“Of all the motiveless and unenterprising sluggards to gather up as suspects, the rest of us are the worst! At least, in a crime story, you get a lot of motives and plenty of suspicious behavior. You have a quarrel overheard by the butler, and somebody threatening to kill somebody, and somebody else sneaking out to bury a blood-stained handkerchief in the flower bed. . . . But here we’ve nothing of the kind.”
The Bishop of Mappleham has lost his mind. This worthy gentleman, previously known only for his interest in criminology, has turned the country home of his host Colonel Standish upside down with his antics, from sliding down the bannisters to throwing inkwells at the vicar. No one seems to know whether the Bishop is going mad or there’s a poltergeist on the loose. Still, it’s hardly a matter for Scotland Yard, until the Colonel’s neighbor, Septimus Depping, is found murdered in his study after a late-night thunderstorm, with all the windows wide open.
Dr. Gideon Fell doesn’t think it’s his kind of case. It seems far too ordinary. His interest is piqued, however, when he learns that a card depicting the eight of swords was found beside the body. Dr. Fell sets out to investigate, along with a host of fellow sleuths that include the crime-loving bishop and a detective story author, but will too many cooks spoil the murder?
The Eight of Swords is a delightful romp that is also a change of pace for Dr. Fell. John Dickson Carr is famous for impossible crimes, but here there is not a locked room in sight. What seems impossible is fitting together a collection of clues that all seem to contradict one another. Despite the many twists and turns of the investigation, Carr is equally focused on character-based comedy. This is not always his forte (Exhibit 1: The Blind Barber). Here, however, he hits most of the right notes.
Much of the comedy springs from the odd assortment of would-be detectives who attach themselves to the case. Dr. Fell’s regular sidekick, Inspector Hadley, makes a brief appearance at the start of the book, but is otherwise absent, correctly noting that “it hardly seems to concern us if a clergyman goes mad and slides down the banisters in Gloucestershire.” Dr. Fell soon picks up a number of eager assistants to fill his place. Of course there is the crime-mad Bishop of Mappleham, who is so keen on criminology that he sent his son Hugh to New York to study the subject at Columbia University. Hugh made it to New York, all right; the problem is that he never quite managed to get to class. While he has learned a great deal about blondes and bathtub gin, Hugh is uneasily aware that his knowledge of criminal investigation cannot stand up to a real murder case.
Another amateur sleuth is mystery novelist Henry Morgan, “the creator of John Zed, diplomatist-detective.” He and his wife Madeleine live in a picturesque cottage, drinking cocktails, playing jazz records, and wearing lounging pajamas as he cranks out best-sellers for Colonel Standish’s publishing company. Usually it’s Dr. Fell who provides meta commentary about detective novels, but here Morgan fills that position. Hugh prefers the exciting John Zed series to “the ones that are supposed to be very probable and real, where all they do is run around showing photographs to people.” Morgan turns out to be the author of that series as well, but, as he explains,
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.
Freeman Wills Crofts, do you need some ice for that burn?
Several of these amateur sleuths are hampered in their detection by the awkward fact that they are also suspects in the crime. Depping, who appeared to be a harmless, scholarly gentleman, managed to make a number of enemies during his short time in the village. In particular, Depping had a reputation for bothering young women, including Madeleine Morgan. Business partner Colonel Standish appreciates Depping’s investment in the publishing firm, but does not approve of his son marrying Depping’s daughter Betty. Depping’s roving eye had also landed on the Colonel’s daughter, Patricia—and maybe even his formidable wife. (One recurring bit that does not work is the strategy her family uses to stand up to Lady Standish, which is to tell her, “Nuts, Maw!” Imagine the hellish life this woman lives, with her husband and children constantly and inexplicably bellowing, “Nuts, Maw!” in response to everything she says.) There is one suspect everyone hopes is the killer: a visiting American whom the Bishop has identified as notorious blackmailer Louis Spinelli.
Meeting Patricia Standish changes Hugh’s whole outlook on the case. Patricia, you see, is a ginch. As Carr helpfully explains, the problem with modern detective novels circa 1934 is that there are just too many independent women running around firing revolvers and acting as if they are equal to men. But don’t worry, he has no intention of ruining his book by introducing any such “heroine” to the story when what readers really want is a ginch.
[Patricia] was not cool-headed or strong-minded. She could no more have accompanied the detectives with a gun than she could have brought down the villain with a flying tackle. Quite to the contrary, she was content to leave that sort of thing to the proper people; to beam up at you as though she were saying, “What a man!”—and you threw out your chest, and felt about nine feet tall, and said, “Ha, ha.” Nor, in her case, were there all those persistent attempts to freeze or embarrass the hero until the very last. She tumbled into Hugh Donovan’s arms from the start, and stayed there, and a very good thing too.
I am fascinated by Carr’s assertion that most mysteries of the time were too feminist, as in my experience of these works, ginches far outnumber intelligent heroines. As the relationship between Patricia and Hugh progresses, however, it becomes clear that her most ginchlike quality is her tactful acceptance of Hugh’s endless boozing. He is itching for a cocktail or a pint more or less constantly, and his lady love sympathizes.
If possible, that last remark of hers drew her closer to him than ever, a powerful, unspoken, dazzling sympathy. “He must be dying for a dri—” She knew. This must be the sort of thing Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote about in the sonnets…Such a glamour must have attended all the great sirens of the ages. In its absence there are unfulfilled romances. If, when Dante met Beatrice that famous time on the what’s-its-name bridge, Beatrice had smiled at him and whispered, “Look here, I could do with a slug of Chianti,” then the poor sap would have tried to find out her address and telephone number, instead of merely going home and grousing about it in an epic.
There is a lot of confusion leading up to the denouement, but the solution is a classic looking-glass crime. It’s one of those cases where nothing makes sense until you change your perspective, just a little, and then it all becomes clear. The one weakness of the solution is a particular piece of evidence that is accepted without question throughout the novel, only to be casually overturned at the end. It’s a bit of a cheat—it’s a very obvious thing to have checked (I certainly wondered why they hadn’t), yet if readers had been made privy to the results, the crime would have been solved instantly, so the result must stay hidden. The solution explains every strange clue so simply and elegantly that I’m willing to forgive this lapse, but it’s not quite fair play.
Aside from this moment of annoyance, The Eight of Swords is a rollicking mystery that skillfully keeps a number of pots on the boil. The puzzle is genuinely mystifying, with revelations about Depping’s secret life coming at a steady pace, and the solution is one of those rare ones where the moment the identity of the killer is revealed, the fog lifts and everything hits the reader at once. Though it may not be altogether fair, it is lots of fun.
This was an engrossing read with a well plotted mystery, fabulous writing, and injections of humor.
The Grandest Game in the World
This is one of Carr’s lesser books, and a disappointment after the two previous Fells.
It’s very strange. It’s almost like Carr wrote an excellent novella, didn’t quite know where to take it, and then padded it out to full novel length. Had the story maintained its original pace throughout, I’d be placing it on the mantel alongside The Four False Weapons and Death Watch. As it is, it’s merely a good mystery novel – a strong effort by most other authors but a bit short for Carr.
In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel
Without a locked room or impossibility in sight, the book gets put to one side when talking about the best or the worst of the Fell stories, sort of falling through the cracks. Which is a shame as it’s really worth a look to show Carr’s skill at constructing a non-impossible puzzle.
The Eight of Swords is out of print, with used copies available.
10 thoughts on “The Eight of Swords (1934) by John Dickson Carr”
A delightful review of a delightful book. Here’s mine, if you are interested:
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Excellent review, thanks so much for sharing! I agree that this is a fun read with a lot of entertaining details. Carr’s mischievous humor works very well here.
This is one of the Carr books where I kind of forget the details, or maybe remember all of the wrong parts. It’s been maybe 18 months since I read it, and I really have to think hard to remember the key aspects of the plot. I recall it all plays off of upending an assumption on the readers part, and I vaguely recall the nature of that assumption, but that’s about it.
Ok, yep, now I remember how it worked. A clever little bit, but more worthy of a novella.
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The story is definitely simple compared to many of Carr’s other works, but the solution plays out quite nicely. You may be right that it is better suited to a shorter work, since so much of the action ends up being irrelevant to the plot. Still, I really enjoyed it overall.
I freely admit that it’s been quite a while since I read this, but I remember loving it — I seem to remember two chapters towards the end of one guy following another guy around, which slows everything down, but apart from that it was the exact mix of chutzpah and invention you’d hope to see from someone at this stage in their career if they’re going to go on and be one of the greats. The various reversals around that room — why someone announces themself when they could just walk up the outside steps, why the windows are open in a blowing storm, etc — were especially ingenious.
You have me very excited to reread this now, just so see if it lives up to my memory.
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While it’s not one of Carr’s masterpieces, it’s wonderfully light and funny with an inventive solution. Looking back on it after reading, a lot of what happens is extraneous to the mystery (including that long sequence you mention), but most of it is fun in itself and adds to the fizzy atmosphere of the book.
Not to mention this is only one of four books Carr published that year. I am constantly marveling at the inventiveness of these prolific young writers in the 1930s. In 1934 alone, Carr published this, which is quite good, the sublime Plague Court Murders, The White Priory Murders, and The Blind Barber (which I personally hate, but it does have its fans). A pretty good batting average!
I feel like it’s possible to be massively impressed with most Carrian years pre-950: in 1939 he published The problem of the Green Capsule and The Reader is Warned, which is already two masterpieces more than many in the genre ever managed; 1946 was He Who Whispers and My late Wives, with enough atmosphere between them to fill ten books…the guy was a marvel we will never see his like again.
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It feels like a great accomplishment if I can manage to finish a blog post every so often, and here we have Carr casually tossing off one work of genius after another. Doesn’t seem quite fair, does it?