JOHN DICKSON CARR – The Eight of Swords. Dr. Gideon Fell #3. Harper & Brothers, US, hardcover, 1934. Paperback reprints include: Detective Novel Classic #32, digest-sized, circa 1942; Berkley G-48, 1957; Collier AS466V, 1962; Zebra, August 1986.

   This early Carr novel seems to show the author still trying to find his voice, and not quite succeeding. Even though it has a deliciously complicated puzzle plots, I don’t consider this to be one of his better ones.

   It starts out in broad farce, with a house party being remembered by all those present with the sight of a bishop sliding down a banister and a poltergeist popping a vicar in the eye with a bottle in ink, and ends in a much darker mood with what Carr believes to be authentic American gangsters having a shootout on the same estate in the dead of night.

   The dead man (for there is one) was a reclusive gent who tried his best to fit into proper British society, but never quite did. There is no locked room in this story, but the circumstances surrounding his murder is so complicated it takes a whole crew of detectives to sort it all out.

   There is Fell himself, of course, as both a shabby, comic figure and the most brilliant man in the room; the bishop, an amateur criminologist par excellence, at least in his own mind; his son, whom he sent to Columbia University to learn criminology but who never attended a class; and a mystery writer named Henry Morgan, who along with his charming wife decides that solving a real life crime may be as much fun as writing one.

   There is also a ginch involved, a term invented (I believe) by none other than John Dickson Carr, an absolutely delectable girl the bishop’s son falls in love with at first sight. She has very little to do with the story, but every one of Carr’s heroes needs a ginch on hand to keep bth the romantic aspects covered and his mind otherwise occupied.

   But any of Carr’s tales, no matter how he tells them, depends on the solution, and this one’s a doozy. It takes 19 pages to explain this one, and I have to admit I was nowhere close to figuring this one out. Stories relying on too may people doing too many unusual things on the same night as they do in this book could never happen in real life, but if you can get over that not insignificant hurdle, final chapters like this ought to be remembered forever.