This month, the Tuesday Night Bloggers are celebrating the career of that master of the impossible, John Dickson Carr. Rather than discuss his technique or analyze one of his novels, I offer this existential ramble for your dubious delight:
You know, being a classic mystery lover was much easier when I was a kid. In the myriad of bookstores that lined the streets of San Francisco, the shelves were crammed with the works of dozens of Golden Age authors, from Allingham to Van Dine. The more prolific the writer, the more shelf space! Is it any wonder that this greedy twelve-year old gravitated toward those who could offer more books for my buck? How lucky for me that my three favorite authors -in order, Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, and John Dickson Carr – wrote the kind of fair play mysteries, filled with baffling plots, expert misdirection and wonderful surprise endings that I loved – and they happened to be among the most prolific of all the mystery authors. I figured that this was the way it would always be . . . until I read through Christie and Queen (haven’t finished Carr, yet, due to a preference for Gideon Fell . . . ) That’s when I started to sample other classic authors and added many to my list of “must reads” – Christianna Brand, Ngaio Marsh, Rex Stout, Dashiell Hammett, and on and on.
Look how times have changed! Walk into a bookstore – if you can find a bookstore in your community – and check the mystery shelves. All the Christies are there, in bright new paperback printings, but where are the Queens and the Carrs? Where are the Brands and the Marshes? Did Rex Stout really write only The League of Frightened Men and Fer de Lance, the only titles you can find these days? Even most of our lending libraries are short on GA mysteries. I am so grateful to the library in Burlingame, California for having the grace and sense not to discard hundred of shabby first and second edition GA novels. Yet even this fine institution has only a dozen Carr titles in its system, while there are three shelves of Christie novels for your perusal.
Which brings me to my topic for today: Agatha Christie, admittedly my favorite, is pretty much a household name today while Carr – just as prolific, arguably just as clever a plotter – is forgotten by all but we who maintain a passion for his work! He certainly cannot be classified as a “humdrum,” those even more forgotten authors listed by Julian Symons as too perfunctory in their writing for their careers to survive. Herewith, I offer five admittedly unscientific reasons to explain why Christie continues to conquer the field, while Carr has all but faded from view.
Famous author Agatha Christie Who the heck is this guy? (JDC, of course!)
Chapter One: Starting Off With a Bang!
Agatha Christie published her first book in 1920, while John Dickson Carr started exactly ten years later. Does being one of those authors who essentially started the Golden Age give her a heads up on Carr?
Well, yes, that’s arguably true, and all because of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which turned the publishing world on its head, for reasons that – well, if you don’t know, what the hell are you doing reading a mystery blog? However, when you examine Christie’s output in the 1920’s, she only published nine novels, and while they have their pleasures, none of them has become a classic on the scale of Roger Ackroyd. In fact, far too many of them are wacky thrillers rather than whodunits, and at least two of the Poirots – The Big Four and The Mystery of the Blue Train – are among the weakest. Christie fared much better during the 1930’s, producing nineteen novels, including the classics Murder on the Orient Express, The A.B.C. Murders, Death on the Nile, and arguably the greatest mystery novel of all time, And Then There Were None, as well as two Mary Westmacott romances,, six collections of short stories, a play for television a play for the West End, and three plays for radio. She introduced Miss Marple, Mr. Harley Quin, and Mr. Parker Pyne.
1930 marked Carr’s debut, and during his first decade of writing, he came up with twenty-nine novels (and one novella). Moreover, he reached the height of his powers almost immediately, producing many of the finest books of his career. Juggling two aliases and three detectives, Carr wrote Hags Nook, The Hollow Man, The Burning Court, To Wake the Dead, The Crooked Hinge, and, as Carter Dickson, The Judas Window, Death in Five Boxes, and The Reader is Warned, to name but a few. During the 1940’s, he never let up, publishing another twenty novels, as well as becoming one of the hardest-working writers of radio mysteries in both the United States (Suspense) and The United Kingdom (Appointment with Fear).
Did Carr dilute his effect on the public by using two names? I honestly don’t know. Did he write too fast, harming the quality of his output? While he displays consistent genius, Carr in the 1930’s and ‘40’s produced more clunkers than Christie. But why have the great titles disappeared along with the lesser ones? Why is it easy to head to your local Barnes and Noble and find a new copy of Christie’s banal The Clocks, yet it is impossible to locate a pristine copy of The Three Coffins, considered one of the 100 best mystery novels of all time?
Why is Christie’s legacy set – in success of publication, she surpasses all authors but the Bible and Shakespeare – while Carr’s is kept on life support by a small group of brilliant eccentrics like you and me?
Chapter Two: The Female Factor
Is it possible that publishers and/or the public see the world of classic ‘fair play’ fiction as essentially a woman’s game? More likely, do they envision the majority of readers of this genre as female and cater to that perceived audience, ignoring the male practitioners of the craft? Let’s be honest – the classic whodunit has fallen out of favor today, perhaps with readers, and certainly with publishers. The crowning of Christie, Sayers, Tey and Allingham as the Queens of Crime has ensured these four a continued shelf life. The rest, including incredibly prolific authors like Ngaio Marsh, Gladys Mitchell and Patricia Wentworth, have disappeared along with the men. In their place stand the psychological mysteries of everyone from Val McDermid to Tana French, the tortured detectives of P.D. James, Elizabeth George, and Ruth Rendell, and all those hard-boiled private eyes. If you are looking for classic male mystery authors on modern bookstore shelves, at least in America, you’ll find the ones who wrote hard-boiled fiction – Hammett, Chandler, the McDonalds (John D. and Ross, never Philip), and Jim Thompson. You’ll also find a huge selection of femme noir and female private eyes, including Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky. It’s quite frustrating for we fans of classic GA fiction to witness this seismic shift in public interest, one that results in preventing access to dozens of lesser known writers we’re bound to enjoy but also to major writers like Carr. We look for heroes in the literary world to bring access back to us! We can be grateful to mystery scholars like Martin Edwards (The Golden Age of Murder), Douglas Greene (to whom we are indebted for Crippen and Landru, as well as a definitive biography of Carr: John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles) and Curtis Evans (Masters of the Humdrum Mystery, The Spectrum of English Murder) who have, through their work, tried to balance the obsessive attention paid to classic women mystery writers with an examination of the fine work by mostly overlooked or forgotten male authors and to renewing interest in, and access to, forgotten male and female authors.
Chapter Three: Ready for Your Close-Up, Mr. Suchet
It took 25 years from the start of Christie’s career to produce a first class film adaptation, Rene Clair’s And Then There Were None (1945). Then came 1947’s Love From a Stranger and 1957’s Witness for the Prosecution. With the production of the stylistically buffoonish but highly entertaining Miss Marple series of the 1960’s starring Margaret Rutherford, the momentum of the volume of films based on Christie’s work picked up speed, culminating in the sumptuously produced (with A-list casts) versions of Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, and Evil Under the Sun. Television proved even more adoring of Christie’s novels and stories, causing her name to flash on the screen in millions of households, even those whose shelves had never held one of her books. And one could argue that the television work was, in many respects, even better than the movies.
And what about Carr? According to a great discussion I found on mysteryfile.com, (which you can read here) a measly four film adaptations of Carr’s work were made. None of these included Dr. Fell or Sir Henry Merrivale, although you have to wonder if there’s an equivalent to David Suchet or Joan Hickson in the acting world who could play either sleuth. The discussion went on to suggest the difficulties inherent in putting a locked room mystery on the screen, as well as the general apathy British producers have felt toward Carr, an American writer. (And American producers seem to shy away from classic British sleuths, unless they can relocate Sherlock Holmes to 21st century New York, or propose a series about a young and sexy Miss Marple solving crimes in the Wild West.) The article ends on a hopeful note, with a promise that Carr’s grandchildren were in talks to try and get their grandfather’s work onto television – perhaps on PBS’ Mystery series. But the article was written in 2005! Somewhere along the line, the plan has hit a snag.
Chapter Four: How Many Words Does a Word Count Count?
I’m not sure anyone will see this as a compliment, but Agatha Christie is, frankly, easier to read than John Dickson Carr, whose prose can rise and fall on waves of melodramatic excess. And when you combine an easy reading style with a truly complex plotting mind . . . heck, even teachers have included Christie in their curriculum as a way to attract reluctant young readers to the fold. I give Christies out every year to the winners of my Classic Mystery Play contest in Drama class. I myself have re-read almost every Christie many times and always find something new to enjoy. But figure this: I was eleven years old, bright but not that special, when I started reading her. Yes, Carr soon followed, but it’s Christie with whom I bonded especially. I wonder whether part of this is because it was easier to “get” her at that tender age. Even today, I find some of Carr’s prose almost stultifying. There are bad Christie plots, for sure, but even the worst usually contains prose that is breezy and entertaining. You can’t discount easy access as a selling point!
Chapter Five: Why Don’t You Just Open the Door, Dr. Fell?
Finally, one has to question the wisdom of an author who specializes exclusively in one form of mystery fiction. There’s a downside to being the best locked room mystery writer of all time (which I think Carr was), and that’s the veritable sameness one tends to find in his work – particularly if one is not especially drawn to this type of crime story (as I am not). There are funny Carrs and moody Carrs, complex Carrs and even more complex Carrs. Yet I could not name a title offhand for you that does not center its mystery on the method. It might be that the number of fans of the impenetrable doorway or the pristine snow bank have not sustained their numbers enough to maintain Carr’s popularity enough for re-publication. Perhaps, young people eager to solve an impossible puzzle are turning to their PS3s for more interactive, fast-paced brainteasers than a Dr. Fell mystery can deliver.
Intellectual pursuits, like reading, have fallen out of favor, we all know. As a lover of art, literature and music whose tastes have always been completely and hopelessly out of fashion, I can relate to anyone’s frustration over the lack of availability of Carr titles. Perhaps the efforts of scholars and bloggers will help. Perhaps the growth of the e-book industry will continue to afford access, as old titles appear with some frequency through the emergence of small presses that are republishing old GA titles – although it’s rather ominous that several of these, like The Murder Room, are closing their doors. My friends in this community who are authors can speak more knowingly about the changing face of the publishing world and what it bodes for the classic mystery. I hope my humble efforts here will help to stir up interest. I can’t say I have dozens of friends knocking on my door, asking for recommendations about which Carr or Queen title to start with. Still, if any should inquire, I have some very juicy answers waiting for them.