Scarecrow time: Dark of the Moon by John Dickson Carr

 

Dark of the Moon by John Dickson Carr


published 1967

 

 

 


 

I don’t blog about all the books I read, and sometimes I am sure from the beginning ‘this one won’t be a post’. But then my mind can be changed – and in this case I don’t think anyone could have predicted the reason.

Tucked away in my files I had these two scarecrow photos: they are from the NYPL collection, and show a publicity/marketing exercise by the Continental Baking Co, tied in to the New York World’s Fair of 1939/40. And no, I haven’t the faintest idea how scarecrows in designer clothes (which is the NYPL designation) would be connected to a bakery. (**But see below for more).

When I came across the photos – I have used pics from that World’s Fair a few times on the blog – I had to save them, they were so weird, but I also thought ‘there is no way I will ever use those pictures, what possible book could they illustrate?’

But – there is a stolen scarecrow in this book, and although the timing is 25 years off, and the scarecrow in the book is male – well there were just enough threads to link with these pictures, which I think do deserve to be seen.

The book itself – oh it’s terrible, as everyone says. Very late on, and John Dickson Carr didn’t have the verve of his early years. There is an excellent and helpful blogpost on it over at Ben Randall's The Green Capsule

Dark of the Moon – John Dickson Carr (1968) – The Green Capsule (wordpress.com)

Which I strongly recommend for a rundown of the plot, such as it is.

Ben says: ‘you’re reading a 250 page book that feels like it should have been about 180’ but I think that is over-generous – at a 100-page novella it would have been a lot better. But he is correct to say that it has its moments.

It is set in Charleston in the USA, and contains pages of history and touristy information which, honestly, you could skim. Charleston IS very beautiful and full of history, but this is not the place for it.

Dr Gideon Fell is the protagonist, and no book containing his antics is a complete waste of time. There is a routine strange and aged house, home of all kinds of worrying things: his friend Alan is making the introduction, and Fell asks him what the problem is. Alan replies that he doesn’t know, ‘I’m merely horse to your Lady Godiva’, an image to boggle with, and nearly worth the whole book.

There’s quite a lot about baseball (too much) and some young men jostling with each other. As Ben says on the Green Capsule, there is one really good, big, surprise and the final pages of explanation are entertaining enough.

In line with my new #SpoilerNotSpoiler project, if you want a hint of something that will be of importance in the plot, you can look at this old post on another JDC book – this isn’t much of a spoiler, just an aspect…




There is a character who ‘struck a pose like the Goddess of Reason’ in the middle of a ridiculous evening gettogether. I liked this photo by Toni Frissell from the Library of Congress – this is actually Gloria Vanderbilt’s family in the same era as the book.

Is there ever any proper closure on the subject of the medical chap with the stay-at-home wife? Did I miss it with skimming?

And one extra disappointment – there is mention of a mysterious bigamist, a young woman who has been released from jail and could be anywhere.

‘The girl from Jersey City! Before they put her in jail she had thirty-four husbands in three years, or practically one a month… What’s happened to her since then?... Where is she now?’

This is a trope that JDC does exceptionally well in other books: the woman with the past, who may be present. But in this case it is just thrown away (again, unless I missed it in my skimming). What a lost opportunity – I’d have been a lot more interested in her than in the dreary Maynard forebears and their troublesome lives. (Perhaps someone can explain the significance of the bigamist to me, and the matter of Mark’s life choices, though I’m not sure enough people have read this book to have any hope of that.)

I can’t quite remember why I bought The Dark of the Moon – it was in December 2023, did someone blog on it, mention it, did they make it sound appealing? Or is it just completism on my part…? It’s just about worth reading for JDC fans I would say…

***I did find out that the Continental Bakery had a massive pavilion at the World’s Fair, and ‘An unusual feature is the wheat field on the outside of the structure--the only wheat field planted within the limits of New York City in sixty-eight years.’ So presumably that is where the scarecrows were. But designer clothes? And the fact that they are human? (They are human, right?)

Charleston has featured on the blog before - in a post on a very obscure book called The Lady Baltimore by Owen Wister. 

Back then (2014) I said:

 If you heard there was a light American romantic comedy of manners called The Lady Baltimore, you might make some assumptions: that it was set in Baltimore, and/or that Lady Baltimore was a key player. You couldn’t be more wrong – this book is set in post-Civil-War Charleston and The Lady Baltimore is a cake.

If you read my post you will find out about the major problem with the book. 

Comments

  1. That's the thing, isn't it, about really prolific authors like Carr, Moira. Not every effort is going to be a success. And it sounds as though this one might not have been as focused as some of his better ones are. To me, a lack of focus really takes away from a novel. But that may be just me. Anyway, you got to use those great scarecrow photos...

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    1. Yes indeed, Margot, so glad to have finally had the chance!
      And, the great body of JDC's good books is still available to us all thank goodness.

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  2. I think this is one that you've read so that I don't have to, Moira. What creepy photos! Chrissie

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    1. I think you are wise to take it that way, and I am glad to take this one for everyone else! I cannot honestly recommend it.

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  3. There's a blackmailer in a Champion book who winds up as a scarecrow, dead. And I will always remember Dr Syn, the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh (at least in the Disney film)--I read the original story once but it differed quite a bit from the film.

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    1. Worzel Gummidge was a very popular children's book here - he was a scarecrow. There has recently been a new series of TV films about the character, which were marvellous.

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  4. I actually thought first of the cake when you mentioned Lady Baltimore, it's well known in baking circles over here.

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    1. I didn't think it sounded all that delicious when I researched it - have you tasted one?

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  5. There's a living (dead) scarecrow in The Case of the Late Pig. (And The Lady Baltimore is part of a titling genre that includes The Clouded Yellow (a butterfly), and The Nebuly Coat (that turns out to be a coat of arms). Any more examples? Does Howards End count?

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    1. I feel there are lots of books with scarecrows, but I can't quite bring them to mind.
      Now I can waste some time thinking of more examples of misleading titles, excellent idea for a list.

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  6. I have a children's book in which Granny is giving her annual garden party for old people and Cook has 'The Lady Baltimore cake on her mind'. It was new to me and Americans on a mailing list I'm on were able to explain it. A very complicated cake with many layers and lots of frosting. Years later, at a boot sale, I picked up The American Cookbook, the very one mentioned in the book and there was the recipe. I wasn't tempted to try it.

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    1. I have the Boston Cooking School's book here somewhere... Gives recipe for Victoria sponge. How to make it a Lady Baltimore: Bake in layer-cake pans. Put together with Lady Baltimore filling (p. 663). Cover top and sides with Ice Cream Frosting (p. 655).

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    2. Tempted by the Littleton Spider Corncake, or may write the book.

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  7. callmemadam: nice extra details! It just doesn't sound worth the trouble does it?

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    1. Lucy: I have fond memories of an old US cookbook which had pages and pages of recipes for desserts featuring fruit and carbs: crumble, crisp, slump, cludge (I may be making that one up but there really were a lot of them, with tiny differences).

      when you write your book someone will be putting it on a list along with the othere misleading titles you mentioned, Nebuly Coat etc.
      I think theres's a Phoebe Atwood Taylor book with spiders in the title, and they're not what they seem?

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    2. "The Six Iron Spiders," which tells any American that a cast iron skillet/frying pan is going to be featured.

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    4. Cobbler! Type of fruity dessert.

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    5. Shay: there you go, I knew it was something like that. No such meaning for spider in the UK so far as I am aware. They sound ideal for hitting someone over the head.

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    6. Lucy: yes, cobbler, exactly.
      I found an excellent list here https://ancestorsinaprons.com/2013/07/american-fruit-dessert/
      - I was not exaggerating: crunch, grunt, buckle.

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    7. Cast-iron skillets are known (in my family, at least) as husband alignment tools.

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    8. Traditionally it was rolling-pins in the UK. There was a comic strip where the wife regularly waited behind the door with the rolling pin for her husband to come home late and drunk.

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    9. "The Theft of the Iron Dogs" by E.C.R. Lorac seems to fit in nicely here! Fire irons, not canines.
      Sovay

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    10. Yes indeed - added to the list!

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  8. I like the surprise at the end, and when the courting couple discusses their views of mathematics. (As all couples should before marriage.) Carr (or his alter ego, Alan, to be precise) complains about math being about artificial puzzles, which I find odd for a writer of locked room-mysteries. I could have wished Camilla get better arguments in response, but given Carr's bias I am at least happy the case for math is put by a sympathetic character and I think the book gives an interesting insight into how mathematics is viewed by some people.

    I read the book so long ago that I can not even recall what the issue is with the medical man.

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    1. Does this count? When I first met my now-husband, we were in our 20s, at a party, chatting as one did then about our university careers. He told me he had done maths at Cambridge and spent 4 years getting his first degree. This would be very unusual in the UK uni system of the time, and I have told him since that he is lucky I had done maths myself (elsewhere) and understood how it worked. Anyone else, I tell him, would have assumed he was a bit slow and had failed and had to repeat a year. Whereas I knew an esoteric fact: that the very top students were invited to stay on an extra year and do a mysterious Part 3, for no real reward - I think unique to this university, this subject, I don't think it happened in any other context. Many years later, Cambridge started giving students an extra Masters for doing this, and he was invited to collect his late degree...
      The medical man is being touted as a possible secret lover, but has a mysterious wife in the background.
      SLIGHT SPOILER
      As far as I can see, he is more or less abandoned.

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    2. That sounds like an excellent first conversation.

      I still don't remember the medical man, so I suppose he was just a red herring.

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    3. He was much better than me at mathematics, and I had a journalism/writer side - but when we played scrabble he was hopeless at scoring, useless, but annoyingly better than me at words! An unexpected reversal, and proving how right we were for each other 😊😊😊

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  9. So far John Dickson Carr hasn't struck a chord - haven't read many but what I have read I've found creepy in a way that I don't enjoy. However there are lots still to go at so maybe I'll keep trying. Not this one though!
    Sovay

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    1. No, go for primetime! There are lots of lists online of his best books. I like The Emperor's Snuff Box very much..

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    2. Noted, thanks - I shall keep an eye out!
      Sovay

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