The Eight of Swords (John Dickson Carr)

By John Dickson Carr

First published: US, Harper, 1934; UK, Hamish Hamilton, 1934

Blurb (US)

Carr - The Eight of Swords US.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Dr. Fell, of The Mad Hatter Mystery, is back again, more amusing and omniscient than before.  In The Eight of Swords he is faced with the sort of problem in which his acute and devious mind delights.  When the poltergeist took to playing strange pranks in the haunted bedroom at the Grange and the Bishop was seen sliding down the banisters, Scotland Yard was more amused than disturbed.  But when Depping, the humble old scholar and connoisseur of wines and foods was found murdered in his study, they sent Dr. Fell down to investigate.  As soon as Dr. Fell saw the card, representing the Eight of Swords, the partially eaten dinner on the tray, and the buttonhook which had been used to blow the fuses, he knew the murderer.  But there was a great deal to be explained before he could prove it, and his solution will remain a classic example of deductive reasoning combined with thrilling plot.  The book is also replete with a sort of Chestertonian humor that makes it something different in the way of mysteries.

Blurb (UK)

Carr - The Eight of Swords UK.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

When the Bishop would not behave himself, but insisted on seeing criminals all over the house, Colonel Standish’s country house went slightly mad.  First it was only a question of who threw the ink-bottle at the Vicar.  The familiar summons, ‘Call Dr. Fell,’ did not sound until old Septimus Depping was found shot through the head, with a card bearing the Eight of Swords under his hand.  Dr. Fell had one good clue – the button-hook – but the chief clue was so big that nobody else could see it.  It was a quiet community in which to murder a publisher.  Still, somebody had been walking about in young Standish’s shoes, and the red note-book was found on the stairs in the Ghost’s Room.

Dr. Fell is at his genial best among a crowd of genial suspects.  Henry Morgan, the distinguished author of Murder on the Woolsack and Aconite in the Admiralty, discusses thrillers with some levity; J. R. Burke is full of Olympian thunder, like all publishers; and Patricia Standish will please the reader as much as she pleased Hugh Donovan.  The murderer might have been an author, a publisher, a clergyman, a gangster, or a housewife; but you are not likely to guess which one until Dr. Fell opens the balcony door.

My review

Hugh Donovan had an uneasy feeling that nonsense was beginning to assume the colours of ugly purpose.

This is one of Carr’s lesser books, and a disappointment after the two previous Fells. It is standard period stuff — i.e., English country-house with American gangsters running around the place, and everyone ranting and raving about drink. Dr. Fell competes against the Bishop of Mappleham, a methodical criminologist, who recognises the error of his ways. This character, the Bishop of Mappleham, is a good portrayal of obsession. There are no red herrings, and the murderer doesn’t appear enough. This solution, a variation of which formed the solution of the final Dr. Fell novel, Dark of the Moon (1967), seems to be the next logical step in the Bencolin saga.

The book is, surprisingly for Carr, stylishly poor, and told in a most irritating vein. Carr uses an interesting, though ultimately self-defeating, approach: the reader is unsure whether he is reading a comedy (the infamous Dr. Sigismund von Hornswoggle scene, Bishops sliding down bannisters, and mysterious poltergeists) or an atmospheric thriller (the final three chapters, containing the last two murders, are very tense).

On an incidental note, there is a satire of critics. To write a story that the critics will enjoy, there “has to be no action, no atmosphere whatever (that’s very important), as few interesting characters as possible, absolutely no digressions, and above all things, no deduction.” In other words, you have to be Freeman Wills Crofts. Carr was obviously fairly annoyed about the reviews he had been receiving in the paper — The Times Literary Supplement dismissed The Mad Hatter Mystery and The Eight of Swords (see below) as being poor stories. Dorothy L Sayers, on the other hand, had been writing rave reviews of his work, and served as his sponsor and patron.

Contemporary reviews

Sunday Times (Dorothy L. Sayers, 24th March 1934):

Moments of Brilliance

The Eight of Swords suffers from a kind of general looseness and unevenness.  There are moments of good detection, moments of brilliant character-drawing, and moments of horror and of the queer suggestiveness in which Mr. Carr excels, but there are too many moments of what I can beset call, in the wireless sense of the word, “fading”.

We start off with the Bishop sliding exuberantly down the banisters, but the episcopal glory grows dim in the sequel, and the tone of this noble opening is not consistently maintained.  Nor does Dr. Gideon Fell ever get quite enough scope for his endearing eccentricities.  The curious Mummerzet spoken by the local policeman reminds us that the author is not an Englishman, and, while, it is probably no worse than English attempts at rendering American dialect, it helps to make the story stagey and unreal.

The book needs pulling together.  It shines, but only by intermittent flashes, and it is by the light of those flashes that it must be read.


Times Literary Supplement (19th April 1934):

This book contains four violent deaths.  One is a mystery.  The others are more or less in the way of business.  Poetic justice is vindicated all round.  For all the villains die unpleasantly.  There is a fine scene of a midnight tracking which, while it lasts, holds the attention.  There are also a comic bishop, a comic chief constable, who is in addition both a rich country gentleman and a publisher, a comic, but omniscient, amateur detective and a comic inspector of police, who talks an unidentifiable dialect, as well as a number of minor characters introduced, apparently, for the purpose of confusing the issue.  The result is to produce in the reader a sense of bewilderment.  The motive for the chief murder is plain when you are told what it is, though no one could guess it beforehand.  But there seems to be no motive for any other action in the book.  Mr. Carr has a theory how the detective novel should be written; so these things are not accidental.  Unfortunately he also has a theory that humour is engendered by the simple process of allowing his characters to be very rude to one another.


Books (Will Cuppy, 18th February 1934, 260w):

Dorothy L. Sayers has come forward with the following testimonial for our author: ‘Mr. Carr can lead us away from the small, artificial, brightly lit stages of the ordinary detective plot into the menace of outer darkness.  He can create atmosphere with an adjective.  He can alarm with an illusion or delight with a rollicking absurdity.  He can invent a passage from a lost work of Edgar Allan Poe and make it sound like the real thing.  In short, he can write—in the sense that every sentence gives a thrill of positive pleasure.’


NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 25th February 1934, 250w):

You can’t afford to miss this one.


Chicago Daily Tribune (Mortimer Quick, 10th March 1934, 120w):

He’s not so funny as Wodehouse of whom this book is reminiscent, nor so sound as Miss Sayers herself.  You’ll be amused and mystified and I take it that is what most mystery story readers are after.  Take note of the fat and wheezy Dr. Fell.  He seems destined to appear in many a future yarn.


Sat R of Lit (10th March 1934, 30w):

Barring a little over-cuteness this tale of villainy in rural England rings the bell vigorously.  Top-notch.


John O’London’s Weekly (24th March 1934):

“Luscious ginch”, a synonym for a personable young woman which is new to me and which I could bear never to hear again.


Spectator (Sylva Norman, 13th April 1934, 100w):

After being sprightly, Mr. Carr tries to be stark; and the two ambitions spoil one another.  Still, the book is above the average thriller.


Morning Post:

Something outstanding in the way of detection.