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.