The Best John Dickson Carr Books – Part 3 – Gideon Fell

It’s time for the final day of the summary of the poll from a few years ago where over 100 of my readers voted for their favourite John Dickson Carr novels, divided first into non-series, Henry Merrivale and Gideon Fell, and then into a rather fun (for some people at least) World Cup style play-off system.

I’ve left the “best” for last – well, personally I prefer Henry Merrivale but a lot of people don’t. I find the Fell books much more variable with the graph of quality against publication date looking, with a couple of exceptions, a bit like a bell-curve. The best are, in my opinion, in the middle with the worst at either end – his debut, Hag’s Nook being one of the aforementioned exceptions.

So let’s take a look at the titles that your fellow readers did and didn’t vote for.

Nobody Loves Me (i.e. 5 or less votes)

Vaguely Honourable Mention (i.e. didn’t make it to the quarter-finals but got a few votes)

Out In The Quarter-Finals

Out In The Semi-Finals

Out In The Final

Which Leaves…

These were the results that were most skewed by the draw – The Man Who Could Not Shudder won one group, for goodness sake, with The Mad Hatter Mystery coming a close second! There were good books knocked out in the first round – Panic In Box C was the book that got me hooked on Carr and Death Turns The Tables has, I guess, lost out to the lack of an impossibility. I was pleased to see the overrated The Hollow Man (it’s good but it’s not his best) not win, but it was interesting to see the acclaimed Till Death Do Us Part get hammered into second place in its group (by The Hollow Man) and well trounced in its semi-final (by the eventual winner).

If I Had To Pick Three?

Definitely The Black Spectacles, that’s an easy one, and ditto for Till Death Do Us Part. For the third… well, I’m very partial to The Case Of The Constant Suicides, another early title that converted me, so let’s go for that one.

Well, that was fun, not least for me as it’s reminded me which JDC books I haven’t read in the last ten years – currently engrossed in The Witch Of The Low-Tide. Hopefully this has given you a little guidance as to where to start if you’re new to Carr and hasn’t given you too much of a coronary by dismissing your favourite if you’re a devotee. After all, every title is someone’s favourite. Apart from Papa La-Bas, obviously…


  1. Must admit, despite some of the oddities of the original poll, I could easily pick the same top three Fells as you did. (And like you, PANIC IN BOX C was my first Fell and I have a great affection for it). Three is too few, a top 10 might suffice as there are lots of other great Fell books. Great reminders here, thanks chum!


    • I’d be pushed for ten Fell – ten Merrivale, definitely. Let’s see…

      Whispers, Spectacles, Till Death, Suicides, Tables, Box C for nostalgia, Hinge and Hollow for critical dissection, Shudder’s OK, maybe Wire Cage? But when I get to 9 and 10, it’s the same point for Merrivale as Seeing Is Believing…


  2. Hmm. I’ve read a few more since I voted in the poll. I think my ranking preferences would have ended up with a few Honourable Mentions making it to the quarter finals. I hope the imminent re-release of Seat of the Scornful gives it a boost in popularity.
    Doesn’t sound like you think Mad Hatter quite deserved its placement in the quarter finals – the only one ranked that high that I haven’t read. Presumably it’s still pretty decent.


  3. Having read Below Suspicion since this poll, and having absolutely loved it, I’m pretty shocked that it go no votes at all. Sleeping Sphinx’s lack of popularity I can fathom — it has great atmosphere, but I don’t think I could tell you the plot, and I’ll read it again with no memory of the killer or the motive or anything — but I wonder how much BS is unloved due to reputation over experience, the old “Everything Carr wrote since 19xx isn’t worth your time” attitude.

    Mind you, I also love Death Watch and Seat of the Scornful, and prefer Fell to Merrivale as a character, so maybe I’m just in the minority again.

    Top Ten Fells?

    Black Spectacles
    Till Death Do Us Part
    Seat of the Scornful
    Death Watch
    Below Suspicion
    Constant Suicides
    Mad Hatter
    Hollow Man
    Eight of Swords
    Could Not Shudder

    Oh, wow, that’s actually ten, and no Crooked Hinge or To Wake the Dead yet. Arabian Nights has a great structure, too, I just remember it being one of those puzzles where Carr really wanted to wow you with the puzzle and so it felt a little empty by the end. Maybe a reread is due…


    • I have fond memories of Below Suspicion too, a very nice central idea and a memorable villain. Probably need to reread that one. Ditto Death Watch, but Mad Hatter… Really didn’t get on with that when I reread it recently


      • I reread the recent AMC reprint of Mad Hatter and could remember the killer, but the thing that tipped me off first time around — and so I knew was coming, and watching out for — completely passed me by this time. I don’t…really know what to make of that, clearly something (or nothing!) going on in my brain that day, but I had a great time with the book, and am looking forward to rereading Eight of Swords soon, too.


      • I need to reread the early ones – oddly the only one I had fond memories of was Hatter, but loved Hags Nook and didn’t get on with Hatter on a reread. Eight Of Swords is an odd one as I didn’t have good memories of it, enjoyed it the second time according to my review but if you pressed me for any details about it now…

        It was interesting compiling this as to how many Merrivale books I hadn’t blogged on (3 out 22) as opposed to 8 out of 23 Fell titles. Not that I’m in a rush for The Blind Barber or Satan’s Elbow…


      • I enjoyed The Blind Barber, but then I read it without any awareness of how bad it was supposed to be. That makes it a harder proposition.


  4. Oh boy, tricky to pick here the best here. I do think Hag’s Nook and The Arabian Night’s Murders should have gotten more votes, I am very fond of them. Better than the Mad Hatter Mystery at least. I would pick The Hollow Man, The Black Spectacles and ‘Till Death Do us Part as the 3 best Fell novels.

    And I would be more surprised if someone had the Hungry Goblin as his favorite book, than Papa La-bas.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Something very strange ! The Puzzle Doctor has named his best three in the post and others have also named their best three in the comments. But no one has included He Who Whispers, the winner of the poll by a wide margin !


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