With the great man’s 110th birthday looming tomorrow — I hope everyone has got their suits dry-cleaned (I’m not the only one who blogs while in full formal dress, right?) — I thought I’d look at an aspect of John Dickson Carr’s writing that came to my attention recently upon reading The Devil in Velvet, namely his use of a modern-day protagonist thrown back into the past.
Carr’s first Historical, The Bride of Newgate (1950), did not employ this strategy, giving us instead a fully-fledged romancer of a tale with all its twisty shenanigans reserved for the opening six chapters, a very minor impossibility involving a room no-one had entered for several years, and a lot of fighting. The protagonist of that — Dick Derwent — while in Newgate on account of his own actions, is really more of a mythical figure once he (presumably no spoiler) gets out of Newgate prison, becoming a sort of early nineteenth century Hercules replete with dash, swagger, and awesomeness to spare. He is, in short, somewhat difficult to sympathise with.
I mean, you don’t actively dislike him, but Carr is so unashamedly on his side in every regard that it becomes fairly difficult to engages too greatly in his antics; imagine one of those Chuck Norris films of the mid-1980s — Delta Force, Death Explosion, etc — and you’re far closer to the tone of …Newgate than is strictly comfortable. There are natural advantages to this, not least of which being that Carr is free to simply tell a story that concentrates on the historical detail without having to dwell on the foreignness of it all…in fact, that’s one of the most successful aspects, as he simply throws in a lot of detail and trusts you to figure your way around it. And then there’s a bit of plot as well.
The Devil in Velvet is then technically considered his second historical mystery, though it must be said there’s not much mystery in it: this time Carr was ready to deal with the disconnect of taking you, the reader, even further out of your daily existence (we find ourselves in 1675, compared to Newgate’s 1815) and so takes a relatively modern man — Professor Nicholas Fenton, interestingly sent back from 1925 rather than the 1951 in which it was published — and hurls him via Lucifer into the past. Notice that, in spite of more time-travelling protagonists to come, this is the last time we get anything close to a justification for it (which I think was a very wise decision).
And, perhaps rather predictably, Fenton does superbly well and is awesome at everything: in the early stages he uncovers a sinister poisoning plot, he invents the toothbrush, insists on regular bathing for his household, pays for indoor plumbing, fine, but is also able to benefit from an advanced awareness of fighting techniques to overshadow the swordsmanship of the blackguards who surround him, and, in bringing a more modern attitude to those he encounters, engenders a sense of camaraderie and outright devotion in equal measure from everyone who it would be nice to have on his side. He is, in short, somewhat difficult to sympathise with.
But there is at least more of a case for the unscalable brilliance of his protagonist this time around — Fenton in an unapologetic History nerd, a professor of the subject who has been wistfully wondering about this era for many years and, upon finding himself there in the body of a man some three decades the younger, is inevitably going to throw himself into it with full abandon. And while Carr explicitly states that Fenton has no desire to use his future knowledge to his advantage, he ends up doing exactly that, but at least there’s a reason for him being so far ahead of everyone else: he comes from 250 years in the future, so it may be reasonably expected that he use some element of that to his advantage.
Following …Velvet, Carr wrote two more historical mysteries invoking both of these approaches: Captain Cut-Throat (1955) takes the …Newgate approach of everyone being from the Napoleonic Wars in which it is set, where Fear is the Same (1956) under his Carter Dickson byline is another piece of time-slippin’ (and makes me question how Carr decided whether a non-series book would be published as by Carr or Dickson…I mean, the cat was out of the bag by this stage in his career, right?). I’ve not read either of these, however, so I next pick Carr up in 1957’s Fire, Burn! — what I understand to be the final instance of slippedy-do-dah, as he sends modern copper John Cheviot back in time to 1829.
And, so, how does Cheviot fare? Well…actually not that great. Early on, as he tries to adjust to suddenly finding himself mysteriously some 120-odd years in the past, there is a scene where he promises to show his deductive brilliance to some olde-timey policemen (we’re at the instigation of the Metropolitan Police Force here, possibly one of the most fascinating pieces of history I’ve yet encountered in fiction). he goes out of the room, leaving the gentlemen to…oh, it doesn’t really matter…do some stuff which his brilliant twentieth century methods will staggeringly deduce, only for this demonstration to be interrupted by some current events. This scene particularly stayed with me because it’s an interruption to the usual — just as you roll your eyes in preparation of these Olde Bumpkins about to cry “Witchcraft!” because he has a cigarette lighter, suddenly that meaningless victory (he isn’t, after all, actually demonstrating a laudable skill as far as the reader is concerned) is snatched away from him.
It feels very much to me that this is Carr learning a lesson from before, and utilising the vicissitude of the novel writer’s art to hone his intent more finely. Cheviot is easily the most sympathetic of these three leading men, as at most turns he has his sense of smug fore-knowledge swept away from him. Where Nicholas Fenton drops into 1675 an immediately sets about resolving a poisoning, Cheviot is confronted with an impossible shooting which he actually has the knowledge to solve but simply fails to access on account of failing to give his milieu the credit it deserves (if you will…). Instead of going in fully prepared and ready to face any situation without turning a hair, Cheviot must fight (literally on one occasion, where, yes, he acquits himself admirably) and grind his way through at every turn.
It is no accident that, having read Fire, Burn! far earlier than The Bride of Newgate, it is Cheviot who stands out more clearly in my mind than Derwent, and that he still feels more rounded to me that Fenton ever did. In honouring the grand old tradition of a detective having to actually use his wits to solve the crime he is faced with — rather than picking up a puzzle book having already glanced at the answers — Carr finally engaged with the historical mystery in a manner that did credit to himself, his characters, and his readers. And then, to my understanding, he never did it again — perhaps he peaked and realised he would never utilise this idea as well a second time, who knows?
Or maybe he was repeating himself already from Fear is the Same and I’m miles off the scent. More news when I actually read it…