John Dickson Carr - The King of Locked Room Mystery
The Man who worked Miracles
The man who wrote many brilliant mysteries that were set mostly in the English country side, Scottish Castles and London Museums - whose most famous creations were an English Lexicographer, a knighted Foreign Office gent and a Paris Police Prefect -- was actually born in Pennsylvania, USA. While Agatha Christie largely and Dorothy L Sayers enjoy some of the Golden age limelight, Carr remains a relative unknown outside the fanbase. It's a shame, because when it comes to a cracking plot, head scatching twists, scintillating atmosphere and dedication to the craft of the mystery stories, Carr is up there with the best.
He was a prolific producer of mystery novels and also wrote radio plays that kept war time Britons gripped and entertained as the unpleasantness of the second world war raged all around the island.
Carr wrote about England and the English with such panache that, when, under the pseudonym of Carter Dickson, he created Sir Henry Merrivale and set him loose amongst the English countryside, cussin' and swearin', most people believed Carter Dickson was actually PG Wodehouse. Imagine their surprise when they realised it was Carr who penned those hilarious yet baffling mysteries.
John Dickson Carr studied in Paris (the effects of which can be seen in his earlier creation M.Henri Bencolin , the Paris Police Prefect) and England. He fell in love with an English girl and England. He got married in 1931 and settled down in England. He went on to publish tremendously popular 'impossible-mystery' novels featuring Both Dr. Fell and Sir HM. Carr was very active in broadcasting mystery plays on the BBC.
Carr lived in England till 1951 and then moved to the US where he continued to chronicle more mysteries concerning Dr. Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale. He also wrote some very good historical mysteries with authentic settings and recreations of the period.
John Dickson Carr allegedly discovered the pleasures of a good detective story in the library of his lawyer father. His first taste of scintillating mysteries were from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and G.K. Chesterton . He became a lifelong fan of these two and their influence can be seen in his early writings. In fact Carr's famous creation: the wheezing, obese, bandit-mustachiod, cigar -smoking, Lexicographer -cum-solver of impossible crimes, Dr. Gideon Fell , is modelled after Chesterton.
Radio and Television
His Appointment with fear was a landmark series on the BBC Radio during the second world war. It was in many ways the precursor of all those American series including Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents in its format: a short monologue in the sepulchral tones of the mysterious man in the black, played by Valentine Dyall. Such was the popularity of the shows that when Carr was in danger of being called to serve in the American armed forces during WWII, the producers of the show appealed to the US Government that Carr was indeed helping the war effort by doing these shows to the listening public...they didn't ask him to enlist and he continued to write for the show!!
Carr was one of the few non-English mystery writers to be admitted into the prestigious 'Detection Club' of England ( whose members were Christie, Sayers and other elite of the mystery novel). He was also the President of Mystery Writers Association of America.Although Carr is most famously known for his locked -room mysteries and 'impossible' crimes, we shouldn't forget that he was skilled at characterisation and a master of setting the atmosphere. He enthralls the reader by setting the scene imaginatively.
His sense of humour helps to make his books a wholesome read.He had a keen sense for the macabre and the bizarre. His mysteries were unerringly plotted and never fail to surprise even the keenest mystery afficionado.Carr was not only good, he was also prolific. He had written over seventy novels, numerous short-stories and Radio plays, a biography of Sir Conan Doyle, a historical crime reconstruction ( The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey ) and a series of Sherlock Holmes stories with Conan Doyle's son, Adrian -The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes (1954) .I don't like using superlatives for fear of sounding too adulatory. But in Carr's case I'll make an exception: The man was nothing short of a genius. Go on and try one of his books. I bet you you'll be hooked.
The Mystery novel needs a flamboyant detective. The history of Mystery novel is populated by those great characters whose fame far outweighs those of their creators. Who can forget Conan Doyle's plight when he was forced to bring Sherlock Holmes back to life after decisively plunging him down the Reichenbach falls? Who can forget the little gray cells stirring inside the egg shaped head of the Belgian gentleman with a waxed moustache? Or the curious figure of a cassocked priest sleuthing some of the most macabre puzzles?
It is to this latter priest we must turn our attention. He was called Father Brown. He was an amateur sleuth incomparable. Young John Dickson Carr was captivated by the puzzles created by Gilbert Keith Chesterton, so he decided to create some of his own.
And what creations they are...
Monsieur Henri Bencolin
The origins of Monsieur Henri Bencolin can be found in the early short stories penned by Carr while he was the editor of The Haverfordian , a monthly literary journal of Haverford College. Bencolin is but vaguely described in this early versions: about thiry years of age, shabbily dressed, bearded and stooped, and with kindly eyes. Carr improved upon the descriptions over the next few tales and Monsieur Bencolin eventually became Mephistophilean in appearance. His black hair parted in the middle and twirled up like horns, his eyes dark and veiled, his manner flamboyant and very 'Grand Guignol'.
In fact 'Grand Guignol' was the first Bencolin novella. It was originally published in The Haverfordian in March and April, 1929. Carr later expanded this novella and sold it to Harper & Brothers : The novel was It Walks by night ( 1930).. Carr had arrived.
Bencolin is a Paris Police Prefect in the shorter astories but is promoted to a police magistrate of the Surete in the novels.The other novels featuring Bencolin include Lost Gallows (1931) ,,Castle Skull (1931) The Corpse in the Waxworks (1932) and revived once more in Four False Weapons (1937)
Carr found Bencolin too theatrical and too restricting to his plots, so he was abandoned for the creation of some memorable detectives:
Dr. Gideon Fell Ph. D., F.R.H.S
Modelled after Carr's idol, G.K. Chesterton, Dr. Fell is vast and beaming, wears a box-pleated cape and a shovel hat, consumes countless pints of beer and smokes a meerschaum pipe. He has a 'bandit's' moustache and wheezesand rumbles through it's luxuriant spread.He has a keen eye and a piratical swagger; he swears and curses ( Archons of Athens! By thunder!).
Originally introduced as a Lexicographer in Hag's Nook (1933), Dr. Fell was soon revealed as a historian with a wide knowledge of the bizarre and the occult, the esoteric and the wild. He is kindhearted with a childlike exuberance but has the keenest eye for twisted murder plots and impossible crimes.Striding through many a chilling crime, Dr. Fell appeared in twenty-three novels culminating in the Dark of the Moon (1967). He is one of Carr's most enduring creations. In my opinion Fell ranks along with Holmes and is one step ahead of that Belgian man with an egg shaped head. Felll has more in common with Father Brown in his ability to see through the webs of deceit and cunning crimes. But where Father Brown was quiet and unassuming, Fell is just the opposite.
A masterclass in locked room mysteries is conducted by Dr Fell in The Hollow Man (1935) ( also known as 'The Three Coffins') . It is considered by many as the one of the best locked room stories of all time.
Sir Henry Merrivale
A qualified barrister and a physician, Sir HM, as he is fondly known, is one of Carr's most endearing creations. Apart from being an expert in solving impossible, locked-room crimes, Sir HM is also one of the funniest detectives of all. so much so that when the first HM mysteries were published ( under the pseudonym Carter Dickson) most people thought it was PG. Wodehouse turning to mysteries!
Sir HM occupies a room in the war office with whiskey bottle in the safe (marked 'important state documents' in in five languages!). Portly, barrel-shaped in a white linen suit, bald, wearing shell-rimmed spectacles and a panama hat, HM strides forth in his own clumsy way.He is also wildly undignified and swears in pithy epithets. Sir HM made his first appearance in The Plague Court Murders(1934) and went on to star in twenty two other mysteries culminating in The Cavalier's Cup(1953). His favourite words are 'the blinkin' awful cussedness of things in general...'.
One of the very best mysteries featuring Sir Merrivale is called The Judas Window (1938)
Writing under his own name and under the pseudonym of 'Carter Dickson', Carr was a prolific writer. His mysteries were celebrated as the cream of the Golden Age detective stories. Carr excelled in the locked-room mystery, setting up a seemingly impossible situation and unravelling it right before your eyes. As opposed to Christie, he was a 'honest' writer, he never (well, almost never) cheated, always sprinkling the clues liberally. Therein lies Carr's success; he was one of the genuine puzzle setters.
After early attempts at the series character Henri Bencolin, Carr pretty much stuck to two regulars, Dr. Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale. (as Carter Dickson) A background and brief history of these characters can be read on the Detectives page. Other characters include Colonel March and Patrick Butler.
While most of Christie's books are in print it's a shame Carr books are in and out of print all the time.Originally the hardcover publishers of Carr were Harper, while William Morrow did the Carter Dickson imprint. The paperbacks were done by Collier and Berkeley although both are out of print now. Recently IPL has been republishing some of Carr's books and Carol and Graf have brought out a few too. The best bet is to pick them up from old book shops and Car boot sales. Some of Carr's First editions are fairly expensive and immensely collectible.
I've been collecting Carr for over five years now. It's quite hard to find Carr in the UK, I can't imagine why. Penguin did quite a few Greenbacks. My greatest day was when I was on holiday in Cape Cod and I was in this small town, walking to the beach,as I happened upon an old book shop. ( I can't escape the clutches of an old book shop..it's like some magnet) The nice man showed me a box upstairs which had a dozen books by Carr. I even bought a couple of Dell Mapbacks , which are fairly rare nowadays.
Check out the complete bibliography and the covers of books I have..
John Dickson Carr Bibliography- Part 1
Copyright © Mohan Kumar 2010
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