The Eight of Swords by John Dickson Carr (1934)

There have been some strange goings on at The Grange. A bishop sliding down a staircase, accosting maids, and wandering on the roof in his nightclothes while poltergeists are throwing inkpots around. The aforementioned Bishop of Mappleham, and amateur criminologist, believes The Grange and the village around it, are a hotbed of criminals and takes his case to Scotland Yard. But when local resident and scholar Septimus Depping is found in his study, shot in the back of the head, Scotland Yard is less than amused. Can the Bishop solve the case? Probably not. And so Dr. Gideon Fell is sent to investigate.

This is the third in the Dr. Gideon Fell series (which I’m reading in order), and looking at the various reviews on Goodreads I was slightly concerned that I may have already hit on a “lesser” Carr. But, after reading it myself I don’t believe I read the same book those reviewers did. This was an engrossing read with a well plotted mystery, fabulous writing, and injections of humor.

The mystery was complex, filled with clues, diversions, and suspects. Now, I may be naïve to the workings of mystery writing, but I thought it was fascinating how Carr lays out everything from the beginning and interpreted it through Fell. Fell weaves the clues together into theories, only to immediately knock them down as impossibilities, then reweaves them into another theory. Carr then diverts the story, sending the reader down another path. Before it was over I had “Maw” down as a suspect. And as for the chapters leading up to the end, without giving anything away, all I can say is gripping, edge of my seat, stayed up past my bedtime because I could not put it down!

As always, I was struck by Carr’s writing. The narrative flows effortlessly and the imagery is vivid. The descriptive quality is rich and distinctive, whether he is portraying a setting – 

The road wound through dips and hollows, overhung by maple trees; and bees from the hedgerows were always sailing in through the windscreen and driving Standish wild. Towards the west Donovan could see the smoky red roofs of the suburbs round Bristol; but this was rural scenery of the thatched roof and cowbell variety. Here were rolling meadows, frothy yellow with buttercups, and occupied by cows that looked as stolid as a nudist colony.”

or an individual – 

She stalked downstairs to bid him welcome – a handsome woman, five-feet-ten in her lowest heeled shoes, with a mass of ash-blond hair carried like a war banner, and a rather hard but determinedly pleasant face.”

This would not be Carr without humor and irony. From the opening pages when Chief Inspector Hadley hears of events at The Grange, “and there was the bishop, top-hat and gaiters, holding one of the housemaids across a table –“, to Fells’ interview with Mrs. Standish “‘Sir, Will you trifle with me?’ ‘Madam!’ rumbled Dr. Fell…‘Reluctantly, I’m afraid I must decline.’” Oh, and then there is the “ginch”, which according to some, I should have found offensive, but I thought was delightfully funny. I never found the humor to be over the top, but felt that Carr used it with great effect.

Let me reiterate, this is only the third Fell I’ve read. In addition, I’ve read only two books from the Merrivale series. I can’t really speak to later books or those containing Carr’s “impossible” or “locked room” mysteries so have made no comparisons here. I will leave that to more well-read minds. The reviews written by The Green Capsule and The Puzzle Doctor, as well as the “debate” that occurs in their comments, does a much better job than I ever could anyway. I just know that I truly enjoyed it

My Judgement – 4.25/5

Prior Rulings – The Green Capsule, The Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, and JJ @ The Invisible Event ranks it #3 of the First Ten Gideon Fell Novels

6 thoughts on “The Eight of Swords by John Dickson Carr (1934)

  1. I’m delighted you enjoyed this so much — I believe it to be one of the great underrated books in Carr’s output (along with Seat of the Scornful, The Punch & Judy Murders, etc). The inside-out nature of that room, the murderer announcing themself at the door when they cold have just gone upstairs unseen…it’s vintage Carr puzzle brilliance. Plus, he takes the time to give an amusing author-as-character to throw all manner of sand in the eyes of the fandom of detection authors. It’s a wonderful work, and the point at which it should have been clear that Carr was going to be something wonderfully special in the genre.

    1. I was so surprised after reading it that so many thought it was just ok…or worse. The puzzle is clever, the culprit is surprising, and JDC’s writing fabulous. I too thought the passages in the room, where the facts of the crime are laid bare by Fell was inspired. He narrows your focus. Then introduces a diversion here and a diversion there, so that little by little he makes it plausible that any one of the characters could have dunit (as I said, even Maw…or the “ginch” for that matter).
      It’s also interesting how many are put off by the humor, or saw the humor in the beginning over the top, but lacking in the second half. The humor in the scenes at The Grange were more subtle wordplay as befits the situation were tensions are increasing.

      1. It does seem odd to me when I see people being underwhelmed by this one. Fine, I can understand how Death Watch, or The Blind Barber, or The Four False Weapons aren’t for everyone — but to see dyed-in-the-wool Carr fans ragging on The Eight of Swords when it does everything Carr does so brilliantly (yeah, there’s no impossibility, but the baffling nature of that room is as good as any impossible crime he dreamed up) simply does not compute with me.

        Anyway, I’m preaching to the choir, so welcome to the fold. May your Carr discoveries remain as exciting as this one — I mean, some are worse than others, but the man has such a high standard there’s a tendency to see his second-tier stuff as worse than it really is. Second-tier Carr still outdoes almost all his peers at the top of their game.

      2. Thanks! Next up Blind Barber. I’m slowly finding them all (plus one of the sellers I bought from threw in The Bowstring Murders & The Lost Gallows so I’ll eventually be branching out 😆).

      3. I’ve been toying with the idea of going back and rereading anf reviewing the early Bencolin books (It Walks by Night, The Lost Gallows, Castle Skull,
        The Waxworks Murders) in light of the BL republishing them all in their Crime Classics series…but, well, there’s only so much time in the day, and I don’t kniw if I’ll have the time. They make a great little series, even if Carr does fudge it slightly when bringing Bencolin back one final time in The Four False Weapons. Anyway, good books all; I very much look forward to your thoughts on them.

  2. Pingback: The Eight of Swords (1934) by John Dickson Carr – Dead Yesterday

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