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

I’d never read John Dickson Carr before but took up a challenge from The Invisible Event to read one of this author’s books and post a review on November 30, 2016, to commemorate Carr’s 110th birthday. My pick: Till Death Do Us Part–selected on the merits of its title alone. John Dickson Carr (1906-1977) was an American author who lived in England for several decades of his life, and this novel, set in an English village, features Gideon Fell, arguably (according to everything I read) the author’s most famous character. This is a story of blackmail, murder, and deceit which takes place over the course of just a few days.

till-death-do-us-part

The novel opens at a charity fête on the grounds of Ashe Hall, home of the local gentry. We’re thrown right into the action as playwright Dick Markham, a creator of  “psychological thrillers,” and his fiancée Lesley Grant arrive on the grounds. There’s a storm brewing (literally and figuratively), and after an unfortunate moment at the rifle range, Lesley slides off to visit the fortune-teller, who just happens to be “one of the greatest living authorities on crime” Sir Harvey Gilman, the Home Office Pathologist. Something strange occurs between the fortune-teller and Lesley; she leaves the tent hurriedly and upset. A few moments later she accidentally shoots the fortune-teller, who is subsequently hustled off for medical attention.

That evening, Sir Harvey Gilman, wounded and resting, insists that Dick Markham visit, and Dick is told that Lesley is actually a three-time murderess, a poisoner who has killed two husbands, polished off another lover and very possibly intends Dick to be her next victim. Sir Harvey insists that Lesley, so far, has been too slippery to be caught and punished for her crimes and so he enlists a reluctant Dick to help him.

The next morning, however, Sir Harvey is found dead with a hypodermic needle containing prussic acid–and this is exactly the MO that Sir Harvey, now the victim, attributed to Lesley….

Before too long Dr Fell arrives on the scene and takes over the case aided and abetted by Inspector Hadley. Dr Fell is a large man (think Sidney Greenstreet), given to eccentricities. Till Death Do Us Part is the 15th Carr novel to feature Fell. There’s nothing here about a personal life; he appears around the halfway mark of the book, and mostly grunts, sending significant glances towards Inspector Hadley. I was a bit disappointed in the great detective.

I enjoyed the subtext involving Dick Markham’s behaviour with Cynthia Drew. Everyone in the village predicted a match but when Lesley arrived six months earlier, Markham had eyes for no one else. There’s an undercurrent of disapproval in the village against Markham for disappointing Cynthia. The obvious sexual attraction between Markham and Lesley does not exist with Cynthia–nonetheless Markham, a character I rather liked, gets himself in quite a bit of trouble with his gallantry.

Poisoner’s Mistake was proclaimed from one wall, Panic in the Family from another. Each an attempt to get inside the criminal’s mind: to see life through his eyes, to feel his feelings. They occupied such wall space as was not taken up by stuffed shelves of books dealing with morbid and criminal psychology.

There was the desk with its typewriter, cover now on. There was the revolving bookcase of reference works. There were the overstuffed chairs, and the standing ash trays. There were the bright chintz curtains, and the bright rag rugs underfoot. It was Dick Markham’s ivory tower, as remote from the great world as this village of Six Ashes.

The solution to the crime is wrapped by Fell who hugs all of the information to himself and then does a Grand Reveal at the end–this happens to be something I dislike in my crime books, and since I’ve never read this author before, I can’t say if this is usual or not. The set-up, the writing, the atmosphere were all great fun. I tried finding John Dickson Carr at the library, but the cupboard was bare. Have other readers out there found this author at the library?

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7 Comments

Filed under Dickson Carr John, Fiction

7 responses to “Till Death Do Us Part: John Dickson Carr (1944)

  1. JJ

    It must be said, Fell’s charatcer is somewhat pared back in this one — but then I think it’s such a devious set of circumstances I just interpretted that as him coming in all serious, like, to get to the bottom of it. And, yeah, both Fell and Merrivale (Car’s other series character, from his books published as Carter Dickson) do tend to hug their reveals to themselves…and often have their respective policemen (Hadley here, Masters for Merrivale) griping at them because of it!

    Hope you’re moved to try Carr again and, hey, even if you’re not thanks so much for getting involved 😉

  2. I read his Hollow Man last year – it had sat on the shelf for years and I got round to it in the midst of a bout of flu (it was a perfect read for that situation).
    As you say about this, the set-up, the atmosphere were great – he creates a genuinely baffling puzzle, and a real sense of mystery and threat. But I found the unwinding, the reveal, when it eventually came, to be fantastically unsatisfying and manipulative. The puzzle was so head-splittingly impossible that the solution ended up seeming positively banal. Plus there was Withheld Information and Unknowable Key Facts all over the place. I don’t really go for that kind of thing.
    That said, Fell is a decent character and he kept me interested. Not sure I’d try another Carr though (I believe there are masses of them).

  3. I’ve read one if his novels in a German translation years ago and enjoyed it for the atmosphere. I can absolutely not remember the end but I was never tempted to pick him up again.

  4. I seem to be the only one who’s never heard of him. Always happy to discover a new writer!

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