This is the last day in which I can decently mark the centennial of the birth of the truly great detection fiction writer John Dickson Carr. Carr flourished as a writer during the 1930s and ’40s and wrote numerous classic detective novels and short stories, continuing to write until the 1970s. With Doyle, Chesterton, Christie, Queen, and Sayers, Carr is one of the greatest of all mystery writers.
Carr was the master of the "impossible crime" story and its best-known subset, the locked-room mystery. Carr’s narratives are fiendishly deceptive and puzzling, yet he leaves the crucial clues right out there for the reader to see. Yet we never do, and the detective’s revelation of the killer nearly always comes as a big surprise.
Carr’s stories tend to include a bit of overly cute romance between some young couple unique to each book or story, and he has a habit of piling on melodramatic language at times (primarily in the dialogue) and setting obviously artificial rhetorical cliffhangers at the end of some chapters, but these are minor inconveniences that detract only a little from the overall excellence of most of his books and stories.
His achievement rests mainly on two series. One, written under his own name, featured Dr. Gideon Fell, a delightfully larger than life English detective modeled on G. K. Chesterton and Dr. Samuel Johnson. Fell’s exploits began with the splendid 1933 novel Hag’s Nook, and extended through 23 novels and several short stories, most of which are of very high quality indeed. Highlights are The Mad Hatter Mystery, The Blind Barber, and The Hollow Man (aka The Three Coffins).
The Hollow Man is truly one of the great classics of the genre, and includes Dr. Fell’s famous "locked room lecture," in which he tells the reader how to solve locked-room puzzles, in a novel in which the central issue is a murder in a locked room. Of course, even after reading the lecture, no sane reader can actually solve the puzzle anyway.
Although Carr was an American, born in western Pennsylvania, his detectives were predominantly English, and his second great series, written under the pen name Carter Dickson, features Sir Henry Merrivale as detective. These are rather more humorous on the whole than the Fell mysteries, and are indeed often farcical, usually in a highly entertaining and likeable way. (Thanks are due to the late Wyatt James, an enthusiastic and astute reader of Carr, for my capsule description of Merrivale.)
Merrivale, a bald, stout, Churchillian English baronet descended from Cavaliers, is one of the great characters of mystery fiction. Smoking vile cigars and dressed like a villain in a cheap melodrama, Merrivale sweeps grandly through each story, arguing forcefully with his friends and staying about fifty-five steps ahead of both narrator and reader. And the mysteries are often as brain-roastingly puzzling as those in the Fell stories.
Among my favorite Merrivales are The Plague Court Murders, The White Priory Murders, and the delightfully zany The Curse of the Bronze Lamp. One of Carr’s very best novels and one of my personal favorites is a Merrivale: The Judas Key. It is one of the most Carrian of all of Carr’s novels, and it is one of the greatest mystery novels of all time, in my view.
Carr’s first detective character was Dr. Henri Benconlin of the Paris police. The Bencolin novels are highly atmospheric, often almost gothic in tone, and very tense and spooky at their best. The Corpse in the Waxworks is quite impressive. Another Carr detective who was featured in a series of short stories was Colonel March; his exploits are collected in the book The Department of Queer Complaints and in the excellent 1991 collection Merrivale, March, and Murder, edited by Carr biographer Douglas Greene.
Greene’s biography of Carr, The Man Who Explained Miracles, is one of the greatest biographies of a mystery fiction writer ever produced. Perhaps the best, in fact.
Carr also wrote several excellent mysteries set in historical times; most of these appeared during the 1950s and ’60. Among my favorites in this group are The Bride of Newgate, The Devil in Velvet, Fire, Burn!, Most Secret, and The Demoniacs. These are all great fun, often with a good deal of swashbuckling action not found in Carr’s other writings.
In addition to all this, Carr wrote several novels and a l
ike number of short stories featuring non-series detectives. Among these are a couple of my favorite Carr novels: The Nine Wrong Answers and Patrick Butler for the Defense. Also among these is my favorite of all of Carr’s novels: The Burning Court. The latter is one of the top five mystery novels of all time, in my opinion.
It’s a real pity that Carr’s writings have fallen into relatively obscurity in the three decades since his death. He is truly one of the very greatest mystery writers, and his writings still give great pleasure to those blessed enough to know about them.
One thing that may have contributed to this undeserved obscurity is the unfortunate fact that few of Carr’s writings have been translated to television or film. In the 1960s the BBC produced a fondly remembered series starring Boris Karloff as Col. March, which alas I haven’t seen and would dearly like to get a hold of. Other than that, there haven’t been many adaptations of Carr for the visual media. Some enterprising British or American producer would do well to mine Carr’s rich vein of great mysteries and bring these tales to a new audience while taking advantage of some really superb, atmospheric story material. Carr’s narratives are ripe for the picking, and it’s about time someone who appreciates great mystery fiction brought him to a new generation of readers.