I am and will remain a fan of John Dickson Carr’s works, but The Eight of Swords feels very much like an earlier effort in the Gideon Fell series (for the record, it’s the fourth novel to feature the good doctor, published in 1934). The fact that it took me a month to get through this slender book was only partly due to one of my periodic bouts of scatter-brainedness. To a greater degree, I just couldn’t force myself to either read or stay awake for this particular plot.
Perhaps it is the scatter-brainedness of Carr’s plot in The Eight of Swords that got to me. Beginning strong as his books usually do, with an eccentric bishop and a son worried at the notion of disappointing his father, the book quickly devolves into a country house murder story, of the type Carr often did quite well. But the murder of Septimus Depping, while clever, doesn’t really catapult this story ahead, and even revelations that Depping was – gasp!… not all that he seemed – appear to have been decided somewhat off-the-cuff by Carr, as does the second half of the book, which, on re-reading bits of the first few chapters, feels completely unrelated to the first half.
The identification of the killer was also easier than usual; I had a good notion before Dr Gideon Fell made one of his typically wheezing, stentorian announcements, which is unusual for me. Add to that the disappointing nature of the occult element (like all dedicated rationalists, I enjoy a good ghost story), and I ended up feeling that The Eight of Swords was simply a novel that could have been much better. It might have been down to my state of mind at the time, of course, but this won’t be one that I rush to read again so as to confirm my suspicion.
Oh, and the titular Eight of Swords? It’s from tarot cards, of course. Carr uses the term “taroc” for “tarot”, which in the ’30s was one familiar spelling of that name for the deck of mystical mumbo-jumbo – “taroc” apparently derives from the Italian, while “tarot”, with its absent “t”, I would guess to be from the French without straining my lexigographical skills. But as a plot device? Again, it could have been better, I regret to say. A grudging three stars, with the insistence that the pupil must do better next time.
Originally reviewed 9 August 2012.
Find your copy of The Eight of Swords, available from booksellers around the world, at AbeBooks.com (title links directly to search results).