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Culture: John Dickson Carr - Master of the Locked Room Mystery
Thursday, 30 November 2006 Written by Alexander G. Rubio
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The internet is a wonderful invention, allowing instant access to more information and entertainment than anyone could digest in a lifetime. But the lack of it, in a time that now seems like ancient history, but is barely a decade for most, did have its advantages. One of those advantages was that it forced you to interact with that earlier, and in some respects still superior, medium of communication, the book.

Back in the late 70s - early 80s, if you were genuinely sick, or just faking it, and got to spend the school day home in bed, or propped up on the couch, there really wasn't that much to do. Ubiquitous video rental was still a few years off. There were all of three channels on the telly, and during mornings and early afternoons, those three broadcast a test picture, or at best that riveting precursor to present day reality TV, live transmission from a gold-fish bowl. And the world wide web was hardly a twinkle in Tim Berners-Lee's eye.

John Dickson Carr
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So there I was, bored out of my gourd, with nothing to do, and no going to the library for something featuring dinosaurs. I'd have to make do with the books on the shelves in the living room.

Most all of them were hardbacks with very nondescript imitation leather bindings. So I ended up trying a volume by a chap called John Dickson Carr almost by random. I've made more than my share of flip of the coin, spur of the moment decisions in my time that turned out rather badly. This was not one of them. I was sick that day. I faked it the next.

John Dickson Carr was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, in the United States on November 30, 1906. But he was, like his compatriot, the poet T.S. Eliot, one of those Anglophile Americans who jumped the pond and became "more Catholic than the Pope", or "more English than G.K. Chesterton".

While attending Hill School and Haverford College, he immersed himself in the adventure novels of Alexandre Dumas and Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, as well as stories of the macabre and mysterious, such as the ghost stories of Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, and even the pulp phantasmagoria of H.P. Lovecraft.

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Following a rather still-born turn as a student, he briefly went to Paris. He had been writing stories for some time. And upon his return he published his first novel, "It Walks by Night" (1930), featuring the detective Henri Bencolin of the Surete.

In 1932 he married and English woman, Clarice Cleaves, and settled there in 1933. And now he began his most creative and prolific period, churning out novels and short stories featuring the nigh on obese anti-Sherlock Holmes detective in a floppy hat, Dr. Gideon Fell, evidently modelled on Carr's icon, G. K. Chesterton.

So prolific was he in fact, that he had to invent an alias, Carter Dickson, who wrote stories featuring another rotund detective, Sir Henry Merrivale (H.M. for short), a figure not unlike Winston Churchill, so as not to accused of being a mere cookie-cutter author. For a while he was actually suspected of being the pseudonym of another prolific writer, P.G. Wodehouse, of "Jeeves and Wooster" fame.

He stands as one of the great masters of the golden age of English detective novel, and adhered strictly to the rule of fair play towards the reader. No vital clue, available to the protagonist, should be hidden from the reader. By the end the readers should have all the information needed to unravel the crime on their own.

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He was also the undisputed master of the sub-genre of the mystery of the locked room (though an actual room need not be involved). A murder has been committed. But every fact says that it couldn't have been done.

In one of his masterpieces, "The Hollow Man" (1935, also published under the title "The Three Coffins"), a man is not only murdered inside a room, that is locked from the inside, with no obvious exits for the likely assassin, who was seen entering, but another is killed at close quarters, surrounded by an empty expanse of pristine snow, not a foot print in sight.

"Let there be a spice of terror," John Dickson Carr wrote, "of dark skies and evil things." His Romantic sensibilities populated his books with hints of vampires, ghosts, and people being buried alive. It's no wonder one of his finest short stories features Edgar Allan Poe as the hero.

But in the final analysis, when the detective holds court on the final pages of the book, and explains how the impossible crime was committed, the light of reason blows away the cobwebs and reveals a perfectly rational explanation for how the deed was done. That is, there are one or two exceptions, one being the novel I came across that day when home sick from school, "The Burning Court", which is still, to my mind, one of the finest mystery novels ever written. As in the other books, you're given all the clues, and a logically coherent resolution to the mystery, only to have the whole thing thrown into doubt again at the very end.

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During the war years he worked for the BBC, doing propaganda work. But he also wrote a number of radio plays, some of which are true classics of their kind, though the format, where dialogue is burdened with a lot of physical description, arguably was a detrimental influence on his prose.

But by the end of the war, the England, and the world, that Carr, the Romantic conservative, loved, was fading away. In 1948 he and his English wife moved back to the United States. And though they returned following the Tory victory in the 1951 elections, the spirit that had animated his burst of creativity in the pre-war years, had faded too.

In this later period he alternated writing contemporary detective novels with historical mysteries and romances, of wildly varying quality, such as the smashing 17th century swashbuckler "The Devil In Velvet" (1951).

This retreat into the past might not be by chance, as Kingsley Amis mused when writing about Carr in The Times Literary Supplement on the 6th of June 1981.
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There may or may not be a link between the traditional detective story and the pre-war world, but there can be no doubt that, after the final departure of that world, Carr showed a loss of energy and imagination in the Dr. Fell and H M tales and others with contemporary settings. Nor can it have been of matter of whim that between 1950 and 1972, the year of his last novel, he spent half his time writing historical romances.

Never quite finding peace with the modern world, Carr moved restlessly from London to Tangier to Mamaroneck, New York, before finally settling in Greenville, South Carolina, where he died on February 27th, 1977.

As inevitably is the case with such a prolific writer as Carr, there is a fair share of dross sprinkled throughout his bibliography. But at the heights of his powers he produced some mystery novels that few, if anyone, have ever surpassed.

If you can get your hands on one, or more, of his now mostly out of print books, there are few experiences more congenial than to sit, propped up on a couch, or in a comfy chair, with a hot cup of chocolate, reading John Dickson Carr, whether you're ill or not.