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. 


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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