John Dickson Carr Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis
John Dickson Carr occupies an important place in the history of detective fiction, primarily because of his plot dexterity and his sense of atmosphere. No other author juggled clues, motives, and suspects with more agility, and none rang more changes on the theme of murder-in-a-locked-room and made it part of a feeling of neogothic terror.
It Walks by Night
His first novel, It Walks by Night, featuring Henri Bencolin, begins with a long statement about “a misshapen beast with blood-bedabbled claws” that prowls about Paris by night. The crime—beheading in a room all of whose entrances are watched—seems to have been committed by supernatural means. At the conclusion, however, Bencolin demonstrates that all that was necessary was a human murderer with human methods—and much clever misdirection by the author. It Walks by Night is a well-constructed book, but the atmosphere in it and in the next three Bencolin novels is synthetic. The mystery writer Joseph Hansen much later called It Walks by Night “all fustian and murk,” an overstatement but accurate in that the mood sometimes gets in the way of the story.
From Bencolin to Fell and Merrivale
Except for a reappearance in 1937 in The Four False Weapons, which lacks the oppressive mood of the earlier books, Bencolin disappeared from Carr’s books, and Carr turned to two new detectives, Dr. Gideon Fell in 1933 and Sir Henry Merrivale in 1934 (books about the latter were published under the pseudonym Carter Dickson). On the publication of the second Fell book, The Mad Hatter Mystery (1933), Dorothy L. Sayers wrote a review indicating that Carr had learned how to present mood and place: “He can create atmosphere with an adjective, and make a picture from a wet iron railing, a dusty table, a gas-lamp blurred by fog. He can alarm with an allusion or delight with a rollicking absurdity—in short, he can write . . . in the sense that every sentence gives a thrill of positive pleasure.”
Carr’s books and short stories were strongly influenced by the writings of G. K. Chesterton, creator of Father Brown. He based the character and appearance of Fell on Chesterton, and like Chesterton, he loved the crazy-quilt patterns created by the incongruous. Carr wrote novels involved with such things as a street that no one can find, a bishop sliding down a banister, clock parts found in a victim’s pocket, and unused weapons scattered about the scene of the crime. Also like Chesterton, Carr was uninterested in physical clues. There is no dashing about with a magnifying glass—Fell and Merrivale are too large to bend over a clue in Holmesian fashion—or the fine analysis of fingerprints, bullets, and bloodstains. Instead, the detective solves the crime by investigating less material indicators, clues based on gesture and mood, of things said and things left unsaid, which lead to understanding the pattern of the crime.
Carr’s lack of interest in material clues was matched by his lack of interest in genuine police investigation. Many of the fair-play novelists of the Golden Age (the 1920’s and the 1930’s) allow the reader to follow the investigation of the detective, whether he is a gifted amateur such as Lord Peter Wimsey or a police detective such as Inspector French. In Carr’s first book, the reader does follow the Sûreté’s investigations, but two of Bencolin’s later cases are placed outside France so that the detective will not have access to police laboratories. By the 1940’s, Carr rarely emphasized detection per se in his books. The viewpoint character does not often participate with the amateur detective or the police in their investigations; he is instead overwhelmed by the mystery and the danger that the crime seems to pose to himself or to someone he loves.
Carr’s emphasis was always fundamentally on the fair-play solution, not on detection. In his essay “The Grandest Game in the World,” he defined the detective story not as a tale of investigation but asa conflict between criminal and detective in which the criminal, by means of some ingenious device—alibi, novel murder method, or what you like—remains unconvicted or even unsuspected until the detective reveals his identity by means of evidence that has also been conveyed to the reader.
In some of Carr’s later novels, especially In Spite of Thunder (1960) and The Witch of the Low-Tide: An Edwardian Melodrama (1961), the detective knows whodunit long before the conclusion of the story, but he does not reveal what is happening, for he is playing a cat-and-mouse game with the murderer. The reader, consequently, is trying to discover not only the solution to the crime but also why the detective is acting and speaking in a cryptic manner.
Sir Henry Merrivale Series
The emphasis on fair-play trickery helps to understand the structure of the Sir Henry Merrivale novels. The first Merrivale novel, The Plague Court Murders (1934) , is almost as atmospheric as the early Bencolin stories, as Carr makes the reader believe that a seventeenth century hangman’s assistant has returned from the dead to commit murder. As the series developed, however, Carr increasingly made H. M....
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