Revisiting John Dickson Carr’s Till Death Do Us Part (1944)

This month saw the reprinting of one of Carr’s greatest mysteries and some would even say it was one of the greatest mysteries period. Till Death Do Us Part is Carr’s 15th Dr Fell mystery and in Martin Edwards’ introduction to the British Library reprint, he notes how the ‘idea for this novel came from a radio script Carr had written for CBS, ‘Will You Walk Into My Parlor?’, which he rewrote for the BBC under the title ‘Vampire tower’.

The reviewer Judge Lynch in January 1945, looking back on the mysteries of the year before, remarked that this title had a ‘chilled-steel Carr plot,’ whilst The Criminal Record in The Saturday Review described it as a ‘bang-up combination of puzzle (locked room), swift action, and infallible Fell humour – with amazing finish.’ For them it was ‘Extra good!’ and I can heartily concur with this sentiment, as it is one of my favourites by this writer.

I reviewed this title back in 2018, which you can read in full here. In Till Death Do Us Part, Carr delivers a taut tale of psychological suspense which is beautifully balanced with a tight mystery puzzle plot. It can sometimes be erroneously assumed that you can either get one or the other in a story, but not both. Yet this book clearly demonstrates that in the right hands, a detective novel certainly can. The tension between Lesley Grant and Dick Markham is scripted brilliantly putting me in mind of the work from queen of suspense Ethel Lina White, as well as Agatha Christie’s play Love from a Stranger. It is the way Carr uses evidence in this plot which maintains this atmosphere of anxiety for the characters. As soon as one piece of information suggests Lesley is innocent, another interpretation or a new clue points in the opposite direction. The fact Markham is engaged to the woman makes it a deeply personal experience for him. After all, would you want to marry someone if you were unsure if they were a serial killer or not?

Whilst my monthly series Death Paints A Picture is on hold, I did decide to take a quick look at some of the covers Carr’s novel has been given over time. It is interesting to see the trends which emerged, as well as the covers which seem to be influenced by the decade they were published in.

To begin with we have the first US edition, which hones in on the fortune teller tent of the opening chapter, giving it some decidedly sinister overtones. Would you want to attend a fete during such bad weather?

The first UK edition also goes with a similar setup, yet I think they have taken the horror and terror down a notch or two.

Meanwhile in 1950 Bantam produced this edition, which still has a sinister fortune teller tent on the cover, but now the attention is shifted to prime suspect number one: Lesley Grant. Although whenever I look at it, it makes me think of Annie Get Your Gun, a musical from 1946.

Seven years later Bantam produced another cover which retains the suspicious female figure, (unsubtly poisoning a drink), but removes the fete/fortune teller tent background. It seems a bit bland in comparison to some of the others.

Then in 1965 it seems Bantam wanted to fit in with the cool kids. Consequently, the cover makes it look like a book involving a teen with a drug problem.

Two years later Penguin shift the focus again, to a different figure, the victim – a trend which would gain popularity in later cover designs.

This Berkeley edition from 1971 is a little puzzling, as I am not sure who the military hat is a nod to. Regardless this is another cover which fails to catch your eye.

Then in the 1980s we get an edition from Finland, which sees another change in focus, to the puzzle concerning the murder method used.

In 1985 International Polygonics revisited the theme of the Penguin 1967 edition and they reused it again in 1989 with jazzier colours.

1986 saw the release of a Bulgarian edition. I am not sure if it is one scene or two, but I wondered if the left-hand side of the cover could be Markham watching Sir Harvey’s home.

Jumping ahead to 2003 we have a Spanish edition whose cover depicts a crime scene, although presumably not of the first murder.

Then in 2011 an Italian edition was released, which is quite minimalist in its design.

And now of course there is the 2021 British Library edition. The design for this one is in keeping with the covers used across the series, so in that respect their choice of design does not particularly align itself to any of the trends previously established.

Which cover do you like the best?

15 comments

  1. The UK first edition does a nice job of capturing the feel of a town bazaar gone wrong (“a fête worse than death,” as Flann O’Brien put it), but I’ll go with the 1985 International Polygonics reissue. It just seems to have the right atmosphere about it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have the first two Bantam versions, but I like both the first US and UK editions the most as they capture the feeling I had reading this masterpiece. 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 to a friend). This should be more widely known and with the British Library reprint, perhaps it now will.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Just about my favorite Carr. A friend has pointed out the motive is at best VERY lightly clued, but I don’t find that particularly problematic here, as the victim here is a scoundrel pretty much asking to be killed by the whole world. The only other flaw I judge is the sleepwalking bit, which is an excrescences, but the solution is not really dependent upon it.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I have an edition from BBC Audiobooks (it is not an audiobook version though) that shows only a crystal ball on the cover.

    Like

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