“John Dickson Carr: Explaining the Inexplicable” by Douglas G. Greene
The world of John Dickson Carr. A world where bodies are found alone in hermetically sealed rooms, or in houses surrounded by unmarked snow or sand; where damsels walk into country houses and vanish like smoke; where a businessman can dive into a swimming pool and disappear; where rooms, buildings, streets, even whole centuries seem to vanish. An eerie world, where ghosts, vampires, and evil magicians seem real. “Let there be a spice of terror,” John Dickson Carr wrote, “of dark skies and evil things.”
But in spite of the evil things, Carr did not write stories of supernatural horror. At the climax of almost every one of his books, his detective discovers that all the seeming impossibilities have been created by humans for human purposes. If the comparison is not stretched too far, Carr’s detectives act almost like exorcists. They bid the demons be gone and reason is returned to the world. Or is it entirely? Sometimes the human motives are more terrifying than the supernatural…
John Dickson Carr, the master of the locked room novel and one of the greatest Golden Age detective novelists, was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania in 1906. His father was a local politico who eventually spent one term in Congress, but the boy always dreamed of wider horizons than the coal-mining areas of Pennsylvania. He devoured the adventure novels of Dumas and Stevenson, the fantasy tales of L. Frank Baum, the detective stories of A. Conan Doyle, and a wide range of ghost stories from Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe to the macabre exuberance of H.P. Lovecraft.
As a student at the Hill School and Haverford College, he wrote stories in all these genres, but his most memorable was a series of creepy detective stories featuring Henri Bencolin of the Surete, the best of which featured murder in a locked compartment of a “Ghost Train.” In 1928, he went to Paris to study–or so his parent thought–but actually to become a full-time writer. He tried to write a historical romance but tore it up. Either in Paris or when he returned to the States he produced a long Bencolin story that became the basis for his first published novel, It Walks by Night (1930).
In 1932, he married an Englishwoman, Clarice Cleaves, and early the next year moved to England, the home, he believed, of adventure, romance, and the greatest detective novels. During the 1930s, he became a prolific author, writing four or five books a year. He discarded Bencolin, whom he had made too Satanic for his own tastes, and invented the genial Dr. Gideon Fell and, under the transparent pseudonym of Carter Dickson, the grousing Sir Henry Merrivale. It was during this period that he wrote some of his greatest classics: The Three Coffins, with an excellent locked room, a murder of a man who is alone in a snow-covered street, and a Transylvanian legend about burial alive; The Judas WIndow, a courtroom story in which the detective suggests that every room in London has a “Judas window” that only a murderer can see; The Crooked Hinge, based on the Titanic tragedy and a genuine witch cult; and The Burning Court, whose twist ending probably can never be duplicated.
The flavor of these novels is created not only by their eerie atmosphere but also by Carr’s antiquarianism. He loved old armor, clocks, fortune-telling cards, castles, and legends, and he worked such lore into his books. At the same time, Carr balanced the creepy atmosphere of his novels with scenes of outrageous comedy. Dr. Fell is described as looking like Father Christmas or Old King Cole, and he enjoys lecturing on topics such as “The Drinking Customs of England from Earliest Days.” Sir Henry Merrivale sometimes engages in outright slapstick, as when he drives a train into a cow, launches a ship by hitting the mayor over the head with the champagne bottle, causes a riot in the New York subway system, and dictates his scurrilous memoirs. A barrister, he addresses a jury as “my fatheads” and wins the case.
During World War II, Carr brought his sense of atmosphere to the radio, writing many plays, including the classic Cabin B-13 for Suspense in America and Appointment with Fear in England. He also worked for the BBC on propaganda scripts.
In 1949 came one of his greatest successes: Carr was authorized by Sir Arthur Conan Coyle’s estate to write the biography of Sherlock Holmes’s creator. Otherwise, however, Carr found the post-war world dull and grim, with little chance of romance. Therefore, in 1950, he began writing historical detective novels, including three of his most memorable works, The Devil in Velvet; Fire, Burn!; and Fear is the Same. In these books, the hero (obviously a stand-in for Carr Himself) is taken back to a time when adventure and romance were possible. Though Carr was not the first in the field with historical mysteries, it was his success (as Anthony Boucher pointed out) that paved the way for other writers.
During the 1950s and early 1960s, Carr moved restlessly from London to Tangier to Mamaroneck, New York, before finally settling in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1965. He died there in 1972.
Many years earlier, Dorothy L. Sayers wrote, “Mr. Carr can lead us away from the small, artificial world of the ordinary detective plot into the menace of outer darkness. He can create atmosphere with an adjective, and make a picture from a wet iron railing, a dusty table, a gas-lamp blurred by the fog. He can alarm with an illusion or delight with a rollicking absurdity… Every sentence gives a thrill of positive pleasure.” In his novels, short stories, and plays, John Dickson Carr can still delight, thrill, and give positive pleasure to the reader.
A John Dickson Carr Reading List
- [su_amazon_link title=”The Devil in Velvet” code=”0786701013″]
- [su_amazon_link title=”Fire, Burn!” code=”0786701757″]
- [su_amazon_link title=”Hag’s Nook” code=”0930330285″]
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Douglas G. Greene is the author of John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles, and with his wife Sandi, is the publisher of Crippen & Landru Books.