rest and then vote for this one. Or, quite possibly, my next week’s nomination which will be… well, why not wait and find out? But if you’re a regular reader and make an intelligent guess, yes, you’re probably right…