Ranking Carr’s Impossibilities: The Dr. Gideon Fell Series, Part One


( A Warning to Readers: I will say the names of victims and allude to methods in some of my rankings, so if you wish to remain completely unspoiled please skim this post or avoid it.)

This was supposed to be my first ever blog post, but my plans were quickly thwarted when the dastardly JJ at The Invisible Event informed me of the fact that the much abhorred Blind Barber featured an impossibility, leading to me suffering through that novel all for the sake of this post.

John Dickson Carr is considered to be the master of the impossible crime. Many of us first started reading Carr because we were enticed by the wondrous puzzles he created in his novels that featured crimes to fantastic to even believe in. A gun would fly off a wall and shoot someone, a woman would be pushed off a balcony with no one near her, someone would be stabbed with no footprints approaching them except for their own. Carr created and solved all of those puzzles with ingenuity and wit that has never been replicated since and likely never will be. Given my love for the impossible, this sort of list just seemed right after reading all of Carr’s Gideon Fell impossibilities. I haven’t finished all of the Gideon Fell novels ( Death Turns the Tables and The Eight of Swords are the exceptions) but I have read all of the books that feature impossibilities.

There are 20 impossible crimes listed here, and I have rated them based on four factors ( setup, atmosphere, unravelling, and resolution) and placed them into six categories ( Masterpieces, Very Good, Good, Good with Detracting Qualities, Decent, and Bad/Average). Without further ado, let me present the seven worst Carrian impossibilities.

(Please note that this is a ranking of the impossibilities in the novels. I have not included short stories as those will be getting their own list as soon as I get my hands on some of Carr’s radio plays)


                          20: The Impossible Footprints Murder in the Past – Dark of the Moon

In all honesty this one was atrocious. The solution is a complete and utter cheat in all regards as it rely’s on natural phenomenon, little to no clueing, and lying to dispel the situation. The solution is revealed in one line and it is an utter disappointment on top of all of the other disappointments in this novel and it is so utterly banal when it had such a interesting formulation. The fact that this was the last Fell novel and that Carr was obviously ill when he wrote this takes some of my hatred away, but I can’t put this any higher and never will.

                            19: The Shooting in a Locked Room – The House at Satan’s Elbow

I remember reading Douglas Greene describe this solution to be “one of Carr’s finest” and so I checked out the book from my local library and got to reading. Doug, I’m sorry, but your opinion wasn’t correct in my eyes. The solution is in no way one of Carr’s finest and given my pre-given expectations, it failed to live up in any way. The solution is something I expect from a second-stringer from the Golden Age and is bad in it’s fundamentals and resolution. Maybe I’m being a bit harsh as I absolutely detested the entirety of this book, but even if I was impartial I would still heavily dislike this.

                        18: The Modern No Footprints Murder – Dark of the Moon

A textbook example of how extreme complexity without clarity can ruin a impossible crime. The setup to this one was good, the atmosphere was wonky if acceptable, and the unravelling was below average. The resolution however, was horrid. Carr unleashes this explanation that is so hard to figure out that it took me several rereads to get the basic picture and in the end I believe it was stolen from another mystery novel. With a diagram, this might have been better, but the combination of technical elements without precise explanation makes the end result tasteless and hard to swallow. Read Dark of the Moon for its mind numbing reveal near the end, not for the impossibilities.

                    17: Rose Lestranges Death – The Dead Man’s Knock

adored this setup. It was a fascinating locked room murder with the gorgeous background of having a solution taken from a lost locked room novel that never came to fruition. The clue of the sawing noise was excellent and while the rest of this book was pure drivel, I kept reading because of the impossible murder. Carr hints to the solution and it’s “originality” multiple times – increasing my anticipation with every mention. But then, the reveal comes, and the trick is a complete and utter disappointment. The core idea is basically an age old trick that had been used to death over the years and the only ingenious thing was the clue of the sawing sound, and even that wasn’t very good. A example of why you shouldn’t constantly raise a reader’s expectations when the end result will not live up to them at all.

                 16: The Crossbow Murder – Panic in Box C

The first “ok” solution. It has ridiculous elements in the latter half of it, but the first part is ingenious and could have worked by itself by removing the crossbow element. The thing that put’s this solution all the way down here instead of up with the “good” solutions is Carr’s self plagiarism. Carr takes the solution to the impossibility from one of his best short stories and combines it with elements of a radio play to create the puzzle. I’m perfectly fine with author’s rehashing solutions but Carr does it in a way that makes the solution completely obvious to anyone who’s read the aforementioned stories and therefore ruins the surprise element of the novel.

                 15: The Tennis Court Strangling – The Problem of the Wire Cage

When some of the false solutions are better than the real one, there is an obvious issue with it. The victim here has to be one of the most gullible people in the entirety of the United Kingdom to fall for this trick and while making him seem idiotic might have alleviated some of the ridiculousness of the solution, it still would barely work. The core idea is perfectly fine and everything around this is great, filled with character development and good twists, but the end result is just too unbelievable to actually make it a good solution. Carr should have gone with those skates!

              14: Nonexistence of a Woman – The Blind Barber

One of Carr’s best scenarios. A woman obviously being killed and yet no one being missing from a ship when it’s searched. The solution is decent, and given it’s placement in a book like The Blind Barber I didn’t really expect much so it was nice to see something exceed by expectations for once. The solution also has the added benefit of making complete sense for once. However – Carr would go on to utilize this setting and scenario in much better ways later on in his career and due to the general lack of focus on the crime itself, it falters.


Those are numbers 20-14, tune in next time for numbers 13-8!

3 thoughts on “Ranking Carr’s Impossibilities: The Dr. Gideon Fell Series, Part One

  1. Man, the historical impossible footprints murder in Dark of the Moon is just plain frustrating. It was one of the few inspirations that allowed me to drag myself through an otherwise rambling book, and then the solution was just so….bleh. The second impossibility would have been respectable, but damn, it needed a diagram. I’m glad I dragged my way through though, because there is a completely unexpected twist that practically gave me whiplash.

    I can’t comment much on the rest of the list because I’m lucky enough to not have read three of them yet – The Blind Barber, The Dead Man’s Knock, and The House at Satan’s Elbow. Although based on popular opinion, I’m guessing many would say that I’m lucky I haven’t read them

    Liked by 1 person

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