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?