The most ambitious programme I embarked upon in the past few months was a chronological reading of the work of John Dickson Carr. Unfortunately this did not get very far because I fairly soon became tired of his books for reasons which I will explain below.

I know there are many who consider Carr as one of the true greats, up there with Christie, but I simply cannot see this. I have enjoyed several of the later Carter Dickson works but these early Carr’s have, for me, little to recommend them. I am treating the following novels in a lump.

  • Hags Nook (1933)
  • The Mad Hatter Mystery (1933)
  • The Blind Barber (1934)
  • The Eight of Swords (1934)
  • Death Watch (1935)
  • The Hollow Man (aka The Three Coffins) (1935)

Hag’s Nook is not Carr’s first novel, but it is the first to feature Gideon Fell, his main detective. It features a young American as protagonist who falls into a very Gothic story set near Fell’s country home. There are several classic Carr elements here. In the first place there is the Gothic/woo-woo element: in this case it takes the shape of the heir to ancient English family having to spend a night in a ruined prison ( there are some similarities here to Allingham’s Look to the Lady which came out in 1931). Obviously this story offers many possibilities for Gothicism/woo-woo and Carr revels in them. Then we have the young American protagonist who offers Carr an opportunity to view England through foreign eyes: personally I find the portrait which emerges a clichéd and boring one, but I know that others (notably Douglas Greene in the Introduction to the volume of books in which I read Hag’s Nook) differ. In this portrait Fell himself is a crucial part. This is a vision of ‘merrie old England’ full of eccentricities: indeed eccentricity is seen as the great virtue.

Carr is actually a schematically right-wing writer: to a far greater degree than Christie (about whom this label, as I have pointed out on several occasions,  should only be used with great circumspection). He is in awe of royalty (Oliver Cromwell is a hate figure as being both opposed to royalty and, presumably, ‘merrie England’), the aristocracy and the entire social order: not that the latter as it appears in Carr’s books bears any relation to social reality. These books are fantasies. Sometimes this right-wing bias becomes almost comic as when, in Death Watch Fell defends the Spanish Inquisition claiming that they were misunderstood (I am not joking!).

Another feature of these books is the number of occasions in which Fell will launch into a disquisition on what he calls ‘detective stories’, their qualities and defects: one presumes that these are in fact Carr’s own views as the types of story which Fell likes bear a remarkable likeness to the very books one is reading!

Mike Grost in his article on Carr at the Golden Age wiki (http://gadetection.pbworks.com/Carr,+John+Dickson) writes of Carr…

Carr’s great virtues as a writer were fourfold. He is a master creator of plots. He is able to create supernatural atmosphere with uncanny skill. His comic passages are very funny. And he is a good storyteller.

I have touched on Carr’s predilection for the supernatural; I freely admit that this is a matter of taste – for me all supernatural atmospheres are tedious, whether in mystery or any other kind of fiction. If you like woo-woo it may be that you will find in a book like Hag’s Nook much to enjoy.

Where I really must draw the line is on the question of comedy. Now it is very obvious that Carr thinks he is funny and among these books The Blind Barber in particular is intended as, at least, a semi-comic mystery. For me it was an excruciating pain, and I would unhesitatingly place it among the most tedious mysteries I have ever read. This is what happens when one reads a book which is meant to be funny and one finds it about as funny as watching paint dry. Carr’s humour relies heavily on the knockabout: it is broad and physical. It is the opposite of wit. This is not a humour which appeals to me in the slightest. But I suppose if you like this sort of thing – well you will like it.

In a way it reflects another aspect of Carr’s writing. His prose lacks all elegance and style. He is always over-emphasising and exaggerating. There is no verbal polish. This is reflected in his plots which rely very much on physical tricks and devices and stratagems rather than misleading word-play. Again this is something which does not appeal to me. Now Carr’s reputation depends, above all, on his plots and there is no question that these can be fiendishly intricate and are often very well-devised.  The Hollow Man is a classic example of his speciality, the locked-room mystery: there is even in a diagram which explains exactly how the trick was performed. For those who delight in such technical conundrums I can see why Carr would appeal. But, for me, in not one of these books did I come across anything that really surprised me. I do not mean that I ever guessed whodunit or howdunit, but I was not engaged enough with the story for the solution to make any real impact. To be truly misled one needs first to be led ; if that does not happen, because the reader does not become involved enough with the characters, then the solution to the mystery, however clever, however brilliant, will not provide that sense of shock and surprise which are the hallmark of the great mystery plot.

I know that I always argue that, unless there is some other truly brilliant element in place, plot is of primary important importance in the mystery story. I would certainly hold to that. But Carr proves that plot alone does not create a great mystery. For a start character is also important. The fact is that, leaving Fell aside, I cannot really recall any characters from these six books with the exception of the naive young American from Hag’s Nook who reappears in The Mad Hatter Mystery (the latter was probably  my favourite among these books: it is distinguished by the fact that Fell, Carr’s policeman and the young American appoint themselves as a jury at the end of the book and decide to let the murderer go free), and a couple of the comic caricatures in The Blind Barber. Fell dominates the books. So if you have a problem with Fell you will have a problem with the books. This is, I suppose, equally true of Allingham and Sayers: if you dislike Campion and Wimsey you have a problem. On the other hand it is not true of Christie and Marsh, especially the latter as there are plenty of Marsh fans who would admit that the best parts of her books are when Alleyn is off-stage. But for none of them does it apply as much as it does with Carr and Fell. And Fell exhibits all the characteristics I have discussed ; he is loud, eccentric, broad, over-the-top, right-wing, ‘merry’, childish, something of a caricature. He does not appeal to me. I hope that it will almost go without saying given what I have written that psychology is of no interest to Carr, and none of his characters have any psychological depth at all (although this is not something that I demand; not much Golden Age fiction does and it is perfectly possible to care about characters who have little psychological depth, as Christie proves repeatedly).

In summarising I hope that I have been fair in pointing out that a considerable part of my dislike for Carr’s work is a matter of personal taste: I dislike the supernatural, I find him totally unfunny, I am repelled by his politics, and am not drawn to or especially intrigued by the kinds of technical plots he writes. If you like the supernatural, find him funny, enjoy his politics and his technical plots then he would be much more palatable. But even given all this, I find him, at least in this early stage of his long and prolific career, a distinctly average writer, exemplified by a clichéd prose style and complete lack of ability to create interesting and engaging characters. As I have said before I have read some later books in his Carter Dickson guise which I have really enjoyed. But life is short and time is precious, so I think I have given all the time I want to reading and writing about the works of John Dickson Carr.

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