Reprint Of The Year 2021 – Till Death Us Do Part by John Dickson Carr

And so Week Two of the Reprint Of The Year rolls around, and have I got a beauty for you this week. (This reads better if you don’t look at the title of the post, but never mind.)

One of the all-time great classic mystery novels, and most often overlooked by the general populace, is John Dickson Carr. The writer of over 70 mystery novels, he created such sleuths as Henri Bencolin, Gideon Fell and, under his pseudonym of Carter Dickson, Sir Henry Merrivale, but reprints of his work have been a tad erratic in the past few decades.

I started collecting Carr after reading a short story in the Mammoth Book Of Locked Room Mysteries coincided with finding a copy of Panic In Box C, the penultimate Fell mystery, in a charity shop. Despite the two stories having the same basic solution, this discovery (for me) of Carr’s work was probably what inspired me to return properly to detective fiction after some years in the wilderness – rather nice wilderness admittedly as at least Terry Pratchett was there…

A year later, and I had a wonderful trip to New York, basically raiding two second hand bookshops of their entire Carr back catalogue. I must have gone back severally times, deciding to get “just one more”, managing to acquire a near complete set of the Fell and Merrivale titles – luckily I managed to get them into the suitcase to bring home.

Meanwhile, the only reprint, bar a one-off reissue of The Hollow Man – that I’d noticed was Orion reprinting a number of titles as ebooks, but generally speaking, it was a low quality selection of mostly later and non-series titles. I spoke to the brains behind the line, and apparently the rights to the back catalogue were split into three or so groups, and the rights to the better books were much harder/impossible to acquire.

And then, out of nowhere, Polygon Books released Hag’s Nook (Fell’s debut, decent enough), The Case Of The Constant Suicides and She Died A Lady (both stone cold classics). And then that dried up, with no future titles in sight and Carr no longer listed in their author index…

And then the British Library started to reprint Carr – but, disappointingly to me at least, the books chosen/available –  again, there was apparently a limited selection to choose from – meant that the first four books that appeared with the first four Henri Bencolin titles. Interesting books, yes, and a great demonstration of Carr’s early fondness for Grand Guignol, but not great examples of what Carr is famous for – the locked room mystery.

And then, almost out of nowhere, in August this year…

Till Death Us Do Part is generally regarded as one of Carr’s finest titles – to me, I think it is certainly the best Gideon Fell title, far better than the more orchestrated The Hollow Man.

It details Dick Markham and his new fiancée Lesley, who is accused of being a husband-poisoner by the fortune teller, who is promptly wounded when Lesley “accidentally” shoots him through the side of the tent. Later, the fortune teller is found dead inside a room locked from the inside. The cause of death was poison, so why did someone shoot at the victim as well?

I’m not going to say any more of the plot, bar that it features Dr Gideon Fell. It’s such a clever mystery that keeps you guessing as to what’s going on, as to how the victim was killed, and as to who the murderer is. I’ve said a few times  that while Carr is famed for his locked rooms, I think one of his under-rated skills is producing surprising murderers and this is definitely the case here.

Till Death Us Do Part has long been due a reprint and I’m so glad that it’s out there for everyone to read. The British Library has got more treats lined up for next year, but in the meantime, if you haven’t read one of the greatest mystery novels ever… what are you waiting for?

And if you have read it, why not pop over to Cross Examining Crime and vote for this one?

20 comments

  1. I am glad to see TDDUP nominated as it is near perfect book: interesting puzzle, great atmosphere, fascinating characters, difficult to put down, no sagging in the middle, well hidden culprit, etc. I am always looking for the the perfect crime fiction and this is one of those. It will get my vote.

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  2. It will get my vote, but does anyone have a response to the criticism that the culprit’s motive is only the most lightly indicated prior to the revelation of it? Not entirely non-existent clueing in that respect, but close to it. Am I missing something?

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    • Scott, Yes – it is a fair criticism and one that I could give to two other Carr classics, The Judas Window and She Died a Lady. The culprit and motive for each are (too) well hidden with almost non-existent clueing. That didn’t matter as I really enjoyed both.

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    • Yes, everyone has a possible motive. But that’s no reason to relegate motive to the realm of the inessential or even inferior. After all, it is the central element of interest in many of the finest whodunits. The deceptive power of After the Funeral is based on motivational obfuscations. What makes The Mirror Crack’d more ingenious than other variations of “End House” deception is the unique motive. Even the biggest surprise of The Judas Window (the surprise at the halfway mark, is a matter of “why” rather than of “who” or “how” (although that “why” turns out to be a question of “who”). Thus, while I’d call Till Death Do Us Part arguably Carr’s greatest whodunit, I think it’s motivational weakness must be deemed as a deficit, however slight.

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    • It’s tricky to read in order, if you mean the Fell books. And some of the early ones – Eight Of Swords, Blind Barber, Arabian Nights mystery – aren’t good examples of what he can do.

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  3. I’m starting to get really worried about Masahiro Imamura’s Death Among the Undead chances of winning. Don’t get me wrong. I’m the first to fanboy all over Carr and Till Death Do Us Part is more than deserving to be nominated, but have the eerie feeling my favorite is not even going to be in the top 3.

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