JOHN DICKSON CARR
by Nicholas Fuller
2006 has been a great year for anniversaries, including the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Mozart's birth. On the thirtieth of November, in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, was born a man who was to the detective story what Mozart was to music: a figure of towering stature, a writer of colossal ingenuity, wit, charm, originality and complete mastery of his craft: John Dickson Carr, arguably the greatest detective writer ever, creator of such famous sleuths as the gargantuan Dr. Gideon Fell and the bombastic Sir Henry Merrivale, and undisputed master of the impossible crime, in ‘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'. [FN: Witch of the Low Tide , 1961]
‘I like my murders to be frequent, gory, and grotesque. I like some vividness of colour and imagination flashing out of my plot, since I cannot find a story enthralling solely on the grounds that it sounds as though it might really have happened. I do not care to hear the hum of everyday life; I much prefer to hear the chuckle of the great Hanaud or the deadly bells of Fenchurch St Paul." ( The Hollow Man , 1935)
Most of Carr's stories are (as he freely admitted) improbable. That is to say, unlike writers like Ibsen, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Woolf, James, Joyce, Proust, and Gertrude Stein, he did not rejoice in mundane things, or hold the soulless credo ‘that we are dull and damned as well as being damned dull' (Douglas G Greene, The Man Who Explained Miracles , New York: Otto Penzler, 1995, p 402). Instead, Carr's stories are tales of adventure, mystery and imagination, in the grand manner of Stevenson, MR James, Poe, Dumas, Doyle and Chesterton – writers who remind the reader that life is worth living and worth fighting for.
As a detective writer, Carr was almost unique in combining gripping narratives full of eerie atmosphere, vivid characterisation and plenty of action and romance, with brilliantly ingenious and clued formal detective stories in the orthodox manner. (Only G.K. Chesterton and, to a lesser degree, Nicholas Blake and Dorothy L. Sayers really succeeded in writing tales which were both stories and detective stories; most writers either concentrated on the story and forgot about the detection, or had an ingenious plot but no sense of pace, atmosphere or characterisation.) In the early books, the reader is plunged into a mysterious situation from the very start: Why are there four drugged people, their pockets filled with such meaningless objects as a broken alarm clock and a vial of phosphorus, and a dead man seated around a table? Why did a respectable clergyman put on a false beard, throw a piece of coal at the wall of a museum, and attack a policeman? How can the photograph of a famous woman poisoner, guillotined in the mid-nineteenth century, be that of the hero's wife? In later books, Carr humanises the formal detective problem, often by making the hero or heroine the main suspect, so that the reader is caught up in the emotional drama as much as in the question of whodunit.
Carr was best known for his impossible crimes, often locked rooms (people murdered in hermetically-sealed chambers, rooms locked and bolted from the inside, or with all possible entrances and exits watched), impossible disappearances (from swimming pools, from corridors with a pair of unbiased witnesses at both ends, or even the vanishing of an entire flat – with a dead body in it) or “no footprints” (victims stabbed or strangled in the middle of a field of snow, mud or wet sand, yet in which the criminal did not leave a single footprint). Other crimes are even more bizarre: a pistol lifts itself off the wall and shoots a man; a man is gored by an invisible unicorn; or the victim is poisoned by a woman who walks through a door which doesn't exist, and his corpse later vanishes from a completely sealed crypt.
Understandably, it often seems as though the murder must have been committed by supernatural agents: by vengeful ghosts, family curses, rooms which kill those left alone in them, witchcraft cults, or vampires and other beings lighter than air. (Satan himself appears in The Devil in Velvet , one of Carr's most popular tales, about a Faustian bargain and swashbuckling in the court of Charles II.)
The solutions of Carr's mysteries are often brilliant, because they are simple; and they are simple because they are brilliant. Any hack can write a staggeringly complex detective story which requires twenty-five pages of small print as an appendix to clear up the loose ends, but the works of genius are built around a single idea, akin to the great detective's single flash of intuition. One thinks of The Crooked Hinge , The Red Widow Murders, Death in Five Boxes, The Reader is Warned, “The Wrong Problem” and even of the very late In Spite of Thunder and Deadly Hall . In all these stories, the solution is one which the reader never considered, but which, when revealed, turns out to be both breathtakingly simple and utterly obvious. When Carr's solutions fail, it is because they are hard to visualise and follow ( The Problem of the Wire Cage , which really needs a diagram), too technical and fiddly ( Fatal Descent ), or too mechanical and therefore lacking in wonder and surprise – the sheer sizzling creativity of Carr at his best ( The Judas Window, brilliant though much of it is, and The Dead Man's Knock ).
In his first novel, It Walks by Night (1930), Carr compares the art of the successful murderer to that of a magician.
‘The art of the murderer…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. That is the principle I have applied to crime.'
The hero of Carr's earliest books is the saturnine, Satanic Henri Bencolin, juge d'instruction of the Paris Sûreté. The stories are all ingenious exercises in the macabre, in the tradition – and rather over-blown style – of Poe, Baudelaire and the Grand Guignol, with somewhat artificially heightened atmospheres, and plots which often border on the ludicrous (see The Lost Gallows, which involves a mysterious avenger who calls himself Jack Ketch and kidnaps people to hang them on his private gallows, with the help of a half-witted dwarf, or Castle Skull (both books 1931) , which takes place in – um – a castle shaped like a big skull). The Corpse in the Waxworks (1932), though, is undoubtedly Carr's first major work, and has Bencolin cross swords with his nemesis, Etienne Galant (somewhere between Moriarty and Blofeld), and a genuinely surprising and horrifying solution. The detective returned five years later in the under-rated Four False Weapons , which has a more mellowed Bencolin investigate the murder of a poule de luxe in a villa outside Paris .
Carr's main detective, Dr. Gideon Fell, a lexicographer, historian and expert in impossible crimes, and who bore a startling physical resemblance to G.K. Chesterton, made his first bow in Hag's Nook (1933), set in a haunted prison in Lincolnshire . The twenty-three Dr. Fell novels, which span thirty-four years, include many of Carr's best books. The Hollow Man (in America, The Three Coffins ; 1935) is widely regarded as his masterpiece, involving as it does both a locked room and a “no footprints” murder, skulduggery in Transylvania, the famous “Locked-Room Lecture”, and it boasts one of his most surprising (and hotly debated) solutions. The Arabian Nights Murder (1936) is the account of a peculiar night in a private museum, told from several different perspectives, and with no less than three detectives trying to solve it, before it is brought to Dr. Fell. The Crooked Hinge (1938) is another masterly experiment in pulling the wool over the reader's eyes, and has an (ahem!) staggering solution – plus a witchcraft cult, rival claimants à la Tichborne, and dark doings on the Titanic . The Problem of the Green Capsule (1939), the first Carr I ever read, has a very simple situation – the victim stages a psychological test to flush out a poisoner, and is murdered himself; there are only four suspects, yet none of the four could possibly have done it – and is fantastically tricky. He Who Whispers (1946) is also very much a fan favourite, and has an impossible murder on top of a tower in France, and a very cunning murder attempt in modern day Britain, and a young woman who may be a vampire.
Carr's other main series detective, in a long series of books written as “Carter Dickson”, was Sir Henry Merrivale (or “H.M.”), the fat, garrulous “Old Man” who is both a lawyer and a doctor, and occupies some high-up position in Whitehall. On his first appearance, in The Plague Court Murders (1934), one of the characters compares him to Sherlock's sedentary brother, Mycroft Holmes; later, however, he becomes more Churchillian – and often the source of physical humour. (My favourite is in the 1943 novel She Died a Lady , when a broken toe causes him to take to a wheelchair, in which he roars around the countryside, impersonating Nero and frightening gardeners.) The Merrivale stories are often lighter and funnier than the Dr. Fell stories, and use stock situations of detective fiction (sinister societies, master criminals, courtroom drama, and haunted houses) to great effect. Among the best are the first one, The Plague Court Murders , which, like Hag's Nook , takes place in a haunted house, and has both one of Carr's most surprising murderers and a very ingenious solution; The Red Widow Murders (1935), which takes its name from the “ veuve rouge” , the guillotine, and shows how murder by curare can be committed in a locked room; The Punch and Judy Murders (1937), a light-hearted caper in the manner of Hitchcock's North by Northwest ; The Peacock Feather Murders (1937), widely regarded as one of the best impossible crimes ever; Death in Five Boxes (1938), with a very simple method and surprising murderer; Nine – and Death Makes Ten (1940), set on a ship crossing the submarine zone early in World War Two; and She Died a Lady (1943), told by an elderly doctor interested in the disappearance of a young couple, and with some of Carr's best characterisation. Unquestionably the best, though, is The Reader is Warned (1939), which is about apparent death by telepathy, has a truly surprising villain, and takes place on a much larger scale than normal – absolutely first-class.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Carr moved away from detective novels featuring Dr. Fell or H.M., and started to write historical romances, always with some strong mystery element. Several are set in the Restoration, such as the brilliant historical reconstruction, The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey (1936), and the adventure stories The Devil in Velvet (1951) and Most Secret (1964). Books set in later periods – the nineteenth century in The Bride of Newgate (1950) and Fire, Burn! (1957) or Edwardian England in The Witch of the Low-Tide (1961) – are often well-researched, ingenious detective stories, with more action than the “contemporary” stories.
Carr also wrote several novels which do not fall into any category. The most famous is The Burning Court (1937), about a murder case in Pennsylvania which may be the work of a revenant French poisoner. There are, however, two solutions, which are to some degree mutually contradictory, and the hybrid is not really to my taste. Then there are two of Carr's most dazzling performances, The Emperor's Snuff-box (1942), a superb instance of misdirection in a French resort, and The Nine Wrong Answers (1952), a thriller-cum-detective story set in New York and London , and which would have made a great Hitchcock film.
Where should the novice reader start? Well, any of the Dr. Fells and H.M.s listed above, for a start. Many were reprinted by IPL and Carroll & Graf fairly recently, including Merrivale Holds the Key , which has both The Plague Court and Red Widow Murders (two for the price of one!). Then, if you can find them, there are two Dr. Fell omnibuses, one published by Hamish Hamilton in 1959, which has The Mad Hatter Mystery, Death-Watch, The Black Spectacles (a.k.a. Problem of the Green Capsule ), and The Seat of the Scornful (in the US, Death Turns the Tables ); and one by Avenel in 1988, which has The Blind Barber, To Wake the Dead, The Crooked Hinge and The Case of the Constant Suicides . All are excellent introductions to the author. Then there are collections of short stories, such as The Third Bullet (1954) and The Men Who Explained Miracles (1963), which have a mixture of Fell, Merrivale and other. There are also radio plays, including the American CBS Suspense! , which can be found on the internet. There are also several good web-sites – Grobius Shortling's Mysterylist ( www.mysterylist.com/carr ), and the John Dickson Carr Collectors' Site ( www.jdcarr.com ), for instance. Once you've got a taste for Carr, try Douglas G. Greene's John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles (New York: Otto Penzler, 1995), an invaluable biography and critical biography, and the definitive guide to the author's work.
Now, on the centenary of John Dickson Carr's birth, let us therefore, gentlemen, charge our glasses and raise our voices thus:
Here's a health unto his Majesty,
God and King Carr!