A 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.