LOCKED ROOM TALES: John Dickson Carr, The Master

Forgive me if this post is uncomfortably long and rambling! I admit that I am trying to kill two birds with one stone (something I’m sure one of Carr’s murderers would accomplish in a suitably tricky way!) First, this begins a sporadic series about the locked-room murder, a sub-genre of mystery novel that is admittedly problematic for me. I examine it in homage to my blogging buddy JJ over at The Invisible Event. He loves impossible crimes and has inspired me to look at them anew in a series of posts I call JJ Made Me Do It.

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Secondly, I am returning to the fold of the Tuesday Club Bloggers, that esteemed group of mystery scholars who each month examine a classic crime author. We began with Agatha Christie, followed by Ellery Queen, Ngaio Marsh, Rex Stout and Dorothy Sayers. I managed one or two posts on Marsh, but even though I had read all her books and most of Stout’s, I didn’t feel I possessed the insight to write much about them. And Sayers is . . . pun intended, a mystery to me! But March is John Dickson Carr Month, and – well, first a bit of personal history:

John Dickson Carr was the third classic mystery writer to cross my teenaged path, after Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen, and I devoured the Dr. Fell novels greedily over the next ten years. Still, while I can recite passages from Christie’s novels by heart and can discuss Queen’s work with confidence, much of what I read by Carr has faded in my memory. I remember certain things: the rollicking humor mixed in with sheer melodrama, the baffling set-up, the marvelous twist endings. I can’t recall most of the devices and tricks that make up Carr’s specialty, the impossible crime, but then, quite frankly, I have always had a hard time warming up to this type of mystery. The emphasis on the “how” rather than the “who” and “why,” coupled with the tendency of some of these books to resemble advanced physics or math problems rather than literature (thereby invoking the tortures inflicted on me by Mr. Becker in high school Chemistry or “Mama” Rose – she of the glass eye and dismissive sniff – in Trigonometry) all combine to make the locked room mystery feel more like work than fun.

No, what sticks with me most as “the joys of Carr” are the stunning reversals of expectation regarding how the reader is made to view a character. Carr was every bit the master of misdirection that Christie was, although he cloaked his technique in a thicker mask of atmosphere and uncertainty. You can never tell who is good or evil in a Carr novel, who is sane and who is mad. (Carr made extraordinary use of this skill when he wrote for radio, and many of his plays for Suspense and other programs comprise some of the most chilling mysteries in radio’s history.) Because his characters tend to reveal less of themselves than, say, the inhabitants of St. Mary Mead, Carr has gotten a bad rap over his ability to create rich characters. In a recent Facebook post by Xavier Lechard, (whose excellent blog At the Villa Rose I highly recommend), he shared a review he had read of Carr’s The Hollow Man. The reviewer praised the mechanics of the crime but disparaged the characters:

“Carr fails to produce compelling characters. In many ways, even the main characters might be interchangeable, given letters for names as if the whole book were a problem in calculus of several variables. Unlike Christie, or Marsh, or Sayers, who create some compelling characters in their detective novels, Carr, at least in this outing with Dr. Fell, fails to do so.” (Bernard Norcott-Mehany, The Kansas City Public Library, 2014)

This quote ignited a spirited discussion among fans, both of Carr and of Golden Age detective fiction, about the nature of characterization in these works and of Carr’s prowess in this area in comparison to other authors, particularly Agatha Christie.

Hollow Man John Dickson Carr

The concept of characterization during a period where the puzzle element reigned supreme is an interesting one. Successful puzzle mysteries turn on reading a situation or a character incorrectly – what actually happened in the white cottage or what we have been led to expect a person is like or is capable of versus his true nature and actions – and the gift of a great mystery writer is to find a way to provide just enough information so that the reader will fall into a trap of making false assumptions. In a classic mystery, the richest characters are often the detectives, of whom such reversals are not required, although some might argue here that since a detective is not required to change, he may become less of a person and more of a collection of tics and stock phrases. I believe a great mystery writer can still create strong character portraits, even if these people serve the prime purpose of bringing a complex murder plot to life.

In an impossible crime mystery, the focus is on the first element of misreading a situation. Perhaps this makes characterization of secondary importance. In fact, some insist that, while Carr falls down on the job of characterization, he more than makes up for it in atmosphere, a far more crucial element in this sort of story. In the more superstitious times of the early 20th century, the element of horror and the supernatural could be introduced into these books as a red herring juxtaposed against the true nature of the impossible crime. A ghost floated across the snowy street. A vampire flew out the window of the locked tower room. A genie appeared, killed the Major, and then fled back into the lamp. As much as we are absolutely certain that the supernatural theories will eventually be debunked, we revel in that juicy aspect of the impossible crime.

As a reader whose prejudices favor the “reversal of character” element, I must again assert my reluctance to embrace those mysteries that focus only on the “how.” I prefer people to places, alibis to atmosphere. Not that I can’t appreciate a good ghost story! I simply am more comfortable with locked room tales that also turn on character. So, in examining Carr’s work, the question of his characters is of particular interest to me.

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For these first two weeks of March, I read two Carr novels that, for some reason, I had never gotten around to: The Three Coffins (a.k.a. The Hollow Man, 1935) and He Who Whispers (1946). Coffins regularly makes it at or near the top of “best of” lists when speaking of Carr: you can find it in the top 100 best mysteries lists for both the Crime Writers’ Association and the Mystery Writers of America. Some impossible crime fans consider it the best-locked room mystery ever written! He Who Whispers does not appear on either list, yet, far more than Coffins, it provided for me the wallop of a great whodunit as well as an example of characterization that does enormous credit to Carr. But we’ll get to that next week. Today I discuss Coffins.

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Perhaps The Three Coffins deserves the criticism leveled on Carr about character, but then this novel is all about the how. The novel deals with two impossible crimes: the murders of Professor Grimaud, an educated connoisseur of magic, and of Pierre Fley, a shabby illusionist. One crime comprises the classic locked room puzzle: two witnesses see a mysterious masked figure barge into Grimaud’s study and slam the door. A gunshot is heard, and when the locked door is broken open, Grimaud lies bleeding to death – and nobody else is in the room! Furthermore, nobody could have gotten out of the room for reasons that I will leave for you to discover. As for Fley’s murder, his is the classic impossible crime: he is shot to death before witnesses in the midst of a snowy street by what can only be described as an invisible man. Fley’s footprints are the only ones that can be spotted on the ground, yet the witnesses are sure they heard a whispery voice utter a threat before the fatal gunshot erupted.

There is a fairy tale quality to this novel. It positively gushes with atmosphere, and elements of the supernatural. It takes place in gloomy old houses and dark snowy streets of a London that seems almost ancient, and it reaches back to the bloody history and folklore of Eastern Europe. In addition, most of the case is related in retrospect by witnesses to either crime, some of whom may not be telling the entire truth, which adds to the sense of a large story unfolding. The people who make up the cast consist mostly of Professor Grimaud’s household and circle of friends, and, while Carr provides some colorful descriptions of these characters, none of them really came to life for me. They aren’t necessarily stock characters in the way that Agatha Christie tends to re-shuffle similar “types” into different scenarios. They just didn’t seem to matter as characters to me. Little discussion ensues about the relationship between each person and the victims, including the concept of motive. The focus throughout is on the impossibility of these crimes, and, while the identity of the killer comes as an interesting surprise, it pales next to the complexity of “what happened!” The truth of the matter is admittedly fascinating, (although I’m not sure it’s entirely “fair play” ), but ultimately at least half the people in the story never really needed to be there.

I know that passionate fans of Carr will choose to disagree (or agree) with me. At any rate, I would not recommend a reader new to the author to begin with this one. To be sure, those who love complex impossible crimes will ultimately revel in this one, but there is a coldness about the book for me, an over-emphasis on puzzle at the expense of other mystery elements that I happen to enjoy. The biggest delight for me here occurs in Chapter Seventeen when Dr. Fell drops all pretense of being a “real” person and directly addresses the audience in order to give his famous locked room lecture. Not only does this treatise offer fascinating insights into the methods that writers of this form employ, as well as paying homage to some of its earliest successful purveyors, including Gaston Leroux and Melville Davisson Post, but it allows the author to defend against those who dismiss locked room mysteries as a mere assemblage of tricks. I imagine that Carr is speaking through Dr. Fell here:

“When I say that a story about a hermetically sealed chamber is more interesting than anything else in detective fiction, that’s merely a prejudice. (But) a few people who do not like the slightly lurid insist on treating their preferences as rules. They use, as a stamp of condemnation, the word ‘improbable.’ And thereby they gull the unwary into their own belief that ‘improbable’ simply means ‘bad.’”

Carr reminds us that one’s preference in detective fiction is all a matter of taste:

“I like my murders to be frequent, gory, and grotesque. I like some vividness of color and imagination flashing out of my plot, since I cannot find a story enthralling solely on the grounds that it sounds as though it might really have happened.”

The author is absolutely right in insisting that we resist calling a novel “bad” just because it does not comply with our personal tastes. And I really do understand why fans of impossible crime novels have elevated The Three Coffins to such an exalted place in the Carr canon. For me, however, the pleasures He Who Whispers, a novel that more surely balances the impossible crime elements and the atmosphere with a greater emphasis on character and social history, make it a superior read.

But then, it’s all a matter of taste.

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7 thoughts on “LOCKED ROOM TALES: John Dickson Carr, The Master

  1. See, now, Brad, you had me worried! All this talk of not liking The Hollow Man, I thought you were going to say something controversial. This, on the contrary, is an excellently-written argument that – even as a massive fan of the book – I can’t help but completely agree with.

    The characters are rather cold, the focus is overbearingly on the how, and it is a very difficult book to love (compare it to the warm and witty Case of the Constant Suicides, or the rich historical setting of Fire, Burn, the fog-shrouded tower of The Mad Hatter Mystery). Part of me always wondered if this was why it kept topping those polls – it’s not even unapologetic in its plot-centricity, it just barrels on relentlessly like a rottweiler, cajoled and insulted along the way by the blustering Fell (part of me genuinely thinks that the book would collapse under the strain of everything it’s trying to do if any other sleuth tried to solve this…it’s a near-perfect match of scheme and detective).

    It’s also hilarious how few of Carr’s own books fall within the remit of the ‘locked-room lecture’…but then I guess that was probably the whole idea, right?

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  2. Agree completely – i love the glorious impossibilities of the likes of THE HOLLOW MAN / THE THREE COFFINS and THE TEN TEACUPS/PEACOCK FEATHER MYSTERY but along with SHE DIED A LADY, I think HE WHO WHISPERS is a true classic that doesn’t get enough of the love it deserves, both on the plot and characters front.

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