THE FORGOTTEN GENIUS, or Where Did I Park My Carr?

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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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21 thoughts on “THE FORGOTTEN GENIUS, or Where Did I Park My Carr?

  1. Interesting post as always. I agree that the complexity of Carr’s writing style and lack of adaptations have meant he has been forgotten more easily. This latter aspect was something I discussed with a friend a while ago and I think the main reason we came up with for the lack of adaptations was down to how complicated the plots are, making them harder to transfer to the screen. Though in my opinion The Case of the Constant Suicides would make a good TV drama.

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    1. I think Carr would benefit from the same treatment that British TV gave Miss Marple the first time around, taking its time to be faithful to the plots of the original novels. But it seems the British do not embrace Carr (so why DID they embrace Elizabeth George and create an inferior series?) and American TV will NEVER do something like that. I think we’re up a creek unless PBS’ Mystery takes an interest, which it evidently does not.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. So…many…points…to…make…! However, a very thorough analysis, Brad, an raising some excellent points: I tend to be dismissive of how the Christie TV adaptations chop and change the characters, plot, murderer, motivation, and method to the point of it being an entirely different story, but they doubtless play a part in her print availability.

    Also, Jonathan Creek did complex impossibilities wonderfully on TV, so it can be done…maybe the BBC should invest in some JDC before resurrecting JC for another disappointing go around…

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    1. Is there talk of resurrecting JC??? I own what I BELIEVE is the entire series, and I was a big fan. I agree that this sort of show suggests that locked room is doable on TV!

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      1. I’m not aware of any talk, I was just making a comparison. Indeed, after the latest abominations, it is to be hoped that Jonathan Creek is never seen again.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. A very interesting post. Those are all excellent points.

    If I could add something, it would be this: Personally I think one of the reasons Christie has endured is because of her characters. She created two of the most memorable characters in mystery fiction: Poirot and Marple. If you hear those names, you can picture the characters immediately. They might be a bit weird, but they are still loveable.

    In comparison Carr’s characters are not that appealing. His detectives tend to be a bit annoying, You are not quite sure whether you are supposed to take them seriously. Is the author himself taking them seriously? They are larger than life and loud and eccentric, but this eccentricity can become off-putting. You just want to reign them in a little bit after they have been rambling on for pages. Christie usually managed to balance the weird with the ordinary while Carr sometimes might be just too weird for general audiences. It has often been said, that Merrivale and Fell are interchangeable, but for me most of Carr’s characters are just not very memorable. While he was a master of plotting and atmosphere he really wasn’t very good with characters. And I believe the majority of readers is willing to forgive a mediocre plot as long as they can relate to the characters. It is really difficult to imagine Carr writing a book like “Curtain” where he would let Merrivale or Fell age and die, because there would be no point to it. They feel too much like buffoons (though brilliant ones) to become tragic figures.

    To be fair Carr has tried to go with the times. I think “The Nine Wrong Answers” is a book that could’ve easily been written by Christie, it’s more modern are more accessible than his usual output. It’s just not awfully well-known. And maybe had he lived longer and had he not been hampered by illness he might have successfully adapted to a new kind of mystery.

    It’s disapointing to hear that nothing has come of the film adaptations.I don’t know, maybe someone like Timothy Spall could play a convincing Gideon Fell on TV. They could do a mini-series like Sherlock, adapting three different cases for a season.

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    1. Thanks for the great reply, Ravenking! I tend to agree with you on all counts, but I have to admit that I know Christie’s novels so well – at least, so much better than Carr’s, having read most of them innumerable times – that I can spot nuances of character that a more casual reader may say I’m imagining! People may also complain that someone like Poirot was a mass of tics and mannerisms (I think Christie alludes to this herself when she has Mrs. Oliver complain about the Finnish detective she created), but Poirot comes to life for me far better than Fell or Merrivale. I think that the latter was most often played for laughs by Carr, while Fell went up and down, losing a lot of his comic steam as that series progressed. Still, neither detective ever came to life for me the way Poirot or Marple did.

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  4. This has very little to do with this (quite interesting!) analysis, but…I was under the assumption that Marsh was considered one of the Queens of Crime (for reasons that I don’t totally get), while Tey was more unknown. Might be misremembering though.

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    1. I don’t think you’re wrong, Dark One. I think Marsh IS one of the Queens, but I have seen Tey lumped in there occasionally. Marsh was certainly more prolific and, I dare say, popular.

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      1. Let the record show that I don’t totally understand why Marsh is so popular. 😛 (Albeit I have read very little of her work, but nothing I’ve read has really inspired me.)

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  5. a measly four film adaptations of Carr’s work were made

    Five, in fact, if you include Treacherous Crossing (1992 TVM), a second adaptation of Cabin B-13. It’s by no means bad, There are also some non-anglophone TVMs and even a few miniseries.

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  6. Carr/Dickson was the better prose stylist. He was not only the pre-eminent master of the locked room/miracle mystery, but he was proficient at creating atmosphere (numerous peers and critics have commented on this).

    And I disagree about the detectives. Poirot is a bore and a prig, and his Watson is strictly vanilla generic. OTOH, both Supt.Hadley (Dr. Fell’s foil) and Inspector Humphrey masters are forces in their own right. Hey, sometimes Master’s explanations although ultimately wrong would have served a lesser mystery-monger than Carr as the solution. But Carr’s ingenuity in the ’30s and the first part of the ’40s was so fertile he wastes a couple of perfectly good explanations through the foils before his Fell or H.M. would give the “real” solution. Nobody else did this, certainly not for as long as Carr did.

    Carr wrote the unequaled historical mystery with The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey. Also, his derring-do historical mystery-romances are very good reads, substituting adventure and action for convoluted mystery.

    Carr had wit and an elaborate comic/farcical sense.

    I think a reassessment of Carr’s achievement is in order.

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    1. I approved your comment because I believe that healthy dissent is good for bloggers. Any fan like me, who might become arrogant or self-righteous in their beliefs, needs to hear alternate points of view. Moreover, dismissing a world-famous sleuth as “a bore and a prig” on a blog dedicated to celebrating him and his author takes guts and is fine by me. Christie herself agreed with you and came to despise HP. I myself like the little guy just fine.

      What puzzled me is the sense I got from your response that we disagreed on how great Carr is. So I re-read this post and, sure enough, all I see is praise for Carr and a shared frustration with other fans at the lack of availability of his books.

      So when I read you final line stating that “a reassessment of Carr’s achievement is in order”, it struck me that you missed the point of this post which had nothing to do with saying one author is better than another and everything to do with wondering why one author continues to be published and one does not.

      I don’t profess to anything more than guesswork her, but I think I made some pretty intelligent guesses. You are more than welcome to disagree with my analysis, but the question we’re discussing here is why a truly great writer like Carr is not getting republished. I am interested in hearing any theories on the matter you have to offer, Ted.

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      1. Often, after an author’s heyday, he’s forgotten, or neglected, temporarily. It was that way, for instance, with Thurber for a while. For one thing, late Thurber was seen by some as misogynistic. He didn’t fit the PC Zeitgeist. But, after a while, people have come to remember what he was really good at, not that period when he was in his dotage (or something like that) and was that old grandpa expressing loudly embarrassing opinions at the family get-together dinner table. He became judged by his best again–not by that other stuff. Same with the great and once very popular comic novelist (in my opinion America’s greatest strictly comic novelist) Peter De Vries. Me and others have worked hard over the last ten or fifteen years to expound on his positive attributes at Amazon and other places. He’s starting to come back in vogue.

        Same with Carr. Unlike Christie, who is great, he doesn’t have a tailor-made Tea-Party/Move-On cadre of movers and shakers who will go to the wall for him. Of course, there are the few that have never yet experienced a period where the reading public gives them the back of their hand. Wodehouse and, I guess, Christie, are two recent prominent examples. They’re lucky. They are the exceptions. But, hey, our assessment of even Mark Twain has changed and grown in ways not contemplated when he was alive.

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  7. I agree with you about Twain, on whom I did my senior thesis. We never discussed the socio-political ramifications of his writing. A few years ago, I had to face this first hand, teaching Huck Finn and trying to prepare modern students for his language and world view. At the end, one of my best students, an African American woman, said that with all due respect she wished we hadn’t read this book and proceeded to lay out some powerful arguments why. This doesn’t mean I don’t think Huck Finn should be read or taught, but we have to deal with a whole new generation’s perception of him.

    I do think there’s a small but intelligent group of mystery fans who would move mountains to get Carr back on the bookstore shelves. From what I understand, some of the problem stems from the family. If not, we’re dealing with a very difficult publishing market that considers Carr and his ilk “niche” work. The growing resurgence of popularity of GAD fiction will HOPEFULLY change that. But right now it centers in the U.K., and they seem to have always been prickly about Carr, an American. So we’re getting the return of long forgotten British authors like Punshon and John Rhode, while Carr’s superior work languishes in the nether sphere! 😦

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      1. John, this is an opinion on some Carr site as a possible explanation of why Carr is not being published today. I could very well be totally wrong. I know that my British logging friends love car every bit as much if not more than me.

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