John Dickson Carr: Overview

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Author: R. E. Briney
Date: 1996
Publisher: Gale
Series: St. James Guide to Writers Series
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 1,424 words

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In John Dickson Carr's first novel, It Walks by Night, there is a passage from a play ascribed to one of the characters: "The art of the murderer my dear Maurot, is the same as the art of the magician. And the art of the magician does not lie in any such nonsense as `the hand is quicker than the eye,' but consists simply in directing your attention to the wrong place. He will cause you to be watching one hand, while with the other hand, unseen though in full view, he produces his effect." This is also the art of the mystery writer as practiced for more than 40 years by John Dickson Carr. Additional facets of his talent were perfected through the years—the meticulous historical reconstructions; the broad, sometimes farcical humor; the expert deployment of bizarre incident and eerie atmosphere; the occasional touch of outright fantasy—but the fundamental framework was always the same: the ingeniously plotted murder puzzle, set forth with all the illusionist's skill at deception. Carr's particular forte was the "miracle problem" or "impossible crime" with its primary sub-category, the locked-room murder. He compiled a longer list of variations on this theme than any other author, and even included an analytical lecture on the subject in one of his novels (the famous "Locked Room Lecture" in The Three Coffins).

Fifty out of Carr's 71 mystery novels belong to series featuring one of three continuing detective characters. The first of these detectives, introduced in It Walks by Night, was the flamboyant Parisian juge d'instruction, Henri Bencolin. (Five shorter Bencolin stories, including a preliminary version of It Walks by Night under the title "Grand Guignol," appeared in Carr's college magazine, The Haverfordian, between 1926 and 1929.) Bencolin's cases include an impossible murder in a gambling club—the victim, seen to enter an empty room with all entrances under observation, is subsequently found there, beheaded; the stabbing of a young girl in a wax museum; and multiple deaths in a macabre castle on the Rhine. The books do not have the discipline and polish of Carr's best mysteries, and lack the overt humor often present in later work. But all of the author's other hallmarks are present, including his fondness for "bad" women in place of ingénues.

Four Bencolin novels and one nonseries mystery, Poison in Jest, appeared in rapid succession. It became obvious that Carr's output was more than his original publishers were prepared to handle. A second publisher was more than happy to take the overflow, under a new byline. Carr's most durable detective, the bulky and bibulous Dr. Gideon Fell, was introduced in Hag's Nook. Modelled in appearance and mannerisms on G. K. Chesterton, whom Carr admired, Dr. Fell appeared in some 23 novels. Among the notable Dr. Fell novels are The Blind Barber, and all-stops-out farce about murder on an ocean liner; The Three Coffins, which contains two "impossible" murders and the celebrated "Locked Room Lecture"; The Crooked Hinge, one of the most audacious mystery puzzles ever written; The Problem of the Wire Cage, in which a man is found strangled in the middle of a wet clay tennis court, with only his own footprints leading out to the body; He Who Whispers, with its brooding atmosphere and hints of vampires; and Below Suspicion, in which murder is mixed with modern Satanism. Dr. Fell's last appearance was in Dark of the Moon, in which he unmasked a murderer in Carr's adopted city of Charleston, South Carolina.

A year after the introduction of Dr. Fell, the equally imposing bulk of Sir Henry Merrivale ("H.M.") hove into view in The Plague Court Murders under the Carter Dickson byline. More broadly drawn than Gideon Fell, and prone to fits of childness and ill-temper, H.M. was equally astute at unravelling intricate crimes. Almost all of his cases are "impossible" crimes. The Peacock Feather Murders and The Judas Window are justly regarded as classics of the locked-room story. In The Curse of the Bronze Lamp and A Graveyard to Let there are miraculous disappearances to rival any produced by stage illusionists. H.M. is an openly comic figure, but even in the midst of the funny scenes the author keeps the demands of his plot in mind. In one story, H.M.'s majestic progress along the pavement comes to an abrupt halt when he slips on a banana peel. His classic pratfall is funny in context, but it also serves to distract the reader's attention from a revealing conversation taking place in the foreground. One of the funniest scenes in all of Carr/Dickson's books occurs in the opening pages of Night at the Mocking Widow when H.M.'s suitcase on wheels gets away from him and is chased down a village street by a pack of dogs. This is pure slapstick, like something from a Laurel and Hardy comedy; but the climax of the scene provides H.M. with a significant clue to later crimes. H.M. ultimately bows out (in book length) in The Cavalier's Cup, which reads like an attempt to meld the styles of P. G. Wodehouse and Thorne Smith with "modern" sexual attitudes and a locked-room puzzle. It is a combination from which no one, either author or characters, emerges with dignity intact.

A small number of Carr's contemporary detective novels fall outside his established series. Of these, undoubtedly the best is The Burning Court. In this astonishing tour de force, the narrator discovers that his wife has the name and the appearance of a notorious poisoner, executed some 75 years previously. What is he to think when new deaths by poison begin to occur?

In 1928, before he turned to detective fiction, Carr had written a historical romance "with lots of Gadzookses and swordplay." The story was never published, and the manuscript was destroyed. But in 1934, while the Fell and H.M. series were just getting off the ground, he published a historical novel called Devil Kinsmere under the pseudonym Roger Fairbairn. Thirty years later, the book was rewritten and published as Most Secret under Carr's own name. Carr published no historical fiction, as such between 1934 and 1950, although in 1936 he wrote The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey, a fascinating account of an actual crime from the late seventeenth century. In 1950, Carr produced The Bride of Newgate, the first of a series of historical romances that were also detective novels. The second of these, The Devil in Velvet, sold better than any of Carr's other novels. Here the historical setting and the murder puzzle were augmented by deal-with-the-Devil and time-travel fantasy themes. Two subsequent historical mysteries, Fear Is the Same and Fire, Burn!, also involved time—travel, much in the manner of John Balderston's stage drama Berkeley Square. Carr's historical novels culminated with The Hungry Goblin, a Victorian mystery in which the role of the detective was played by the writer Wilkie Collins.

In addition to his novels, Carr wrote a highly successful Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as numerous short stories and radio plays. His short fiction ranged from pulp-magazine melodrama to classic puzzle stories, from the fantasy of "New Murders for Old" to the prize-winning and often reprinted "The Gentleman from Paris." Nine of the short stories featured another series detective, Colonel March of the Department of Queer Complaints. Carr also collaborated with Adrian Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur's youngest son, on six Sherlock Holmes pastiches, The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes.

During the last 20 years the investigations of Douglas G. Greene and others have uncovered many early stories published in Carr's prep school and college literary magazines, as well as an extensive roster of radio plays broadcast in Britain and the U.S. during the 1940s. In the early apprentice works, some of which are included in the collection The Door to Doom and Other Detections, many of Carr's characteristic preoccupations and techniques are already visible. Nine of the radio scripts were collected in The Dead Sleep Lightly. Speak of the Devil, a full-length radio serial in Carr's historical mode, was published in 1994. In the collections Fell and Foul Play and Merrivale, March and Murder (both 1991), Greene organizes Carr's short fiction and several radio plays around his major detectives, with informative introductions and notes. Professor Greene's researches culminated with the 1995 publication of John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles, which is both a meticulously detailed biography and a cogent literary study, giving the backgrounds for many of Carr's works and placing them in the framework of mystery fiction and of popular fiction in general.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420001435