TILL DEATH DO US PART (1944) by John Dickson Carr

This classic Golden Age detective story tends to get a little lost among the multitude and enthralling mysteries that John Dickson Carr was producing at such a prodigious rate at that time. It begins with a superb set piece in the tent of a fortune-teller at the end of a village fete that is being enveloped by thunder and lightning. Before long a shot is fired, a recently engaged couple find their happiness under threat and Gideon Fell has to investigate a complex locked room mystery. As a reader, I couldn’t be happier …

I submit this review for Bev’s 2017 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt; and Todd Mason’s Tuesday’s Overlooked Media meme over at his fab Sweet Freedom blog.

“This woman,” said Sir Harvey clearly, “is a thorough going bad hat. The sooner you get used to that idea, the sooner you’ll get over it. And the safer you’ll be.”

The playwright Richard Markham lives in a very small village not too far from Hastings and has just got engaged to Lesley Grant, who only moved there a few months earlier. This caused a few ripples in the community as many assumed he would be marrying Cynthia. The star attraction at the village fete is the fortune-teller who, as gossip has it, is really renowned home office pathologist Sir Harvey Gilman, who is on his holidays incognito. Lesley goes to get her future told but exits shortly after, clearly upset at what she has been told. Richard marches in to find out what happened, at which point the other man is shot through the canopy and collapses! Lesley had been holding a target rifle from one of the other  stalls and her arm was apparently jogged. Later that evening the local doctor asks Richard over to speak to him as the cottage rented by Gilman, who only suffered a flesh wound. He tells Richard that Lesley is not who she claims to be but is in fact a notorious poisoner who killed two men she was previously married to and another who discovered her secret, dispatching them in such a way as to avoid prosecution – all three apparently injected themselves with prussic acid and died in a locked room. Richard refuses to believe it, but so many of the details provided by Gilman are true to Lesley (including her mysterious safe) that he starts to doubt her – this is exacerbated when Cynthia senses that something is up. Early the next morning Richard received an anonymous phone call and races over to Gilman’s house, arriving just as a gun is fired at the house – the same gun Lesley had held but which after had gone missing. Inside the house, with doors and windows locked, is the body of the fortune-teller.

“Damned queer show altogether. Because, d’ye see, somebody fired that bullet at just about the same time – more or less the same time, certainly – when he was injecting the poison into his own arm!”

Gideon Fell is referenced several times by Gilman and the local doctor, who knows him and fetches him from nearby Hastings after the murder. Thus Fell he only appears at the halfway mark – and right away smashes all our assumptions, with Carr delivering one of those plotting master-strokes that are designed to leave a detective story fan with a gigantic grin on their face.

And …

Well, I’m going to stop right there. There is much more to follow, including another murder, and a terrific finish. With it’s 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. But don’t just take my word for – see also what JJ had to say about it at, The Invisible Event; the Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel; Martin Edwards at Do You Write Under Your Own Name?; and Moira of Clothes in Books.

In 1997 the BBC broadcast a two-part adaptation of the book as part of its Gideon Fell series starring the late Donald Sinden – these were all produced and directed by Enyd Williams and dramatised by Peter Ling.

  1. The House in Gallows Lane, part 1: The Fortune-Teller (8 October 1997)
  2. The House in Gallows Lane, part 2: The Point of a Pin (15 October 1997)

In adapting it, Ling made a number of small cosmetic changes to keep the series consistent, including giving a more prominent role for Hadley (the books adapted for the series were nearly all chosen from the ones in which he originally appeared). While the book was probably meant to be set in 1937 (Carr is not specific), the radio version is set in 1936 and begins with Fell on the case. Indeed, the most obvious changes relate to his role, which makes sense of course in the context of a continuing series. Thus, Fell is there pretty much from the beginning and appears now in most for the major scenes that previously only featured Markham on his own. And Michael Cochrane gets a nicely expanded role as Lord Ashe while a couple of subsidiary roles are dropped for convenience (each episode is only 41 minutes long).

“Just a minute. Did you hit her?”

But apart from a few changes, this is a faithful and entertaining adaptation with Richard Todd having an especially good time as the fortune-teller, while Sinden is growing on me as Fell. This two-part serial has now been released on CD by the BBC in a box set, Dr Gideon Fell: Collected Cases: Classic Radio Crime, which like the earlier release on cassette tape, brings it together with their version of The Hollow Man. It is also available for download. Hopefully the rest of the series will soon follow.

The Dr Gideon Fell Mysteries (BBC Radio, 1997-2001):

  • The Hollow Man 2 parts (26 March – 2 April 1997)
  • The House in Gallows Lane – 2-parts  (8-15 October 1997), a re-titled adaptation of Carr’s novel, Till Death Do Us Part
  • To Wake the Dead – 2 parts (22-29 October 1997)
  • The Blind Barber (5 November 1997)
  • The Black Spectacles (9 May 1998)
  • The Mad Hatter Mystery (3 July 1999)
  • He Who Whispers (25 March 2000)
  • Below Suspicion (20 January 2001)

The House in Gallows Lane / Gideon Fell (BBC Radio Four, 8-15 October 1997)
Director: Enyd Williams
Producer: Enyd Williams
Scriptwriter: Peter Ling
Cast: Donald Sinden (Fell), John Hartley (Hadley), Robert Portal (Dick Markham), Richard Todd (Sir Harvey Gilman),  Alison Pettitt (Lesley Grant), John Woodnutt (Major Price), Rachel Atkins (Cynthia Drew), Christopher Wright (Dr Minster), Brian Parr (PC Miller), Michael Cochrane (Lord Ashe)

For my microsite devoted to John Dickson Carr (and Carter Dickson), click here.

I submit this review for Bev’s  2017 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt in the ‘bottle of poison’ category:

***** (5 fedora tips out of 5)

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This entry was posted in 2017 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt, Audio Review, England, Five Star review, Gideon Fell, John Dickson Carr, Locked Room Mystery, London, Tuesday's Overlooked Film. Bookmark the permalink.

61 Responses to TILL DEATH DO US PART (1944) by John Dickson Carr

  1. Carr did create some memorable settings and ‘impossible’ mysteries, didn’t he, Sergio? And there’s nothing like the a atmosphere of the fortune teller’s tent – and then the rainstorm. Just a great setup for the story, I think. And of course, there’s the Gideon Fell character….

  2. Colin says:

    Another post which I’m afraid I just skimmed, at least the first few paragraphs, as I’m going to reread this soonish.
    I don’t know why but I remember next to nothing about it – it has been a long time and it’s possible or even probable that I went through it very quickly. Anyway, it means that it’s essentially a new book for me now, so I’m not going to complain. I do know that when I first came to it I was unaware of how it was regarded – it may not have been exactly pre-internet days but there most assuredly wasn’t the same number of views and opinions accessible.

    • I re-read this with great pleasure. i did, as it turned out, remember how the central gimmick worked, but that is because it is one he re-used not once but twice, which was very unusual for Carr as he very rarely repeated himself in books. but I think he liked this particular solution!

      • Colin says:

        I may pick up on it as I go through then but I’m not bothered either way. It will probably be the end of the month or October before I get to it – I’m back in Athens right now and may stay if I can sort out work satisfactorily. Anyway, I’m a bit busy and reading little at the moment.

  3. Oh goodness – I’m starting to think I’ll have to read everything the man ever wrote….

  4. JJ says:

    I’ve never really understood the love this book gets; it’s middle-ground at best, and actually a little dull in places…

    Nah, I’m kidding. It’s freakin’ amazing, one of the most geniously-constructed and -plotted books I’ve ever read. In a field positively overflowing with “essential” books, this is one of the most essential.

  5. I’ll echo the praise for this one – along with The Black Spectacles and He Who Whispers, it’s one of the finest Fell mysteries – hell, one of the finest anyone mysteries out there. An absolute cracker.

    I had no idea that the BBC adapted so many of the Carr books – but The Blind Barber? Really?

    • Hear, hear! BARBER actually works fairly well for radio – mind you, I don’t remember the book that well so do need to re-read that one.

      • JJ says:

        I will defend the central trick of Barber to my dying breath; no, the book around it isn’t funny in the least and seems to be under the impression it’s a right laff riot, but the subtlety of that piece of misdirection is so beautifully sweet that I’ll not stand idly by and have it slandered.

  6. tracybham says:

    Another of Carr’s books that I will have to try. Right now I only have a few of his books, and I usually don’t run into more than one at the book sale. Very weird. It is coming up in two weeks so I maybe luckier this year and if not, I will look for more online.

    • I hope there are a few more 😀

      • tracybham says:

        I did find this book at the book sale this year, Sergio. Serendipitously, I did not have a list for Carr because I knew I only owned a few. I just bought every one that I found by him (about 8 or 10 I am guessing). I have to go through the rest of them soon and figure out if you have reviewed them.

        • You have a great treat ahead of you Tracy – which other ones did you get?

          • tracybham says:

            The other books I got at the sale were:
            The Crooked Hinge
            The Problem of the Wire Cage
            The Devil in Velvet
            Fire, Burn!
            The Corpse in the Waxworks
            Captain Cut Throat
            and The Eight of Swords.

          • These are all terrific books Tracy – hope you love them. Then hopefully on to his later ego, “Carter Dickson” and the adventures of Henry Merivale (although Yvette hates his OTT manner in some of the books:)

          • tracybham says:

            I believe that the only Merrivale book that I have is The Skeleton in the Clock (with a very nice cover). I bought that one when I was getting some mapback editions last year.

          • Quite near the end of Merrivale’s career so maybe not his best but pretty decent as I recall.

          • tracybham says:

            I had heard that it was not that good comparatively (although, as with all books, opinions vary) but with such a great cover and title, I will be reading it anyway.

          • Along with the one that followed, A GRAVEYARD TO LET, it was the last of the decent Merivale titles but any of the ones published up until then are terrific value, honest!

  7. Bev Hankins says:

    I quite enjoyed this one when I read it back in 2013. I thought it fairly satisfying locked room mystery by the master. I certainly didn’t figure out the locked room method. And, as always, I thoroughly enjoyed watching Gideon Fell figure out the clues. My only quibble is that I didn’t think we’re given enough information to really be able to sort the killer. I didn’t pick up even a whiff of the motive–not even when looking back after being presented with the culprit.

  8. Anne H says:

    As if I don’t have piles of books to read already, each time these Carr/Dickson reviews send me to the book for the nth re-read. I went against popular opinion on the last, Nine and Death Makes Ten and on reflection wouldn’t take back a word of it. I don’t read these to pick the solution to the puzzle to pieces, which is why The Crooked Hinge is still my favourite, even as it slides out of top 10 lists. I read for enjoyment. When I read the last one’s solution my immediate reaction was ‘I don’t believe a word of it’ and as I sort of hinted, I felt Carr’s heart somehow wasn’t in it. Too much puzzle too cleverly worked out, too little of credible actors in the drama.
    How different my reaction to Till Death,which I first read about 60 years years ago. It is great, it works, it gets better if that’s possible with each re-reading. As to motive, well – a good Carr/Dickson disarms criticism, I don’t even think to go there.

    • Thanks for that Anne. I think there is a lot to enjoy is Carr, from his use of Gothic and spooky trappings, his sense of humour, his often surprisingly modern views of justice and sexuality (especially how political conservative he was) – and then you have some of the best-plotted whodunits around. I think is cleverer at masking a villain than almost anyone, but that is not the only reason to read him, I quite agree – same goes for the impossible mysteries. They are often brilliant icing on the cake 🙂

  9. When Carr was on his game, he wrote some of the greatest mysteries of the Golden Age. Your excellent reviews of the Carr/Dickson mysteries remind us of his greatness!

  10. Sounds too good to pass up. Just ordered it from Abe Books. On your head be it, Sergio. Ha! At least it’s not another Merrivale, though you make this one sound so good, I wouldn’t have passed it up regardless. 🙂

  11. Mathew Paust says:

    Wooo, five of five! Definitely time to read some Carr. I did get a used three-novel volume awhile back but the print’s so small I can’t read it. I need a Kindle version!

  12. Colin says:

    I said I was going to read (or reread actually) this at some point in the autumn so I’m just popping back in to say I finished it last night, and thoroughly enjoyed it.
    Even as I was going through it I recalled very little – the setting was about all – so I’m not sure what that means, probably an indictment of my crummy memory!
    Anyway, the hook is a good one and Carr’s deceptions really draw you in; it’s artful stuff and I have to say I find it a pleasure to be hoodwinked with such aplomb. And once again I find myself impressed by Carr’s broadminded attitude – very refreshing.

    I’m going to try to squeeze in the radio version asap and then, or maybe simultaneously, it’s on to a Christie revisit. I’m not sure if I’ll manage another Carr book before Xmas, or just hold off and do my usual by reading one over the holiday period.

    • Glad it held up for you. I remembered the murder me this but very little else and I think it speaks to Carr’s great skill in setting up mood and character that knowing how doesn’t spoil it. And yes, for someone who was so politically conservative always fascinating how modern and progressive he was in personal matters! Carr at Christmas is such a good idea, I “adopted” that several years ago from you 😀

      • Colin says:

        I find myself going back over a lot of stuff I read at high speed many years ago – and I do think the pace was (a big?) part of the reason I retain only fuzzy memories of many – and taking a more leisurely approach to them. I find it’s worked very well so far.
        The Christmas idea grew out of my desire to have a more relaxed time to read and just soak in the atmosphere, and then it became a custom with me more or less by accident. It’s an enjoyable habit though.

        • A superb idea chum. And yes, in the 80s I read probably thousands of mysteries probably at top speed. But I regret nothing (on that score anyway)

          • Colin says:

            Can’t say I have any particular regrets in that area either – if I went through some material too fast, then I’m now having fun going back to certain titles almost as though it were the first time.

          • I would quite like re-read some authors entirely, like Graham Greene, as I rwad pretty muchh all of them in my late teens and do need to see if my opinions stand up at all! Quite often I find they do – not always happy about this as one would like to think that some maturation of the critical faculties might have taken place instead of the more likely opposite …

          • Colin says:

            Not sure how my critical facilities have changed, although I suspect I’ve mellowed if anything.
            I keep meaning to go back and read some more Greene, or revisit some works, but it always gets postponed for one reason or another.

          • I think I overlooked more things then but am also more accepting in an aware way … if that makes sense 😀

          • Colin says:

            Yes, it does.

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