John Dickson Carr Essay - Carr, John Dickson

Carr, John Dickson

Carr, John Dickson 1905–

An American writer of mystery and detective novels, Carr is well known as the creator of Dr. Gideon Fell.

John Dickson Carr [is] … [the] present day "undisputed master" of the locked room tale. An essay on the treatment accorded the locked room puzzle at the hands of Mr. Carr (oftentimes imperfectly concealed behind the pseudonym of Carter Dickson) would occupy many, many pages and, come to think of it, would probably result in a completely fascinating monograph.

It is enough to say here that Carr-Dickson specializes in making the seemingly impossible possible; and that he solves many a knotty fictional problem by doing so. He delights in having a victim walk out into the middle of a tennis court, leaving distinct footprints, and there vanish into thin air. He takes similar enjoyment from having a man dive into an ordinary backyard swimming pool and disappear from sight. But his favorite and most entertaining pastime is creating and solving one locked room puzzle after another. His methods are infinite and varied, for it is apparent that he has given more than offhand attention to the problem and the possibilities it offers.

Donald A. Yates, "The Locked House: An Essay on Locked Rooms," in Armchair Detective, January, 1970.

Deadly Hall is the old maestro's latest, as well as his third criminological expedition to a bygone New Orleans. Carr has devised some business about a manor house transported from England to New Orleans, complete with "killer staircase." Once again, we encounter those familiar Carr trademarks—the "impossible" murder, the sense of gothic menace, lightened by liberal splashes of local color and a high sense of comedy. One may add, though, that the longer Carr writes, the more one appreciates him. And not just as plotter and stylist, but also as the nearest thing to a moralist currently practicing the noble art of literary detection…. What he is … is an unapologetic Tory—an old-fashioned champion of gentility, taste, standards and romance.

W. Murchison, Jr., in National Review (150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), October 8, 1971, p. 1127.

[What] a master architect [John Dickson Carr] is. A mystery inside the mystery lies in the death of a house guest who had, some years before the story [Deadly Hall] opens, fallen down the main staircase of the manor house and broken his neck. Treated as accidental at the time of the occurrence, the incident is viewed differently. It could, perhaps, be murder …?

You can find out for yourself by reading the tale and thus giving yourself the pleasure of reading a piece of fiction offered by Mr. Carr in his usual impeccable style, with the faultless construction that we have long come to accept as his trade mark.

John Boland, in Books and Bookmen, December, 1971, p. 68.

John Dickson Carr …, who also uses the pseudonym of Carter Dickson, is unique among crime writers in his unswerving devotion to one form or another of the locked-room mystery….

In The Hollow Man (1935) [in America, The Three Coffins], Carr offers in one chapter, through his detective Dr. Gideon Fell, a splendidly lively and learned discussion of locked-room murders and their possible solutions under seven different classifications, with some subdivisions relating to methods of tampering with doors. In his dozens of books, Carr/Dickson has rung the changes on the possibilities with astonishing skill. Often his postulates are improbable, but the reader rarely feels them to be impossible, and the deception is built up, sustained with teasing hints that can be interpreted in half a dozen different ways, and at last revealed, with staggering skill. The best Carr/Dickson is the most ingenious, and my vote would go to The Hollow Man itself, one of the books which, as Dr. Fell says, "derives its problem from illusion and impersonation." (The kind of improbable postulate I mean, which doesn't affect enjoyment at the time but may do so afterward, is shown here by the evidence of three witnesses, all of whom accept the inaccurate time shown by a street clock. Did nobody possess a wristwatch?) The conjurer's illusion is marvelously clever. But almost every one of the early books has its passionate admirers. Among those most praised by most people are The Arabian Nights Murder (1936), The Burning Court (1937), The Black Spectacles (1939) [in America, The Problem of the Green Capsule], and the Carter Dickson The Judas Window (1938). To these I would add two favorites of my own, one Carter Dickson called The Ten Teacups (1937) [in America, The Peacock Feather Murders], and one John Dickson Carr, The Emperor's Snuff Box (1942). For almost twenty years, Carr's fertility seemed endless. He wrote an average of two or more books a year, every one of them playing a fresh variation on the locked-room theme. Perhaps because there is after all a limit to such variations, perhaps because the formula itself is now badly worn, his recent books are much inferior to the early ones.

The trouble with exploiting such a formula is that everything else becomes subservient to it, or at least that is what has happened with Carr. He was strongly influenced by Poe and Chesterton. (Dr. Fell with his great bulk, his cane, his eyeglasses on a black ribbon, flowing cloak, and rumpled hair is a very Chestertonian figure.) His books are full of reference to macabre events and possibilities, and of Chestertonian paradox, but in the later work especially these are mere stage trappings. There is genuine feeling in some of Chesterton's short stories, but very little in any of Carr's writing after his first half-dozen books. Since the whole story is built round the puzzle, there is no room for characterization, and the limitation of these clever stories is clearly expressed in the fact that what one remembers about them is never any of the people, but simply the puzzle.

Julian Symons, in his Mortal Consequences: A History—From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel (copyright © 1972 by Julian Symons; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1972, pp. 119-21.