Tuesday Night Bloggers: Sticking to the Formula

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.

In his foreword to the fifth volume of the French edition of John Dickson Carr's complete works, scholar Tony Medawar ventures to write that, maybe, some of the Master's works might have been better or even better had they dispensed with his trademark impossible crimes. My first reaction when reading this (I was fifteen years younger, and very defensive when it came to my then-favorite crime writer ever) was of bewilderment as it was so counter-intuitive. Wasn't Carr famous for his "astonishing skill" (Julian Symons) at devising new ways to enter/exit a locked room or leave no footprints on sand or snow? Weren't those his trademark? Would JDC without impossible crimes be "just another humdrum" as a much missed member of the now-defunct "Fans of John Dickson Carr" Yahoo group put it?

At this point I hadn't yet (and still haven't) read the whole Carr catalogue - the historicals in particular remained terra incognita for me. Having now a firmer grasp on the Master's work I can see Medawar's point - and I agree with it. Carr was obviously very fond of impossible crimes - hey, he proclaimed Gaston Leroux's The Mystery of the Yellow Room to be the best mystery novel ever written - and he also knew which side his bread was buttered - readers wanted him to write that kind of story - but he was perfectly able to do without them, as a novel like The Emperor's Snuff Box demonstrates. And yet he often seemed, especially in later years, to be a prisoner of his own formula, forcing it on stories that could/would have been just as good, or even better, without it. She Died a Lady, which I read recently, is a case in point. By every standards the book is splendid - great plot, great atmosphere, great characters. And yet... the impossible crime, clever as it is, seems strangely out of place; the book would have functioned just as well as a straightforward mystery - the plot is not dependent on it. In some other cases (Dark of the Moon) the impossible crime fits in the picture but is poorly motivated (a rare occurence in Carr's work, as he unlike, say, Paul Halter took great care to give his murderers sound motives for acting the way they did) while in later works like Papa La Bas or Scandal at High Chimneys it is so poorly conceived and resolved as to look like mere fan service. 

This raises a question: Was Carr too formulaic for his own good? And another: Did his adherence to the impossible crime genre hinder his development as a writer? Aforementioned Emperor and Lady seemed to suggest Carr was taking a more "naturalistic", "psychological" direction - the one his friend Ellery Queen had taken some years before. Why did he finally cop out? His post-war work hints that the decision brought no joy and certainly no revival of inspiration. We are forever to wonder what might have become of Carr had he finally opened the windows of his locked rooms. 

2 commentaires:

Clothes In Books a dit…

I found this interesting and thought-provoking Xavier. I, too, have occasionally had the blasphemous thought that the mechanics of locked-room got in the ways of a great story - it was nice to see the discussion laid out so well.

Pietro De Palma a dit…

I read your article this only now, having finally managed to find the username and password yahoo, which lost just after Jon had invited me on Gadetection.
Your point of view is interesting, when you think the activities of Carr novelist. I have always thought that Carr was the greatest writer of Mystery, biggest than Christie and Queen, at the perfect trinity of novelists. Carr was the greatest of all, because united to the overflowing imagination, the frenzied virtuosity of the mysteries of the Locked Room and Crimes Impossible, and yet knew tell like no other. He had the sacred gift of creative writing: he knew arouse atmospheres using various stylistic tricks, at the same time was very strict in historical research and knew describe how anyone: I remember for example the description of clocks in Death-Watch. In some ways who approached him for writing quality, the ability to describe and to create atmospheres, was Christianna Brand and Ngaio Marsh. But he was the greatest.
If he had not invented locked rooms , he would certainly have become a novelist tout court; I am convinced as you are. But basically he has exhausted the impossible situations that no one else had tried to do, and being recognized a Teacher while he was still alive, must have locked up him in a cage from which evidently he did not know, did not want and did not get out. Watch his friends! Who were they? Other crazy experimenters of impossible crimes ! Rawson, Brean, Rhode. And besides, once you read something where he does not put his favorite sample, you do not feel cheated in some way, while appreciating the rest? Sure, Fire, Burn! even without the crime with the compressed air would be the same as a masterpiece, but for him, for Carr, for the Master, would miss always a quid, something that made him unique: his trademark. The Locked Room or an Impossible Crime