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

Till Death Do Us Part by John Dickson Carr

10 Stars (10/10 stars)

“Whatever your interpretation of the facts, don’t you find this situation just a little suspicious? Just a little unsavory?”

Dark clouds are threatening the village fete. Newly engaged Dick Markham and Lesley Grant are too much in love to care, however. Dick shows off his prowess at the rifle range, while keeping a fond eye on Lesley as she heads for the fortune-teller’s tent.

When she emerges from the tent, deeply shaken, it’s clear something has gone wrong. As thunder crashes and lightning throws their shadows on the walls of the tent, Dick confronts the soothsayer. Only this is no ordinary fortune-teller, but a figure from Lesley’s past. Before the man has a chance to share his revelations with Dick, a gunshot rings out. The fortune-teller has been shot—by sweet, shy Lesley. In the days that follow, Dick must face village gossip, a series of impossible crimes, and his own doubts. Is his fiancée a cold-blooded killer?

Till Death Do Us Part by John Dickson CarrTill Death Do Us Part begins with one of the greatest opening chapters of all time and only gets better from there. The sheer extravagance of John Dickson Carr’s ingenuity is breathtaking. Not a word is wasted; every throwaway remark or bit of background business comes back later, often more than once in different, but equally convincing, contexts. It’s impossible to put down, with the cliffhangers coming at a blinding pace. The less you know about the plot going in, the better, so this review will not reveal anything more about what happens.

Don’t be fooled by the seemingly mundane setting in the village of Six Ashes. This story is dripping with gothic atmosphere, as ordinary people and places are imbued with a sinister cast. The opening sequence at the fair is particularly effective, with the prospect of a summer storm foreshadowing the turmoil to come.

The sky had now grown so dark that Dick could discern a light inside the fortune-teller’s lair, which must have been hot to suffocation all afternoon. A heavier gust of wind ran among the tents, thrumming and rattling at canvas, and making the tents sway up like half-inflated balloons. The sign of the human hand was agitated grotesquely as though it were beckoning to them or waving them away.

There are, in fact, countless scenes in which Carr wrings terror from an empty cottage, a light coming on in a dark room, or an unexpected visitor. Gideon Fell is more subdued than usual here (which does not stop him from picking fights with Superintendent Hadley), but he and other characters deliver horrifying monologues of murder. Regardless of whether they are factually true, there is no denying their effect.

She’s being a fool, of course. But she must play with this bright shiny wonderful toy called murder […] It’s got her. She’s obsessed. That’s why she took the risk of shooting […], and trusting to innocent eyes and general gullibility to have it called an accident. All her preparations are made for somebody’s death. And she won’t be cheated of the thrill.

This is also a very human story. Dick and Lesley are in love but don’t fully trust each other. “The main thing was to get rid of these cobwebs of suspicion, these ugly clinging strands that wind into the brain and nerves until you feel the spider stir at the end of every one of them.” The irony is that if Dick does not learn to trust Lesley implicitly, they can never have a successful marriage. If he does, however, he may end up dead.

Till Death Do Us Part by John Dickson CarrMost of the events are seen from Dick’s perspective, which adds emotional urgency to the proceedings. It also provides an insight into his subconscious thoughts. Before he met Lesley, many of his neighbors expected him to marry his friend Cynthia—including Cynthia herself. When murder enters the picture, Dick begins to wonder whether Cynthia was such a good sport about his engagement after all. Indeed, for Dick, there are only two possible suspects for Six Ashes’ crime wave, Lesley or Cynthia. “One of these girls,” he thinks, “reading the matter like that, was clear-eyed and honest, telling the truth with sincere purpose. The other hid many ugly thoughts behind a pretty face, which might wear a very different expression if you caught it off guard.” Dick views the entire situation as a battle for his affections, and he is surprised to learn later that Dr. Fell has other theories as well. It’s truly anyone’s game, with suspects constantly falling in and out of the rotation as the detectives cycle through various possibilities.

Till Death Do Us Part is a kaleidoscope of crime. Turn it one way, and this person is guilty; turn it another, and it’s this murder method. The picture is constantly shifting. This story is all about perceptions, how easily and enormously they can be changed. While the ultimate solution is not Carr’s most challenging, he presents a truly dazzling array of suspects, motives, and methods, glorying in the possibilities. Till Death Do Us Part is a delight from start to finish.

Second Opinions

Crossexamining Crime

I wouldn’t say I am a particularly gullible person, but I certainly swallowed a number of erroneous ideas. Yet when it comes to the solution you can see how clue after clue is given to the reader and sometimes I even noticed them! But for all that I failed to put them together. It was like I could see pieces of information that were jigsaw puzzle pieces, but that I couldn’t figure out where they went or what picture they were trying to make up. Carr plays his surprises well in this book, as the reader receives more than one shock, given at unexpectedly critical moments.

The Green Capsule

As with He Who Whispers, everything about this story just works.  Riveting impossible crime – check.  Excellent pacing – check.  Memorable characters – check.  The feeling that the rug is constantly being pulled out from under you – che…well, this is a Carr novel, so I suppose that’s a given.

In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

Not the finest Fell novel – I still think that’s He Who Whispers – but a very strong contender and well worth a look. Highly Recommended.

The Invisible Event

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.

The Reader Is Warned

Till Death Do Us Part is pieced together so well that it left me baffled as to how Carr could have constructed it. The huge amount of ideas he places in each chapter never get overwhelming, and just when you think you know what’s happening he throws you in another direction, but each thread ties together without losing speed or agility. It reads like a high paced thriller, but with space enough for locations to tremble with an underlying horror and for clues to be laced everywhere. A lot of this pace rests in the perfectly formed size of cast. This allows for the suspicion that Carr has seeded in each member to grow to a maddening fever pitch as the plot twists further and further around. Similarly well formed is the small amount of locations, each being so well described while at the same time humming with clues and plot movements, each of which, by then end, you feel you know so well.

Tipping My Fedora

With its ingenious locked room mystery, a hero caught between two women, and a very cleverly hidden murderer, this is just a superb example of Carr at his very best. If you want to know why he is held in such high regard here at Fedora, then start with this book, you won’t be disappointed.

Availability

Till Death Do Us Part is out of print, but used copies are plentiful.

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4 thoughts on “Till Death Do Us Part (1944) by John Dickson Carr

  1. Completely agree, this is a magisterial performance, and easily one of the very finest GAD novels ever written. One of those books that, if someone read it and doesn’t like it, I’d be perfectly happy to say meant they weren’t going to find anything in the genre to their tastes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This really does have everything–not only the atmosphere, wit, and baffling impossible crimes one expects from Carr, but also a convincing emotional situation, which is not something I typically associate with his works.

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  2. Page for page, this may well be Carr’s best book. I still would probably rate The Problem of the Green Capsule ahead of it, but Till Death Do Us Part is an absolute page turner. It’s interesting though – I don’t really consider the locked room murder to be that good. It’s fine, but just doesn’t reach the heights of Carr’s other impossible crime material. But that doesn’t really matter – the jarring revelations and cliff hanger chapter endings make this one of the finest reads I’ve ever experienced.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The slightly underwhelming solution to that murder is probably the one weak point of the book. Literally any of the false solutions would have been better than the real one. But everything else is so compelling, I can give it a pass. It’s so well-constructed, you just have to keep tearing through to the end. A lot of books that are full of twists and cliffhangers depend on these for their interest; the only point is to find out what happens, and the story doesn’t always hold together once you do. You could read Till Death Do Us Part multiple times, knowing all the answers, and still find new things to notice.

      Liked by 1 person

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