In a recent blog post, I discussed the strange career of John Dickson Carr – namely that almost all of the novels that he is famed for, all of his greatest works, appeared in a fifteen year period in the middle of a forty two year period. It was inspired by a comment stating that during this time, there was nobody to compete with Carr. Well, no one seems to be arguing with the statement that Carr’s greatest work was in this period – time to look at the other side of the coin, namely was there anyone else competing with him during this period? So let’s have a look at the main contender – Dame Agatha herself.
The period in question was, roughly, 1934 to 1946, when Carr was at his peak. So what was Christie writing during this time?
Christie’s career follows a different track to Carr’s. She starts with an absolute cracker in The Mysterious Affair At Styles and there are only a couple of significant dips in quality – at the time of her divorce in 1927 (and it only lasts a couple of books) and right at the end (and again, at worst, three or four books). True, her final books are less inventive, but compare, say, Third Girl with The House At Satan’s Elbow or By The Pricking Of My Thumbs with Papa La-Bas. While the Christie books may be flawed in places, they’re still good reads. But what about the period in question?
Christie wrote twenty four books in the time that Carr wrote about thirty five. Of those, fifteen of those featured Poirot (including ten in a row – no wonder she got a bit tired of him) and all of the classics are in there – Murder On The Orient Express (not my favourite though), The ABC Murders, Cards On The Table, Death On The Nile, Appointment With Death, Five Little Pigs… In fact, looking at the list, there aren’t many books that you’d think were classics that weren’t written in this period. The obvious exceptions are The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd, Crooked House and A Murder Is Announced – and, if you’re of a certain disposition, then Endless Night as well.
But can you compare one with the other? Well, not really, as it all comes down to personal taste. But if Carr’s books were better, why has Christie never been out of print, while Carr has mostly disappeared. It’s probably her lead characters – Poirot and Miss Marple have a certain element of humour about them, whereas Fell is, in my opinion, an unsympathetic individual unlikely to appeal to the casual reader. Merrivale is a lot more fun, but is hardly a subtle character – you’d never see Poirot posing for a statue wearing only a sheet. Carr’s characters tend to be less nuanced – not always the case, but their behaviour can be extremely odd at times – whereas while this criticism is often thrown at Christie too, I think in that case, it’s not usually warranted. That’s not to say Carr’s books aren’t fun – one of the most enjoyable of his books, The Case Of The Constant Suicides has a most unlikely and yet predictable romance in it, but it’s great fun, despite the characters not behaving like human beings.
But Carr was, in my opinion, the better mystery writer, and not just because of the locked room stuff. In a large number of Christie’s works, the killer stands out a mile, once you know what you’re looking for. The gambit that she employs is predictable and while there’s a lot of fun trying to spot the clues, you know that if it’s going to be the SPOILER SPOILERY suspect, then it makes the job a lot easier. Put it this way – if someone in a Christie novel is choked to death with a banana, and someone is allergic to that fruit, then they might have well have MURDERER tattooed on their forehead. Whereas Carr would make everyone allergic to bananas and would have locked them all in a safe beforehand. I mentioned last time that Carr’s ability to hide a murder has often been overlooked and I’ll repeat it here. By having an impossible crime, it means that everyone is the least likely suspect and the reader is so busy puzzling over the how, you can overlook the who.
I think this is why Carr is (generally) the favourite of the fans of the mystery but Christie is the more popular author – her books are probably more re-readable as well. Most people aren’t looking for a complex plot and a murder method that might need a diagram or a sequence of events that ranges from unlikely to ridiculous (yes, The Problem Of The Wire Cage, I’m looking at you). Christie’s plots can be summarised in a few words – even the cleverest ideas such as Death On The Nile or And Then There Were None.
Should I declare a winner (in my opinion)? Of course not, because a) this is a fairly pointless exercise in case you hadn’t spotted it already and b) despite the similarities, there are so many differences between the writers that a direct comparison comes down to personal preference and for me, it depends on my mood. To illustrate, let’s take three of the very best of each:
I don’t know about you but I can’t compare them. It’s like comparing apples with oranges. Hand on heart, if I was to pick one up to re-read, it’d be the Christie books. But as puzzles, especially for the experienced reader, Carr wins every time.
So was Carr the strongest writer in the given period? Impossible to say – I think we need someone who discovered the two authors at the same time to make the judgment call, rather than what most of us did, namely read all of the Christies, hunt around for an age for a replacement and then finally find Carr as such a breath of fresh air.
But dear reader, I’m sure you have an opinion. If you were sent to a desert island with ten of the best from Christie or Carr (assuming you’ve already read them). Which one would you pick? Or is there a third author that I’m overlooking? Ellery Queen? Margery Allingham? Ngaio Marsh? Dorothy L Sayers?