THE 2021 ROY AWARDS: Baby, You Can Drive This Carr

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!

27 thoughts on “THE 2021 ROY AWARDS: Baby, You Can Drive This Carr

  1. I love The Eight of Swords. It’s one of the most under-appreciated books in Carr’s library, and I’m hoping this reprint gives the many, many people who have yet to enjoy its multitudinous delights a chance to see how superb a traditional mystery writer Carr would have been had he gone down this route.

    There’s an element of Poison in Jest about this one, since he’s clearly trying out a more standard form of genre novel to see if he can bend himself into the shape the genre was taking. And it’s fair to say that he decided he wouldn’t, since after this he goes on to experiment with comedy (The Blind Barber), three types of horror (Plague Court, Death Watch, Hollow Man), an intrigue dressed up as detection (White Priory), a rollicking yarn (Unicorn Murders) and then settles into another more traditional murder by playing with perspective (Arabian Nights) before combining all these into his next underappreciated masterpiece, The Punch and Judy Murders.

    But, oh, this book! The oddities of that unlocked room, the weird behaviours (why use the speaking tube to announce yourself when you can just walk up the external staircase?), the playful meta-badinage about mystery novelists writing under noms de plume…what’s a guy gotta do to get some credit as a genius around here?!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I agree with Jim. This is not my favourite Carr, but it is an entertaining, creative read. The best compliment I can pay to any GAD title is whether I would re-read it and I definitely will re-read T8ofS.

    You wrote, “Unfortunately, that’s not the one they gave me”. How do you decide as a group who nominates which book?

    That said, my vote or votes will be for Till Death Do Us Part as it is a near perfect book that every GAD enthusiast should read and re-read.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree, though someone has recently made me aware of a valid criticism of Till Death Do Us Part— the extreme slightness of the indication of the culprit’s motive. I mean, it’s so indirect that can we really say it’s clued at all?

      That said, the book is just about perfect in all other ways, and arguably the most cinematic of all Carr novels. I feel the book could be filmed as written and work with practically no alteration (and the logistics of the central locked room would be much clearer— what takes several pages for Carr to describe could be explained quite effectively in a few seconds of screen time). The irony for me is that my other favorite Carr novel— He Who Whispers— would take take an extraordinary amount of alteration (and imagination) to effectively film.

      Liked by 2 people

      • He Who Whispers, like Roger Ackroyd and many others I could think of, was meant to be read. Of course you could film it, but the mechanics that we love would be nearly impossible to get right.


      • 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.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Frankly, I don’t think Carr cares so much about the motive. He’s concerned with “how” and, by extension, “who” – although even there he sometimes disappoints me, as he does here for reasons I have stated, in code and out of it!

          Liked by 1 person

    • The way we pick them is The Puzzle Doctor walks into the room, hits everyone with his big stick, grabs Till Death Do Us Part, gives us all a razz berry and shuffles out of the room. We let him do this every year because he went to public school with Brian Flynn and is incredibly old.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. You can’t have too much Carr – I think well agree there’s a law about that Brad 😁 But it’s been three decades since I read this one and it’s not a title that would immediately leap out at me. Time for a re-read, clearly!


  4. I am very excited to get my hands on this one. I read that it’s release date has been pushed back to late December so it’ll still be a little bit before I can walk into Barnes & Noble and grab it off the shelf, but even a review summing the book as ho-hum still intrigues me greatly.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Let me ease the suspense for you, Nick: you’re gonna love this one. Every other sentence out of Dr. Fell’s mouth is a deduction, and it causes the whole situation to reel and tilt into one different perspective after another. I think when you get to the final reveal you will understand what bothered me about it, but that’s not to say it will give you a moment of concern. Enjoy it when you get it, and then come back and tell me what you thought!


  5. Pingback: Reprint of the Year Award 2021: Nomination 2 – crossexaminingcrime

  6. I could guess what you would complain about even before decoding the ROT13, and I agree its a downside of some of his novels. In this particular case it did not bother me. I think the early Fell stories are underrated, but maybe Hag’s nook and the Mad Hatter are even better.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mad Hatter and Arabian Nights were the first two Carrs I read, in one order or another, and although neither had the “wow” factor (to this teenaged reader, at least) of And Then There Were None and The Greek Coffin Mystery (my first Christie and Queen, respectively), they were immensely enjoyable enough to propel me into a lifelong allegiance to Carr.


  7. I simply fail to understand why you nominated this book though you did not particularly like it. Did you feel that the Carr fanatics will vote for this book irrespective of its quality ?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: BRAD’S BEST READS OF 2021 | ahsweetmysteryblog

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