John Dickson Carr insisted that fair-play clueing is a necessary part of good detective fiction. Each of his books and short stories was constructed as a challenge to the reader, with all clues given to the reader at the same time as the detective. Within this framework, however, Carr was an innovator, combining mystery and detection with true-crime reconstruction, slapstick comedy, historical novels, and fantasy. Carr is best known, however, for his mastery of the locked-room murder and related forms of miracle crimes. In his books, victims are found within hermetically sealed rooms which were—so it seems—impossible for the murderers to enter or leave. Murders are also committed in buildings surrounded by unmarked snow or sand, and people do things such as enter a guarded room or dive into a swimming pool and completely vanish. Thus Carr’s stories are constructed around two puzzles for the detective (and the reader) to solve— whodunit and “howdunit.”
Other Literary Forms
John Dickson Carr’s prolific and lengthy career produced seventy-one novels, four novelettes, several radio plays, two nonfiction works, and numerous articles in addition to six short-story collections (one of which was compiled posthumously by Douglas G. Greene). His work has been translated into at least a dozen languages—everything from the standard French, German, Italian, and Spanish to the more exotic Greek, Hungarian, Serbo-Croatian, and Turkish.
John Dickson Carr is best known for his contribution to the genre of detective fiction, specifically, to the tiny subgenre known as that of the “impossible crime.” Under his pseudonym Roger Fairbairn, Carr also is credited with having been among the first to write a historical detective novel, Devil Kinsmere (1934). One of his early radio plays, Cabin B-13 (1943), for the Columbia Broadcasting System series Suspense, later became the basis of a film called Dangerous Crossing (1953), which starred Michael Rennie and Jeanne Crain.
Carr was the recipient of many honors for his work, including an award from Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine for “The Gentleman from Paris,” a 1949 Edgar Allan Poe Award for The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and a 1962 Grandmaster Award from the Mystery Writers of America.
Amis, Kingsley. “Unreal Detectives.” In What Became of Jane Austen? and Other Questions. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970. An appreciation of Carr (among others) by one of Britain’s leading postwar writers. To Amis, Dr. Fell is one of only three worthy successors to Sherlock Holmes, and Carr’s best novels are “minor masterpieces.”
“Carr, John Dickson.” In Mystery and Suspense Writers: The Literature of Crime, Detection, and Espionage, edited by Robin W. Winks and Maureen Corrigan. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1998.
Greene, Douglas C. John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles. New York: Otto Penzler Books, 1995. Indispensable biography and full-length study of Carr’s works, with an exhaustive bibliography. Greene’s main thesis is that Carr’s explanations of seemingly miraculous events reveal a fundamental belief in the rationality of the universe.
Greene, Douglas C. “A Mastery of Miracles: G. K. Chesterton and John Dickson Carr.” Chesterton Review 10 (August, 1984): 307-315. This article pays homage to Carr’s work particularly as it relates to that of G. K. Chesterton. Greene concentrates on Carr’s short fiction but includes some biographical information too. Notes on sources are given at the end of the article.
Joshi, S. T. John Dickson Carr: A Critical Study . Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1990. Joshi’s study complements that of Douglas C. Greene. Joshi finds Carr’s thematic interest to be ethical: Carr’s explanations show the pervasiveness of human evil. Valuable...
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