In his lifetime, John Dickson Carr published 76 novels and short story collections, plus a biography of Arthur Conan Doyle and a ‘true crime’ novel predating Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey. Following the closure of the Rue Morgue Press, who had five Carr novels in their books, and the coming disappearance of Orion’s ebook undertaking The Murder Room, who have around 14 or so Carr novels in their ranks, we’re not too far from a point in time where only two Car novels will be available to buy: Orion’s perpetually in-print version of The Hollow Man and the Mysterious Press publication of The Devil in Velvet. So, to return to the question in the title of this post: John Dickson Carr’s out of print — where’s the fuss?
I suppose the counter to that question is: why should there be a fuss? Plenty of prolific authors of Carr’s vintage have vanished from our shelves, so why should Carr’s absence be felt above that of, say, E. Charles Vivian, John G. Brandon, or E.C.R. Lorac? Was Carr’s contribution to the genre really that much greater? Well, I mean, frankly…yes. Sure, I’m biased in this regard, but let’s consider the evidence.
First off there are these two lists, focussing solely on impossible crime novels. The first list, comprising 14 novels selected by “seventeen well-known authors and reviewers of detective fiction” contains five novels by Carr under either his real name or his Carter Dickson nom de plume. The only other author to have more than one book on there is Ellery Queen, and I don’t think many people would argue that The King is Dead is lucky to find itself in such esteemed company. Consider that Queen — actually two men, don’t forget, and technically more than two given the substitution of Theodore Sturgeon and Avram Davidson for Manfred B. Lee for a few books — is also the most prolific author after Carr on that list, and he/they published half as many books as Carr did in their respective careers. Of the remaining authors on that list, only Helen McCloy published more than 10 novels, and several — Hake Talbot, John Sladek, Randall Garrett, Clayton Rawson — published fewer than five.
So, objectively, Carr’s hugely increased output — which might realistically result in a lower overall standard — still resulted in a larger number of better impossible crime novels, and even then there are some of his impossibilities whose absence from this list (The Problem of the Green Capsule, He Who Whispers, She Died a Lady, Till Death Do Us Part, etc, etc) seem baffling to try to explain. Which is where the second list comes in. The second list, compiled in 2007 by nine “known locked room enthusiasts”, lists 99 books that would be considered essential for a locked room library covering the scope of the subgenre. Fifteen of these are by Carr, and this is when his novella ‘The Third Bullet’ has been removed from the list (for not technically being a novel) and replaced with Gaston Leroux’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room. At that to the list and a solid 16% of the best this subgenre has to offer comes from the pen of Carr alone.
Now, a certain amount of this could be put down to the Accepted Classics Mindset — namely, that idea that when someone asks you for the best of something, there are certain responses that become almost rote and thus something is accepted as a classic even though it might not be all that special. There may not be a definitive answer to that, but allowing multiple people multiple votes is certainly one way to reduce such bias. Consider this poll run a little while back by Sergio over at Tipping My Fedora, which throws in The Nine Wrong Answers, Nine — And Death Makes Ten, and The Emperor’s Snuff-Box…now, okay, only those last two have impossibilities in them, which starts to widen the net of how we view Carr’s writing, but the fact that certain books included in those 99 don’t make their way into Sergio’s poll is instructive at the very least.
I think there is a risk of the Accepted Classics Mindset when talking about any author — the received wisdom of The Hollow Man being Carr’s single-greatest book, for instance — but the fact is that Carr did write some of the absolute classics of the genre, whether you limit it to just his impossibilities or include everything he put on paper. And Carr’s impossibilities don’t shine on account of the impossibility alone — I had a profitless ramble about his use of atmosphere earlier, but the fact is that Carr’s plots more often than not lived up to their promise.
For Paul Halter Day earlier this year, Puzzle Doctor put up this post commending Halter’s complexity as a separate aspect of his own plots when compared to Carr’s essential simplicity. And it’s Carr’s simplicity that really sets him apart — he writes hooks like nobody’s business: a man’s fiancée is identified as a murderess by a stranger who then has an attempt made on his life; a man in a triple-locked hut surrounded by mud is found stabbed in the back with nary a footprint to show the attacker’s approach and none of the locks disturbed; a woman is found murdered in her home with several possible murder weapons strewn about even though none of them were used in the killing…Carr had a way of making you sit up and pay attention almost before you’ve even opened the book.
And, more often than not, is exploration and resolution of these plots lived up to that promise. There is a density in Carr’s plotting that few ever matched — even Christie, who was never much of a hook-writer in her plotting (maybe Peril at End House, Hickory Dickory Dock, and…something else; the joy in Christie is not so much the setup as how it plays out from conventional beginnings) suffered longeurs in many of her books — and there was incident and intrigue aplenty to be found. Sure, he couldn’t maintain this across all 76 books, but I could reel of 20 titles now where the complexity is something to behold (for starters, Death-Watch, The Hollow Man, The Four False Weapons, Death in Five Boxes, The Plague Court Murders, The Peacock Feather Murders…). The odd tonal misstep — The Blind Barber, allegedly a comedy, is really nowhere near as funny as Carr thinks or Fell claims — more often then not ended up proving simply a stepping stone to more successful things later on.
Take Carr’s use of comedy, for instance. The Case of the Constant Suicides is a genuinely hilarious book — actual laugh-out-loud, Kelley Roos funny — and you can see the seeds of them mayhem therein in the fumbling of the bawdy rigmarole of The Blind Barber; Merrivale’s comedic shenanigans got a trifle tiring as The Old Man wore on, but Carr was dropping in effortless comedic beats with his detectives long before such slapstick became part of his template. In this regard, Carr never cabbaged from himself cheaply, there was always a sense of trying to improve on what had come before (I wrote about another example on Tuesday). And crucially, the same remained true of the genre at large: Carr innovated the genre in the most innovative age that detective fiction ever saw, and so many of his ideas remain fresh on the page and have been reused in various media forms since (the television series Death in Paradise, easily the finest piece of impossible crime-mongering on TV at present, is guilty of recycling a fair few of their best solutions from Carr).
This is perhaps at its most evident — and, yes, I know it’s a touchstone, bear with me — in the so-called Locked Room Lecture of chapter 17 of The Hollow Man: put simply, Carr obviously knows whereof he writes, and it’s telling how few of the books he went on to write fall into any of the categories Fell outlines. Yes, it is also true that Clayton Rawson’s Death from a Top Hat and Derek Smith’s Whistle up the Devil contain lectures of this ilk designed to lead the reader astray, but in those cases the authors did it for a single book. Anthony Boucher’s Nine Times Nine even uses The Hollow Man’s lecture as the basis for its own exploration of a locked room crime, but again once Boucher is done with that book he forgets about it. By contrast, Carr kept doing it for decades.
Of course, writing a good impossible crime isn’t possible without being able to write a good detective novel full stop, and Carr wrote many impossibilities that were so much more than simply ‘good’. His ‘normal’ novels show the hallmarks of this, too: The Mad Hatter Mystery, an early outing for Fell, makes much of its foggy backdrop and the surroundings and bloody history of the Tower of London; To Wake the Dead has, fine, one giant coincidence, but then baffles and rebaffles you again and again with a Kafkaesque nightmare of a situation which is unspooled so smoothly and seamlessly that come the end you wonder at it ever feeling baffling; same with Death-Watch, one of the most brilliant pieces of pure plotting I’ve yet encountered from anyone in any genre.
I’m going on, I know, and I’ve only made about a third of the points I want to, but hopefully there’s enoug of a spark in these ideas to convince you of the absolute stark incomprehensibility of the coming world where a mere two of Carr’s books being out for the public to claim. So, on the great man’s 110th birthday I repeat my opening question: why is there no fuss about this? And what do we need to do to create one?
Interesting to reflect, nearly six years after I wrote this piece, on how much Carr has finally come back into print. I claim no role in making it happen — far from it — but in the interests of posterity the following sixteen Carr books are, as of Novermber 2022, either in print or will be soon:
From the British Library Crime Classics range:
It Walks by Night (1930)
The Lost Gallows (1931)
Castle Skull (1931)
The Corpse in the Waxworks, a.k.a. The Waxworks Murder (1932)
The White Priory Murders (1934)
The Black Spectacles, a.k.a. The Problem of the Green Capsule (1939)
The Seat of the Scornful, a.k.a. Death Turns the Tables (1941)
Till Death Do Us Part (1944)
From the American Mystery Classics range:
The Mad Hatter Mystery (1933)
The Eight of Swords (1934)
The Plague Court Murders (1934)
The Red Widow Murders (1935)
The Crooked Hinge (1938)
From Polygon Books:
Hag’s Nook (1933)
The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941)
She Died a Lady (1943)
It would be naive, and not entirely a good thing, to expect a full reprint of Carr’s works, but if we could add the following to the above, I’d be a very happy man:
The Bowstring Murders (1933)
The Unicorn Murders (1935)
The Punch and Judy Murders, a.k.a. The Magic Lantern Murders (1936)
The Four False Weapons (1938)
The Judas Window (1938)
The Reader is Warned (1939)
Nine–and Death Makes Ten (1940)
The Gilded Man, a.k.a. Death and the Gilded Man (1942)
The Emperor’s Snuff-Box (1942)
He Wouldn’t Kill Patience (1944)
Watch this space!
31 thoughts on “#171: JDC OOP – WTF?”
The situation isn’t that much brighter here. Carr enjoyed widespread posthumous popularity in the 80s and 90s with all of his catalogue minus one being reprinted or translated to nearly universal acclaim, but twenty years later only two of his books are still in print – though the rest is easily available at reasonable prices on Marketplace or PriceMinister. Since French publishers are obsessed with hardboiled and noir I don’t see any revival occurring anytime soon.
As to the English-speaking market… If Carr had been as English as his books make him seem to be, he would have been found his home in the British Library’s “Crime Classics” series. Alas, there is no American equivalent for it – the American Library favoring – you guessed it – hardboiled and noir unless the writer is female. Maybe Coachwhip might give him shelter but it’s hardly the place to make a major comeback. All we can hope is that someone in Hollywood finds one of his books and decides to turn it into a movie or a TV series. You can call me a dreamer, but I hope I’m not the only one.
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I have it on hearsay that Carr didn’t make it into the forthcoming British Library impossible crime collection because he’s “too American”. John Dickson Carr! Who lived and wrote in the UK for 18 years! The finest detective writer ever, the most accompllished practitioner of the impossible crime of all time, and not in a new collection of impossible crime stories! The mind boggles…
I believe this has been discussed before, but some movie or tv adaptations of JDC’s work would certainly help making the man and his works more popular and putting them back into print. I remember a few years ago the heirs of Carr even inquired on a golden age forum which of his works would be most suitable for an adaptation, because they were hoping to do a film. Unfortunately nothing came of it.
I think it also helps, if well-known (crime) novelists try to popularize the subgenre of impossible mysteries. When Peter Lovesey wrote “Bloodhounds” he pointed out the influence of JDC and after Adrian McKinty’s “In The Morning I’ll Be Gone” was published the Guardian asked him to choose his top 10 locked-room mysteries.
I remember that McKinty article, specifically because I have a feeling two of the plots he described were not accurate representations of the books…I’ve been suspicious of the man ever since!
I appreciate completely the TV/movie point, but The Mrs Bradley Mysteries starring Diana Rigg weren’t exactly a runaway success and Gladys Mitchell’s fully in print; as is Margery Allingham despite Campion starring Peter Davison being all-but-forgotten. Sometimes I wonder if the success of the Suchet Poirot has given people a false sense of what makes something successful…
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Well, I haven’t seen either of those. Actually until a while ago I wasn’t even aware that they existed, but it’s weird someone would take a chance on a character as bizzarre as Mrs. Bradley, she makes Sir Henry Merrivale seem ordinary in comparison.
The Campion series is I believe still being continued, wasn’t it Mike Ripley who wrote some new Campion books? It’s hard to imagine Allingham being this succesful that publishers would be crying out for more.
I don’t know where I read this, it might have even been on this blog, that originally Paul Halter wanted to continue the Gideon Fell series but he was forbidden to do so by the people who hold the rights.
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Yeah, the Halter story is correct — though to be fair to Carr’s rights-holders I believe it would have been Halter’s first ever novel and I can completely understand them not wanting to take the risk on a non-native English speaker (even Halter admits that his English isn’t exactly great) who was a completely unknown quantity at that stage…they might have had another Sophie Hannah on their hands, after all…
I’d forgotten about the Campion continuations. Damn, it really does sting that there’s so little Carr available, then…
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I wonder if the success of the Suchet Poirot has given people a false sense of what makes something successful…
Yes, very good point, it is possible that the Suchet Poirot series was successful because Christie’s books were already immensely popular. Ditto for the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series. The 1970s Lord Peter Wimsey series was successful but Sayers was still very popular at that time. Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes and Lord Peter Wimsey were already household names.
If someone tried doing a Dr Priestley or a Roger Sheringham or an Inspector French TV series, or (sadly) a Dr Fell TV series, it might well fall flat on its face.
I think the secret is that you need a TV series and you need the books to be in print and readily available at the same time. And you need lots of cross-promotion – the books need to have pictures from the TV series on the front cover and the TV series needs to plug the books.
That’s a marketing art that seems to have been lost. Back in the 70s if a TV series wasn’t based on novels then they’d commission someone to write TV tie-in novels for it – I remember a kid buying TV tie-in books for series like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The New Avengers. And of course there were literally hundreds of Star Trek novels. Gerry Anderson was very good at that sort of thing – all his series had books, comic books, action figures, diecast toys, plastic construction kits (I think I still have my Airfix Angel Interceptor somewhere).
You could do the same sort of thing, tying in reprints of golden age detective novels with a TV series, but you’d need close co-operation between the publishers and the TV producers.
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And such a partnership would be profitable for both. The novelizations based on the soap opera Dark Shadows were both plentiful and lousy. Business was brisk, and it promoted the series on which it was (just barely) based.
Well, that’s the dream…but I think it might be more realistic to aim a little lower first — like, getting Carr back in print, or getting the first ten Fells or…something. I mean, crikey alone knows how, but a full reprint and a TV series seems rather…optimistic!
Well, the situation is not as bleak as it may appear, JJ: one of the e-publishers, Open Road Media, currently has sixteen titles in their catelogue, which includes such classics as The Emperor’s Snuff-Box and The Four False Weapons. So, for now, we’re not yet on the treshold of such a dark world that only has two of his books in print.
Why there’s no fuss over the (still) severe lack of reprints is very simple. Most of the long-time GAD readers already have a lot of his work on their shelves and are now gorging themselves on the rarer titles and authors being reprinted at the moment.
The Open Road Media books are the same as the Murder Room ones, which makes me think they’ll disappear at the same time (I believe ORM are selling in the US and TMR in the UK). I have a feeling the TMR ones are around until some point in 2017, I think, but for people who don’t have an e-reader — or who do, and want to read, say, He Who Whispers — there’s still the problem of the other 60-odd titles. C’mon, a high-quality, matching set of JDC novels would look amazing on anyone’s bookshelf and likely sell like hot cakes…
Though you do make a very good point about readers poissessing a lot of the existing titles. But the if the books were available there’s no doubt more people would buy them and so demand for them would go up…ah, dammit, it’s a vicious circle!
Though you do make a very good point about readers poissessing a lot of the existing titles.
There’s definitely a problem with authors whose books were widely available in paperback in the 60s, 70s and 80s – those old paperbacks can often be picked up for a buck each (or less) so it’s hard to persuade people to pay twenty-five dollars or more for a paperback reprint, or to pay an outrageous price for an ebook.
I must admit that personally I much prefer to look for the old paperbacks. Apart from the cheapness they usually look better than modern reprints.
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Though it has to be said that a lot of modern publishers have done a great jonb i responding to the rise of ebooks in making their covers and their books something you want to have on your shelves. Look at the great work done with the British Library Crime Classics — sure, they happen to have hit the niche at the right time, but there’s also a clear and well-designed consistentcy behind them adn, when you pick up the physical book, they feel like a quality product.
A full set of Carrs designed in the manner of the Mysterious Press edition of The Devil in Velvet, for instance, would look bloody amazing…!
Incorrect. Open Road Media is a US operation and has an affiliation with The Mysterious Press. The Murder Room was part of Orion Books, a UK publisher who was granted rights for thier crime ficiotn reissues only for UK distribution. None of their editions, both paperback and digital, were for sale in the US. Conversely, Open Road Media sells exclusively to a US market and can’t sell in the UK. Very few of the Open Road Media books are “the same” as those reissued by The Murder Room. Those that they have in common are pure coincidence. They are separate companies and have nothing to do with one another. Saying that the Open Road Media books will “disappear” when The Murder Room imprint ceases operation is spreading misinformation.
You say very few are the same, but according to my researches the fifteen Carr books issued by ORM are Deadly Hall, Death-Watch, Fire, Burn!, In Spite of Thunder, Most Secret, Scandal at High Chimneys, The Blind Barber, The Bride of Newgate, The Demoniacs, The Emperor’s Snuff-Box, The Four False Weapons, The Ghosts’ High Noon, The Man Who Could Not Shudder, The Witch of the Low Tide, and To Wake the Dead — the same fifteen (nothing added or taken away) as issued in the UK by The Murder Room.
Am I wrong, then? Does this mean there are possibly other books issued in the US that I could be tracking down?!
Though the problem with the Murder Room’s reprints would be that aside from Death-Watch, Emperor’s Snuff-Box and Four False Weapons, the rest of the titles seem to be at best middling. 😦
As I mentioned elsewhere, there must be something legal going on because Carr was prolific and successful enough to warrant the occasional reprint. The alternative is that we who are interested in him constitute such a small percentage of Earth’s population that we are basically a negligible factor in the question of re-publication. Believe me, almost every aspect of who I am is minority, and so I’m used to my opinions counting for nothing.
However, if you can figure out how to make a big enough noise, JJ, I’ll join in. And if it works, you can take all the credit. Carr is worthy of still being read, and by new folk!
Now, about that “hook” comment and the general disparagement of Christie! No, sir, no, no, no! You have inspired a retort. It’s coming, damn you, it’s coming!
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Now, now, calm down — as I said, Christie’s skill is in expanding her plots from what sound like fairly pedestrian beginnings: someone is killing poeple who have the same first and last initial; there’s a murder on an island off the coast of Cornwall where a group of people are holidaying; someone is sending poison pen letters in a small village — three of my favourite Christie books there, and excellent detective novels that show of the Golden Age at its very best, but they sound like the kind of thing John Bude would write (I have discovered that I’m not a fan of Bude…). No disparagement, I’m not going to lightly write off someone when I’ve stuck them long enough to read 72 of their books, dammit, purely a comparison of what I feel to be a way in which Carr is the superior plotter.
I must have read a John Dickson Carr book sometime in my youth, but I cannot say for sure. Based on the praise of two bloggers, Sergio at Tipping my Fedora and Moira at Clothes in Books, I do plan to try some of them now in my old age. I will start with The Emperor’s Snuffbox, suggested by both of them.
I do sympathize with your desire for them to be more easily available and in print, but I would prefer to find older editions anyway.
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Emperor’s Snuff-Box is not one I’ve read, but I’ll doubtless get to it in due course. And I know what you mena about the older editions, but given that there may be some Carr’s I’d never get to read if I wait around for old, affordable secondhand copies (and the secondhand market sure does know when to charge like a wounded bull for the less-available titles…thus ensuring they stay less available and become “more valuable”)…well, in that case I’d rather have a nice new set to pay for and reward some forward-thinking publisher’s decision to commit to Carr in these modern times!
Aaah, well, it makes hunting them down fun. At present. I hope you enjoy Carr when you get to him — seriously, at this best there’s no-ne better.
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Huh, is The Langtail Press out of business? My only Carr novel comes from there, though it was a few years ago.
I also might as well offer hope for those who still want Carr novels: Used books on Amazon. Prices vary, but I’ve head luck.
Yeah, Langtail Press folded a while ago now — all the paperback books from them are only secondhand now (well, or exceptionally rare), and their ebooks vanished several months ago. Worse luck for those of us still tracking titles down…
Ah, a shame!
If Brad does a post in support Christie, I would certainly be looking forward to it. Though I shouldn’t be fanning flames over here… 😛
It’s such a shame that the Langtail e-books are no longer available, as I found their catalogue of titles to be superior to that of the Murder Room’s, given the inclusion of Burning Court, Green Capsule and He Who Whispers.
Anyway, JJ, which novel were you referring to: “a woman is found murdered in her home with several possible murder weapons strewn about even though none of them were used in the killing…”
“a woman is found murdered in her home with several possible murder weapons strewn about even though none of them were used in the killing…” is my approximate synopsis of The Four False Weapons, the final Henri Bencolin book and an absolute belter at that — highly recommended.
Every author, almost without exception, suffers from critical and commercial neglect after they die, and the truly great ones are rediscovered a few years later and come back into fashion. That’s how it’s meant to work anyway, with a bit of luck.
Your post makes a great case for Carr’s unique genius and his sheer excellence and originality. Why his work hasn’t been rediscovered and celebrated in a major way is a mystery more dense and bizarre than any HM ever investigated, especially when, still, Carr’s style and plots are superior to a lot of what is being written today.
I read somewhere that part of Christie’s popularity is due to her simple, clear language, coupled with her complex plots. Carr is a denser writer than Christie, in plot and language. Maybe this counts against him somehow? Who knows.
Other great writers have fallen into oblivion for decades and then been rediscovered. Here’s hoping Carr will be next. Blogs like this can only make that day come sooner, though not soon enough!
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Someone made the point somewhere recently that Christie’s simplicity of language that helps in the translation market, too — and I can’t argue with that. I think that’s probably going to play a part in the English-language market, too, but equally until people get a chance to read it it’s going to be difficult to know. Aaaah, well, we do what we can…
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I agree about the language issue, and coupled with the technicalities of impossible crime situations, this can make Carr a bit of a slog for some. Remember the Death of Jezebel fiasco in France! That doesn’t make this a less frustrating situation. I’m thinking of the strong sense I get that I’m missing out on some amazing GAD from Japan for the same reasons.
Tsk tsk. It was Manny Lee who was replaced by Davidson/Sturgeon, not Dannay.
Gaaaah! I rolled and lost… Many thanks, shall correct in due course.