Till Death Do Us Part by John Dickson Carr

Originally published in 1944
Dr. Gideon Fell #15
Preceded by Death Turns the Tables
Followed by He Who Whispers

Crime author Dick Markham is in love again; his fiancée the mysterious newcomer to the village, Lesley Grant. When Grant accidentally shoots the fortune teller through the side of his tent at the local fair – following a very strange reaction to his predictions – Markham is reluctantly brought into a scheme to expose his betrothed as a suspected serial husband poisoner.

That night the enigmatic fortune teller – and chief accuser – is found dead in an impossible locked-room setup, casting suspicion onto Grant and striking doubt into the heart of her lover. Lured by the scent of the impossible case, Dr. Gideon Fell arrives from London to examine the perplexing evidence and match wits with a meticulous killer at large.

In my four years of crime fiction blogging, I cannot recall being as excited about a vintage crime reprint as I was when I heard that Till Death Do Us Part would be reissued as part of the British Library Crime Classics range. I had previously enjoyed the story in the form of the very faithful BBC Radio adaptation starring Donald Sinden but I was looking forward to getting to read the story properly for myself. Little wonder then that when the package arrived on my doorstep last weekend I immediately put everything else to one side and read it cover-to-cover in a single sitting.

Crime writer Dick Markham arrives at a village fête with Lesley Grant, a woman who has only lived in the area for a matter of months. We learn that the couple have just become engaged and are planning to share the good news later that day. Before they do however they decide they will enjoy some of the attractions and they head to the fortune teller’s booth where a man billed as The Great Swami promises to tell their fortunes.

Lesley enters the tent while Dick chats to the Major who is operating the shooting range next to it. He shares his good news but is surprised when Lesley emerges from the tent looking upset. Dick heads inside to speak to the Swami but before he can learn anything a gunshot is fired through the canvas. He emerges to find Lesley asserting that the rifle, which she had not wanted to hold, had fired by accident. It all seems pretty suspicious, particularly when he receives a telephone call from the doctor asking him to visit his patient who has some information to share with him about his bride to be…

This is a really intriguing setup because of the way it plays around with information. There is the information about Dick’s engagement which we learn may be distressing to at least one other inhabitant of the village, then there’s the information about the Swami’s identity and then there’s the information he has about Lesley. These opening pages are packed with revelations, each serving to shift our understanding of the situation and what is happening long before the murder even takes place. I love the sense of discovery in these early chapters and would suggest that the best way to enjoy this story is to just throw yourself straight into it and be surprised.

The murder comes pretty early in this one and does present an impossibility of sorts, though I do not want to overplay this element of the story. While it’s certainly there and does involve some well-clued details, I think what makes this a compelling story is not so much the mechanics of the crime as the tensions and suspicions it brings about in the various characters.

The story follows Dick’s perspective and so we experience his growing doubts and worries about Lesley as he battles with things he comes to learn and suspect. Carr does this well, incorporating some elements of domestic suspense into the story as Dick grapples with whether he can trust Lesley, how his feelings for her might be affected by what he is told and how he should interact with her moving forwards.

The decision to closely follow Dick means that we are kept at a slight distance not only from Lesley but also from Dr. Gideon Fell who enters the story shortly after the body is found though he is talked about several times prior to that. This is an effective technique as it serves to remind us of Fell’s reputation as a genius for solving impossible crimes, heightening our anticipation for the moment of his arrival. Even once he does appear our focus remains on Dick with some of Fell’s ideas and deductions being kept under wraps until near the end when he swoops in to bring about a resolution. Still, while Fell is utilized in a more limited way than some other of his stories I find him utterly engaging whenever he does appear and would consider this one of his best outings that I have read to date.

One aspect of the novel that I think is very striking is its depiction of life within the confines of an English village. There is of course the depiction of a village festival with their sometimes quite clunky stalls and games as well as the idea that someone might be a bigger celebrity in a small village than they would be in a more urban area hence all of the attention that the villagers pay to Dick. This also feeds into some aspects of the case and in some of the tensions surrounding Dick’s relationship with Lesley. After all the village is a small place and people will gossip, adding pressure to an already tricky situation.

The solution, when it is presented, is a clever one though I admit to finding a few of the crucial details a little tricky to visualize at first. Some aspects of this though are very clever, particularly those relating to what is observed around the time that the gunshot is fired. While Carr has been more ingenious, I do appreciate how the story comes together overall.

What I think seals its status for me as one of the best I have read to date is the manner of the resolution. This is not just an exciting scene which follows a little burst of action, I feel that the construction of this sequence is exceptional and makes very good use once again of the distance between Dick and Fell, building up to a really powerful conclusion that provides some solid closure.

Overall then I have to unimaginatively concur with those voices who suggest that this is one of the best Dr. Fell mysteries. While I wish I had something a little more creative to say about it, all I can really offer is my belief that this holds together really well and that it was a joy to experience again even knowing the solution. This is about as highly recommended as they come.

The Verdict: One of the best Carrs I have read to date, this is every bit as good as its reputation offering a scenario full of twists and turns and a very satisfying conclusion. Highly recommended.

24 thoughts on “Till Death Do Us Part by John Dickson Carr

  1. Aidan – Glad you enjoyed this one.

    TDDUP is about as close to perfection as GAD gets for me. Dazzling plot, difficult to put down, interesting characters, midway and end reveals, atmospheric, doesn’t sag in the middle, nice puzzle, etc.

    Everyone should get a copy of this (in fact get two and give one to a friend to discover). This should be more widely known and with the British Library reprint, perhaps it now will.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s interesting— though I like impossible crime tales, I would not consider myself a particular fan of that specific sub genre. And yet, if I were to choose only three favorite puzzle plot novels of GAD stories, they would be this novel, Death of Jezebel, and And Then There Were None— all three of which entail an impossible crime. And if we’re to expand that list to five, I’d probably include He Who Whispers and Five Little Pigs… making it four out of five.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Scott K, brilliant choices. I would have the exact same list amongst my favourites as well.

      Given TDDUP has been re-printed, I would love to see DoJ and HWW re-printed as well. It is an impossible crime in and of itself that neither of these wonderful books are available for more people to enjoy.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Great choices indeed. DoJ has the second greatest solution to an impossible crime I’ve ever read. The devilish and macabre nature of the trick makes it so that it would be right at home in a shin honkaku story.


      2. A reprint of Death of Jezebel would be manna from heaven for us GAD enthusiasts… I’m more than thankful enough for what has been reprinted by American Mystery Classics, BLCC, Locked Room International, etc. thus far, but that specific reprint is one of the few things which I can’t help but wish for.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s interesting— though I like impossible crime tales, I would not consider myself a particular fan of that specific sub genre. And yet, if I were to choose only three favorite puzzle plot novels of GAD stories, they would be this novel, Death of Jezebel, and And Then There Were None— all three of which entail an impossible crime. And if we’re to expand that list to five, I’d probably include He Who Whispers and Five Little Pigs… making it four out of five.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What I like about this one is that the impossibility isn’t the sole focus – it is the strangeness leading up to it and the relatable situation Carr creates. I would suggest that the same is true of ATTWN too.

      Liked by 3 people

  4. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this, one of the universally popular Carrs, and I believe one of his own personal favourites. Often I’ll be able to answer at least one of the big questions (who, how, why) before the final chapter/s when it comes to JDC, either intuitively or through reasoning, or combination of both. This is one of a handful that caught me out all ends up (The Reader is Warned is another that expertly managed that feat). So the sense of sudden retrospective illumination was acute.

    Regarding the impossibility, the trick at its core it quite basic; however its the manner of concealment that I think is rather ingenious. The same mechanism is used in The Kennel Murder Case by S.S. Van Dine; only difference is that in TDDUP it is applied to the other means of egress from a locked room. I usually point anyone having difficulty visualising the method to the movie adaptation of TKMC with William Powell where it is very clearly demonstrated.

    Lovely cover on the reprint it has to be said. Well suited to what is arguably Carr’s finest country village story.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I didn’t know there was a film version of the TKMC and will look for that. Great to see a re-enactment of the impossibility in that one as well as TDDUP. Thanks for highlighting that.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m surprised you were unfamiliar with the film of The Kennel Murder Case, which is one of the most famous and highly regarded cinematic adaptations of GAD works… and probably the most well known feature film adaptation of an impossible crime novel (though the 1946 The Verdict— an adaptation of Zangwill’s The Big Bow Mystery— perhaps comes close). Though nearly all of the Philo Vance novels (with the exception of The Kidnap and Winter Murder Cases) have been filmed, Kennel is nearly universally held as the most dazzlingly cinematic. Ironically, my second favorite of the group is perhaps the least faithful to its source novel, the 1930 adaptation of The Benson Murder Case.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. This is an excellent Carr book, but I think some of the glowing enthusiasm raised my expectations a bit too high. I cannot deny that the book has an un-put-downable quality and I zipped through it in two sittings, but I came away feeling a little more mixed when I have while reading other Carr novels. It’s just outside my top five (after Three Coffins, He Who Whispers, Green Capsule, Crooked Hinge, and Burning Court) and I think part of it has to do with the lack of a forward-slapping, gut punch solution. I had a pretty strong inkling of whodunnit for a while and it proved to be right in the end.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I can certainly see your point and would agree that the solution is not the strongest element of the book for me. What I really love about this book is the journey as a whole even before we ever get an inkling of what the impossibility will be. It’s one of those stories where I think the less you know about it going in the better so you can enjoy the ride.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Great review; you put all of the praises I have about this book in such a clear and concise way, but still a joy to read!
    I’ve actually just read TDDUP for the first time over the weekend, and although I wasn’t in need of a reminder of Carr’s greatness, it served that purpose. I actually got closer to figuring out the locked room solution than with any of his others I’ve read, but I still couldn’t put everything together by the end. This really is a masterpiece of plotting, and decisively subtle but well-shown cluing. The who and why were a complete surprise to me but looking back on the story it all made sense. It seems that some people say the locked-room solution is a bit too mechanical, but while it does have that quality I was actually able to picture it quite clearly and I thought the whole thing was very clever. I’m so glad this had been reprinted because it’s just such an exemplary piece of detective fiction, and it’s available for so many more people to read!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I am glad that you had as good a time with this as I did. I have mentioned before but I am not a particularly imaginative reader – I rarely see a crime scene (which is probably part of the reason why I appreciate a good map or diagram) and so the technicalities of how a particular item functioned escaped me. On the other hand I had no difficulty visualizing the rest of the steps though and I really enjoyed the solution regardless.
      Hopefully the Carr reprints continue for some time to come!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I’m much looking forward to Penzler’s reprint of The Eight of Swords, and also hope that what we are seeing is a new era of mass Carr reprinting. I especially hope The Problem of the Green Capsule is reprinted or at least released as an ebook since it’s such a monumental (and monumentally good) work of his.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m with Nick on this one. It’s overrated IMO. I just am not at all buying the push pins and the string business. It’s so silly and exactly the kind of thing writers who loathe detective fiction would pick up on and make fun of. Eight of Swords is another one that I can’t figure out the reason for its being reprinted. I never finished that one. Imagine! Being so disappointed with it all that I couldn’t be bothered to read the last two chapters. What with masterpieces like He Who Whispers, The Burning Court, and The Emperor’s Snuffbox still not in modern reprints I can’t wrap my head around the choices these editors and publishers are delivering to the masses.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The push pins is the aspect of this story that I find least satisfying too. I love the way though that Carr continually shifts Dick’s understanding of what is happening. There are some elements of psychological suspense that I think are far more successful here than they are in other stories where Carr attempts to throw doubt on a romantic interest and I do enjoy the process of working through those ideas. Similarly I like the note that is struck at the end – it is one of the better examples of that type of resolution.
      Still, I look forward to encountering some of those other stories you list if you rate them even more highly. I have a lot of great Carr ahead of me and hopefully more reprints will follow.


      1. I think the flaw of the push pins business is primarily found in Carr’s explanation of it. It’s not really that complex a matter— it’s basically just the keyhole device of The Kennel Murder Case, made crystal clear in the film version in a matter of seconds, but made so much more ingenious in TDDUP by its conjunction with the bullet hole and the time-shift deception involved with that. I just think that Carr described it in too laborious detail, so that it came off as really complex thing that it isn’t.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. John, part of me wonders (hopes?!) if the reason for certain titles being reprinted is that the various publishers are now broadly working their way through Carr chronologically. Eight of his first 11 books are now re-available, with only non-series works Poison in Jest and (the underrated) The Bowstring Murders yet to be picked up, and The Blind Barber tied up in Orion’s now-defunct ebook undertaking The Murder Room:

      It Walks by Night – British Library
      The Lost Gallows – British Library
      Castle Skull – British Library
      Poison in Jest
      The Waxworks Murder/The Corpse in the Waxworks – British Library
      Hag’s Nook – Polygon
      The Mad Hatter Mystery – American Mystery Classics
      The Bowstring Murders
      The Eight of Swords – American Mystery Classics (forthcoming)
      The Blind Barber – Murder Room
      The Plague Court Murders – American Mystery Classics

      I have my fingers crossed that this means White Priory, Death Watch, Red Widow, Unicorn Murders et al. are on the way…the only problem will be how many publishers have the rights to them and how long we’ll have to wait. AMC aren’t gonna want to put out 10 Carrs in a year, wonderful though that would be…

      As a complete aside, I loved The Eight of Swords — I think it’s up there with Seat of the Scornful as one of the genuinely overlooked masterpieces in Carr’s output.


  8. I actually think all the pushpin and strings stuff, though explain too laborious, is both rather simple and ingenious:

    Gur yngpurq vf pybfrq ivn n fgevat gung vf chyyrq bhg guebhtu n ohyyrg ubyr. N snyfr thafubg vf yngre sverq gb znxr vg nccrne gung gur ohyyrg ubyr jnf abg gurer rneyvre gb nyybj sbe nssrpgvat gur pybfvat bs gur yngpu

    The one thing I do feel might warrant complaint in this novel (besides the sleepwalking bit which is unnecessary but easily ignored) is the dearth of clueing regarding the culprit’s motive. There’s SOMETHING there, but it’s awfully slight and indirect.


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