#114: Till Death Do Us Part (1944) by John Dickson Carr

Till Death Do Us PartPeople hold weird beliefs: that the moon landings have all been faked, for instance, or that the moon is hollow, or that the phases of the moon have anything at all to do with your love life or finances.  Some people might even hold weird beliefs not about the moon.  Here’s one: I firmly believe that for the remainder of human history there will never again be anyone who writes the detective novel as well as did John Dickson Carr at his peak.  When I eventually narrow my ten favourite detective novels of all time down to a list that is actually ten books long, there’s a real chance all ten of them will be by Carr.  And, I’ll tell you now, it will definitely feature The Problem of the Green Capsule, which in my current mood I consider to be the pinnacle of the form.

Running it pretty close, though, is Till Death Do Us Part, another poisoning case with impossible overtones that overflows with the flourishes and flashes and tiny little moments of sinister intrigue that compel Carr above all-comers.  It has plot enough for about four modern crime novels and is brilliantly aware of its own developments in the way that only Carr maintains for me: as it gets more and more complex, it seems more and more simple; as it gets more and more unlikely, the patterns emerge which shape everything into the form it holds because of course that’s how it has to be and the whole enterprise leaps into focus, only to then veer off again with a dexterity that is all the more phenomenal for being repeated throughout most of what Carr wrote in this decade.  It is a masterpiece, and I’m going to go on about how wonderful it is for another 500 words, but really you should just go and buy it right now.

What I especially enjoyed about it, and I’m a little sorry to take this aspect away from you, is how unexpected it was.  It is without Carr’s brilliant conceptual gimmicks — Green Capsule, The Plague Court  Murders, She Died a Lady, etc — and instead appears to simply be a quiet and fairly typical detective novel of the period: we open at a small country fair, where some Shenanigans occur from which there are a couple of Consequences and everything should run to an expected pattern.  You’ll have a fairly decent idea of what key deveolpment to expect, and when that happens you start to settle down into some standard fare and then suddently it changes, and then changes again, and you realise how fully Carr has his hooks into you.

By this stage in his career, Carr no longer needed to lean so heavily on the Gothic unease of his earlier novels, and so instead is able to throw out moments of beautifully compact atmosphere, like the following on page 1:

He nodded ahead, where the shadow of the storm gave everything a nightmarish and unreal quality, like sunlight through smoked glass.  Nothing stirred on the lawn.  Tents and booths, touched to uneasy life by the wind, seemed deserted.

Or:

She nodded towards the ranks of books, riddled with their curious criminal histories like worms in apples.

Even Fell’s gruff cantankerousness is quelled from his first appearance at the halfway stage “possessed of a subdued and savage wrath,” excusing the absence of the anticipated bullying of, with, and by Hadley and giving a quite frightening glimpse of the man when his nose is down.

But then is it a case that requires the good doctor at his very best, as it twists like a cornered viper.  To give one example without spoilers: a casual mention is made of something early on which, just after the halfway point, is used to explain a key aspect of the case in a way that makes perfect sense and throws new light onto proceedings.  Then, about 15 lines later, that explanation is blown out of the water — and in a single line, no less — with all the calm assurance you’d expect from a man who has just led you happily into a bear trap.  But still that original explanation has a part to play, and this kind of construction is maintained across virtually all of the misdirection throughout.  Honestly, this is possibly the best book I have read this year, and I’ve already abandoned two books since finishing it because they’re so pedestrain by comparison.

There might, in the final few pages, be one small aspect of clewing that it would be possible to have an issue with, but I don’t think it’s that crucial and is more just Carr tying up the parcel with a final flourish.  Additionally, the pat explanation of one thread of intrigue — a regular offender, let’s say, though getting a bit creaky by now — dropped on the last page doesn’t take anything away from that because of how well the overtones were handled throughout.  So, y’see, I’m not blind to its possible flaws.  It just also happens to be a wonderful example of everything this genre does right when done right.

Now can somebody please explain to me why Carr is so largely out of print?  Seriously, guys, something needs to be done about this…

star filledstar filledstar filledstar filledstar filled

This is my entry for 1944 as part of this month’s Crimes of the Century over at Past Offences.  I also submit this review for the Golden Age Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt at My Reader’s Block under the category Bottle of Poison.

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45 thoughts on “#114: Till Death Do Us Part (1944) by John Dickson Carr

  1. I’m not really back from my blogging break, but had to chime in on this one JJ – I absolutely love this book, one of my favourite Fell books because it is just so well done, so confidently put across – this is the one I always want to point to for diehard Christie fans and say, now, really, be honest, isn’t this how it should REALLY be done?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, and then they counter with And Then There Were None…and you throw He Who Whispers, Green Capsule, She Died a Lady, The Bowstring Murders, The Peacock Feather Murders, The Judas Window, and about 15 short stories at them…and they notice that you’ve still got The Hollow Man and the entirety of Carr’s 1940s output in reserve…yeah, game over.

      I love Christie, I genuinely do, and I’m having a ball discovering a depth in her later works that I was not expecting, but it’s an unequal contest all the way down.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes, I agree it is a brilliant novel deserving 5 stars. I will definitely put this in Dr. Fell top five.
    The only niggle is the pat explanation for Grant’s appearance at the cottage.

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  3. “Now can somebody please explain to me why Carr is so largely out of print? Seriously, guys, something needs to be done about this…”
    Well, you had a plan to become a publisher yourself ! 🙂

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  4. I enjoyed this one, as the dramatics rang true to the story, and did not feel over-the-top; in fact, it made me turn the pages even faster. If I recall correctly I found one aspect of the solution slightly too technical for my taste though.

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    • It is much more restrained, I’ll grant you — it’s nice to see Carr mixing his style up a but by this stage in his career, as for my money his 1940s output takes on a broader range of approaches that match the stories perfectly.

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      • Actually, I thought it was still rather lively and exaggerated – but in ways that worked well in shaping the main character’s suspicions and the tensions of the narrative. I think of all the novels I’ve read by Carr, it wouldn’t have the best puzzle, but would be the best novel. 😀

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  5. Your enthusiasm for this book is infectious (in a nice way). How would you say it compares to The Case of the Constant Suicides? Though I’m not sure I could fully endorse Carr as being better than Christie… and in some ways they are hard to compare despite both writing detective novels. Now that would be a interesting blog post – Carr vs. Christie.

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    • It’s better than Constant Suicides, no doubt. That’s still a five-star book, no doubt, but for this one the stars are more thoroughly coloured in 🙂

      Carr v. Christie, yeah there’s definitely something in that — perhaps a decade at a time, though. Hmmm, there’s an idea…

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        • Yeah, whatever follows this has a lot to live up to. Might go back to an early Merrivale before the Old Man became a figure of fun…

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          • Actually, the next one is He Who Whispers, one of my other favourites. After that though… Sphinx is OK, but the impossibility is both crap and irrelevant. The rest of the Fell tales… I recall liking Panic In Box C but that’s not generally agreed with. Most of the rest though…

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          • I’ll always remember Dark Of The Moon for the disparaging remarks on Mathematics made by Alan, a main character.
            For example, he says,”To me mathematics means the activities of those mischievous lunatics A, B, and C. In my time they were always starting two trains at high speed from distant points to see where the trains would collide somewhere between. Which, as the man said in the story, is a hell of a way to run a railroad.”
            When told that the two trains are not on the same track and all the book wants to know is where those two trains will pass, he says,”And why does the book want to know that? So one engineer can wave to the other or give him a raspberry in passing? ”
            And again,”…we haven’t finished with your tireless friends A, B, and C. When the silly dopes weren’t wrecking trains or computing the ages of their children without seeming to know how old the brats were, two of ’em had a passion for pumping water out of a tank while the third poor mug pumped water into it.”

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          • Yeah, sorry, I mean then next one in terms of my reading of Carr — I’m hilariously out of order depending on how I’ve found them. He Who Whispers is awesome, but then the 1940s was an unprecedentedly awesome run for Carr (in my experience so far).

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    • I think of the Carr novels Kate reviewed that I’ve read – “Peacock Feathers, Judas Window and Constant Suicides – “Till Death Do Us Part” boasts of the best qualities as a novel. I think it’s better written than Judas Window, obscures the culprit better than Constant Suicides, and is more plausible – even if no less dramatic – than Peacock Feathers.

      Perhaps one warning would be that part of the solution was surprisingly mechanical in a way I found disengaging. And that’s coming from someone who was thrilled by the explanations at the end of “Policeman’s Evidence”… Thankfully the novel as a whole was still an intense and compelling read. 😀

      P.S. If I recall correctly Puzzle Doctor has a post centred on a duel between Carr and Christie. I fear I know whose side I’m on…

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      • I’m with you, Jonathan – it’s a batter novel than all of those.

        I’m mainly a fan of Judas Window for the reversal that comes about halfway through than the impossibility, but then I don enjoy Carr when he throws something audacious like that in your face (cf. the ‘killer’ reveal in The Man Who Could Not Shudder…drives some people mad, I know, but I was just in awe at the bravery of that move).

        The Peacock Feather Murders is one of those that divides opinion again, but my feeling is the people who dislike it were expecting a very different type of puzzle…and that’s the point again: Carr sells you one thing and delivers another with a massive wink.

        Constant Suicides was an early one for me, and the point at which I knew I had to read everything Carr has written: the first chapter alone had me rocking with laughter, and no matter what came after that I was in!

        But, yeah, this is a better book. How lucky we were to have him…

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  6. 1) But did you really like it?

    2) Good news: I’ve read this one. Bad news: I’ve completely forgotten it. Good news: I’ve completely forgotten it! So I get to read it again. But I dimly recall that it was more satisfying than CONSTANT SUICIDES (the solution to which I have ALSO forgotten. Thank you, memory.)

    3) Here is where you MUST immediately go read a Paul Halter novel so you can realize once and for all how inferior he is to Carr! The gauntlet is TOSSED! (And my review of THE SEVENTH HYPOTHESIS is imminent . . . )

    4) Having just seen HAMILTON and read Kate’s comment above, the deliciousness of a blogging “duel” between Christie and Carr envelops me! I like Christie more, and the proof is that I CAN’T forget any of her books, even the bad ones. But I love Carr, too. I truly believe that they are both geniuses in their own right and almost incomparable because of their different styles and techniques. Still, in the artificial sense, I think we could all have some fun. You and Sergio in one corner, Kate and me in the other. No fisticuffs, just four super fans going at it. Gluten free snacks WILL be served. Entertainment abounds!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Intrigued to read your thoughts on TSH. In the context of your comment I’m guessing it might not have worked for you. I have a similar issue with a lot of the books I read first when reading crime fiction being a bit of a blur. My reading speed probably doesn’t help this either. But least it makes a re-read more fun. A blogging duel would be interesting to do and with you on the Christie team, Agatha will have nothing to worry about.

      Liked by 1 person

    • 1) Not really, I’m just giving it a positive review so the publisher will keep sending me review copies. Shhh, don’t tell anyone…

      2) This might be your problem with Carr: your wholesale previous dismissal of the how which is intrinsically lined with the who and why; if that aspect didn’t concern you so much, then I can’t fault you for forgetting these. Imagine forgetting the who of, say, Peril at End House…as soon as you lose that, the what and the why fall out of memory, too, because they’re all so linked. Same idea here. The good news is that we still love you; slightly less than we used to, of course, but whaddaya expect?

      3) I never said Halter wasn’t inferior to Carr. Everyone is inferior to Carr! But Halter is superior to everyone else who has tried to follow in Carr’s footsteps (appearing and disappearing in the middle of a snowdrift, naturally). Halter is far more interested in pure plot than was Carr at his best, as can be seen in Carr’s brilliant sinister adjectives, but is to be commended for finding new wrinkles in an otherwise-floundering subgenre. He has Carr’s sheer velocity, too, which you really appreciate when you struggle through turgid and lumpen pretenders. I know Halter’s not everyone’s taste but, like Rupert Penny, I love ‘im and won’t be told otherwise.

      4) If there’s a way to make this work, I’m game.

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      • 4) A possible way of doing it would be to structure it like a debate. One side presents their arguments, the other side presents there. And then each side gets to defend or pick up on items in the opposition’s first argument, followed by a conclusion from each side. Or alternatively you could just do a Top 10 Reasons why X is the better writer?

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    • It pains me to see Halter thrown under the bus. But I’m looking forward to your review of ‘Seventh Hypothesis’, Brad. I might flood the reply section of your blog with laments and tears if the novel doesn’t receive glowing commendations. (But I’ll be drawing a rapier on your side in the Christie-Carr duel. :D)

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      • Don’t worry — if Halter gets thrown under a bus, he’s already devised at least three original methods of escape…and you and I will be there to help him up afterwards 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

          • I’ve read your review when it first came out, and will definitely drop a message when I’m done. So far I’m about a quarter way through, and it seems to have made a stronger start than ‘Policeman’s Evidence’: the narrative flows better (at least syntactically), and the characters have so far been stereotypical (i.e., gold-digger second wife and sulky step-daughter) but interesting.

            P.S. My package of Ramble House books arrived this morning!!

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  7. Don’t like me less, JJ. (I need affirmation too much to bear that!) just remember that Carr has always ranked in the top three for me and is actually tied for second with Queen because they’re both so different. I will never argue against Carr’s greatness with you, just as Carr can never trump Christie’s place at the top for me.

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  8. Hi, I’m a regular reader but I don’t think I’ve commented here before, I’m not sure. Your review caused me to order both Till Death Do Us Part and The Problem of the Green Capsule from alibris. The former hasn’t arrived yet, but I’ve read Green Capsule now. I feel sure I read more than one Carr novel many years ago when I was immersing myself in GADs but I can’t remember Green Capsule being one of them. Anyway, I enjoyed it very much but I’m going to have to read it again because I didn’t pick up on “the one crucial thing that has dated the most” – not that I would want it spelled out here Because Spoilers etc. Maybe *I* am also equally dated so that it just didn’t strike me as anything out of the ordinary, LOL. Anyway, thanks for this great recommendation. I’m looking forward to reading Till Death Do Us Part, soon I hope.

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    • Hi Terry, delighted to think I’be encouraged someone to pick these books up, they really do show Carr at the absolute peak of his powers; a peak that lasted about 15 years, let us not forget! As for the dated thing — it’s not a spoiler as such, I’m just usually cautious about how much detail I reveal in my reviews. I shall tell you below, but this is a SPOILERISH WARNING for anyone who wishes to come to this entirely clean (which is the best way)…

      What I was referring to was the lifetime of the bulb used to illuminate the desk for Chesney’s demonstration, and how the fact that it only burned for a certain amount of time became significant. I imagine it was one of thoise things that was reasonably well-known at the time but could eaily pass from memory since, so the discussion about how long these things are meant to last helps key the (modern) reader in a bit more. I appreciated that and think it’s a lovely touch. And, indeed, the fact that you didn’t notice it might support this, or it could be that I’m reading too much into something (that happens sometimes…).

      I’d say “I hope you enjoy Till Death, too” but it’s practically a given if you enjoyed Green Capsule. Will be very interetsed to hear your thoughts on that when you’re done. Do you have a favourite Carr from back when you read him?

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  9. Aha! So I was right after all – that feature was quite common when I was in college (some of my profs still used those arc-lamp slide projectors even!) and any poor downtrodden TA who didn’t happen to have a spare *ahem – spoiler item* handy when needed was subject to catcalls and jeers from us impatient barbarous students, LOL. So that’s why that went right past me – LOL – not the only antique detail that kids today wouldn’t recognize, that have blind-sided me. How they laugh!

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    • Forgot to add – no, I can’t recall very many specific titles from 1980 – 82 which was when I plunged in headfirst. Which makes it nice now because I can re-read a lot of them like it’s the first time.

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      • Ah, you’re very lucky, then! There are a few Agatha Christie novels whose precise details elude me from 15 or so years back, so I’m looking forward to rediscovering them once I’ve finished her output…am hoping the same things happens with Carr, but I have a feeling the great ones will always hang around in the memory… 🙂

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  10. Pingback: ‘Stop reading NOW’: The #1944book reviews | Past Offences: Classic crime, thrillers and mystery book reviews

  11. OK – finished Till Death Do Us Part last night – wow, that *is* a corker of a twist in the middle LOL! I enjoyed Green Capsule, but this one, I think, was better. One tiny thing that kind of – irritated? – me, slightly, was that Fell’s emotions seem to kind of veer all over the map, randomly, don’t they? Fury, amusement, intense curiosity, and assorted strange “unreadable” facial expressions, arm flappings – does he have Tourette’s Syndrome? (kidding)

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    • He’s certainly less gradiose than usual, isn’t he? But then, given the kowledge he has that brings him into events, one would expect him to be somewhat more serious to begin with…and he’s definitely more restrained here than elsewhere (though that’s probably in part down to Carr growing as a writer and controlling his creations a bit better). But, yeah, the mercurial moods of Dr. Fell do take some keeping up with at times!

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  12. Pingback: #127: ‘The Third Bullet’ and Other Stories [ss] (1954) by John Dickson Carr | The Invisible Event

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  14. I just finished this today and enjoyed your review. “As it gets more and more complex, it seems more and more simple” is a perfect way to describe how the story develops.
    It’s funny that this book is so good. On the surface, to describe the plot and location, there isn’t anything too remarkable. No wild adventures, no gothic atmosphere….yet it all works so well. It almost reminds me of The Emperor’s Snuff Box – there is no outward gimmick to the plot, and yet it reads like an out of control roller coaster.
    I was so certain that I had figured out the killer this time… Well, that’s Carr for you! I did actually figure out the key mechanism fairly early on, although a comment later in the book caused me to doubt my suspicions. Still, as with all Carr, nothing is simple – even though I suspected the main trick to it, I still didn’t grasp some details. As another commenter said, it would have been nice to have a diagram of the actual solution!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Heeeey, so glad you enjoyed this and your odyssey through Carr has hit this high note — this is definitely one of my top ten Carrs, it’s a wonderful experiece, easily one of those detective novels you can use to find out if someone is ever going to like classic detective fiction (Kelley Roos’ The Frightened Stiff being another).

      I remember now that I forgot to mention in the review the mention of Goblin Wood, at the end of the lane where the action mostly takes place…whether is is Carr universe-building following ‘The House in Goblin Wood’ (a Merrivale story, lest we forget) or whether he just likes the name, well, I guess we’ll never know!

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      • I had noticed the reference to Goblin Wood! It gets brought up at the beginning and end of the book. I’ll have to check the short story to see if it mentions a nearby town.
        The House in Goblin Wood is hands down Carr’s best work (aside from the banana peel joke).

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