Recently, I had the pleasure of listening to three blogger pals discuss John Dickson Carr on the podcast that two of them host on a bimonthly basis. Dan, of The Reader Is Warned, is an artist, and JJ, of The Invisible Event, is a mathematician, so between them they brought a lively blend of stats and pizzazz to the affair. But it was their guest Ben, The Green Capsule himself, who journeyed overseas armed with that brash American spirit and lay the course for an intriguing breakdown of Carr’s career into various periods and phases. Over the steady thrum of folks coming in and out of the British Library, the three raconteurs delighted fellow fans with their insights and opinions on Carr’s methods and style.
Of course, it could have been better – if I had been sitting there with them. Not that I would have contributed much – each man carries more Carr-ian knowledge in his little finger than I have crammed in the form of tiny notes on many pads of paper which I then locked into a safe and spread fine white sand all around the floor. But I could have provided an insight here and a bon mot there and pretty much sat back and eaten the scones. Well, if they were gluten free, I could have eaten the scones.
Actual picture of JJ, Dan and Ben at BL (I’ve photoshopped myself in at left)
As an educator, who sees his students locked into their phones, my relationship with technology is ambivalent. Yet one of the things for which I am extremely grateful to the internet is that it has provided a locus for GAD fans to congregate and share ideas and opinions. Because aside from this, I have nobody to talk to about all things mysterious. And that has been going on for a long time.
When I was a lonely young GAD fan, it was my good fortune to find particular joy with mystery writers of some prolificacy. Agatha Christie – sixty-six novels! John Dickson Carr – seventy-one novels. Ellery Queen – a little more controversial, given the ghost writing at the end, but somewhere around thirty. Ngaio Marsh – thirty-four novels. Thanks to the contributions of fellow members of this blogging community and the wonderful GAD Facebook group, I have run down the leads of other prolific authors, E.R. Punshon, John Rhode, Christopher Bush among them, but so far, no real luck!
Thus, I plunge hopefully onward, but as I do, I always return to the authors I grew up loving. Right now, I have plans in motion to revisit two writers whose work I devoured at an early age but whom I think I can get much more. Christianna Brand wrote only ten mystery novels, and having read them long ago I figure I can plumb greater depths in re-reading them as a grown-up. Even more exciting is the prospect of returning to Patrick Quentin, whose work I only touched upon (six novels featuring Peter and Iris Duluth.) I want to reread that series but also look at his other works. Thanks to the efforts of Curtis Evans, I have a guide to many newly republished titles. Wikipedia lists nearly forty and, given the shift in authorial responsibility and five aliases, I’m sure there are different “periods” to consider there.
Wherever my reading tastes – assisted by the local used bookstores and availability on Kindle – lead me, my heart will always belong to Christie, Carr, and Queen, the authors who nourished me through childhood and kindled (no pun intended) my love of classic mysteries. I love to think about them, to ponder their work and their processes. And I would love to discuss them with other people – if only there were other people around!
Can you blame me then for feeling so envious of JJ, Ben, and Dan for the incredible time they had at the British Library, holding each other in thrall to all things Carr-ian? Ben’s division of Carr’s career into eras resonated with me. Francis M. Nevins, who has made a deep study of Ellery Queen’s career, offered a clear division of his/their oeuvre which I have pretty much always accepted as gospel, largely because it makes sense to me, despite some recent dissent from other voices (all of whom I respect as highly knowledgeable in this field.)
Can anyone explain this division to me?
Trying to divide Agatha Christie’s sixty-six mystery novels into periods or categories may amount to nothing more than scholastic balderdash. Yet the exercise appeals to me, and I can’t help but offer that any form of rumination can lead to insight. I’m just not sure on what basis to do this. I offer several possibilities:
There’s a distinct shift in Christie’s work across the span of years. Superficially, this has to do with quality: like any career author, she simply got better at what she did. Yet I also see a clear shift in approach to the genre throughout five distinctive epochs:
- 1920 – 1929: The Epoch of Promise
- 1930 – 1938: Christie’s “Golden Age” of Puzzle Plotting
- 1939 – 1950: The Epoch of Maturity – to my mind her richest and best period
- 1951 – 1964: The Epoch of Loosening Up
- 1965 – 1973: Dotage
Leaving issues of quality aside, there are factors galore to explore here: the difference in perspective of a beginning author with an experienced, revered one, and then with an elderly one; the changing in writing style from the Doyle-influenced early years to a style that was semantically simpler but richer in characterization and societal perspective; the graph chart showing Christie’s slow perfection of the pure puzzle, which then tapers off to a more psychologically-based approach; the flashes of wit and meta-play, not nearly as sustained or proficient as in Carr, but interesting nevertheless. Yes, there’s a lot to play with in a chronological approach.
Using the divisions Ben came up with for Carr, how does Christie fare? With one exception, the novels featuring Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple are clear whodunits (the exception is 1927’s The Big Four, a cobbling together of short stories featuring Poirot battling an unconvincing international conspiracy to take over the world.) Colonel Race and Superintendent Battle each solved a murder mystery on their own, and four of the eleven stand-alone novels classify as whodunits. That makes fifty whodunits. Only one of these is an historical mystery. The remaining sixteen novels can be loosely classified together as thrillers. Most of the 100+ short stories Christie wrote are straight-on detection, but some of them, notably the Parker Pyne stories, have thrillerish elements, and Christie also explored her love of the supernatural in a whole slew of these, often with indifferent results.
This may be the least promising premise because, compared to Carr, I fear Christie doesn’t fare so well. However, there is another way to divide the categories and, for want of a better term, we’ll call it . . .
Thirty-three novels featured Hercule Poirotand one of the short story collections, The Labours of Hercules, can almost be counted as a 34thsince it has a brilliant conceit and coheres to a certain extent from first story to last. Twelve of the novels starred Miss Jane Marple. Again, we can add a 13thwith The Tuesday Club Murders, which was the sleuth’s debut to the public, has an even more elaborate framing device, and offers a rich picture of the central inhabitants of St. Mary Mead in the late 20’s-early.
Four novels and one fine set of interconnected stories featured Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. This collection must be considered when discussing the Beresfords because it is arguably their best performance in a long yet sporadically visited career. There are certainly detective elements to their tales: all of them involve the unmasking of a hidden foe, and the short stories actually serve as tributes to various early sleuths. But the Beresford novels are really thrillers, connected in some way to their war work, and though these usually feature hidden villains, they are loosely plotted and haphazardly clued.
I admired the way the Men Who Explain Miracles provided a differentiation between the Dr. Gideon Fell novels and those featuring Sir Henry Merrivale. I suggest significant contrasts in Christie’s approach to plotting depending on the sleuth she uses. Even her stand-alones offer fascinating insights. True, some of this latter set represent the author’s weakest efforts, but we also have some remarkable books that showcase Christie’s experimental nature: And Then There Were None (the most successful published mystery novel of all time), The Pale Horse and Endless Night.
Here, then, is my question: does any of this interest anyone else? Because the truth is that while I can write about anything I like, I do not like ruminating in a vacuum. If any aspect of what I’ve written here is of interest to others, I would really like to hear from you. My students won’t believe me if I say this, but I really don’t do what I do just to hear myself talk. I’m interested in starting a conversation.
Anyone out there with me?