Fright Night: Ghostylocks and the three John Dickson Carrs



Friday Fright Night is a blog theme for October, suggested by Curt Evans: see last week’s post for more

details. Thinking of ideas for entries, I realized the obvious candidate from my point of view was John Dickson Carr: an author I love, and definitely on the GA detective story side of spooky horror – but with a very strong line in what I described last week as ‘a series of events that might have a rational (but crime-based) explanation, but might not.’

So I picked up three of his books almost at random, all first published in the UK in 1935. He was such a prolific writer! Most impressive to have produced three solid books like this. Two of them feature the same protagonist.

The first was one I hadn’t read before (and there aren’t many such left... ): The Unicorn Murders. It was thriller-esque – a lot of people racing round the French countryside before ending up in a sinister chateau. Among them is a famous detective and a famous criminal, probably, both in disguise.

I did not take to this one, found it quite tedious, couldn’t summon up much interest in the murder, and realized that multiple disguises and impersonations do not work for me.

So then I picked up The White Priory Murders, which – I remembered – has an absolutely brilliant solution, but a long haul to get there. The explanation for the impossible crime is wonderful, perfectly worked out, and with one of my favourite elements – a realization of a superb piece of logic which explains someone’s location. If only the phrase ‘the curious incident of the dog in the night time’ wasn’t already taken, and by now something of a cliché!

BUT, there are really no spooky or supernatural elements to the book.

Like Goldilocks (Ghostilocks), I turned to my third book: The Plague Court Murders

NOW you’re talking. 

It has never been a favourite JDC, but you cannot fault it for scarey sinister spooky supernatural happenings, historic connections, ghosts and seances. The full bingo card.

‘At Joseph’s first séance there was mention of the uneasy ghost at Plague Court, and the spiritual agonies of James Halliday’




I mean, there is a character in the book called Louis Playge, a 16th century hangman’s assistant who had a special knife for… don’t even think about it. There is an ancient document, text reported in full (I never want to read these, but I appreciate the added atmosphere). We are good to go....

There are moments like this one:

Inside, somebody screamed.

And

‘It was the handle of a knife,’ she said, ‘touching the back of my neck.’

It’s quite a grim book, not much in the way of light relief. There is a middle section of interviews with the key people – this was quite Ngaio Marsh-like, but interestingly I did NOT (as I do with Marsh) find this dull and time-wasting: I found it very helpful as a round up as to where everybody had been at the key times. It didn’t help me solve the crime, mind – I got one set of clues and id’ed someone who turned out to be an accomplice, but was way behind JDC about everything else.

There is a nasty piece of work called Lady Benning – I particularly like JDC when he is not being over-respectful to the upper classes. This one was snobbish and horrible and genuinely weird.

So – a big Fright Night success. Enough to give you bad dreams…

The picture of a séance is by Vaino Kunnas, is in an art gallery in Finland, and is part of the Google Art Project.

The photograph I have also used before, and as I said then, it is from an alarmingly spooky collection of spirit and séance pictures held at the UK’s National Media Museum.

Comments

  1. I have a vague memory of having read The Plague Court Murders as a 13- or 14-year-old, though in a Swedish translation called something similar but not exacly the same. It was in my parents' bookcase and if it is the one I think it scared the wits out of me.

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    1. Right now there is a made-up Twitter storm because a TV reviewer said 'Ghost stories aren't scarey because ghosts don't exist'. I can't imagine the mindset that needs to get upset by that (or by most 'controversial' social media statements) but I also don't need to believe in them to enjoy being spooked by them. JDC is so good at atmosphere and tension. I love the way so many chapters end with a sentence on the lines of: 'Suddenly they were all shocked by a a loud terrifying noise.' You go, JDC.

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    2. Checked it now - I have mixed up two titles. It was "The Burning Court" by JDC that had me terrified as an adolescent, in particular because (as I read it then at least, must re-read it) the apparently rational explanation was in the end not 100% certain, and there was a question of whether an apparantly loving near one was perhaps not what they seemed to be. Is there anything more intriguing than a mystery without a solution? Yes, a mystery with a doubtful solution.

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    3. Yes I think the Burning Court was unusual in that way... it is certainly one scarey book.

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  2. A writer as prolific as Carr was is bou nd to have one or two that don't quite do it, Moira, so I'm not surprised at all that you didn't fall in love with all three. Still, as you say, he was good at that spooky atmosphere. And I do like those connections with old documents, weapons, etc... That just adds a layer as far as I'm concerned.

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    1. I agree, Margot, he really was prolific and he wrote so many good ones, you can forgive him the odd dud. And my goodness he was good with the artefacts, the mysterious messages, the weapons, the historical objects.

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  3. To my shame, I don't think I've ever read anything by JDC. Where would you suggest I start with him? Is there one in particular you would recommend?

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    1. They are a very distinctive style, and the great thing is that if you like them there are loads of them to read when you are in the mood! My favourites are The Emperor's Snuff Box, The Crooked Hinge, and The Case of the Constant Suicides. Three quite different ones, so pick one and have a go!

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    2. Three great suggestions. I also recommend the Judas Window. The Hollow Man may be his most famous work, but the solution is perhaps a tad complicated for many readers.

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  4. Time to tackle some more JDC, I think. You have tempted me, Moira. The JDC which has given me the biggest jaw-dropping and very creepy surprise is The Burning Court. Would love to have your take on that. Meanwhile a nice green Penguin copy of Guy Cullingford's Conjuror's Coffin arrived in the post today and I am so much looking forward to reading it.

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    1. I definitely go through phases: i'll read a few of his books in a run, and then leave him for a while. I see I have done quite a lot of posts on him. I was just saying above that Emperor's Snuff Box is one of my favourites, and I think you put me on to that one. I read Burning Court years ago, now you're making me think I need to get it out again...
      I so hope you will enjoy Conjuror's Coffin! I've just read another one by her - completely different, but also very good.

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  5. Hello, Moira! I have never read the legendary John Dickson Carr even though I have been telling myself I would for many years and in spite of the popularity of his books.

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    1. Prashant! How lovely to see you. So many of your blogging friends like JOhn Dickson Carr that I think you have to give him a chance one of these days... Look forward to seeing your opinion one of these days.

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  6. I remembered who the criminal was, but I could not figure how the crime was done anyway. The solution was inventive, but relied on some poor investigation, I feel. The solution made use of a trope that Christie liked but Carr did not really use much. I think there is another book where he partially contradicts a suggestions he makes here about how the trope would work.

    The depiction of the plague epidemic is topical these days, one might think.

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    1. I'm busy trying to parse your careful comments about the tropes! I have now read this three times: the second time, a few years back, I was quite dismissive of it, didn't enjoy. But this time it was the right book at the right moment - perhaps for your final reason.

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    2. Well, to be sligthly more explicit: There is a character who pulls off a deception, and one of the detectives claim that a prior career of his/her helped them pull it off. In another book Carr points out that actually being able to deceive people in that particular way is not really what people are looking for.

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  7. I still have to read him, I think you sent me one maybe? Not off to buy any of these I'm afraid.

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    1. I may have done. There's enough books for you without pursuing this author more.

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  8. I still have not caught up with with more books by Carr. My first was The Emperor's Snuff Box, and I was lucky that it was so good, so I do want to try more.

    I just finished Dumb Witness (under the title Poirot Loses a Client) which has a séance in it. I loved it but I have become even more of a Poirot fan since watching some of the Poirot episodes.

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    1. Seances always grab me! I will always enjoy a book with a good one.
      Dumb Witness is one I have grown to like more as the years go by. I'll be interested in your review if you do one.

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