John Dickson Carr John Dickson Carr Short Fiction Analysis

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John Dickson Carr Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

John Dickson Carr’s abundant output throughout his writing career is best characterized by his reply to a friend who asked if he had much trouble with inventing plots: “I’ve had exactly a hundred and twenty complete plots outlined, for emergencies, since I was eleven years old.” This natural propensity for puzzles perhaps explains why Carr always restricted his writing to the locked-room murder in particular or the “impossible crime” in general, rather than branching out into other categories of mystery writing.

Carr was influenced at an early age by the Father Brown stories of G. K. Chesterton. In fact, Carr himself said that one of his most popular detectives, Dr. Gideon Fell, was based on Chesterton, as that author and his Father Brown series were the idols of Carr’s boyhood.

For Carr, detective fiction was a “hoodwinking contest, a duel between author and reader” as he wrote in his essay “The Grandest Game in the World.” Yet Carr despaired at the turn writers in the genre had taken by the 1960’s. He believed that the authors were not taking enough care to craft a fair and reasonable story that would not purposely mislead the reader. Carr believed that all the writer had to do was to state his or her evidence, “and the reader [would] mislead himself.”

Carr’s oeuvre is most easily divided by detective. His three most famous creations were Henri Bencolin, prefect of police and later juge d’instruction in Paris; Dr. Gideon Fell, whose career as an amateur detective spanned twenty-three novels and five short stories as well as a number of radio plays; and Sir Henry Merrivale, a genteel chief of the Military Intelligence Department in the War Office. There were various other detectives whom Carr tried over the years but usually discarded after one or two outings.

Henri Bencolin is unique as a Carr creation in that he is the only detective whom Carr uses who is officially connected with the police department. He appeared in only a few stories and novels before being retired by Carr. Yet, according to critic Douglas G. Greene, in 1937 Carr revived Bencolin in The Four False Weapons to demonstrate that “the original Bencolin of the short stories was the genuine version of the detective.”

“The Shadow of the Goat”

In “The Shadow of the Goat,” Bencolin, while vacationing in England, becomes involved in a case unofficially when a Frenchman is murdered. Carr sets the scene for the story complete with thick London fog and swirls of tobacco smoke. Bencolin calls on his English friend Sir John Landervorne, a man with unofficial connections to both Whitehall and Scotland Yard, to see if he can glean more details about the murder of Monsieur Jules Fragneau.

The supernatural aspects to this story are emphasized by Carr’s own clues to the reader. Sir John states that the probable murderer was locked in a room while he himself (as well as some others) watched the door and that “nobody had either entered or left that door.” Carr finishes that section of the story with the italicized line, “And, as later events proved, Sir John spoke the absolute truth.” The conclusion is that the explanation to this story’s puzzle is most likely one beyond the ken of rationality. Yet very few of Carr’s stories ever bear out that conclusion. Most of the time, as in “The Shadow of the Goat,” the murderer proves to be all too human.

“The Door to Doom”

In “The Door to Doom,” Carr does incorporate the supernatural as at least partial explanation for foul play. Instead of using one of his more famous detectives, Carr introduces the character of Peter Maynard, a hapless American tourist lost on the road to Chartres. Advised by two local peasants to take a shortcut through the woods, Maynard finds himself staying at a most peculiar inn called the Inn of the Beautiful Prospect, although its original name seems to have been something much less enticing.

Despite its name, this inn turns out to be less than salubrious for...

(The entire section is 1,355 words.)