17/11/2017

John Dickson Carr's Lush Life Problem

This blog has been inactive for three months but it doesn't mean I'm not doing any thinking, far from it. One of my recent musings was about (surprise, surprise) JDC and the chances of a revival of his work. Everyone here knows I've been hoping for that for decades now and I have not forfeited every hope that it finally happens. Still, having re-read him lately I found that maybe things are more complicated than I thought for reasons that I'll call the "Lush Life" factor.
Since mystery and jazz are often linked in popular culture and even in the genre itself, I have no doubt there are connoisseurs of both over there. For others, though, a word of explanation may be necessary. "Lush Life" is a song by Duke Ellington's buddy Billy Strayhorn that has
Billy Strayhorn
become a staple of jazz music, recorded by everyone important or not in the field from Coltrane to Nat King Cole to Julie London. I don't have a count of all versions but it's certainly an impressive number. And yet the song has never been a hit. Why? Because of its complexity that makes it extremely difficult to play, to sing (Frank Sinatra famously failed to, and he was no slouch at the game) and for a casual listener to wrap his mind around as the song frequently changes chords and has no chorus. You can't hum "Lush Life" like you can do with, say, "Despacito" (sorry Billy for such a blasphemous comparison)
What's the connection with John Dickson Carr, you will ask? Well, Carr's plots are exceedingly complex and make huge demands on the reader's mind and attention. You miss one detail and you miss the whole plot. Also, you have to accept his decidedly unrealistic stance that requires you to swallow entire bottles of suspend-your-disbelief pills. That's not something everyone can do, accept to do, or even is suited to do. Carr, as Borges said about Poe, invents his own reader as he goes along - and leaves others behind.

What precedes is not a criticism. I, for one, love mysteries like I love my music - sophisticated and complex. But that's not what the general public wants, especially now. And so it's unlikely Carr ever regains his towering status commercially, though connoisseurs will always cherish his work (I certainly will) making equally unlikely that a major publisher reprints it. The indefatigable Martin Edwards has repeatedly hinted that he wanted Carr to join the British Library Crime Classics's stable but that the team behind it had always objected thus far because Carr, for all his "Englishness" was an American. Maybe the success of their foreign-themed anthology "Foreign Bodies" will mellow their stance enough for them to consider adding JDC to their roster of authors. I can't see any other way to bring him back into the spotlight in which he so richly belongs.

9 commentaires:

Clothes In Books a dit…

Great post Xavier, and fascinating comparison. I was not familiar with the piece of music, but enjoyed hearing it. But of course am very familiar with JDC, and share you wish that he be resurrected...

Mike Gray a dit…

Xavier - I fear you may be right about JDC not making a comeback - not anytime soon, at least - but the ongoing renaissance of interest in classic detective fiction (long may it wave) might ultimately bring him back. With Carr the impossible crime story seemed to reach its peak; depending on one's inclinations, his inimitable style was icing on an already delicious cake or a profound annoyance. Me, I'm not that picky; just about everything he wrote was entertaining. Keep on blogging! - Mike at ONTOS

dfordoom a dit…

"but the ongoing renaissance of interest in classic detective fiction (long may it wave) might ultimately bring him back."

So far this renaissance seems to be mostly benefiting British writers. There are plenty of worthy American GAD writers (people like Rufus King and Anthony Abbot) who should also be coming back into print but it doesn't seem to be happening.

Maybe it's because American publishing houses and critics just can't get over their obsession with hardboiled stuff.

Xavier a dit…

Wildside Press has recently re-released the whole Rufus King catalogue... as ebooks. It seems ebooks are the only commercially realistic and profitable to bring back the Old Ones at the moment, unless of course you have as powerful an institution as the BL behind you. Some Carr novels are available in the digital format thanks to Mysterious Press but the vast majority of his oeuvre is unavailable. Don't know why, but that's sad.

j. morris a dit…

Thanks for this thoughtful reflection, Xavier. The comparison with Lush Life is a good one, and I think there's a lesson for us JDC aficionados: Like the great Strayhorn song, Carr's work can and should be famous among those who really know the genre. It's up to us to continue to uphold him as the gold standard, the Master. Whether the general reading public, or even the mystery reading public, will ever appreciate him is unknown. But you and I and the other readers of this post are, I presume, in no doubt about Carr's status.

BTW, my own analysis of why Carr isn't a familiar name like Christie or Sayers or Queen is different: I think it's because his books (and detectives) never formed the basis for popular films or TV shows.

neer a dit…

What a well-thought out post and I quite agree with you, Xavier.

Nick Fuller a dit…

I thought from the title you were going to talk about Carr's fondness for the bottle!

"Lush Life" I like. The piano music is Impressionist at first - I can hear Debussy or Ravel - before it turns into jazz. Has something of the melancholy of the Sondheim of FOLLIES. (If you want a challenge, try humming the Beatles' "Revolution 9"!)

I think you're being too pessimistic, though! I don't think Carr is a difficult writer to read.

1.) Carr's plots are complex, but they're clear in their complexity. The reader can always grasp the salient points, even if, until the detective solves the case, he's not sure how the pieces fit together. The mysteries are carefully constructed, the solutions are never convoluted or arbitrary, and Carr's storytelling is straightforward.

2.) Carr is a good (great, even) storyteller. He's a lively, vivid writer; his books are fast-paced, and hard to put down; and he describes places well (unlike some much-touted writers who spend three pages describing a room). In a word, as Sayers said, he can write.

Carr, for all his imagination and romance, is very down to earth. Mike Grost once described him as a man of the world, and I think that's a big key to understanding Carr. He's well traveled, cosmopolitan, good-humored, he's interested in people, he's liberal (in the classical, rather than modern, sense), and he has no hang-ups about sex. As I've said elsewhere, the writers who most remind me of Carr in their approach to life aren't detective writers, but writers of humor and adventure stories: Leslie Charteris, Gerald Durrell (non-fiction), George MacDonald Fraser, and P.G. Wodehouse.

I think there would exist a big Carr public, if people realized he existed. And that audience, I suspect, lies outside detective fiction readers.

(Particularly modern crime readers, who think a detective story is a sort of soap, who want to identify with the detective's angst or unresolved feelings about her babysitter, and who like serial killers and pathology.)

Maybe pushing him as just "the impossible crime man" does him a disservice. As a detective writer, he's superb, the best of the best. THE THREE COFFINS and THE JUDAS WINDOW are often suggested as Carr's best books, but aren't; many of the 1940s and 1950s books are more exciting, and have more character interest - and are just as twisty.

Carr should be billed as an imaginative, funny, sometimes scary, sometimes exciting, writer of adventure stories, with apparently supernatural or incredible events, a love story, and astonishing surprise endings. Those are the sorts of stories people like. There's a huge market for adventure fiction - from Hitchcock, Tintin, Blake & Mortimer, 007, and Spielberg back in the day, to Hollywood blockbusters, adventure games, and the new Dr. Who.

And Carr, with his 70-odd books, rooms that can kill, witchcraft cults, time travel, survivors of the Titanic, and haunted prisons, with a hyperingenious solution to cap it off, would do great in that market.

monescu a dit…

I agree with most of Nick’s points, but I do think that Carr’s works are difficult to read. At least comparatively— and I think that difficulty at least partly accounts for the tremendous gap in popularity between Carr and Christie. True, his storytelling is straightforward. But stylistically, he is more ornate (which may be something some readers cherish, but certain doesnt contribute to ease of readability).

I also agree with J. Morris that the lack of screen adaptations has limited Carr’s popularity. And on that subject I’ll paste what I wrote on the GAD Facebook group:

“This may seem backward to most, but I think people can be brought to a writer via screen adaptations. Indeed, that’s the been the most effective path in recent years. And I think there’s strong indirect evidence that Carr plotting can be effectively translated cinematically. Indirect, I say, because the few actual efforts to adapt Carr have been primarily failures. However, I believe the best episodes of Jonathan Creek illustrate how the complexity of Carrian plots can be delivered in visual terms.

Carrian, I truly say, because these programs were not simply similar to Carr in being impossible crimes (by contrast, for example, I wouldn’t suggest that Banacek was any proof that Carr can be adapted), but structurally very similar (usually two or more impossibilities, loaded with Chestertonian clues) and effective in delivering an exciting, lucid solution. Of course, the styles and atmosphere are entirely different (for all my appreciation of the Better Creek plotting, I find its comedy style crass and annoying), but surely many a recent BBC drama has shown it can capture an atmosphere and style similar to that of Carr.

Now, I don’t think that ALL Carr novels could be well translated to the screen. I’ve been mentioning of late that none of the four English language adaptations of Murder on the Orient Express to date have really succeeded in making its solution clear to viewers, but Death on the Nile has twice effectively delivered its plot. Similarly, I don’t think that The Problem of the Green Capsule would translate well, but a terrific film of Till Death Do Us Part could easily be made. It’s not simply a matter of simplicity, but of straightforwardness.”

The Passing Tramp a dit…

I though this was going to be about Carr's drinking as well! I think another thing that may limit Carr's popularity is that the books, in my view, don't appeal as much to women readers, who make up the majority of mystery readers today. Christie has a more universal appeal. And I'm not necessarily talking about the plots as much as the characters and attitudes. All the most intense Carr fans I've ever known have always been men.

Of course getting reprinted by the British Library would have helped! It does seem strange that possible more people are reading M. Doriel Hay than John Dickson Carr. Big American reprint publishers aren't doing what they could with vintage American crime, they remain wedded more to hard-boiled and noir, seeing classic crime as the province of the British.