As you scroll down the list of books we’re all including in Kate Jackson’s 2021 ROY awards, there’s great cause for celebration. No less than three titles by John Dickson Carr have been reprinted this year. Is it mere coincidence, or is it the sign we have been waiting for, signaling a great resurgence of popularity for a King of Crime whose titles have been insanely out of commission for years? Add Island of Coffins to the mix, and it feels like we have is a little renaissance going on here. What’s more, there’s every likelihood that one of these reprints – indeed, one of Carr’s most beloved titles – is going to win this year’s top prize.
Unfortunately, that’s not the one they gave me.
The Eight of Swords (1934) has been freshly scrubbed by Otto Penzler and presented as part of his Classic American Mysteries series. It is the third adventure to feature Dr. Gideon Fell and one of the rare cases where Carr does not provide us with a locked room or other impossibility. That’s not to say there’s not plenty – dare I say, too much? – going on to send Dr. Fell and his posse of assistants (dare I say too many of them as well?) scrambling to make sense of a whole slew of zany events. Whether it deserves to be considered a “classic” is a matter of debate.
It begins well. Superintendent Hadley, inching toward retirement, sits in his London office and prepares his memoirs while Dr. Gideon Fell, recently returned from America and at loose ends, is itching for something to investigate. Thank goodness for them and for us that a whole lot of crazy things are going on in a pair of houses down in Gloucestershire! At the Grange, home of the Chief Constable Colonel Standish and his family, a dormant poltergeist is frightening the visiting Vicar, and the Bishop of Mappleham is assaulting maids and sliding down the banister. Meanwhile, next to the Grange at the Guest House, home to the mysterious and disliked Mr. Septimus Deeping, more overtly sinister things, like murder, are occurring.
In fact, so much is going on that it becomes impossible to offer a clear, brief synopsis of the case. I’m not going to pretend that this is top drawer Carr or that I even liked it all that much. It is teeming with characters – more, in fact, than I can ever remember counting up in any other novel. As mentioned above, a great many of these folks attempt to play detective, including the aforementioned Bishop, who tries going head to head against Dr. Fell; the Bishop’s son, Hugh, who when he isn’t vying for the role of the latest Ken Blake, has dreams of himself becoming a private eye; Colonel Standish and Inspector Murch, the only locals who actually have a right to pry into other people’s business, and Henry Morgan, a successful mystery writer who lives nearby with his wife where they drink lots of martinis and cut wise.
There’s definitely a note of farce throughout and a lot of scenes where Fell sits everyone down and explains and explains and explains . . . and it all leads to what I guess amounts to a surprise ending, except . . . . well, Carr makes me mad sometimes. I mean, every author has their weakness. Agatha Christie all too often makes her criminal the only person it couldn’t possibly be. Ellery Queen relies on a certain Holmesian gambit over and over again. And Carr? Well, sometimes he qbrfa’g oevat gur npghny zheqrere bagb gur fprar hagvy cntr 175 be orlbaq . . . and that is exactly what happens here. Maybe it violates the old rules and maybe it doesn’t. (V fhccbfr lbh QB unir gb pbhag jura n punenpgre fgnegf orvat zragvbarq naq ubj znal gvzrf, naq gur zheqrere urer vf pregnvayl zragvbarq n ybg rneyvre guna gurve svefg npghny nccrnenapr . . . n YBG rneyvre!)
What the book has going for it is a lively, humorous tone, especially scenes involving the Bishop. Dr. Fell is charming and impressive. In an early scene he fobs off several possible explanations for what happened on the night of the murder, and the deductions are great. But then things just get more and more complicated, and the accompanying fun may not be worth it to any but the most fervent fans of the author. And yet, I count myself as one of those, so go figure.
However, you do get three votes on your ROY ballot, and there ARE three Carr titles there. So if you’re casting your vote for Till Death Do Us Part and The Plague Court Murders, I see no reason why you wouldn’t add a vote for this one. Of course, you could always vote instead for The Invisible Host, which, after the convoluted antics of The Eight of Swords, feels refreshingly clear.
I’m sure a great many Carr fans will like this one more than I did. However, the first review I found was Nick Fuller’s, and I offer it to you here.
As always, it has been a pleasure to take part in Kate’s annual salute to this year’s reprints. I’m sure I speak for all my fellow bloggers when I express my deep gratitude to the small presses that cater to our whims and take a chance on rare, sometimes all-but-forgotten titles. I can already see that some great stuff is in store for us next year . . . and I, for one, can’t wait!
Don’t forget to go to Cross Examining Crime and vote!