Bookends: It Walks by Night (1930)/The Hungry Goblin (1971)
Books published 1920-59: 64
The Case for the Crown
Diversity: In a career spanning 41 years John Dickson Carr published seventy-six novels and collections of short stories, wrote a raft of mysteries for radio (many of which can be found here), penned the official biography of Arthur Conan Doyle and a non-fiction account of the mysterious murder of magistrate Edmund Godfrey, wrote a column for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and was made a member of the Detection Club as well as a Grand-Master of the Mystery Writers Of America. He created two long-running and dearly-loved sleuths, and in his later career branched out into exquisitely-researched and detailed historical mysteries that weren’t afraid to veer into the nonsensical – the time travel element of Fire, Burn! (1957) – or the fantastical – invoking a deal with the Lucifer himself in The Devil in Velvet (1951) – if they served his purposes.
Let’s be very clear about one thing: I consider Carr the Regent Emeritus of crime, the single finest, most fulgently creative proponent of detective fiction ever to take up the craft, and in my eyes unassailable for the remainder of human history (just putting that out there so we all know where we stand…!). Not merely content with devising puzzles of a devious and beautiful complexity, he excelled at working in multiple themes and threads to his writing: The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941) is not only a chilling exploration of a possibly-supernatural cause of murder in an isolated Scottish castle, it’s also a bloody hilarious (Kate at CrossExaminingCrime recently and appositely likened it to a Wildean comedy of manners, and there are elements of screwball farce about it too) and startlingly fairly-clued whodunnit into the bargain. Now, were that the only book you could say this about then it wouldn’t be worth mentioning, but the simple fact is that once Carr hit his stride in about 1934 he produced novel after novel of such seamless changes of tone, and shot them through with so much well-judged humour, that in doing so he places himself head and shoulders above both his contemporaries and all-comers since.
Growth: You do not talk about locked room and impossible crime mysteries today without someone bringing the conversation around to Carr, usually somewhere between their first and second breaths. Of course he didn’t invent the form, but he took it on and expanded its scope to the extent where very little written in the subgenre now isn’t simply a reheating of an idea Carr did first. Not content with merely killing someone inside a room with no-one else present, he’d treble-block himself just to prove how impossible it was: witness The Plague Court Murders (1934), wherein a man is stabbed repeatedly in the back while locked in a thrice-bolted and locked hut surrounded by mud which shows not a single footprint and a witness on the scene heard the victim pleading with their attacker before being killed. The ratcheting up of this complexity – and, crucially, its uncluttered and reasonable resolution – is a huge part of what Carr bought to the expansion of the crime novel. Nothing was impossible, not any more.
But let’s also not neglect his radio plays. The most famous of these, Cabin B-13, shows how this complexity can be applied in a different form and how a simple answer can be brilliantly spun into a complex and confusing web if done subtly. And these were no mere radioisations of existing stories – indeed, in some cases the transfer occurred the other way around, with radio dramas providing the basis for novels – showing the seriousness with which he took these endeavours.
Durability: In a genre that demands a lot from its most skilled practitioners, Carr did it all repeatedly – baffling mystery, fairly-laid clues, culprit hidden in plain sight, the works – while expressing himself in atmospheric prose that chills while it elucidates. His schemes remain confounding to this day, and his plots resonate precisely because of how beautifully-realised they are. Undoubtedly the main focus will be his impossible crimes: it’s easy to cite The Hollow Man (1935) as his most enduring work – especially given its position at the peak of a poll conducted of people in the know in 1981 – but don’t overlook the fact that a similar poll in 2007 to create the 100 locked room mysteries everyone should read a solid 15% of the books were written by Carr [both lists are available here]. The only author to emerge with any sensible challenge to his crown in this regard is Paul Halter (13% of that list) and he didn’t publish anything until 1988, some 40-odd years after Carr’s peak. The next-largest contribution to that list is four books. One wonders why other people bothered if that’s the best they can do…
But Carr endures beyond his impossibilities. His plots are too lovingly constructed, too shot through with a playfulness reliant on forgivably glorious absurdity (see the key development of The Mad Hatter Mystery), his detective characters – from stalwarts Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale to debut-only Johns Gaunt and Cheviot – run through too much of a wringer, and his readers given too much of a mental workout that is (usually) resolved with such beautiful clarity for these aspects to be ignored; it is, after all, precisely this kind of experience that brings us back time again to this type of story. Excuse me for getting all literary for a moment, but when reading Carr I always have W. H. Auden’s ‘At Last the Secret is Out’ quietly whispering away in the back of my mind:
Behind the corpse in the reservoir,
behind the ghost on the links.
Behind the lady who dances
and the man who madly drinks,
Under the look of fatigue,
the attack of migraine and the sigh.
There is always another story,
there is more than meets the eye.