When I was a child, one of my summer treats was to go to work with my father on occasion. He was manager of a business in a nearby town and went to work fairly early in the morning. Later, the business was sold and converted into something unrelated, and he was given the option of moving to another location or being laid off. He bought into a similar business on the other side of town. It was smaller and older and not nearly as nice, but it had one major advantage to a 12 year-old bookworm. Heaven, in the form of a used bookstore, was just a short walk up the street.
I was recently prowling through one of the local used bookstores with my foster son, trying to influence him to read. As we left the children’s section, a small stack of paperbacks caught my eye. There were 4 books written by John Dickson Carr. He was one of the authors I discovered long ago in that small bookstore. I bought them on a whim and dived in. I was curious to see if they held up to my memories.
Mr. Carr also published under 3 other pen names, including Carter Dickson. He specialized in “locked room” mysteries or crimes, usually murders, committed under seemingly impossible situations, but which turn out to be possible, although not necessarily plausible, at the end of the book. The first book I read was Dark of the Moon. I am much older, more cynical and jaded, but I still find the books entertaining. They were period pieces to me back then and more so now. They seem to transport you back to a more innocent time, which should be odd in books dealing with murder. But it’s nice, at least for me, to go back to when the violent death of a single individual was seen as an evil thing, and the finding of who was responsible of the highest importance. We as a society, now seem to take violence as a normal part of our world.
In this book, a South Carolina family has a history of violence and mysterious deaths. The patriarch of the family throws a party for his daughter, who is being trying to pick between two very similar suitors. Among the invited guests are Dr. Gideon Fell (sort of a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe albeit with more pronounced sense of humor) and the narrator. The night after the arrival of Dr. Fell, the host is found with his skull caved in behind the house on a patio covered with wet white sand, no footprints other than his own present. The mystery also involves someone leaving cryptic messages on a blackboard, a creepy deserted elementary school, and lots of suspicious characters with secrets. There are generally 2 to 4 deaths in this type of book, but in this case there was only one murder and an attempt. Mostly Carr plays fair in his books and presents you with all the clues, although he is never obvious. I felt in this one a few things were held back. Also don’t expect anything resembling police procedure, Dr. Fell may be a lecturer on criminology and the stories may be set in the past, but massive suspension of belief is still required. But only Ed McBain and Joe Gore ever seemed to write books with actual realistic police procedure. I personally enjoyed the book, it was a good story but not his best. I felt the method of murder was too finicky and left a lot to chance. There is also usually a romantic side story and it was here mostly it provided a bit of light comic relief. The stories were a bit gloomy for their time, but by modern standards aren’t dark. If you like a nice puzzle and a fun quick read, check your local used book stores and libraries.