Sharon Smith from Skullduggery House Books in Lightfoot, Virginia, examines the work of John Dickson Carr - one of the great writers from the so-called ‘Golden Age of Mystery’ that spanned from 1920 to 1950.
Sharon and her husband have been in the used and rare mystery book business for 17 years, but Sharon has been reading classic mysteries for more than half a century and read virtually all of Carr's works as well as Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, Dashiell Hammett and many other major names from the mystery genre.
Start with a smouldering Spanish Army captain in Tangier, a room that kills in two hours, a witnessed pistol shot with no hand at the grip, and the antics of a British movie company on the eve of World War II. Add three of the most eccentric sleuths in literature. Cap it all off with a touch of the macabre and a healthy serving of low comedy. Welcome to the world of John Dickson Carr, whose American origins come as a surprise because he wrote the best of British mysteries.
Born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, in 1906, Carr’s interest in crime and detection began early as his father was a lawyer. He began writing for a local newspaper in his teens and became keenly interested in stories featuring solutions to impossible crimes. In 1925, after becoming the editor of the Haverford College student paper, he began to write a series of detective stories about impossible crimes solved by Paris policeman Henri Bencolin.
Sent to Le Sorbonne around 1928, Carr never attended class but seriously pursued writing. He produced a Bencolin story called “Grand Guignol” - an edited and expanded version of which later became his first successful work, It Walks By Night. Carr also wrote under the pseudonyms Carter Dickson and Carr Dickson. After marrying and English woman, Clarice Cleaves, Carr moved to England in 1933 and commenced his 40-year writing career with the introduction of his remaining two sleuths, Dr. Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale.
During the 1940s, there was a lull in his detective fiction output, as he was producing that other kind of fiction known as propaganda for the war effort. Dissatisfied with the rise of socialism in England, Carr moved his family back to the United States in 1948 and embarked on a new phase of his career by writing historical mysteries and essentially founding a new sub-genre. Carr ceased writing fiction in 1972 due to ill health and died at 70 in 1977.
Under his real name, Carr wrote five Henri Bencolin mysteries, of which The Four False Weapons: Being The Return of Bencolin is the best. The plot development is superb and the ending a surprise to even the most experienced mystery reader. He also wrote well over 20 novels and two short story collections featuring the corpulent, bibulous, and egotistical Dr. Gideon Fell. As always, the plots are superior and the conclusion a surprise. In the Fell novels, Carr’s vaudeville humor, though restrained, is evident. The Mad Hatter Mystery, The Three Coffins, The Man Who Could Not Shudder, and The Problem of the Wire Cage are perhaps the best of breed.
It is, however, under the name Carter Dickson that Carr hit his stride with the Sir Henry Merrivale mysteries. There are 20-plus of these gems and one collection of short stories. All are world class examples of combining fantastic mystery with slapstick humor. Subtlety seems to be completely lacking, and yet, even the most egregiously low humor is crafted by the hand of a master to be an important clue to the solution. The entire series is well worth the reading, but The White Priory Murders, The Red Widow Murders, The Peacock Feather Murders, And So to Murder, Nine–and Death Makes Ten, A Graveyard to Let, The Cavalier Cup, and Behind the Crimson Blind are the best. The Cavalier Cup is a particularly fine example of low comedy as misdirection and a true laugh-out-loud experience.
As with the historical mystery, Carr’s legacy of humor and quirky sleuths has developed into its own sub-genre exemplified by the works of Alisa Craig (Charlotte MacLeod), Joan Hess, Aaron Elkins, and others, a fitting tribute to a world class author.
In April’s Avid Reader, Sharon looks at the work of Edgar Wallace