A Bit Of A Ramble – John Dickson Carr’s Great Works

JohndicksoncarrA slight deviation from the norm today, inspired by a comment that Sergio, from Tipping My Fedora, left on my review of John Dickson Carr’s The Dead Man’s Knock, a rather unimpressive outing for Gideon Fell in my book. While the central puzzle was reasonable enough, it was handicapped by bland writing, interchangeable characters and some ludicrous behaviour. Sergio admitted to being biased towards Carr, claiming that in the 1930s and 1940s, there was, to him, nobody to touch the writer.

So I thought I’d take a look at that claim, because to me, the quality of Carr’s writing varies enormously – was the 30s and 40s really the man’s best time for his work? And was there anyone else out there?

As I mentioned in my reply to Sergio (the short one, not the post), I’d take the start of the great novels from slightly later. Carr’s early work – the Bencolin novels for example, are atmospheric reads but some of the ideas are rather barmy. Take It Walks By Night, which has some utterly barking mad plot points in it. It’s a fun read, but to me, the impossibilities (not as in locked room impossibilities, but in the “nobody could get away with that” impossibilities) derail it for me. It’s worth pointing out as well that there are a large number of the early books, even the early Gideon Fell books, that do not involve the locked room that Carr was so famous for.

I’d say that Carr’s first great novel is probably The Plague Court Murders from 1934, although it’s been a while since I read it. I’m pretty sure that the murder method wouldn’t work, but it’s simple, which is important. It also introduces Sir Henry Merrivale, who I find much more fun than Gideon Fell. Both are larger than life, but Merrivale is never taken too seriously, whereas Fell is a bit of a misery-guts. But after Plague Court and arguably The White Priory Murders, it’s Fell that takes the spotlight with much-lauded The Hollow Man – which I’ll be reviewing sometime soon – although he quickly suffers through The Arabian Nights Murder, which isn’t a favourite of mine.

From that point on though, it’s almost all hits. Even the books with ridiculous plots and solutions – The Problem Of The Wire Cage, The Crooked Hinge – are highly entertaining mysteries throughout, only letting the reader down a bit at the end. But they’re still great page-turners. The only exceptions, from 1935 to 1946, in my opinion, is the aforementioned Arabian Nights Murder and the Merrivale outing And So To Murder. That’s two books out of roughly thirty, a tremendous hit rate. Almost all of these have impossible crimes and most of them also have very well hidden murderers. I think that’s a part of Carr’s writing that is often overlooked – I think at his height, he was without peer at hiding the killer. Ignore the locked room bit and concentrate on the mystery element. Compare with Dame Agatha, and you can spot the killer two books out of three. I don’t think that’s the case with Carr at all. And look at the classics here – The Black Spectacles, The Emperor’s Snuff-Box, Till Death Do Us Part, The Judas Window, She Died A Lady, He Wouldn’t Kill Patience & He Who Whispers. All of them truly outstanding. And there are loads more that other people think are classics too.

But then what happens? There are a few good books still to come, but you can make a good case, I think, that the last great outing for Fell was in 1946 with He Who Whispers and for Merrivale two years later with The Skeleton In The Clock – possibly A Graveyard To Let in 1949. Around this time, Carr embraces the historical novel, and there are some good reads still to come in his first attempts – The Devil In Velvet is highly regarded and I enjoyed The Bride Of Newgate, although it doesn’t come close to matching the best of Fell and Merrivale. The possible exceptions, for me at least, are The Nine Wrong Answers and Captain Cut-Throat (although the second one is quite different from Carr’s modern day tales and won’t be to everyone’s taste.)

So what was the cause of the decline? It coincides with his return to the US from England (his stroke happened over ten years later) and an increased inclination towards tales set in history. I’m curious as to why he changed his writing direction, but it’s reasonable to assume that at this point he continued with Fell and Merrivale but that his heart wasn’t in those tales. But those were the sorts of tales where his strengths lay, as even in later times, the historicals, with a few exceptions, generally haven’t been particularly well received. What was the reaction to the books at the time? I’ve no idea, but Carr maintained the historical tales until his death.

Whatever the reasons for the change of direction, it’s such a shame that there were no more of the tales that made Carr’s name. For ten or fifteen years, Sergio was right – he was matchless in the genre. I don’t think even Christie had this consistency. I’m going to spend a bit more time concentrating on Carr – both from his prime and before and after – maybe with some of the books, my memory is cheating me. I had favourable memories of The Dead Man’s Knock after all… Maybe there are classics out there that I haven’t discovered – I haven’t read the last few historicals for example. You never know…

What about you, dear reader? Are there any truly great works of Carr that occur outside of the thirties and forties? Over to you.

By the way, my John Dickson Carr reviews to date are here.

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28 comments

  1. On Carr’s decline, I read an interesting comment in Tom Nolan’s biography of Ross Macdonald, I believe. It came from a letter to Macdonald from I don’t remember who–I no longer have a copy of this book, so this is all from memory. This occurred in the ’50s, and the claim was that the amount being paid by publishers for books had declined to such a degree that Carr had to write three or four a year in order to make enough money, with a resulting decline in quality. I don’t know if that’s true, but it would seem to fit in with your observations. It’s been so long since I read Carr that I can’t confirm or deny it, but I was never overly fond of the later historical books and hated The Devil in Velvet. My favorite Carrs were the later Merrivales which combined humor with the mystery. Anyway, I look forward to reading your further thoughts on Carr, and might even reread any you recommend.

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    • I do not like thee, Doctor Fell,
      The reason why I cannot tell,
      But this I know, and know full well,
      I much prefer Sir Merrivale.

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  2. I’m glad that you seem to like “The Nine Wrong Answers.” I may be alone here, but I think it’s brilliant. It’s not only the device of the nine taunting footnotes Carr puts in for the devoted reader, it’s the sheer audacity of the major plot twist and the realization that he has just yanked the rug out from under you that earn my respect. I’ll be very interested in more of your Carr reviews.

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    • The biography of Carr by Douglas Greene does point out that Carr does cheat with the ninth wrong answer but regardless, I agree completely – it’s a masterpiece of misconceptions and misdirections.

      Toying with which Carr’s to do. When I added some links to the post, I realised that I’ve only one personal favourite Fell left -The Black Spectacles. But I think, for obvious reasons, I need to tackle Hag’s Nook and (shudder) Dark Of The Moon. Maybe two or three more… better include The Hollow Man for obvious reasons. Other than that – any requests?

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  3. I was actually planning to compile similar post/best-of list about Carr, which is long, long overdue. It will appear one of these days.

    But to answer your question, you’ll find some of Carr’s best post-1950s work in his historical novels, such as The Bride of New Gate and the massively underrated Captain Cut-Throat. Those two titles bookended a short, five-year period of excellent titles that appeared under his own name and ended with the publication of the horrendous Patrick Butler for the Defense.

    You had still Fire, Burn! after that, which was pretty good, and one last solid Dr. Gideon Fell novel, In Spite of Thunder, but it’s over and done after 1955 in terms of the classic and brilliant detective stories from the 30s and 40s – which is when Carr was definitely at the hight of his power.

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  4. Great post Doc (and thanks for the kind words). The decline is there and undeniable as is what was a clear attempt to escape from the modern day (same with Ellery Queen). Carr did drink a lot, suffered increasingly with bursitis and other serious illnesses but it does seem that the spark that kept him going as a writer in the 30s and 40s had certainly gone by the 50s, with a few occasional returns to form. I would also want to include his extraordinary output in the 1940s for radio – if you add that, and consider just how prolific he was, the quality of his work is even more impressive. Really look forward to reading more of your Carr posts chum – marvellous as ever.

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    • I was reading the relevant section of The Man Who Explained Miracles – Carr was very unsettled after 1950, moving from place to place and seemingly unhappy with the modern world – a result of WWII? He seemed to write Fell books for contractual reasons so the he could continue to write in the past, which explains why the series books took a dip. Although why his beloved hisoricals take a quick dip in quality too is less clear to me.

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      • I think he probably burned himself out – he was physically quite a slight man and I think the massive productivity of the 30s and 40s just took its toll (and the drinking problem did get very serious apparently). But that’s life – as you say, such great work to celebrate too!

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      • But such a shame as well… The biography paints a picture of a very unsettled individual after the war. The notion of burn-out is probably quite reasonable – he often recycled ideas from short stories and radio plays for his later Fell tales, as if he was just going through the motions to an extent. His deterioration is much more pronounced and protracted than Dame Agatha’s – I think only three of her final four novels really fall into the category of “poor” – Nemesis is flawed, but it’s OK really. Such a shame (about Carr, not about Christie). But while her very best is on a par with Carr, he produced more “very best” books than she did. Here’s hoping that there’s some talk about Carr at the Bodies conference next year. We did get an episode of Cabin B-13 but not much else…

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  5. I do not think there is any cheating in The Nine Wrong Answers. Those who think there is cheating should read The Greene Murder Case by S. S. Van Dine.

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    • Not read that one. But the issue that Douglas Greene raises with the ninth wrong answer is that while the statement discussed could be (and should be) re-interpreted, the incorrect inference is stated as fact elsewhere in the text a few times. But I didn’t notice and I’m not inclined to check as I didn’t notice and loved it.

      BTW sorry for this taking so long to appear, but the spam queue grabbed it for some reason and I rarely check it…

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  6. Very good discussion. Concerning late-period Carr, don’t overlook the short story “House in Goblin Wood,” which dates from 1946 and was collected in the 1954 book “The Third Bullet.” This is surely Carr’s finest story (though technically it’s a Carter Dickson, as the detective is HM), a diabolically clever solution to an impossible crime.

    Also, as you prepare your review of “The Hollow Man,” may I immodestly suggest that you read my CADS monograph, “John Dickson Carr’s The Three Coffins: A Hollow Victory?”? I bow to no one in my admiration for Carr, but this much-praised novel has too many flaws to deserve “classic” status.

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    • Oh, I’ve banged on about The House In Goblin Wood before – my absolute favourite bit of Carr. And it’s worth mentioning All In A Maze too – although the impossibilities are slight, it’s still a return to form to say goodbye to the Old Man in H.M.’s last outing.

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  7. Thank you for your mention of “Captain Cutthroat”. I thought I had read almost of Carr’s novels but I had overlooked that one.

    I did not like the “Nine Wrong Answers” as much as you did, though the idea with the footnotes was a great one. If he could have pulled it of without cheating it would have been a classic.

    There is a radio episode of Carr where one of the wrong answers is the correct solution, which is a clever way of reusing plot ideas. (Not sure which came first.)

    I loved the “Arabian Nights Murder”. The narration of the priest character I remember as very funny, and I usually do not appreciate Carr’s humor, and I thought that Carr’s inventiveness in coming up with a ridiculous sequence of events and then explaining it logically was as clever as a good locked room plot.

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    • The radio play is “Will You Make A Bet With Death ?” which is available in The Door To Doom collection. The play was broadcast in 1942 while the novel was published in 1952.

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