John Dickson Carr

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Publisher: Gale
Series: Dictionary of Literary Biography
Document Type: Biography
Length: 8,259 words

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About this Person
Born: November 30, 1906 in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, United States
Died: February 27, 1977 in Greenville, South Carolina, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Novelist
Other Names: Dickson, Carter; Dickson, Carr; Fairbairn, Roger
WORKS:

WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:

BOOKS

  • It Walks by Night (New York & London: Harper, 1930).
  • The Lost Gallows (New York: Harper, 1931; London: Hamilton, 1931).
  • Castle Skull (New York: Harper, 1931; London: Severn House, 1976).
  • The Corpse in the Waxworks (New York: Harper, 1932); republished as The Waxworks Murder (London: Hamilton, 1932).
  • Poison in Jest (New York: Harper, 1932; London: Hamilton, 1932).
  • Hag's Nook (New York: Harper, 1933; London: Hamilton, 1933).
  • The Mad Hatter Mystery (New York: Harper, 1933; London: Hamilton, 1933).
  • The Bowstring Murders, as Carter Dickson (New York: Morrow, 1933; London: Heinemann, 1934).
  • The Blind Barber (New York & London: Harper, 1934).
  • The Eight of Swords (New York: Harper, 1934; London: Hamilton, 1934).
  • Devil Kinsmere, as Roger Fairbairn (New York: Harper, 1934; London: Hamilton, 1934).
  • The Plague Court Murders, as Dickson (New York: Morrow, 1934; London: Heinemann, 1935).
  • The White Priory Murders, as Dickson (New York: Morrow, 1934; London: Heinemann, 1935).
  • Death-Watch (New York: Harper, 1935; London: Hamilton, 1935).
  • The Three Coffins (New York & London: Harper, 1935); republished as The Hollow Man (London: Hamilton, 1935).
  • The Red Widow Murders, as Dickson (New York: Morrow, 1935; London & Toronto: Heinemann, 1935).
  • The Unicorn Murders, as Dickson (New York: Morrow, 1935; London & Toronto: Heinemann, 1936).
  • The Arabian Nights Murder (New York: Harper, 1936; London: Hamilton, 1936).
  • The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey (New York: Harper, 1936; London: Hamilton, 1936).
  • The Magic-Lantern Murders, as Dickson (London: Heinemann, 1936); republished as The Punch and Judy Murders (New York: Morrow, 1937).
  • The Burning Court (New York: Harper, 1937; London: Hamilton, 1937).
  • The Four False Weapons (New York: Harper, 1937; London: Hamilton, 1938).
  • The Peacock Feather Murders, as Dickson (New York: Morrow, 1937); republished as The Ten Teacups (London: Heinemann, 1937).
  • The Third Bullet, as Dickson (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1937).
  • The Crooked Hinge (New York: Harper, 1938; London: Hamilton, 1938).
  • Death in Five Boxes, as Dickson (New York: Morrow, 1938; London & Toronto: Heinemann, 1938).
  • The Judas Window, as Dickson (New York: Morrow, 1938; London & Toronto: Heinemann, 1938); republished as The Crossbow Murder (New York: Berkley, 1964).
  • To Wake the Dead (New York: Harper, 1938; London: Hamilton, 1938).
  • Fatal Descent, by Dickson and John Rhode (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1939); republished as Drop to His Death (London: Heinemann, 1939).
  • The Problem of the Green Capsule: Being the Psychologists' Murder Case (New York & London: Harper, 1939); republished as The Black Spectacles (London: Hamilton, 1939).
  • The Problem of the Wire Cage (New York: Harper, 1939; London: Hamilton, 1940).
  • The Reader Is Warned, as Dickson (New York: Morrow, 1939; London & Toronto: Heinemann, 1939).
  • The Man Who Could Not Shudder (New York: Harper, 1940; London: Hamilton, 1940).
  • And So to Murder, as Dickson (New York: Morrow, 1940; London & Toronto: Heinemann, 1941).
  • Nine--And Death Makes Ten, as Dickson (New York: Morrow, 1940); republished as Murder in the Submarine Zone (London & Toronto: Heinemann, 1940); republished as Murder in the Atlantic (London: World, 1959).
  • The Department of Queer Complaints, as Dickson (New York: Morrow, 1940; London: Heinemann, 1940).
  • The Case of the Constant Suicides (New York: Harper, 1941; London: Hamilton, 1941).
  • Death Turns the Tables (New York & London: Harper, 1941); republished as The Seat of the Scornful (London: Hamilton, 1941).
  • Seeing Is Believing, as Dickson (New York: Morrow, 1941; London: Heinemann, 1942); republished as Cross of Murder (London: World, 1959).
  • The Emperor's Snuff-Box (New York: Harper, 1942; London: Hamilton, 1943).
  • The Gilded Man, as Dickson (New York: Morrow, 1942; London & Toronto: Heinemann, 1942); republished as Death and the Gilded Man (New York: Pocket Books, 1947).
  • She Died a Lady, as Dickson (New York: Morrow, 1943; London & Toronto: Heinemann, 1943).
  • He Wouldn't Kill Patience, as Dickson (New York: Hampton, 1944; London & Toronto: Heinemann, 1944).
  • Till Death Do Us Part (New York: Harper, 1944; London: Hamilton, 1944).
  • The Curse of the Bronze Lamp, as Dickson (New York: Morrow, 1945); republished as Lord of the Sorcerers (London & Toronto: Heinemann, 1946).
  • He Who Whispers: A Dr. Fell Mystery (New York: Harper, 1946; London: Hamilton, 1946).
  • My Late Wives, as Dickson (New York: Morrow, 1946; London & Toronto: Heinemann, 1947).
  • Dr. Fell, Detective, and Other Stories (New York: American Mercury, 1947).
  • The Sleeping Sphinx: A Doctor Fell Detective Story (New York: Harper, 1947; London: Hamilton, 1947).
  • The Skeleton in the Clock, as Dickson (New York: Morrow, 1948; London: Heinemann, 1949).
  • Below Suspicion (New York: Harper, 1949; London: Hamilton, 1950).
  • The Life of Sir Arthur Donan Doyle (New York: Harper, 1949; London: Murray, 1949).
  • A Graveyard to Let, as Dickson (New York: Morrow, 1949; London: Heinemann, 1950).
  • The Bride of Newgate (New York: Harper, 1950; London: Hamilton, 1950).
  • Night at the Mocking Widow, as Dickson (New York: Morrow, 1950; London: Heinemann, 1951 [i.e., 1952]).
  • The Devil in Velvet (New York: Harper, 1951; London: Hamilton, 1951).
  • The 9 Wrong Answers (New York: Harper, 1952; London: Hamilton, 1952).
  • Behind the Crimson Blind, as Dickson (New York: Morrow, 1952; London: Heinemann, 1952).
  • The Cavalier's Cup, as Dickson (New York: Morrow, 1953; London: Heinemann, 1954).
  • The Third Bullet and Other Stories (New York: Harper, 1954; London: Hamilton, 1954)--comprises "The Third Bullet," "The Clue of the Red Wig," "The House in Goblin Wood," "The Wrong Problem," "The Proverbial Murder," "The Locked Room," and "The Gentleman from Paris".
  • The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes, by Carr and Adrian Conan Doyle (New York: Random House, 1954; London: Murray, 1954); republished as The New Exploits of Sherlock Holmes (New York: Ace, 1956).
  • Captain Cut-Throat (New York: Harper, 1955; London: Hamilton, 1955).
  • Patrick Butler for the Defence (New York: Harper, 1956; London: Hamilton, 1956).
  • Fear Is the Same, as Dickson (New York: Morrow, 1956; London: Heinemann, 1956).
  • Fire, Burn! (New York: Harper, 1957; London: Hamilton, 1957).
  • The Dead Man's Knock (New York: Harper, 1958; London: Hamilton, 1958).
  • Scandal at High Chimneys: A Victorian Melodrama (New York: Harper, 1959; London: Hamilton, 1959).
  • In Spite of Thunder (New York: Harper, 1960; London: Hamilton, 1960).
  • The Witch of the Low-Tide: An Edwardian Melodrama (New York: Harper, 1961; London: Hamilton, 1961).
  • The Demoniacs (New York: Harper, 1962; London: Hamilton, 1962).
  • The Men Who Explained Miracles (New York: Harper, 1963; London: Hamilton, 1964).
  • The Grandest Game in the World (New York: Davis, 1963).
  • Most Secret, as Roger Fairbairn (New York: Harper, 1964; London: Hamilton, 1964).
  • The House at Satan's Elbow (New York: Harper, 1965; London: Hamilton, 1965).
  • Panic in Box C (New York: Harper, 1966; London: Hamilton, 1966).
  • Dark of the Moon (New York: Harper, 1967; London: Hamilton, 1967 [i.e., 1968]).
  • Papa Là-Bas (New York: Harper, 1968; London: Hamilton, 1968 [i.e., 1969]).
  • The Ghosts' High Noon (New York: Harper, 1969; London: Hamilton, 1970).
  • Deadly Hall (New York: Harper, 1971; London: Hamilton, 1971).
  • The Hungry Goblin: A Victorian Detective Novel (New York: Harper, 1972; London: Hamilton, 1972).
  • The Door to Doom and Other Detections (New York: Harper, 1980; London: Hamilton, 1981 [i.e., 1980]).
  • The Dead Sleep Lightly (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1983).
  • Crime on the Coast [by Carr and others] and No Flowers by Request [by Dorothy L. Sayers and others] (London: Gollancz, 1984; New York: Berkley, 1987)--Carr wrote the first two chapters of the first story; the other chapters were by Valerie White, Laurence Meynell, Michael Cronin, Joan Fleming, and Elizabeth Ferrars.
  • Fell and Foul Play (New York: International Polygonics, 1991).
  • Merrivale, March and Murder (New York: International Polygonics, 1991).
  • Speak of the Devil (Norfolk, Va.: Crippen & Landru, 1994).

Edition

  • The Crooked Hinge, introduction by Robert E. Briney (San Diego: University of California, 1976).

 
BIOGRAPHICAL ESSAY:

John Dickson Carr, one of the dominant figures in the Golden Age of fictional detection between World Wars I and II, was a master of the locked-room mystery novel, of fair-play puzzlement in historical settings, and of eerie atmosphere combined with rational detection. His detective stories have a special flavor. They not only ask "Whodunit?" but also "How could it have been done?" Carr's fictional crimes seem to have been committed without human agents. Murders take place in rooms with entrances locked and sealed; bodies are found alone in buildings surrounded by unmarked snow or sand; people enter a house or dive into a swimming pool and utterly disappear. And for fully three-quarters of the story, Carr suggests that only a vampire, a witch, or a ghost could have committed the crimes. Striding through these adventures and bringing order and reason to what seems a world dominated by the dark powers are Carr's four towering figures of detective fiction--Henri Bencolin of the Sûreté, Dr. Gideon Fell, Sir Henry Merrivale, and Colonel March of Scotland Yard's Department of Queer Complaints.

John Dickson Carr was born on 30 November 1906 in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, the only child of Julia and Wooda Nicholas Carr, and grew up in comfortable circumstances. His father, a lawyer and later a congressman, encouraged him to read at the age of four, and though Carr later insisted that he had been no prodigy, he was soon reading the Oz books of L. Frank Baum and the historical romances of Alexandre Dumas père and Robert Louis Stevenson . The strain of swashbuckling adventure of the great historical novelists is evident throughout Carr's stories, but the influence of Baum's imaginative fantasies has less often been recognized. Carr's interest in improbabilities and in witchcraft and magic, whether genuine or humbug, can be traced back to his love of the Oz books.

Carr's interest in crime and detection seems to have begun when he read some of the law books and accounts of true crime in his father's library. But Carr was not entranced by the sordid realism of crime. He believed that, like history, crime can be romantic, and he devoured the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle , Jacques Futrelle, L. T. Mead and Robert Eustace, and Thomas W. Hanshew. "In those days," Carr wrote in a 21 October 1941 letter to Frederic Dannay , "it was the custom to begin with an arrestingly grotesque or impossible situation, and supply a twist ending which was sometimes naive but always ingenious." G. K. Chesterton 's Father Brown tales, with their emphasis on atmosphere, paradox, the past, and tricks and impossibilities, were an important influence on Carr's taste in detective fiction.

Carr entered the Hill and Preparatory School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, in 1921, where he wrote stories for the English club and engaged in such activities as fencing in the moonlight. Four years later he went on to Haverford College. In March 1926, his "As Drink the Dead . . ." appeared in Haverford's monthly literary magazine; in its combination of historical romance and death by seemingly impossible means the story foreshadows Carr's later work. Both his writing ability and his enthusiasm must have impressed his colleagues, for he became associate editor of The Haverfordian in April 1926 and editor two months later. He was such a prolific writer that often several of his stories or poems appeared in a single issue--under his own name, under several pseudonyms, or anonymously. His detective stories written at Haverford--published in The Door to Doom and Other Detections (1980)--feature Sir John Landervorne of Whitehall and Henri Bencolin, Prefect de Police of Paris. Each story has an impossible crime--a man is murdered in a locked train compartment or disappears from a guarded chamber--and each reveals the strong influence of Chesterton. In a book review for The Haverfordian, of November 1926, Carr described one of Chesterton's Father Brown collections as "the best detective stories of the year, and not even Conan Doyle has ever come within pistol-shot or knife-throw of them. We have haunted castles, winged daggers, vanishing men--and over it all the genial, lovable priest who plays detective."

Carr's Bencolin short stories, like most of his later tales, are Chestertonian in their atmosphere, their impossibilities, and their plot structure. As in the Father Brown stories, the detective does not solve the crime by interviewing witnesses or by examining fingerprints, cigarette ashes, and other physical clues; instead, Bencolin discovers the pattern the events form. Bencolin's evidence includes voice inflections, glances, and half-completed sentences. Carr's detectives more commonly use their imagination rather than their reason to reconstruct the crime. Bencolin says in "The Murder in Number Four" (The Haverfordian, June 1928) that

the great chess player is the one who can visualize the board as it will be after his move. The great detective is the one who can visualize the board as it has been when he finds the pieces jumbled. He must have the imagination to see the opportunities that the criminal saw, and act as the criminal would act. . . . Nobody is more apt than a detective to say a lot of windy, fancy things about reasoning, and deduction, and logic. He too frequently says "reason" when he means "imagination." I object to having a cheap, strait-laced pedantry like reason confused with a far greater thing.
Carr's stories written at Haverford are astonishingly mature, but at times both the historical romances and the Bencolin tales are too intricately textured and too claustrophobic in atmosphere. As Carr remarked in a 26 May 1946 letter to Dannay about another writer's first short stories, problems frequently arise "from the novice's frantic wish to cram as many surprises as possible into the narrowest limits."

In 1928, Carr went to Paris to study (or so his parents thought) at the Sorbonne. He never showed up at his class; he was determined to use the time to become a writer. He wrote two long manuscripts in the main genres that interested him, historical romance and detective fiction. He completed an historical novel, but it did not please him, and he destroyed it. All that is known of it is Carr's comment, quoted in Howard Haycraft's Murder for Pleasure (1941), that it had "lots of Gadzookses and sword-play." But his detective story, a short novel about Bencolin, called Grand Guignol, was published in The Haverfordian in 1929, and, with considerable lengthening, it appeared as It Walks by Night, published the next year by Harper. It was a moderate success, going through at least four printings in its first year, and Carr turned toward writing detection rather than historical novels as his career.

Carr's next three novels--The Lost Gallows (1931), Castle Skull (1931), and The Corpse in the Waxworks (1932)--appeared at approximately six-month intervals, and they all feature Bencolin. Each is highly ingenious with bizarre murders; each is a pure puzzle novel, playing fair with the reader and featuring a carefully concealed least-likely villain; and each is heavily atmospheric with hints of the supernatural before Bencolin produces a natural, human solution. Although the Bencolin novels have frequently been reprinted, Carr looked back on them as crude and immature. About It Walks by Night, Carr told Haycraft, "I think it's pretty terrible, but I hope it's entertaining--to me the one unforgivable sin is being dull. . . . And, thank heaven, it is not 'significant.' But if it gives the nervous reader a bad night or the puzzle-connoisseur a headache, I shall be satisfied." He was less kind about The Lost Gallows in a 1939 letter to fellow writer Clayton Rawson: "I twice tore up twenty or thirty thousand words, and, when I had finished it, it was poor stuff." As for Castle Skull, Carr was even harsher in a 1 December 1975 letter to Francis M. Nevins Jr.: "I have come to dislike the book as much as I regret it, and hope it's never again issued by anybody." Carr, like many authors, was too hard on his first books, but he became uncomfortable with some of the formulas of the Bencolin novels. An air of unreality, of madness and decay, hangs over them, and by 1932 Carr no longer liked the sardonic and sometimes sadistic Bencolin.

Carr's decision to write detective novels set in England and featuring English sleuths was connected with his meeting Clarice Cleaves of Bristol, England, on a transatlantic trip in 1930. He gave her a copy of It Walks by Night, arranged to meet her on shore, and married her on 3 June 1932. Early in 1933 they went to England for what they planned as a brief trip of a few weeks, but Carr found the country so congenial that they made England their home for the next sixteen years. Carr's love of England had several levels, all of them reflected in his books. The British Isles seemed to him the perfect place to write detective novels. In one of his radio scripts, "A Razor in Fleet Street" (broadcast in 1948 on the CBS show Cabin B-13), an American who like Carr married an Englishwoman explains that "London is home to me, too, in a way. It's put a spell on my imagination ever since I was a boy so-high. Sherlock Holmes! Dr. Fu-Manchu! Hansom-cabs rattling through the fog. . . ." In contrast to the sometimes brash, moneymaking life in America, England seemed to Carr the place where the past continually influenced the present, where the values he treasured still existed, where honor, chivalry, and fair play still had meaning in the world.

Three of Carr's first four books written in England are told from the viewpoint of an American visitor to the British Isles. In The Bowstring Murders , (1933), published under the pseudonym of Carr (later, Carter) Dickson, Professor Michael Tairlaine finds England an escape from a dull and predictable existence. "What sort of adventures did I ever have?" Carr has Tairlaine ask a friend, who replies, "What do you mean by 'adventure' anyway? Do you mean in the grand manner? A slant-eyed adventuress, sables and all, who suddenly slips into this compartment, whispers 'Six of diamonds--north tower at midnight--beware of Orloff'?" "Yes," Tairlaine admits in the book, "I suppose I did mean something like that." Tairlaine's adventures in the remainder of the book demonstrate Carr's love of England and the past. Even the name of the detective, John Gaunt (who appears only in The Bowstring Murders), brings up an historical parallel (John of Gaunt, son of King Edward III), and the events take place in a fifteenth-century castle filled with a collection of medieval arms and armor assembled by the "more than half-cracked holder of the Barony of Rayle."

Hag's Nook (1933), written about the same time as The Bowstring Murders, is dominated by "a feeling which can haunt the traveller only in the British Isles. A feeling that the earth is old and enchanted; a sense of reality in all the flashing images which are conjured up by that one word 'merrie'. . . . The English earth seems (incredibly) even older than its ivy-bearded towers. The bells at twilight seem to be bells across centuries. . . ." The American Tad Rampole's enchantment with England is matched by the feelings of the detective, Dr. Gideon Fell, who, making his first appearance in this work, solves crimes in Carr's books for almost thirty-five years. Dr. Fell, described both as a lexicographer and an historian, has a fund of miscellaneous information about all aspects of the English past, especially those things that make history live--games and sports, royal mistresses, and drinking customs, about which he eventually writes an immense tome. ("To write good history," Carr remarks in The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey [1936], "is the noblest work of man.")

Fell was modeled after Carr's literary idol, G. K. Chesterton . With his huge girth, his bandit's mustache, his unruly hair, Fell resembles photographs of Chesterton. The plot of Hag's Nook is also Chestertonian in its feeling for the past, as modern crimes seem to repeat ancient murders. Dorothy L. Sayers first recognized the influence of Chesterton on Carr's early style. In a 24 September 1933 review of the second Dr. Fell novel, The Mad Hatter Mystery (1933), in The Sunday Times, she pointed out that "Chestertonian are the touches of extravagance in character and plot, the sensitiveness to symbolism, to historical association, to the shapes and colours of material things, to the crazy terror of the incongruous."

These characteristics are also evident in the first Sir Henry Merrivale novel, The Plague Court Murders (1934), published under Carr's Carter Dickson pseudonym. This book, too, emits the feeling that the past is living in the present, as the ghost of a seventeenth-century hangman's assistant seems responsible for the murders. For this novel Carr again uses a vividly depicted English detective. H.M. (as his friends call him) superficially resembles Dr. Fell: he is corpulent and fond of speaking in non sequiturs. But unlike Dr. Fell, whose speech is full of Johnsonian formality, Sir Henry is disrespectful and often insulting: the Prime Minister is "Horseface"; a jury is made up of "fatheads"; and women are addressed as "my wench" or "my dolly." Carr later said that H.M. was not based on any individual, but as the 1930s progressed and war became imminent, H.M. took on some of the pugnacious public personality of Winston Churchill.

Another aspect of the Carr style appeared in 1934 with the publication of a detective farce, The Blind Barber, probably his most controversial book. Some critics, notably Kingsley Amis , disliked the story because the humor focuses on drunkenness. Others, including Anthony Boucher , have found it one of Carr's most successful novels. "Laughter and death," Boucher wrote in his introduction to the 1962 Collier edition of The Blind Barber, "are old friends."

During the 1930s Carr experimented with the detective novel. He never dropped its fundamental characteristics; his stories always play fair with the reader since the detective solves the crime by clues that the reader also possesses; the criminal is usually the least-likely suspect; and the solution is kept hidden until the end of the book. Carr realized that such elements can be combined with high (and low) comedy in The Blind Barber and in many of the later Sir Henry Merrivale novels; with ghost stories in "The Man Who Was Dead" and "The Door to Doom" (written in 1935 but not collected until 1980 when they appeared in The Door to Doom and Other Detections); with true-crime reconstruction in The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey, which presents a fair-play solution to an unsolved murder of 1678; and with witchcraft in The Burning Court (1937). Once again Carr combined detection and historical romance. Several of his novels set in the present, such as The Red Widow Murders (1935), have sections in which a tale from the past sets the scene for present crimes; these brief tales can be read almost independently. Even when Carr wrote an historical novel, Devil Kinsmere, published in 1934 under the pseudonym Roger Fairbairn, he included two mysteries and enough clues for the reader to foresee the conclusion.

In the Dr. Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale stories of the middle and later 1930s, Carr brought together the elements that set his work apart from that of other writers. His consciousness of the past is connected with punctilious attention to physical detail. He researched each book carefully, often spending more time in investigating the background than in the actual writing. He often built the plot around an artifact of the past, such as the watch in the shape of a skull in Death-Watch (1935), or the seventeenth-century card game in The Four False Weapons (1937), or the tarot fortune-telling cards in The Eight of Swords (1934), or the life-size automation in The Crooked Hinge (1938). Dr. Fell and H.M. were ready to lecture on almost any obscure subject at the drop of a clue. Most of the time, these discursive sections turn out to be relevant to the plot, but they contribute to the complaint that a few Carr books are so rich in extraneous detail that they lack focus. But whether relevant to the plot or not, such passages play a part in the total effect of Carr's work; they help to sustain the mood of the continuing and pervasive influence of ancient crime.

Carr often began a book with a bizarre scene--a clergyman in false whiskers in The Arabian Nights Murder (1936); the clockworks, watches, and phosphorus in the pockets of drugged suspects in Death in Five Boxes (1938); the four weapons found at the murder scene in The Four False Weapons; and the extraordinary Wodehouseian coincidences that have detective chasing detective in The Magic-Lantern Murders (1936). Carr loved finding romance in the humdrum, as Robert Louis Stevenson had done in The New Arabian Nights (1882). The Baghdad-on-the-Thames atmosphere appears in several of Carr's works during the 1930s, especially the epidemic of hats in The Mad Hatter Mystery, and, in conscious imitation of Stevenson, the drawing of cards to enter the death room in The Red Widow Murders.

The greatest bizarrerie in Carr's books is the locked rooms and other impossible crimes. The motif of the victim found murdered where no one could have approached him had appeared in Carr's early Bencolin short stories and in his first novel, It Walks by Night, but then it played a minor role in Carr's books until 1934 and 1935. The first Sir Henry Merrivale novels are based on seeming impossibilities--a victim poisoned in a sealed room in The Red Widow Murders, or murdered in a house surrounded by unmarked snow in The White Priory Murders (1934), or impaled in front of witnesses by what seems an invisible unicorn in The Unicorn Murders (1935). Dr. Fell's first locked-room case, The Three Coffins (1935), is considered by many experts the finest "miracle problem" ever written, despite that the explanation was far more complex than those Carr himself usually admired. The book also includes the problem of how a man can be shot at point-blank range when no one is near him. But The Three Coffins is probably most praised for Dr. Fell's famous "Locked-Room Lecture." Carr simply stops the action to allow Dr. Fell to discourse for a full chapter on the ways and means of creating the effect of murder in a hermetically sealed chamber. And, should the reader object, Dr. Fell announces that "we're in a detective story, and we don't fool the reader by pretending we're not. Let's not invent elaborate excuses to drag in a discussion of detective stories. Let's candidly glory in the noblest pursuit possible to characters in a book."

Although "The Locked-Room Lecture" has taken on a life of its own and been printed independently of The Three Coffins, it plays an important part in that book. Carr was often careful to contrast the comfortable security of English club and tavern life with the terror of seemingly supernatural crime. Dr. Fell's lecture takes place "under the dark gleam of armour and armorial bearings" when "the coffee was on the table, and wine-bottles were empty, cigars lighted." Many of Carr's other stories from this period have similar contrasts. The Mad Hatter Mystery begins in "a lounge like a club, brown panels and easy-chairs, in red leather, with brass-bound kegs behind the bar." The opening scene of The Crooked Hinge takes place in a room where "the late July sunlight turned the floor . . . to gold. The somnolent heat brought out an odour of old wood and old books." Such scenes make the crimes seem, in contrast, more removed from everyday life, more inexplicable. Sometimes the terror is introduced immediately, as in "The Man Who Was Dead" (collected in The Door to Doom and Other Detections), when a man in the Naughts-and-Crosses Club remarks that he has just read his own obituary in a newspaper. More often, Carr allows this "crazy terror of the incongruous" (to quote Sayers) to grow until the reader is certain that a vampire, a witch, or someone lighter than air must have committed the crime.

A majority of Carr's books written during the late 1930s include impossible crimes. In The Crooked Hinge, the victim is killed behind a low hedge that no one could have approached without being seen. To Wake the Dead (1938) includes a murder in a guarded room. In The Problem of the Wire Cage (1939), a man is strangled on a soft-clay tennis court with no footprints but his own. Sir Henry Merrivale solves even more impossibilities than does Dr. Fell. In The Peacock Feather Murders (1937), Carr includes page references in footnotes to show the reader that all the clues to the solution of the locked-room murder had been fairly given in the story. The murder in The Reader Is Warned (1939) is seemingly committed by "thought-waves." Fatal Descent (1939), written by Carr in collaboration with John Rhode , demonstrates various means of murder in a closed elevator. (The book was actually written almost entirely by Carr but using a method for the crime devised by Rhode.) Most ingenious of all is The Judas Window (1938), in which H.M. proves that even the most securely locked room has one "window" through which death can come. Carr's power of narration and his sleight of hand in misleading the reader reached such a level that several readings of The Judas Window are required to realize that the trick could not have worked. But Carr, like a magician, makes his audience so fascinated with the trappings of the trick that they must make an effort to realize that the ace was never there.

The effect of these miracle crimes is to make the reader doubt rational cause and effect, and this response in turn makes Dr. Fell's and H.M.'s explanations of the trick more spectacular. Most readers are relieved that the world is operating normally again and that they can retreat happily to the safety of their clubs or homes. To increase this effect, Carr uses supernatural legends as background to many of his stories. He plays not only on readers' fears of a world turned upside down, but also on their dread of powers beyond human explanation. Seances, witch lore, and night monsters play major roles in Carr's stories. In short, many Carr books read as though they are occult novels, ghost stories written by Algernon Blackwood or Montague Rhodes James, until Dr. Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale restore an ordered universe.

By the late 1930s, Carr was recognized as one of the most proficient practitioners of the detective novel. Sponsored by Anthony Berkeley and Sayers, he became the only American member of the exclusive Detection Club, which in its oath of membership enforced the rule of fair play. Most of Carr's novels were serialized in popular magazines, and The Sketch, The Illustrated London News, and The Strand commissioned short stories from him. Nine of these tales (out of about twenty short stories Carr wrote between 1935 and 1941) feature Colonel March of Scotland Yard's Department of Queer Complaints, which handles problems that "do not seem to bear the light of day or reason." Colonel March refers in passing to such cases as the thief who steals only green candlesticks, but the adventures that Carr records are far more spectacular. "The New Invisible Man" involves a gun fired by disembodied hands. "The Footprint in the Sky" includes a new explanation of murder in a house surrounded by unmarked snow. Best of all may be "The Crime in Nobody's Room," in which an entire flat disappears from a building. Colonel March, teetering on his heels and resembling "a stout colonel in a comic paper," solves these cases primarily because he is never surprised by anything.

As the decade came to an end, Carr decided to try his hand as a scriptwriter. For a brief time, he worked with J. B. Priestley on a script for the Korda movie studios, but he never finished his part of the project. His work depended so much on the intricate relationship of every plot detail that he had difficulty sharing responsibilities with a co-author. Moreover, Carr disliked contending with the changing ideas of movie barons about what they wanted in a script. In a letter to Rawson, Carr moaned that "they are madder than a crate-load of coots; and why I still preserve some vestige of my reason remains a mystery."

In 1939 Carr sent a three-part Dr. Fell radio play--"Who Killed Matthew Corbin?"--to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). The presentation of this play, in December 1939 and January 1940, began a long period of association between Carr and the radio network. During 1940 and 1941 he wrote several more mysteries for the BBC, including an eight-part serial, "Speak of the Devil," which combines his interests in historical romance and impossible crime. The setting is Regency England, and the story involves the apparently ghostly manifestations of a young woman who was hanged for a murder a year earlier. ("On my last public appearance, I was hanged by the neck until dead.") For the most part, however, Carr's time was occupied in writing and narrating propaganda scripts. "Black Gallery: Heinrich Himmler" retells the life of a Nazi leader. ("I am Heinrich Himmler. Let me shake your hand. Wouldn't you like to be ruled by me?") Other plays told the British to obey the blackout ("Britain Shall Not Burn"), to refuse to purchase black-market chocolate ("Black Market, the Exposure of a Criminal Organization"), or to accept women's military role in the war ("Women on the Guns").

Propaganda work is seldom creative, for normally the author's sole duty is to present a predetermined message; nevertheless, some of Carr's anti-Nazi plays deserve to be remembered. "Denmark in Chains" makes the Nazis seem ridiculous as well as sinister. The Silent Battle, a series of six plays, emphasizes the emotions and cleverness of the underground resistance in occupied countries. Carr makes his points in this series with unexpected plot twists, including two miraculous problems. In one episode, the Polish underground hides a large radio transmitter where even the most thorough search by the Gestapo fails to find it. In another, Hitler disappears from a hermetically sealed chamber.

But Carr did his most successful radio work for several mystery programs. In 1942 and 1943, while in the United States waiting for the government to assign him duties for the war effort, he wrote more than twenty half-hour episodes for the program Suspense on Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). Of these, the most popular was "Cabin B-13," about a terrified bride and the impossible disappearance of her young husband and even her cabin on an ocean liner. This show was rebroadcast several times on American and British radio; it was adapted as a television drama; and it became the basis for a feature-length movie by 20th Century-Fox, Dangerous Crossing (1953). Almost as popular was his adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe 's "The Pit and the Pendulum," written after CBS claimed that the story could never be done on the radio. Carr also wrote mysteries set in the past ("The Body Snatchers," "Lord of the Witch Doctors"); impossible crimes ("The Moment of Darkness," "The Dead Sleep Lightly"); anti-Nazi pieces ("Menace in Wax," "Death Flies Blind"); and adaptations of his own stories and gimmicks ("Fire Burn and Cauldron Bubble," "Nothing up My Sleeve").

Back in England by the end of 1943, Carr persuaded Val Gielgud of the BBC to run his Suspense scripts as Appointment with Fear. Gielgud wanted to try United States radio techniques, including knife chords and timing controlled to the split second, and the series opened with "Cabin B-13." British audiences reacted favorably to what Gielgud in his book Years of the Locust (1947) called "the unabashed histrionicism" of Appointment with Fear. The title of the series became familiar enough that at least three British newspapers used it in political cartoons. Carr's Suspense scripts were soon exhausted, and he wrote a second and then a third series of new plays for British audiences, including an adaptation of a Father Brown story and retellings of tales by Stevenson, Melville Davisson Post, and Ambrose Bierce .

Carr later wrote other radio plays--for Cabin B-13 on CBS in 1948 and for a revival of Appointment with Fear in 1955--but the characteristics of his radio work had already been set in the early 1940s. His plays make effective use of the limitations of the medium. Carr knew that the listener fills in physical details with his own imagination, and in several of his plays he counted on fooling his audience by allowing them, in a sense, to imagine too much. Carr also used sound masterfully. In "The Black Minute," for example, the effect of sound in darkness is a major clue--that to locate the origin of a sound in a pitch-black room is difficult. In many plays, Carr introduced a single background sound to set the mood and to lead, or mislead, the audience. Especially noteworthy examples are the musical glasses in "The Devil's Saint," the whirl of the roulette wheel in "Death Has Four Faces," and the thud of the darts in "The Man Who Couldn't Be Photographed." Carr, who seldom had trouble devising plots, looked on radio work as a welcome relaxation from writing novels.

During the years that he was concentrating on radio work, Carr's production declined to about two novels a year rather than the four or five he had written in the previous decade. But among these books are some of the finest of his career; they are more tightly constructed and humanly compelling than many of his books before or after this period. Rather than using entertaining but occasionally irrelevant discourses by Dr. Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale, Carr organized his books so that almost every word and gesture contributes to the final solution. In addition, Carr's books during the early 1940s pull the reader more directly into the story. His earliest works usually have the American visitor to Britain or the Continent be an outside, through sensitive, observer; but Carr's later novels are told from the viewpoint of a young man who is directly concerned with the solution to the mystery--often because he is attracted to a woman who is the chief suspect or who is withholding information. Moreover, some misunderstanding between the male and female leads commonly provides the impetus for much of the action, and Carr uses it to build tensions and to mask the essential clues.

Writing under his own name, Carr gave Dr. Fell two locked rooms and a Scottish setting in The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941), which with its combination of atmosphere, ingenuity, and sexual tensions between the male and female main characters is one of his best books. The Emperor's Snuff-Box (1942) is atypical in its French setting and its lack of an impossible crime, but it has beautifully contrived suspense and clever misdirection. Till Death Do Us Part (1944) has a compelling situation: can you trust your wife or fiancée if a police officer says that she is a compulsive killer? He Who Whispers: A Dr. Fell Mystery (1946) has a perfectly developed neo-Gothic atmosphere, several impossibilities (which Carr implies are caused by vampires), and a rational solution.

As Carter Dickson, Carr made the H.M. novels of the same period emphasize comedy rather than the seemingly supernatural terror of most of the Dr. Fell stories. Nine--And Death Makes Ten (1940) includes a new type of miracle problem for Carr. The body is not discovered in a locked room, but the fresh fingerprints at the scene do not match those of anyone who could have committed the crime. In She Died a Lady (1943) Sir Henry explains how someone can be shot at close range on a cliff when only the victim's footprints appear. He Wouldn't Kill Patience (1944) involves a murder that occurs in one of the most completely inaccessible rooms in all fiction, with all the doors and windows sealed on the inside with gummed tape. In The Curse of the Bronze Lamp (1945), a young lady vanishes almost before the eyes of the witnesses. Carr had been experimenting with seemingly impossible disappearances since his first Bencolin short story, "The Shadow of the Goat," published almost twenty years earlier, and he worked several more variations on the same "miracle problem" but never executed it more successfully than in The Curse of the Bronze Lamp. Indeed, Carr wrote only one weak novel during these years, Seeing Is Believing (1941), which begins with an unfair gimmick. (The second sentence in the book, which reads "That was the admitted fact," turns out not to be a fact at all.) The plot is clever enough that Carr had no need to resort to complete misstatements to fool the reader.

With the end of the war and the election of a socialist government in 1945, Carr became dissatisfied with living in England. He disliked postwar austerity and the tendency to solve problems through nationalization and regulation--herd existence, Carr called it. He stayed in England until 1948 to work on his biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle , based on papers preserved by the Doyle family. Carr had met Doyle's son, Adrian, at the BBC while assisting in the production of radio shows based on Doyle's stories. So much primary material survived that Carr was able to write The Life of Sir Arthur Donan Doyle (1949) by using Doyle's own words in many scenes. Carr returned to the United States in 1948 and the next year became president of the Mystery Writers of America.

Carr's fictional works reflected his growing dissatisfaction with the post-World War II world. Dr. Fell often crossed the line separating Chestertonian warmth from meaningless declamations, and in general the Fell novels lacked the enthusiasm of Carr's earlier books. Above all, Below Suspicion (1949), with its unfair descriptions of characters and its unbelievable witchcraft, showed that Carr could no longer consistently count on his old formulas. Sir Henry Merrivale continued to appear in novels until 1953, but the later books lack the spontaneity of the earlier ones. Carr seems to have compensated for the grimness of life in the late 1940s by making H.M. almost a buffoon and minimizing the mystery. Even the impossible crimes and their solutions were not always convincing. Many attentive readers discover before H.M. how the wife murderer in My Late Wives (1946) makes corpses disappear. The explanation of the locked room in Night at the Mocking Widow (1950) seems forced. The impossible crime in the final Merrivale novel, The Cavalier's Cup (1953), is ingenious, but it is lost in some markedly unfunny horseplay about an American congressman chasing a British lady in her underwear. Carr produced one stunning miracle problem, the disappearance of a man from a swimming pool in A Graveyard to Let (1949), but the mystery is not developed, a flaw that leads the reader to wonder if the idea might better have been handled in a short story.

H.M., however, did have a splendid final case in "Ministry of Miracles," a novelette that appeared in a British magazine, The Housewife, in three parts, January through March 1956, but not as a book until 1963, when it was published under the title "All in a Maze" in The Men Who Explained Miracles. The problem--that, although the victim is alone in a locked room, someone turns on the gas jets--is excellent in its simplicity, and the story has much of the warmth and enthusiasm of Carr's earlier tales.

Although the H.M stories continued until the mid 1950s, and the Dr. Fell novels appeared off and on until 1967, Carr's major focus for the rest of his writing career was historical detective novels. The Bride of Newgate (1950), his first historical novel in sixteen years, includes a fine mystery and a minor-miracle problem, but it is primarily an adventure story of swordplay and romance in Regency England. Carr's unhappiness with the mid twentieth century is clearly revealed in his historical novel The Devil in Velvet (1951), in which the hero so longs to leave his own age that he bargains with Satan to be transported to the England of Charles II. The Devil in Velvet was always Carr's favorite among his mysteries in a period setting.

With the defeat of the socialist government in 1951, Carr returned to England, but his books again showed some of the heaviness they had suffered from a few years earlier. He was seriously ill for almost three years, but he did not take time off, as he admitted in an 8 October 1954 letter to Boucher: "like I fool I would write during this time against all advice." Behind the Crimson Blind (1952) indicates how difficult writing had become for Carr. The story has an excellent Tangiers setting, based on the Carrs' five-month stay there, but the problem--the identification of a Robin Hood character--is not compelling. After an emergency operation in the summer of 1953 and a long period of recuperation, however, Carr again produced stories of uniformly high quality.

Captain Cut-Throat (1955), Carr's first book after his recovery, is a fine combination of historical romance and detection. It takes place against a background of Napoleon's camp in 1805 as the Grande Armée prepares to invade England. Carr carefully increases suspense as a British agent tries to discover French plans in the face of a series of mysterious killings committed by what seems to be an invisible man.

Carr's books through the early 1960s maintain high standards of ingenuity and storytelling. Noteworthy among his historical novels are Fire, Burn! (1957) and the final Carter Dickson book, Fear Is the Same (1956), both of which have modern heroes transported to the past. Another good example of Carr's later style is The Witch of the Low-Tide (1961), subtitled "An Edwardian Melodrama." It features David Garth, a detective-story writer who, as a specialist in impossible crimes, represents Carr's view of his craft. A true detective story, says Garth, is "the exercise of one's ingenuity, the setting of the trap and the double-trap, the game you play chapter after chapter against a quick-witted reader." The miracle crime in The Witch of the Low-Tide, murder in a building surrounded by unmarked sand, is one of the best in Carr's later books, and the re-creation of England in 1907 is accurate and colorful. The hero knows the identity of the killer early on but must fend off the official police in order to protect the woman he loves. Only two novels from these years, The Dead Man's Knock (1958) and In Spite of Thunder (1960), both about Dr. Fell, are disappointments. The crimes are clever enough, but Fell is wooden, and the stories are dominated by cryptic remarks that are frustrating rather than intriguing.

From about 1962 until his death on 27 February 1977, Carr fought increasing illness. Occasionally, his final books substitute speeches for conversation, and some of his stories have so much mystification that following the main thread of the plot is difficult; but almost all of his books continue to be carefully detailed in setting and ingeniously constructed in detection. The House at Satan's Elbow (1965), praised by Boucher in a New York Times review as "a happy return to the Golden Age of detection," has Carr's simplest and most convincing explanation of the locked-room puzzle. Panic in Box C (1966) has a well-developed theatrical background and a chilling conclusion in the crazy world of "the Old Haunted Mill" at an amusement park.

In 1965, after another socialist government took power in Britain, Carr moved to the American South. His final Dr. Fell novel, Dark of the Moon (1967), takes place near his new home in South Carolina. His next three novels are set in old New Orleans. The best of them, Papa Là-Bas (1968), has an intriguing combination of voodoo, riverboats, and a cleverly constructed alibi by the murderer. But after the 1972 publication of The Hungry Goblin: A Victorian Detective Novel, in which Wilkie Collins is the detective, Carr wrote no more fiction. He planned to write a detective novel set in the 1890s with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as the main detective, and twice he began new novels, but he did not complete more than a few pages. His proposed volume of reminiscences, "Culprit Confesses," suffered the same fate. He did, however, contribute a lively and refreshingly idiosyncratic book-review column to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, and he began a nonfiction series about criminals of the past, but only the first installment was published.

At his death, tributes to John Dickson Carr poured in. Perhaps the one that sums up his achievement most fully came from fellow mystery novelist Edmund Crispin : "for subtlety, ingenuity and atmosphere, he was one of the three or four best detective-story writers since Poe that the English language has known."

 
Papers:

The correspondence of John Dickson Carr with his British agent, David Higham, and his correspondence with Frederic Dannay are held at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin.

 
FURTHER READINGS:

FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR

References:

  • Robert C. S. Adey, Locked Room Murders and Other Impossible Crimes (London: Ferret, 1979), pp. 13-16, 43-48, 59-62.
  • Lillian de la Torre, "John Dickson Carr's Solution to The Mystery of Edwin Drood," Armchair Detective, 14 (Autumn 1981): 291-294.
  • Larry L. French, Notes for the Curious, a John Dickson Carr Memorial Journal (St. Louis: Privately printed, 1978).
  • Douglas G. Greene, "Adolf Hitler and John Dickson Carr's Least-Known Locked Room," Armchair Detective, 14 (Autumn 1981): 295-296.
  • Greene, "John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Created Miracles" and "A Bibliography of the Works of John Dickson Carr," in The Door to Doom and Other Detections (New York: Harper, 1980; London: Hamilton, 1981), pp. 9-26, 327-351.
  • Greene, John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles (New York: Otto Penzler/Simon & Schuster, 1995)--includes a complete list of Carr's radio scripts, pp. 486-490.
  • Greene, "John Dickson Carr, Alias Roger Fairbairn, and the Historical Novel," Armchair Detective, 11 (October 1978): 339-342.
  • Howard Haycraft, Murder for Pleasure (New York: Appleton-Century, 1941), pp. 199-203.
  • Roger Herzel, "John Dickson Carr," in Minor American Novelists, edited by Charles Alva Hoyt (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1970), pp. 67-80.
  • S. T. Joshi, John Dickson Carr: A Critical Study (Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1990).
  • Roland Lacourbe, John Dickson Carr, Scribe au Miracle (Amiens: Ecrage, 1998).
  • Tony Medawar, "Duels, Devilment, and Infidelity," in Speak of the Devil (Norfolk, Va.: Crippen & Landru, 1994), pp. 9-25.
  • Francis M. Nevins Jr., "The Sound of Suspense, John Dickson Carr as a Radio Writer," Armchair Detective, 11 (October 1978): 334-338.
  • LeRoy Panek, "John Dickson Carr," in Watteau's Shepherds (Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1979), pp. 145-184.
  • Julian Symons, Bloody Murder, from the Detective Story to the Crime Novel (London: Faber & Faber, 1972), pp. 119-121.
  • Robert Lewis Taylor, "Profiles: Two Authors in an Attic," New Yorker, 27 (8 September 1951): 39-48; (15 September 1951): 36-49.

 

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1200012241