15/03/2016

Tuesday Night Bloggers: John Dickson Carr, American writer


This article is my contribution for this week to Tuesday Night Bloggers, a weekly event conceived by Curtis Evans of The Passing Tramp and hosted by Noah Stewart of Noah's Archives. The group's focus this month is on John Dickson Carr.

Because he was an adamant anglophile, set the largest part of his work in Britain and lived there for a long time, John Dickson Carr is often thought of as a "honorary Brit" - the most British of American mystery writers, as his French publishers put it. What's more, his anglophilia was reciprocated as local writers recognized him as one of them and he was the first Yank to be induced into the prestigious (and, at the time, Brit-only) Detection Club. There is a strong argument for Carr being some kind of a mystery fiction equivalent of T.S. Eliot - an American who successfully reinvented himself as a British writer - but this argument I think does obscure the fundamental American-ness of his work. Even when he writes about the English countryside and Dr. Fell or Sir Henry Merrivale, Carr remains a thoroughly American writer, writing thoroughly American crime fiction. 

Counter-intuitive? Only in appearance. Carr's brand of baroque, lurid crime fiction with its emphasis on the spectacular, the surreal and the suspenseful, owes little to the more restrained British tradition. His stories are not rational, civilized affairs solved by rational, civilized detectives - their structure is both more convoluted and more relaxed than your average British whodunitAlso, his outlook is definitely that of a foreigner hailing from a more "democratic" society, as evidenced by his disregard of class structures and conventions, especially when it comes to the relations between the sexes. Finally, there's the humour which relies more on slapstick than wit or nonsense. All this sets Carr apart from most British crime writers but puts him a lot closer to American colleagues such as Ellery Queen, Clayton Rawson (both were close friends) Fredric Brown or even Mary Roberts Rinehart - there is a whole study to be written on HIBK influence on Carr. There's no way to know whether he himself was aware of that, but this was, in a way, acknowledged by his fellow-compatriots as his influence proved stronger and more enduring in America (where most of his literary progeny hails from) than in his adopted country. 

This is not to say that there are no British ingredients in the Carr mixture - there are actually quite a few, from Conan Doyle to Montague Rhodes James - but the result tastes very American. Or should we say, "Carrian"? 

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