#429: The Men Who Explain Miracles – Episode 7.2: The Ages of John Dickson Carr

TMWEM Carr

Greetings, and welcome back to episode 7 of our every-two-monthly (is there a word for that?) podcast The Men Who Explain Miracles, which this month we’re using to look at the career of John Dickson Carr.

We’re back in the British Library — well, okay, we’re not back, since we didn’t leave between episodes — and are here to finish what we started.  It’s no longer a surprise that Ben of The Green Capsule is along with us (or, if it is, uh, perhaps consult a memory specialist) and you may remember that last week we started at the beginning of Carr’s career and got up to approximately the mid-to-late 1940s, when he started on a phase of writing typically referred to as his Historicals.  This week, we pick up there and continue to the end of his output, and then indulge in a few reflections regarding Carr’s contribution to the genre, his legacy, and the adulation with which his oeuvre is typically received.

And so, without further ado…

You may find this chronology of Carr’s books helpful in following some of this discussion, though it’s far from necessary — but if the context helps, please do give it a look.

The Men Who Explain Miracles will return in October, and all that remains for now is to thank Ben for his time and efforts in making this happen, and yourselves for listening and getting involved in the conversations we’re delighted to see this provoke.  Continue as before, and be sure if you haven’t already to check out:

Ben’s blog — The Green Capsule
Dan’s blog — The Reader is Warned

Many thanks!

~

Previous The Men Who Explain Miracles episodes:

1. Rim of the Pit (1944) by Hake Talbot — A spoiler-heavy discussion

2. An interview with YA author Robin Stevens

3. On republishing Murder on the Way! (1935) by Theodore Roscoe

4. The Ed Hoch ’15 Best Impossible Crime Novels’ list of 1981

4.1 Books 15 to 11

4.2 Books 10 to 6

4.3 Books 5 to 1

5. Choosing our own 15 favourite impossible crime novels

5.1 JJ’s list

5.2 Dan’s list

6. An interview with Martin Edwards

7. The Ages of John Dickson Carr [w’ Ben @ The Green Capsule]

7.1 Part 1

30 thoughts on “#429: The Men Who Explain Miracles – Episode 7.2: The Ages of John Dickson Carr

  1. Carr originally started out by writing historical fiction in the short story form along with ghost stories and a few impossible crimes ( though most had very wacky and time-worn solutions). I think Carr always wanted to write historical fiction but instead focused on impossible crime until a time in his life where he could indulge himself with no worry about if the book would sell or not leading to the impossible crimes not becoming a focal point or leading to them not really being impossible scenario’s anymore.
    The aging room in The Bride of Newgate was a result of Clayton Rawson, who once described an impossible situation where all the furniture disappeared out of a locked room and Carr eventually wrote TBON and wrote to Rawson saying the book contained his solution. He, however, was dissatisfied with the solution and tried to find another solution to the situation, though he never did.
    For me, there’s something of a allure to the later books of an author. You want to know if a book is really that bad, or if it’s just unfairly maligned due to its placement in the author’s chronology. Not to mention, the later books of authors usually have very good titles ( I mean, The Witch of the Low Tide, Dark of the Moon, Deadly Hall, how can you not be intrigued?!?)
    It’s hard for me to explain what makes Carr for me. I think part of it is his evocation of the fairy tale. He creates these beautiful and dreamlike worlds where anything can and is possible with little to no limitations. For me, the beauty of his work comes from his creation of these fantasies that are so lifelike and yet so unreal that you can’t not be drawn to his work.
    If I had to draw attention to some Carr’s I’d go :
    Bencolin: The Corpse in the Waxworks, Fell: In Spite of Thunder, Merrivale : Nine and Death Makes Ten, Historical: The Witch of the Low Tide, Non Series: The Department of Queer Complaints
    Sorry for this mish-mash of a comment. I just wrote down my thoughts as I listened. A very, very good episode and I can’t wait for the next.

    • You want to know if a book is really that bad, or if it’s just unfairly maligned due to its placement in the author’s chronology.

      This, I think, is a very important point, and perhaps one we didn’t really pick up on as much as we should. All authors of any volume tend to suffer from the “later, badder” syndrome, but in fact there are bound to be flashes of the old spark here and there — no-one just loses it overnight. Even allowing for Carr’s failing health, he manages to work in some very good ideas in these later books (of the ones I’ve read — much Late Carr is still unknown to me).

      Interesting about TBoN, too, since the disappearance of the furniture really isn’t the focus of that impossibility, and the impossibility really doesn’t feel like it has any place in the book. Kelley Roos wrote a book which deals with the sudden disappearance of furniture from a (non-locked) top floor apartment, and it’s a great little conceit used in a very smart way. But vanishing furnitrue per se tends to be an oft-ignored difficulty in these types of problems. Right?

      Delighted you enjoyed it, we had so much fun recording it. Plans are afoot for the next episode (in fact, the next two episodes), and we intend to continue while there’s still so much to explore. Feels like we’ve come a long way in just a year.

      • You could say that a lot of sub-sub-sub genres of impossible crimes get ignored, but that’s something that I love about this genre. It is constantly changing and developing and impossible crimes are only defined by the impossible situations that can be made up. There are no limits to this type of mystery, the only limits come from the creation of the puzzles and worlds that these mysteries revolve around. Vanishing Furniture is rarely seen in the literature but as a result, there are so many possibilities and variations that can arise and continually fuel the subgenre. Impossible crimes started simple and as more situations were used, more different situations were created, creating an endless sea of evolution and change ( i.e person’s throat slit in front of a group with no one approaching to throat slit by fleeting figure that vanishes to throat slit by automaton that was empty of people or mechanical components) that still grows to this day and will (hopefully) fuel our insatiable hunger for years to come.
        I’ll take a gander at the next two episodes. A surprise collaboration with Brad on the subject of Paul Halter and his love of him 😃.

        • Yeah, it’s always lovely to come across some sort of impossibility you’ve not considered before — like Halter’s Phantom Passage or aspects of Sladek’s Invisible Green. Seeing how the range of approaches and types is always growing is definitely something that helps keep the sub-genre fresh, you’re absolutely right.

    • I’m glad to see there’s someone else who feels The Witch of the Low Tide is under-appreciated. There’s a flaw in the book that I cover in the spoilers section of my review – were it not for that flaw I think you’d see me championing this title as one of Carr’s top 10. I do recommend people read The White Priory Murders first though since they both touch on the footprints theme.

      Interesting fact on The Bride of Newgate and Clayton Rawson – I hadn’t heard that before. I’m aware of the He Wouldn’t Kill Patience tape-sealed room bet. Were there any others?

      It’s interesting to note that Carr’s book titles got better as time progressed. I’d say that started around 1937 with The Burning Court, The Ten Teacups, and The Four False Weapons.

      • I ad meant to make a point about how his titles progressed from ‘The [Adjective Noun] Murders’ into far more interesting territory, but that completely slipped my mind when we got to talking about it. Having read it recently, I really do love the why of the title And So to Murder…though He Wouldn’t Kill patience might still be my favourite on that score for now…

      • There’s the challenge where both Rawson and Carr created a story to see if they could explain how a man disappeared from a phone box in full view of others.

        Rawson’s story is “Off the Face of the Earth”. I thnik no one will disagree that it’s both a much better story and has a better explanation for the impossibility than Carr’s “Scotland Yard’s Christmas”.

      • Carr and Rawson both lived in the same neighborhood for periods of their lives and so there’s a high chance that they inspired each other with plots at other times, but I can’t recall any others except for the one Christian mentioned.
        I absolutely despise any novel title with the singular Murder or Death and then a mundane description of a place or thing. These shorts of title just seem so lackluster and it turns me off of a book when I read a title like Death in the Doctor’s Office when the competition has a title like The Painting with the Japanese Fan or The Boredom of Linda Blackthorn. But personal preferences people, personal preferences.

  2. Glad to see you back in action; I was a little worried when the usual Thursday instalment didn’t happen. Hope all is ok! 😊

    • Oh, yeah, Thursday was an IRL interruption that delayed me finishing and so reviewing that book. No fear, all back to normal now.

    • Bimonthly means both “twice a month” and “every two months” — seriously, with all the words in the English language, we couldn’t come up with another one here? Man, I bet they don’t have this problem in Scandinavia. And I bet their trains run on time.

  3. Hey, where’s JJ’s pick for standalone Carr? 🙂

    Okay, Carr’s historicals. I don’t particularly like them, because I have zero interest in those times – I’m probably the exact counterpoint to Carr himself there. And the further back they go, the less interested I am. 1500s, 1600s – absolutely no interest at all. 1700s – I might muster up some interest if the story is good enough. 1800s – okay, now we’re getting somewhere. I don’t particularly like the times and mores, but hey, it’s similar enough to the 1900s that it doesn’t take too much to make me overlook the setting.

    So, for me, the setting is almost make or break for a Carr historical. Which doesn’t mean that I can’t see them set into three fairly distinct eras.

    The first era are the ones written in the early 50s: “Newgate”, “Devil”, “Cut-Throat”, “Fear is the Same”. As for these ones, I’d re-read “Newgate” with just a tad of apprehension. “Devil” and “Fear” I won’t ever re-read. “Captain Cut-Throat” is a special case, because I absolutely hated it when I read it, but since everyone else is lauding it I’ll have to force myself to re-read it again. I remember these novels as having the very florid, heavy-handed prose of the earliest novels of Carr’s career, so I tend to lump them together in my mind. Very tough going (again possibly with the exception of “Newgate”), though well plotted.

    The second era are the novels from “Fire Burn” to “The Demoniacs”. These are written with a lighter touch. Interestingly, there’s a bit of a series here, where Carr explores the development and evolution of the London police force. I don’t know if you just missed this in your discussion, or possibly you’ve never noticed. You have “The Demoniacs” with the very earliest type of police force, and then there’s “Fire, Burn!” with the introduction of Scotland Yard, “Scandal at High Chimneys” set in the mid 1800s and finally “The Witch of Low Tide” from the early 1900s. The only one I wouldn’t re-read here is “Demoniacs”, obviously. The others are easy reads, the plots are all right (or better) and it’s generally good going.

    The third era is “Papa La-Bas” and everything thereafter. They’re Carr’s most boring works and most riddled with his problematic writing tics: describing things through dialogue, interrupting dialogue to delay that plot would be revealed too early, a bit of general rambling. None of these are particuarly recommended, though they are generally set in a time that appeals to me, so I wouldn’t cry if someone forced me to re-read them.

    (“Most Secret” is problematic in the respect that it was published in the second era above, though was of course written more than 20 years earlier and then simply rewritten when Carr had to put some product on the market. I’d therefore tend to lump it in with the first era (as I would with “Edmund Godfrey”), which also fits with my interest levels – which are very low.)

    My picks:
    Bencolin: “Four False Weapons” feels like a cheat since it really doesn’t belong to this era. If I have to settle for the earlier ones I’ll pick “Waxwork” which is the best of the early ones.
    Fell: “Wire Cage” for nostalgic reasons, “Case of the Constant Suicides” for pure reading pleasure.
    Merrivale: “Red Widow” for an early great, “Judas Window” or “Nine – and Death makes Ten” for a later great.
    Historical: “The Witch of Low Tide”, Carr’s best puzzle and easiest historical read.
    Standalone: “Emperor’s Snuffbox” as it was written during the height of Carr’s powers, though “Nine Wrong Answers” holds a special place in my heart for what it could have been.

    • Aaah, yes, my standalone Carr. Well, see, some sort of lay was being performed in the lecture theatre next to where we were recording, and as I was about the give my answer the crowd came (enthusiastically) pouring out and so we had to stop recording. I tried adding my choice in post-production, but — as can be heard in the intro to this episode — y microphone is a lower spec and it sounded lousy, so I just cut it altogether. For the record, it was The Bowstring Murders 🙂

      Love the idea of exploring the devloping Metropolitan Police Force in those books, but I couldn’t pick up on it because I haven’t read Witch, Scandal, or Demoniacs (dunno what Dan and ben’s excuse is…). I’ll keep an eye out, though, because that part of Fire, Burn! was easily my favourite aspect of the book, and remains among the strongest threads in the Historical sI have read.

      And I think that’s what make or break for me with Carr’s Historicals: what am I picking up that’s intriguing or new in terms of thinking? This is part of why I loved the opening of Bride of Newgate so much — it’s such a nifty little switchback of a scheme, and reverses on itself with that excellent unpredictability Carr worked in so well — but then devolves into a fairly standard romp. And Devil in Velvet is superb in my estimations, because it felt like every chapter was introducing some new concept or idea, and working it so well into the plot (which was, after all, simply Here’s My Research — a thing I usually hate).

      • Yeah, I agree that the premise in the early stages of “Newgate” is the best bit of the book, and it’s also why I can still remember it quite fondly.

        As for that “police force” quartet, I think it both works and doesn’t work in equal amounts. “The Demoniacs” is fairly interesting for its insight into the Bow Street Runners (I think they were the equivalent of police in those times) – the only other interesting bit for me was the description of London Bridge. The rest was a boring, boring mess. And as you say, “Fire, Burn!” gets some mileage from the descriptions of the inner workings of the newly started Scotland Yard. On the other hand, “Scandal” doesn’t fit in all that well in this series, as it only features a character who used to be in the police force previously.

        But it was an interesting idea from Carr, and I guess it’s one of the things that kept him interested in his own writing, something which carries over in my reading pleasure.

        As an aside, I don’t actually know why I have such huge problems with historical novels. In younger days I loved “The Three Musketeers” and similar stuff. I think it’s possibly because those were read in volumes that had been adapted for younger audiences – many of these adventure classics have been, at least in Sweden – and so didn’t really feature many descriptions of the actual life and behaviour of those times. Because to me, most of those people seem really horrible, even the ones Carr obviously attempt to portray as heroic.

        • I personally felt The Demoniacs was a good read throughout although there’s nothing that really stands out about it. It definitely does have a focus on the early police force with the Bow Street Runners.

          As you point out, Scandal at High Chimneys doesn’t really examine the police at the time, but it does include the prototypical modern detective in the form of Jack Whicher.

        • There’s no doubt that Carr doesn’t shy away from the worst of the behaviour of those times…but I think that’s just part of the verisimilitude. It’s tempting to look at these settings in that youthful storybook way — indeed, I think that’s a brilliant observation of yours, because of how we typically encounter stories from these eras — and so to yearn for the good/bad dichotomy we typically identify those things with. Having it all a bit more murky is part of what I enjoy, I think, but I can totally see the problems people would have with it.

          Hmmm. As ever, Christian, you’ve given me a lot to reflect upon. Many thanks!

          • Aw shucks. I blush in places I didn’t know could blush.

            Thing is, even though Carr tries to describe things in a more murky way, as you say, I think Carr idolised the kind of hero he uses in his historicals (for that matter, their characteristics is something he tries to give his protagonists in his non-historicals as well), and I just have a hard time seeing anything heroic in their brashness, rashness, hotheadedness. If they took two seconds to think things through instead, things would resolve much easier. (OK, there would be less of a story then…)

            What I mean is that I think that Carr thought it was obvious who was the hero and who was the villain, but I don’t think that the heroes come off much better than his villains, though the latter have other, worse characteristics.

            And it doesn’t help that Carr smacktalks mathematics wherever he can, the bounder! 🙂

            • Yeah, I’ve encountered some of Carr’s anti-mathematical opinions somwhere before. S’slright, nobody’s perfect, and we’ll give him a pass for the years 1934-44 🙂

    • JJ’s choice of standalone Carr was so controversial that we had to edit it out lest it tear the fabric of the GAD blog universe apart!

      Interesting point about there potentially being three periods of historical Carr books. I had noticed the theme of Carr exploring early police forces, but it hadn’t struck me that he did it during a focused run. I still see those stories as being very similar to what you classify as the first phase.

      As far as the books that you picked to highlight – I’d be hard pressed to argue, those are all excellent selections. I’m happy to see that you share my passion for The Problem of the Wire Cage, The Red Widow Murders, and The Witch of the Low Tide.

      • This might be my misremembrance, but aren’t those first four historicals much longer than what I categorised as the second era? I know that “Devil” is very, very long in the Swedish edition I have. Meanwhile, the four novels of the “second era” are fairly short – again with the exception of “The Demoniacs” which seems a much longer novel.

        Or possibly it’s just a reflection of the enjoyment I got from them, so the fun ones seemed short and the not so fun ones seemed endless…

        “Wire Cage” was my first Carr and will always be remembered fondly here. I hesitated between “Red Widow” and “Unicorn” for the early Merrivale, but “Red Widow” simply has a better setting, I think.

  4. I’m so glad the three of you had as much fun as it sounds like you had – weird pauses and all – making this podcast. It made me realize that I am in no way an expert on Carr, and I probably won’t ever be. But I sure feel lucky that there’s still so much Carr out there for me to discover. (In fact, something like 15-20 titles stand bathed in a weird glow on my bookshelf, telling me, “Read ussssssss . . . in any order, but . . . read ussssssss!”

    The best thing about this was that you had a good dress rehearsal for the 3 – 6 part podcast we’re gonna do on Christie. I figure we have to go over the following:

    1) The chronology: I have divided Christie into four major periods that roughly correspond to the passing of decades.
    2) The difference in her approach to mystery fiction depending on the detective (or lack thereof) that she’s using. In this more subtle sense, she comes closer to being as varied a writer as Carr.
    3) The “problem” novels, including the thrillers, which you dismissed as rubbish, JJ, but what are we to make of And Then There Were None and, to a lesser degree, The Pale Horse?
    4) Her writing “style” – in which we ponder how the simplicity of her language essentially is part of the key to the longevity of her international success.
    5) We each come up with our favorite Poirot, Marple, T&T, “other detective” novel, and stand-alone.

    I say we just let the tape run for 48 hours of talk and then JJ edits it into a mini-series. I can’t wait!

    Now all I have to do is get the passport . . . . .

  5. Pingback: GOING OCD ON MY GAD | ahsweetmysteryblog

  6. Another good podcast – well done, gentlemen.
    I really need to read more late Carr and more of the historicals to comment intelligently. However, I will say that i don’t believe there’s such a thing as a really rotten Carr book – I recently reread The Blind Barber and, while I can’t say I thought it was anything like good, it has some points in its favor. I need o go back to the Eight of Swords at some point as I remember it being weak and yo0u keep sticking up for it. I read it close to 20 years ago, right after The Hollow Man and I was disappointed – I need to give it another go.

    Of the historicals, I think I’ve read Witch of the Low Tide, Scandal at High Chimneys, The Demoniacs, The Bride of Newgate and Papa La Bas. Some people speak very critically of these books but I have to say I liked them all to some extent, even the ones with the weaker reputations – Papa La Bas and Scandal at High Chimneys. Mind you, I like swashbucklers in the cinema so this might explain it.

    My pics for the different categories?
    Bencolin – It Walks By Night. A title that begs to be read and a situation that is beautiful in its simplicity.
    Fell – The Hollow Man/Three Coffins. This was my first Fell novel and I just got drawn in and loved it.
    Merrivale – The Plague Court Murders. My first taste of the character again and the atmosphere and the pseudo-historical stuff enthralled me.
    Historical – Witch of the Low Tide. Just a good mystery.
    Non-series – The Nine Wrong Answers. My first Carr book and it’s just a blast from start to finish.

    • I love to see The Witch of the Low Tide getting some respect. I mostly share your opinion that there aren’t bad Carr books, but I’ll say that The Cavalier’s Cup is flat out bad. Scandal at High Chimneys is nothing to write home about, but as you say, it’s still a satisfying read. Papa La Bas is coming up soon…

      I’m midway through The Eight of Swords right now and I’m enjoying it. There certainly isn’t the typical Carr hook – on the surface the crime is rather plain. Still, you can tell this is going to be one of those books like The Mad Hatter Mystery, Death Watch, The Four False Weapons, or The Arabian Nights Murder where nothing is as it seems.

      • Not having read Cavalier’s Cup, I can’t comment on that assertion, although Behind the Crimson Blind is pretty rotten, IMO.
        I look forward to hearing what you make of Papa la Bas as it seems to be almost universally maligned.

      • The Eight of Swords is rather plain? With all those incongruities stacked atop each other to build a near-tottering edifice that swould collapse hopelessly under any lesser author’s pen?

        Ben. I am…I don’t know what I am. Plain? Plain??!?!

        • The crime is plain in the sense that it doesn’t feature an impossibility or other outrageous hook – it’s simply a man shot in his room during a thunderstorm. Of course the evidence is a bit weird – not to the degree of The Four False Weapons. And the circumstances surrounding the crime are a bit strange – although not to the extent of Death Watch or The Arabian Nights Murder.

          Carr keeps a good pace in that an entire novel’s worth of discovery happens by page 70. I have 40 pages left and I’m fully expecting to be caught off guard Castle Skull style or at least hoodwinked to the degree of The Mad Hatter Mystery.

          Shoot, I guess you have no need to read my review when I post it – I’ll just be padding out those two paragraphs ad nauseam…

    • Quite a few of the historicals that you haven’t read fall into the same category as The Bride of Newgate and The Demoniacs. If you like swashbuckling, historical trivia, and mystery, you’re going to love them. Fire, Burn is quite possibly the highlight, but they’re good all around.

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