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.

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