Recently I had occasion to mention this book in the context that it is one of John Dickson Carr’s novels that is frequently overlooked; I recommended it in a comment to a novice Carr reader who has shouldered the huge task of reading all of Carr and assessing it in a blog devoted entirely to the topic, The Green Capsule. When I happened upon my copy of The Eight of Swords, I decided to re-read it — after what I have to confess is many, many years having passed between my last reading and this one — and bring you my report.
There are things about this book that have stuck in my memory clearly over the interval of some 30 years, but I’ll be honest, this is not quite as good a book as I remembered. It is certainly an interesting story that has an interesting premise but suffers from a large flaw of construction. Although you may not enjoy it one hundred percent, if you are a student of Carr you will definitely find it interesting.
WARNING: This essay concerns a work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this novel, although the solution to the crime and many other significant details are not revealed here. You may learn more than you care to about a number of John Dickson Carr novels, but I don’t intend to reveal any significant plot points. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own.
What is this book about?
Chief-Inspector Hadley of Scotland Yard takes a personal interest in a bizarre story about the Bishop of Mappleham, a well-known amateur criminologist, and the Bishop’s recent encounter with a poltergeist — mostly because the Bishop has been staying at the home of one Colonel Standish, the Chief Constable in Gloucestershire. Standish is a partner in the firm that is about to publish Hadley’s memoirs (this is the month before his retirement, although this fact is apparently forgotten later in the series), so when he asks the Assistant Commissioner for assistance, Hadley somewhat reluctantly takes a hand. The poltergeist has thrown red ink all over a local Vicar in a room in the Colonel’s home, and the Bishop was on the spot. The Bishop has also been understood to slide down a banister in the main hall and has assaulted a blameless housemaid, accusing her of being a crook known as Piccadilly Jane.
Dr. Gideon Fell (Carr’s series detective) has recently returned from America, via the ocean voyage described in 1934’s (the same year) The Blind Barber. He shows up in Hadley’s office disguised, for his own amusement, as a comedic faux-Viennese psychoanalyst. Colonel Standish is also Fell’s publisher, but this is not the only coincidence. Fell’s homeward voyage also included the Bishop’s son, Hugh Donovan, a charming young man who has ostensibly been studying criminology in New York but who has never cracked a book, and spent his time drinking and chasing women. The Bishop and his son are about to meet, in the presence of Fell, Hadley, and Colonel Standish, when the Colonel receives a telephone call from his estate. Mr. Septimus Depping, who lives in the Guest House on the Colonel’s property, was murdered the previous evening. And a copy of what is later found to be a tarot card, the eight of Swords, is lying by the body.
It seems as though Mr. Depping, although passing as a gentleman in the neighbourhood, has recently retired from a life of crime in New York. In the vicinity is one Louis Spinelli, a former criminal associate of the deceased. Also in nearby Hangover House is well-known mystery writer Henry Morgan and his wife Madeleine. And in the Colonel’s home is his wife, a staid lady known as “Maw” known for her rectitude, and his son Morley, who is engaged to Depping’s daughter Betty, who has been wired to return from Paris upon the discovery of her father’s body.
In order not to spoil your enjoyment, there is not much I should tell you about the activities of the evening of the murder — or, rather, the first murder. Those of you who are familiar with Carr know that there will be plenty of clues which appear to point one way and actually mean quite the opposite; these include a buttonhook, the aforementioned tarot card, a clumsy disguise, a secret passage, and a dinner that was mysteriously eaten, but not by its intended recipient.
Midway through the narrative, Hugh Donovan falls in love with the Colonel’s daughter Patricia, who is described as a “luscious little ginch”. It is clear by the manner of her introduction that she is innocent of all wrongdoing and there only to be a romantic interest for the Bishop’s son; the narrator out-and-out says so. (And, for those of you who know Carr well, I will add that this is true. She is innocent.) Mr. and Mrs. Morgan and the newly-formed couple investigate the crimes together, although they are not entirely privy to the thoughts of Dr. Fell or the Bishop. There are two more murders and an exciting evening of murderous pursuits in the moonlit countryside before Dr. Fell brings home the crime to a rather surprising perpetrator, and then a number of innocent people and the police join together to explain it all in the last chapter.
Why is this book worth your time?
John Dickson Carr (here, JDC) is one of the foremost figures in the Golden Age of Detection; frankly, I recommend you read his work from start to finish of his career, although some will interest you more than others. This book is automatically worth your time because it was written by Carr. Some of his books are principally interesting as failures (I’m thinking here of the final handful of his novels) and some, like this, are qualified successes. But they are still worth your time; a mediocre JDC novel is better than the finest efforts of a lot of other Golden Age writers.
This is the fourth novel JDC wrote about Dr. Gideon Fell, a character based apparently upon the public person of G. K. Chesterton, in the space of two years (1933/34). And in this context it’s interesting to look at the general flavour or approach of each of these novels.
Carr had already written four novels about Henri Bencolin, all of which had a strong air of spooky violence unleavened by much comedy. Also in the same year as The Eight of Swords he published the first two novels about Sir Henry Merrivale (as by Carter Dickson), both of which have a strong air of spooky violence unleavened by much comedy. In fact, yes, he published five novels in 1934 (the fifth is Devil Kinsmere, a historical adventure, as by Roger Fairbairn, which sank with very little notice); possibly the most productive year in JDC’s career.
The first four Fell novels from 1933/34 do show a kind of progression, though. 1933’s Hag’s Nook has the same emphasis on menace and spooky goings-on in the dead of night, with a huge emphasis on atmosphere, as much of his other work to this time. 1933’s The Mad Hatter Mystery, though, is the first sign of something a little different. I don’t think it’s going too far to say that while Mad Hatter is a great success as a mystery, there is a peculiar air hanging over the novel of tragicomedy. I’ll use that word because “bathos” is not quite right; this is not an unintentional lapse from one modality to another, it’s merely that JDC appears to be trying to introduce a comic element to a novel but making it similarly creepy to the rest of his work. See the illustration on Dell #706 set into this paragraph? The corpse’s hat is too big for him, and this is directly from the book. It looks … tragicomic, and there are a number of other instances of that unusual genre form in this book (including the ending, where the murderer insists on confessing even though Dr. Fell has indicated he would prefer not to solve the mystery).
The third Fell novel, from 1934, The Blind Barber, I think everyone would agree is one of JDC’s most significant excursions into the very small sub-genre of mystery farce. Wikipedia says it is “generally felt to be the most humorous of Dr. Fell’s adventures,” and I agree, although it does not approach the low-comedy excesses of, say, The Cavalier’s Cup and other later adventures of Sir Henry Merrivale. I have to add that my limited research facilities were not able to precisely determine which book came out first in 1934, but it is certain that they would have been written within months of each other.
Blind Barber moves at breakneck speed, with many ridiculous adventures made more difficult by the frequent drunkenness of most of the characters. And it is all very fast and very funny, much like the screwball comedies of the 1930s; that was a popular style at the time. 1934 is the same year that produced It Happened One Night. One of the things I find very jarring about Blind Barber (I have elsewhere identified it as my least favourite book published as by Carr) is that this insane level of farce is balanced off by an innocent woman being brutally beaten to death with a blunt instrument, and apparently everyone’s having much too good a time to care. It’s as though Carr remembers every once in a while that, “Oh yeah, this is a murder mystery” and makes the murder bits a little more gruesome and a little more bloody, then returns to people being drunk and running around. There is a difficult logic problem concealed within the book, and it is highly satisfactory in that respect, but the trappings of it are to me very distasteful. I should add that many, many people think that this is a great book and your opinion is likely to be the opposite of mine, because they think it’s hilarious. Your mileage may vary. Anyway, I think it’s fair to say that this book is about 9/10ths comedy and 1/10th horrific mystery and leave value judgements aside.
As I said, there’s a progression here. Hag’s Nook is 10 parts horror/mystery, 0 parts comedy. Mad Hatter is 8 parts horror, 2 parts comedy; Blind Barber is 9 parts comedy, 1 part horror. You will not be surprised to know that Eight of Swords is 5 parts comedy, 5 parts horror.
Unfortunately, and this is the major problem with the book, the first half of the book is entirely comedy and the last half is entirely a horrific mystery. The transition is jarring and doesn’t work, and the two halves of the novel seem disjointed from each other. Eight of Swords starts out with every promise of being a Wodehousian comic novel. The Bishop is a broadly-drawn comic figure who hilariously thinks that international crime is everywhere. And yet, those are precisely the people who kick off a screwball comedy plot by,for once in their lives, being right, as happens here. The bishop’s son has to justify an expensive education in investigative criminology when he spent all his time drinking and chasing women. There is a young woman who, it’s pretty much said by the author, is there to be the sexy piece attached to the narrator. There’s lots of drinking, the mystery writer character is making hilarious observations about the nature of murder mysteries, and proposing straw-man solutions to the mystery. Everything you know about Carr’s recent work suggests that Eight of Swords is going to continue to be as farcical as Blind Barber right through to the second half, but boom! all of a sudden the entire tone of the book changes. Dr. Fell essentially stops paying attention to the farcical bits of the plot, and those characters, and walks around looking broody because he already knows whodunit. There’s a fairly artificial build-up to a set of interlocking meetings in the dead of night, a guy gets shot through the head at the precise moment when he’s heaving up his dinner, and the rest of the book is about a squalid lot of gangsters and low-lifes who all get killed in violent and unpleasant ways.
There are a bunch of holes in the plot, frankly. No one ever mentions exactly how it is that the lowlife gangster who is the victim has managed to rent a house from the Chief Constable of the county within the boundaries of his estate. There are certain issues with respect to passports that I find hard to swallow, and also that Scotland Yard was so entirely ignorant with respect to the whereabouts and identity of prominent American criminals. JDC does not, to my mind, understand the motivations of American gangsters very well, and there are some very implausible assertions about the nature of one character’s romantic attractiveness that are impossible to verify.
But once JDC gets into the world of actual murder, he is his usual self. I’m fairly sure you will find the solution to the mystery is really unexpected. Whether you think it’s entirely fair is another thing entirely. I think it is barely fair … but it depends upon you drawing inferences from a set of facts that are wildly at variance to the way they are being represented, and it’s very difficult. Most crucially to the fairness aspect, the essential deductions are not about physical objects, but people’s motivations for doing various activities. The most crucial such motivation would have been much easier to discern if we had had an autopsy report that explained a definitive situation about the corpse; I won’t say what it is but it was absolutely within the forensic capacities of 1934. So this is rather cheated into place, which is not terrible but it’s not what we expect from JDC, who when he pays attention to these things is downright diabolical in his attention to detail.
There is an amusing footnote about the use of language here. JDC describes a young woman as a “ginch” and proceeds to define this term for the reader over the course of a couple of pages; she is sexy and forward and unaffected, apparently. I was curious about this word and went looking for its origin; to my surprise and amusement, it was apparently defined by Carr himself (see the Oxford Dictionary here). In Canada, the term has become associated with the specific style of men’s underwear known as “tighty whities”, but this is far from global usage.
I also took the trouble to look up the divinatory meaning of the tarot card, the eight of swords; it is nothing like the meaning Carr ascribes to it, and it doesn’t seem to look like he describes it either. The most common style is depicted within this paragraph. JDC must be quoting from something, though, Dr. Fell describes the card quite precisely. So there’s probably a source unavailable to me, and it must have been quite esoteric.
There’s one very amusing piece in this book which deserves to be more widely thought about. Carr frequently breaks the fourth wall in this book — everyone in the final chapter admits that they are in the final chapter, and one character notes that “[t]he public will only glance at this chapter, to make sure it hasn’t been cheated by having evidence withheld.” That actually did amuse me. The other little cute piece is where the mystery writer character Morgan talks about his own novels, and of course the temptation here to hear the voice of Carr in his character is irresistible.
Here, Morgan talks about his series of novels, and honestly they sounded rather like elegant cozies of today. You see, his series character has spent at least six mystery novels in pursuit of killers within the highest reaches of the British government (“the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in The Inland Revenue Murders. I was only letting off a little steam in that one.”). The Bishop’s son remarks that he likes Morgan’s novels better than:
“… the ones that are so popular by that other fellow — what’s his name? William Block Tournedos. I mean the ones that are supposed to be very probable and real, where all they do is run around showing photographs to people.”
Morgan looked embarrassed.
“Well,” he said, “you see, to tell you the truth, I’m William Block Tournedos too. And I thoroughly agree with you. That’s my graft.”
“Yes. They’re written for the critics’ benefit. You see, the critics, as differentiated from the reading public, are required to like any story that is probable. I discovered a long time ago the way to write a probable and real story. You must have (1) no action, (2) no atmosphere whatever—that’s very important—(3) as few interesting characters as possible, (4) absolutely no digressions, and (5) above all things, no deduction. Digressions are the curse of probability . . . which is a funny way of looking at life in general; and the detective may uncover all he can, so long as he never deduces anything. Observe those rules, my children; then you may outrage real probability as much as you like, and the critics will call it ingenious.”
Well, in the roman a clef sense, I think you will agree that a three-named mystery writer in whose novels no deduction ever takes place has to be Freeman Wills Crofts, King of the Humdrums. (As opposed, as I understand it, to G.D.H. Cole, Queen of the Humdrums. 😉 But I digress.) This is an absolutely killing troll on Crofts, in those pre-Twitter days, and I think it is very revealing. It shows that Carr sees his work clearly, unsentimentally; he knows he’s good at writing those creepy exciting mysterious novels, and people like them, but the critics don’t take them seriously, and they take Crofts seriously. I expect the two men were friendly enough at the dinners of the Detection Club, but their styles are quite opposite and it must have galled Carr to have to work much harder for the same sales.
To sum up, I have to say that other people are well known to like Carr’s sense of humour more than I do. He’s rather in the vein of British seaside postcard humour, which I’m not too pompous to appreciate, but my issue is always that he mixes it with a really ghastly level of violence. But even if you do like his humour more than I do, you will come up short halfway through this book as it goes away and is replaced by the mood of a 1934 British episode of The Sopranos. The book needed to contain humour and action in about this 50:50 ratio, but to have them mixed evenly throughout the process so that each leavened the other. The puzzle is clever, the answer is surprising, and there are JDC’s usual writing skills in plotting and action to entertain the reader. Not one of his best, but not really one of his worst either.
My favourite edition
I prepared this piece while using the edition from Collier, AS466V, shown at the head of this text. My copy proved to be a little too fragile to want to use in this way and I switched to the undistinguished Zebra paperback from 1986.
If I were looking for a funky edition, I’d be looking for the 1943 trade-size edition from Detective Novel Classic / Novel Selections, shown nearby, which appears to be around US$20 as of today in a Good state. The cover is interesting, the typography is elegant, and the illustration actually depicts the card as it’s described in the book. Other than that, the lady in the orange shift being menaced by an epee is fun, and the Robert Maguire illustration is very collectible. This is Berkley G-48 from 1957, near the top. Pity there’s nothing in the book about a lady menaced by anything at all.