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Carr, John Dickson

Page history last edited by Jon 11 years, 9 months ago

John Dickson CarrJohn Dickson Carr (November 30, 1906-February 27, 1977) was a prolific American-born author of detective stories who also published under the pen names Carter Dickson, Carr Dickson, and Roger Fairbairn. He is generally regarded as one of the greatest writers of so-called "Golden Age" mysteries, complex, plot-driven stories in which the puzzle is paramount. Most of his many novels and short stories feature the elucidation, by an eccentric detective, of apparently impossible, and seemingly supernatural, crimes. He was influenced in this regard by the works of Gaston Leroux and by the Father Brown stories of GK Chesterton. Carr modeled his major detective, the fat and genial lexicographer Dr. Gideon Fell, on Chesterton.


Life and Works


Carr was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, the son of a sometime Democratic Congressman. He attended Hill School, where he was a mediocre student preoccupied with fledgling attempts at writing mystery stories. While studying abroad he married an Englishwoman, Clarice Cleaves, in 1931 and settled in England. They raised three children there before moving to the United States in 1948. Most of his books written through the mid-1950s are set in England or in Europe, and at one point there was speculation that "Carr" was a pen name used by the famous English humorist P. G. Wodehouse. He married Clarice Cleaves in 1931.


Carr was a master of the locked room mystery, in which a detective solves apparently impossible crimes. Examples of such crimes are murder inside a locked and sealed room, or the discovery of a dead body (strangled or knifed at close quarters) surrounded by snow or wet sand in which no footprints but the victim's are visible. The Dr. Fell mystery The Three Coffins (also known as The Hollow Man) (1935), usually considered Carr's masterpiece, features crimes that are variations on both of these scenarios and that has a notable discourse by Dr. Fell on the nature of impossible crimes. It was selected as the best locked-room mystery of all time by a panel of mystery writers and Dr. Fell's discourse is sometimes printed as a stand-alone essay.


Many of the Fell novels feature two or more different impossible crimes, including He Who Whispers (1946) and The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941). The novel The Crooked Hinge (1938) weaves a seemingly impossible throat-slashing, witchcraft, an eerie automaton modelled on Johann Maelzel's chess player, and a case similar to that of the Tichborne claimant into what is often cited as one of the greatest classics of detective fiction. But even Carr's biographer, Douglas G. Greene (John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles), notes that the explanation, like many of Carr's in other books, seriously stetches plausibility and the reader's credulity.


Besides Dr. Fell, Carr mysteries feature three other series detectives: Sir Henry Merrivale (H.M.), Henri Bencolin, and Colonel March. Many of the Merrivale novels, written under the Carter Dickson byline, rank with Carr's best work, including the highly praised The Judas Window (1938). A few of his works do not feature a series detective - the most famous, The Burning Court (1937) concerns witchcraft, poisoning, and a body that disappears from a sealed crypt in suburban Philadelphia; it was the basis for the French film La Chambre ardente (1962). The book is notable for an apparently supernatural ending that contradicts an earlier, rational explanation of the mysterious events.


Carr also wrote many radio scripts, particularly for the BBC, and some screenplays. His 1943 half-hour radio play Cabin B-13 was expanded into a series on CBS in the early 1950s for which Carr wrote all of the scripts, basing some on earlier works or re-presenting devices that Chesterton had used. That radio play was also expanded into the script for the 1953 film Dangerous Crossing, directed by Joseph M. Newman and starring Michael Rennie and Jeanne Crain. 1942's The Emperor's Snuffbox became the 1957 British film production That Woman Opposite.


In 1950 Carr wrote a novel called The Bride of Newgate, set during the Napoleonic Wars, and this may be called the first full-length historical whodunnit. The Devil in Velvet and Fire, Burn! are the two historicals with which he himself was most pleased. With Adrian Conan Doyle, the youngest son of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Carr wrote a majority of the Sherlock Holmes stories that were published in the 1954 collection The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes.


Late in life Carr developed an interest in the Southern United States, and a number of his last books are set there. He died in South Carolina.


Dr. Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale


Carr's two major detectives, Dr. Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale, are, superficially, quite similar. Both are large, blustery, upper-class, eccentric Englishman somewhere between middle-aged and elderly. Dr. Fell, however, who was frankly fat and walked only with the aid of two canes, was clearly modeled on the British writer G. K. Chesterton and was at all times a model of civility and geniality. He had a great mop of untidy hair that was often covered by a "shovel hat" and he generally wore a cape. He lived in a modest cottage and had no official connection to any public authorities. H.M., on the other hand, although stout and with a majestic "corporation", was physically active and was feared for his ill-temper and noisy rages. A well-heeled descendant of the "oldest baronecy" in England, he was an Establishment figure (even though he frequently railed against it) and in the earlier novels was the head of the British Secret Service. Even in the earliest books the bald, bespectacled, and scowling H.M. was clearly a Churchillian figure and in the later novels this similarity was somewhat more consciously evoked.

Recently, the Dr. Fell books have generally been considered to be Carr's major achievement. Earlier, however, H.M. had been regarded more favorably by a number of critics. Howard Haycraft, author of the seminal Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story, wrote in 1941 that H.M. or "The Old Man" was "the present writer's admitted favorite among contemporary fictional sleuths."


Clayton Rawson on John Dickson Carr


From MWA anthology Murder by Experts (1947).


I do not love thee, Doctor Fell The reason why I cannot tell; But this alone I know fully well, I do not love thee, Doctor Fell.

Having wondered what unfriendly character could have written in this vein about my old friend Dr. Gideon Fell, and because I wished to have my seconds call on him, discuss the weapons to be used and arrange a meeting behind the nearest church at dawn tomorrow morning, I conducted an investigation into the identity of the mysterious misanthrope. Under questioning, a Mr. Bartlett disclosed that the author was Thomas Browne, poet, and that the Dr. Fell he disliked was a Seventeenth Century Dean of Christ Church, Oxford. The verdict was, therefore: Not Guilty. Obviously any similarity between the unliked Dean and John Dickson Carr's bulky doctor whose fingers are all thumbs when he tries to operate scientific detection devices but whose logic is rapier - sharp when he is busily and often uproariously exploding lethal hocus - pocus is obviously ridiculous.


Dr. Fell, like his alter ego, Sir Henry Merrivale (and wouldn't it be something if they both some day arrived on the scene of the same impossible crime?), has a peculiar faculty for meeting up with locked rooms and situations in which murder, although utterly impossible, has been done just the same. The long list of Carr murderers includes so many escape artists wearing the mantle of Harry Houdini that one almost suspects John missed his calling by not becoming a magician. When you consider, however, the apparent ease with which he has conjured up some fifty mystery novels, most of which show all his competitors aces and spades and still take the pot - well, maybe he is a magician at that. Houdini, of course, had one advantage. He could escape from a locked trunk or sealed coffin and repeat the trick at every performance. Detective story writers, unlike magicians, are duty bound in the last chapter to roll up their sleeves, expose all the hidden gimmicks, explain the misdirection, and tell exactly how the miracle was accomplished. Having labored and brought forth a new way for a murderer to become invisible or vanish into thin air, the writer can't repeat the trick season after season; it is good for one performance only, and he has to begin again and again to invent a new miracle for the next opening chapter. Or does he?


Back in 1935, in The Three Coffins, Dr. Fell issued a characteristic “Harrumph!” and proceeded in his now classic Locked Room Lecture, to explain in one fell swoop (sorry, that was accidental) almost the whole bag of locked room tricks. Did that end the use of the locked room situation in detective fiction? Although Superintendent Hadley may have wished fervently for this result, he was doomed to disappointment by the later adventures of Dr. Fell, H.M. and a host of other fictional detectives, including a certain Merlini. The reason? Well, if you have read the Locked Room Lecture you already have the answer to the enigma of the evanescent murderer in the story you are about to read. He uses method N°7 in Dr. Fell's first category: Crimes Committed in a Hermetically Sealed Room Which Really Is Hermetically Sealed... John Dickson Carr generously gives you the answer well in advance and then, using a magic of his own, applies a few touches of new paint here and there, pulls one or two unexpected rabbits out of the bewitched typewriter he owns, and Presto! - the oft - explained secret regains its mystery and entertainment, and the murderer vanishes again just as inexplicably as before - to reappear finally, in handcuffs, when Dr. Fell, with a vast chuckle, does what Houdini never did and explains exactly how it was done. And now, I shall drop hastily through the nearest trap door so that the editor and stage manager of this anthology can lift the curtain on the entrance of that undistinguished duo - John Dickson Carr, the Mystifying Transatlantic Wizard; and Dr. Gideon Fell, enemy of hocus - pocus, who explains all the tricks in a remarkable feat of sleight - of - mind which proves once more that the typewriter is quicker than the eye!

Mike Grost on John Dickson Carr


Carr's great virtues as a writer were fourfold. He is a master creator of plots. He is able to create supernatural atmosphere with uncanny skill. His comic passages are very funny. And he is a good storyteller.


Carr wrote several stories as an undergraduate. The most important of these, "The Shadow of the Goat" (1926), is notable for containing germs in outline of two of his best later novels, The Three Coffins and The Nine Wrong Answers. His first books focused on Henri Bencolin, a French policeman. The best of these early novels is The Lost Gallows (1931). This book shows Carr's skill at compressing a very complex plot into a fabulously small space. As a work of storytelling it fascinates.


In 1933 he created one of his two main detectives, Dr. Fell, in Hag's Nook. This is a pretty good novel. Carr's best period was from 1934 to 1944. Most of his great works of mystery fiction were written in those years.


In many ways the first "real" Carr novel was The Plague Court Murders (1934). This tale marks the debut of Carr's other principal detective Sir Henry Merrivale. It also shows Carr making a permanent commitment to the impossible crime story.


The great works of 1935 - 1936 are of fabulous plot complexity. They are more complicated than even the average Golden Age detective novel. The best of them, The Hollow Man (aka The Three Coffins) (1935), contains "The Locked Room Lecture", a chapter in which Dr. Fell sums up the main approaches used to commit impossible crimes in detective fiction up to that point. Both the "Lecture", and the solution to the novel itself, are among the high points of the Golden Age of mystery fiction.


In 1936, Carr began introducing more comedy in his books. The Arabian Nights Murder and The Punch and Judy Murders still have extraordinary complexity, a complexity that approaches surrealism in the latter, more diffusely organized book. But there is also a good deal of comedy. The middle section of Arabian Nights is laugh out loud funny. This book's multi-section organization and comic episodes reflects the influence of Wilkie Collins. These books are a decline from the peak of 1935. In any case, Carr's work had a sharp falling off in 1936 and 1937.

Carr made a brilliant comeback in 1938 and 1939. His four best novels of those years are perfectly proportioned, complex without going to extremes. They are probably the Carr novels that adhere most closely to the canons of the Golden Age, in terms of plot density and the overall architecture of a detective novel. They are also endlessly inventive, as is all of Carr's best fiction.


The Judas Window (1938) impressed me deeply when I first read it, as did many other Carr books. Traditionally, Carr's masterpiece was always considered to be The Three Coffins. That book has "The Locked Room Lecture" and some remarkable impossible crimes. However, in recent years, The Judas Window is often being cited as Carr's other major masterpiece. Carr authority Douglas G. Greene regards it as so, and author Barbara D'Amato pays homage to both works in her novel Hard Case. The storytelling in The Judas Window is especially good. It has a rich vein of comedy, and a wonderful courtroom drama. It makes a very satisfying reading experience: every plot element falls into place in the work just the way a reader would want.


The Crooked Hinge (1938) has one of Carr's most inventive solutions. In fact, it has almost more explanations than there are mysteries in the original text! This is how a mystery should be. Hint to authors: the solution to a mystery is the finale of your novel. It should not be hurried over, giving the most minimal explanation of the mysteries in your book. Instead it should be as rich and creative as possible. Good models here are the finales of many Mozart operas, such as the Act 2 finale of The Marriage of Figaro. Mozart pulls out all the stops here, writing his most complex and spectacular music. I do not make a comparison between Carr and Mozart lightly. Carr is as creative a figure in our medium, the mystery, as Mozart was in his.


Carr also began to write short stories heavily in these years. Many of his best short pieces date from 1939 and 1940. My favorite of all is "The Locked Room" (1940). Carr eventually went to radio, around 1941, and the flood of short stories was replaced by a flood of radio plays, fairly brief works that served a similar function as his short stories. These radio plays are still largely uncollected and unpublished, although The Dead Sleep Lightly (1942-1955) contains some first rate works. His impossible crime novels in 1940-1942 seem much thinner than his earlier books. The one with the best locked room concepts is The Case of the Constant Suicides (1940). However, even this falls flat as a novel. The best book of this era shows Carr's skills away from the impossible crime genre. Death Turns the Tables (1941) is a brilliant "straight" mystery. It reminds one that impossible crimes, however well done, are not the only features of Carr's books. They are also full fledged detective novels with clues and many ingenious plot ideas not dependent on locked room techniques. I would like to see this book develop a "cult" reputation.

Carr's creativity showed a major flare up in 1943 and 1944. Many of his best radio plays date from those years. He also wrote three good novels. The best novels of this period, such as She Died a Lady and Till Death Do Us Part, center around the same sort of brilliant impossible crime ideas one finds in his short works.


Carr's work had a flare up of brilliance in 1952-1955. The Cavalier's Cup (1953) is one of Carr's funniest works. Much of the early parts of this book are just one long farce. However, fair play clues are embedded in the work, and gradually it turns into a working detective story. This is the last Sir Henry Merrivale novel. There was a year long pause in which Carr published little. However in 1955 he brought forth some of his finest fiction. Captain Cutthroat (1955) is Carr's best historical novel. Mainly this is a spy novel, not a detective story, unlike most of Carr's historical fiction, although a mystery occupying a small percentage of the plot allows it to be classified as a mystery novel. It is a fascinating piece of storytelling, somewhat in the tradition of Dumas. Carr also brought Sir Henry Merrivale back for his final appearance in "All In A Maze" (1955). This novella turns into a definitive expression of Carr's ideas about impossible crimes. It makes an outstanding finale for Merrivale's career. If I were to introduce a new reader to Carr's world, I would include this story, the Locked Room Lecture from The Three Coffins, (or maybe the whole great novel), and the short story "The Locked Room".


Carr also revived his career as a radio writer in 1955, writing some fine scripts. So all in all, 1955 was an annus mirabilis for Carr's later work. Carr's work shows here a ten year decline. Most of these later books, both historical and contemporary, are labored and uninventive. They do show Carr's gift for atmosphere, however; they also show a consistent level of craftsmanship and fair play. In 1967 Carr's Dark of the Moon showed the beginning of a late revival of his talent. There is a greater sense of mystery in this book than many of its predecessors, simply more mysterious incidents to be explained at the finale, and a greater sense of enthusiasm for the mysterious that the elderly (and it turns out, often ill) Carr had shown for a long time. The book was set in the Carolinas, where Carr had gone to live. It is not a great mystery novel, but it was heartening. Carr's comeback continued, and in 1969 he published a genuine mystery classic, The Ghost's High Noon. Although a "historical" novel, the book is actually set in the world of Carr's childhood, the only Carr novel so placed. The book contains a well done impossible crime, that while by no means as good as The Three Coffins, say, is still a real achievement. This book makes a fine Last Hurrah for Carr's career. He published only two more detective novels, and some well informed mystery criticism in EQMM, that should be collected and made available.

Carr's Merrivale books tend to have more humor than his Dr. Fell novels. While their plots are clever, they tend to be built around one central gimmick, usually an impossible crime. Especially after 1936, they tend to be simpler than the fabulously complex Fell novels, although they are still admirably complicated detective novels in comparison to other writers. They also tend to have a more up close and personal tone, as if their author was somewhat more involved with their characters: there is more warmth and intimacy. The characters in the Fell books tend to be more seen from the outside and at a distance. This is not necessarily a bad thing: it can aid in their sense of mystery and apparent supernaturalism, e.g., Grimaud in The Three Coffins. They can have a tremendous sense of presence that a more casual, intimate, around the breakfast table portrait would obscure. Carr's other detectives are less interesting. Bencolin is largely an apprentice character, and Patrick Butler's sole solo novel is not distinguished. Colonel March appears in some very good short stories, but he personally seems fairly colorless.

Following in the footsteps of John Dickson Carr as a purveyor of locked room puzzles have come a steady succession of authors. Most of these seem to be consciously imitating his work. By the way, Carr was extremely generous to his imitators, sponsoring Edmund Crispin into the Detection Club, becoming a close personal friend of Clayton Rawson, and writing rave reviews of Talbot, Pronzini and Hoch.


Carr's Subjects


Carr's supernatural atmosphere is far more gripping than most "genuine" supernatural fiction. Carr's fiction is remarkably free of axes to grind. He is not promoting the supernatural or new age ideas as a religion. He is not trying to horrify his readers about sex, unlike many modern horror novelists and filmmakers. He is not trying to show ordinary people helpless in the grip of all powerful supernatural forces, as do many supernatural writers. Nor does Carr offer much support to Spiritualism. Carr paints a terribly negative vision of psychical researchers in The Plague Court Murders (1934), for example. The psychic researcher is a vicious fraud who exploits gullible people for money, and is as creepy as the alleged ghost in the tale.


Carr's supernatural scenes tend to evoke the horrors of history. In The Plague Court Murders the menace is a hangman's assistant from the 1600's Newgate Prison. Carr evokes all the horrors of 17th century prisons, capital punishment, and the plague. The purported supernatural menace of the novel is that the ghost of this boogie man has come back, and is pursuing the characters of the novel - at night of course, and in the decaying old house of the title. This is plenty creepy, even overwhelmingly so, without Carr having to stress much supernatural mechanism. Villains in Carr novels tend to be disasters from the past come back to haunt the present. Carr's work does not contain a tremendous political charge. But it tends to invoke the idea of progress - we know that history was full of really bad old institutions that are now gone, and Carr dredges them up to chill us. Other early Carr books are dominated by motifs of ancient prisons as well: Hag's Nook (1933) takes place in the ruins of England's first detention prison, and The Mad Hatter Mystery (1933) in England's most famous prison, the Tower of London. Later Carr will deal with modern defects of the judicial system: corrupt police in Death-Watch (1935), and a hanging judge in Death Turns the Tables (1941).


Carr's fiction is rich in the complex buildings loved by Golden Age writers. The first half of Castle Skull (1931), Carr's third novel, offers superb scene painting of the Rhine River in Germany, and of two elaborate buildings on it, a country house mansion, and across the river from it, a restored Castle. Both buildings are outré to the max. Carr is very good at imagining their ornate and ominous furniture, carpets, wall hangings and rare objets d'art, in a tradition that goes back to Poe. Carr has vivid descriptive skills. The reader has a "you are there" feel, whether Carr is evoking the houses, the river, the eccentric characters, or the storm at night. The book which introduces Dr. Fell, Hag's Nook (1933), does a similar vivid job recreating the Fen Country. This is Carr's first novel set in the English countryside, and one of his first with an English detective. The middle section (Chapter 8 to the start of Chapter 14) of Carr's first mystery novel, It Walks By Night (1930), has a rich Parisian atmosphere. While the opening and closing sections of this book are full of an overdone horror, these middle sections give an indication of Carr's great talent to come. Carr describes two houses set in the Paris suburbs in these middle chapters. His description of the lights of Paris and these houses by twilight, by night and in the rain is especially rich. There is also considerable delicacy in the depictions of the characters' emotions.


Carr's novels have a uniformity of approach: they tend to be complexly plotted formal detective stories; and of tone: an eerie atmosphere. Because of this they are instantly recognizable as Carr's work. But these similarities tend to disguise and obscure the sheer variety of subject matter in Carr's books. For example, there is a startling gap between Death-Watch, a set against a realistic background of the politics of police corruption in London, and Castle Skull, which is a baroque Gothic tale of revenge at a magician's castle in Germany. And unlike many historical novelists, such as Georgette Heyer, who found one favorite historical period and stuck with it, each of Carr's historical mysteries is set in a different time period.


Carr's Techniques


The basic pattern of Carr's novels seems to be based on Gaston Leroux's French novel Le mystère de la chambre jaune (1907) (The Mystery of the Yellow Room). That famous book contains not one, but two impossible crimes. Like Carr's works, it has an eerie atmosphere. Much of the book is set at night, and is full of horrifying menace. Leroux's storytelling technique is similar to Carr's, in that it is heavily plot oriented. Leroux's detective sets out right away to investigate the crime, and the book contains little that is not directly related to the mystery and its detection. Like Carr, Leroux manages to cram a truly vast amount of plot material onto each page. Appropriately, Leroux is mentioned in Carr's first novel, It Walks By Night (1930). This book is set in France, like Leroux's novel, and has a French detective, Henri Bencolin. Carr will later choose Leroux's book as one of the ten best mystery novels of all time.


Carr's impossible crime technique was strongly influenced by G.K Chesterton. His series detective Dr. Fell is an affectionate pastiche of Chesterton.


Carr's work reflects other authors, as well. The "older detective solving the case while the young man narrator has adventures and finds a love interest" paradigm derives from the books of R Austin Freeman, such as The Eye of Osiris. This pattern is already present in Carr's first novel, It Walks By Night, and it will persist throughout his entire career. Chapter 13 of It Walks By Night also contains a small scene set in a lane next to a garden in which a murder has been committed. The country lane, complete with hedge, immediately recalls a setting much used in Freeman's books. So does the use of classical detection in this scene: Bencolin examines tire tracks and footprints, make deductions from them, and finds the murder weapon.


Both Castle Skull (1931) and Death-Watch (1935) split into halves, with the first half of each being the initial investigation, the second half being the follow up and solution. In both books, the split comes at virtually the mathematical center point of the novel, in terms of the number of pages. It is hard to believe that Carr did not consciously plan the books this way, with a mathematical precision of design that recalls Emily Brontë. In each book, the initial investigation starts at night, and ends when the detective characters give up and go to bed. The second half of each novel begins at the sunny start of the next day, and is much more diffuse than the first half, which concentrates on a single continuous investigation. In both books the first half is a gripping piece of storytelling, but the second half generally disappoints. (For reference, in Castle Skull the first half is Chapters 1 - 10, while in Death-Watch the first half consists of Chapters 1 - 11, while Chapter 12 consists of a summing up of the initial investigation, with Dr. Fell listing five unanswered questions: what Carolyn Wells called a tabulation.)


The article on J.J. Connington describes how Connington's techniques of plot construction may have influenced Carr. Connington used the mathematical concept of the "permutation" in The Case With Nine Solutions (1928), and somewhat similar permutations pop up in Carr's Locked Room Lecture. Carr particularly admired Connington's "sheer brain power", as he referred to it in "The Greatest Game in the World", and he also became a close friend and collaborator with John Rhode, creator of mathematician detective Dr. Priestley. Carr had trouble with math in school, and comic mathematicians turn up in such Carr works as The Cavalier's Cup. Yet Carr also had a deep respect for mathematics, and it plays more of a role in his works than is initially apparent.


Carr's stories, which often focus on exploring the aftermath of sinister crimes committed at night, recall in approach those of Anna Katherine Green, who he read extensively as a child. There is little fake supernatural atmosphere in her books, but there is plenty of a feeling of nocturnal horror. (Although Green did occasionally write stories with a mock supernatural appearance, for example, "The Gray Lady" in her collection Masterpieces of Mystery.) Douglas G. Greene has pointed out the similarities of a plot element in Carr's "The Gentleman From Paris" (1950), and an episode in Green's The Leavenworth Case (1878). Carr's childhood reading of Green finds other echoes in his work: his radio play "Cabin B-13" deals with a situation similar to her "Room No. 3", while it finds a very different solution, and his "The Door to Doom" (1935) recycles plot material from Green's "The Staircase at Heart's Delight" (1894). (See the article on Sir Basil Thomson for a discussion of "Cabin B-13" and its predecessors.)


Carr and the Realist School


Although he later became very different, such early Dr. Fell novels (1933 - 1935) as Hag's Nook (1933), The Mad Hatter Mystery (1933), and Death-Watch (1935), seem to be Carr's attempt to write books in the Realist school tradition. This school dominated British mystery fiction in that era. Some points in common with the Realist school: Dr. Fell is a scholar, although he is more humorous and less scientific than such Realist school savant detectives as Dr. Thorndyke and Dr. Priestley. He is also 100% British, like the other Realist school detectives, and unlike Carr's earlier French sleuth Henri Bencolin. Several of Carr's early Dr. Fell novels deal with alibis and timetables, the favorite subject of the Realist school. In the first Dr. Fell book, Hag's Nook, the solution of the plot depends on the "breakdown of identity" approach favored by the Realists. Similarly, the travel writing in books like Hag's Nook (and the earlier Bencolin novel Castle Skull) can be seen to be Carr's version of the "background" that was so important to the Realists. The Fen country setting of Hag's Nook was a favorite of the Realist school, showing up in the Coles' "Superintendent Wilson's Holiday" and Sayers' The Nine Tailors. The Mad Hatter Mystery takes us behind the scenes at a real place, the Tower of London, in the "background" tradition. And when Cousin Herbert starts tooling around the English countryside on his motorbike in Hag's Nook, he is indulging in the Realist school's favorite mode of transportation, one that appears in such works as Crofts' The Pit-Prop Syndicate (1922), the Coles' Murder at Crome House (1927) and Sayers' "The Cat in the Bag".


The clues in rhyme that show up in Hag's Nook seem distinctly un-Carrian; they recall the verse in Sayers' "Uncle Meleager's Will" (1925).

With The Plague Court Murders (1934), his first novel featuring his other series detective, Sir Henry Merrivale, Carr will commit himself to the Impossible Crime, and take a radically different road, that of the intuitionist, Chesterton based school. As Douglas G. Greene has pointed out, with The Hollow Man (1935), Dr. Fell will be retooled as a specialist in impossible crimes as well, something not part of his original characterization. The experiment with Realism will be just a brief phase in Carr's career. Carr's early Fell books have aspects of a young writer trying to adapt himself to a popular tradition, Realism, while coming out of an intuitionist, Chesterton tradition that is fundamentally different. Carr's plot solutions in subsequent early Fell books like The Mad Hatter Mystery and Death-Watch seem to come more out of the Chesterton tradition, favoring rearrangements in time and space, rather than the Realist school's "breakdown of identity" he used in Hag's Nook. And Carr's lyrical, emotionally rich travel descriptions seem a long way from the analytical depictions of social and technical institutions found in Crofts and the other Realist school writers. They instead seem part of an atmospheric mise-en-scène. Carr is not the only intuitionist, Chesterton based writer to go through a brief Realist phase: Agatha Christie experimented with Realist traditions around 1925 - 1926.

Carr will not entirely abandon Realist school traditions. Nine - And Death Makes Ten (1940), deals with science and fingerprints, a subject linked to the Realists since R. Austin Freeman's The Red Thumb Mark (1907). Just as in Freeman's novel, Carr's book contains thumb prints in blood, prints that are not what they seem, although Carr's solution is very different from Freeman's. The book contains a vivid Background, this time of a munitions ship in wartime, and uses other Realist techniques in its plot solution. Carr intermixes these Realist concepts with the Impossible Crime tradition in this novel, so the book is hardly a pure example of Realist School writing. Several other of Carr's works circa 1940 also use scientific ideas in the solution of their impossible crimes.


One might note that Carr's reputation as a detective writer was not made with his early, extravagantly gothic Bencolin novels (1930 - 1932), nor with the impossible crime stories of 1934 - 1945 on which so much of his current reputation rests. Instead, Carr became famous when Dorothy L. Sayers praised his The Mad Hatter Mystery (1933) in a rave review. Sayers was one of the main leaders of the British Realist school, and she especially admired this book, a product of the brief era of Carr's adherence to Realist school traditions.




Shorter works by John Dickson Carr


As John Dickson Carr

It Walks by Night (1930)

The Lost Gallows (1931)

Castle Skull (1931)

The Corpse in the Waxworks aka The Waxworks Murder (1932)

Poison in Jest (1932)

Hag's Nook (1933)

The Mad Hatter Mystery (1933)

The Eight of Swords (1934)

The Blind Barber aka The Case of the Blind Barber (1934)

Death-Watch (1935)

The Hollow Man aka The Three Coffins (1935)

The Arabian Nights Murder (1936)

The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey (1936)

The Burning Court (1937)

The Four False Weapons (1937)

To Wake the Dead (1938)

The Crooked Hinge (1938)

The Problem of the Green Capsule aka The Black Spectacles (1939)

The Problem of the Wire Cage (1939)

The Man Who Could Not Shudder (1940)

The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941)

Death Turns the Tables aka The Seat of the Scornful (1941)

The Emperor's Snuffbox (1942)

Till Death Do Us Part (1944)

He Who Whispers (1946)

The Sleeping Sphinx (1947)

Below Suspicion (1949)

The Bride of Newgate (1950)

The Devil in Velvet (1951)

The Nine Wrong Answers (1952)

The Third Bullet (1954)

The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes (with Adrian Conan Doyle, 1954)

Captain Cut-Throat (1955)

Patrick Butler for the Defence (1956)

Fire, Burn! (1957)

The Dead Man's Knock (1958)

Scandal at High Chimneys (1959)

In Spite of Thunder (1960)

The Witch of the Low Tide (1961)

The Demoniacs (1962)

The Men Who Explained Miracles (1963)

Most Secret (1964)

The House at Satan's Elbow (1965)

Panic in Box C (1966)

Dark of the Moon (1967)

Papa La-Bas (1968)

The Ghosts' High Noon (1969)

Deadly Hall (1971)

The Hungry Goblin (1972)

The Dead Sleep Lightly (1983) - Radio plays collected and edited by Doug Greene


*As Carr Dickson**

The Bowstring Murders (1933)


*As Carter Dickson**

The Plague Court Murders (1934)

The White Priory Murders (1934)

The Red Widow Murders (1935)

The Unicorn Murders (1935)

The Punch and Judy Murders aka The Magic Lantern Murders (1937)

The Peacock Feather Murders aka The Ten Teacups (1937)

The Judas Window (1938)

Death in Five Boxes (1938)

The Reader is Warned (1939)

Fatal Descent aka Drop to His Death (with John Rhode, 1939)

The Department of Queer Complaints aka Scotland Yard: The Department of Queer Complaints (1940)

And So to Murder (1940)

Nine - and Death Makes Ten aka Murder in the Submarine Zone aka Murder in the Atlantic (1940)

Seeing is Believing aka Cross of Murder (1941)

The Gilded Man aka Death and the Gilded Man (1942)

She Died a Lady (1943)

He Wouldn't Kill Patience (1944)

The Curse of the Bronze Lamp aka Lord of the Sorcerers (1945)

My Late Wives (1946)

The Skeleton in the Clock (1948)

A Graveyard to Let (1949)

Night at the Mocking Widow (1951)

Behind the Crimson Blind (1952)

The Cavalier's Cup (1953)

Fear is the Same (1956)

13 to the Gallows (2008) - radio plays in collaboration with Val Gielgud

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