Get ready, folks! The tension is mounting! April nears, and JJ (The Invisible Event) and I are about to get hot and heavy with our two favorite mystery authors: Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr. After intense polling that involved thousands of mystery fans – okay, maybe thirty? – the top novels by each author have been voted upon. For Christie, the title of choice (and it’s a great choice) is 1937’s Death on the Nile. And for Carr, I couldn’t be happier with the top vote getter: 1946’s He Who Whispers, easily one of my favorites. I can’t begin to tell you what exciting discussions are about to ensue!! (Well, I really can’t tell you . . . er, certain details . . . um, stuff to work out . . . uh, I’ll get back to you . . . )
Meanwhile, over at Past Offenses, Rich Westwood, who hosts a group examination of the crime fiction of a different year every month as one of the choice features of his excellent blog, has chosen for March the year 1937 precisely because JJ suggested that 1937 is the greatest year of the Golden Age. This presents me with a wonderful opportunity. And before you remind me that, Hey! Death on the Nile was published in ’37, I want to tell you that I’m saving Nile for April. But there is another book to examine from 1937, and it is one of Carr’s most intriguing novels: The Burning Court.
Here’s the thing, though: talking about this book in any detail is extremely challenging. How does one discuss Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or Ellery Queen’s Ten Days Wonder without risking too much spoilage? Even asking that question poses a risk, and it became riskier when I realized how much fun it would be – perhaps in practice for April’s challenge – to compare Carr’s novel to Christie’s first alleged masterpiece, Roger Ackroyd. Therefore, while I won’t reveal the actual ending to either novel, I caution neophytes to one or both titles to proceed cautiously.
One of the most intriguing things I realized when I began to think through my comparison is that these two authors that I consider the very best of the best are really nothing alike in terms of method, style, and professional biography. Perhaps this is why so many people strongly prefer one over the other. Perhaps this is why I value JJ’s friendship in the blogosphere, for even as he puts Carr at Number One and I place Christie there, we actually agree quite strongly on the mastery of both. We may not heap equal praise on certain titles, but we see celebrate the collective greatness of both authors and acknowledge their key contributions to a genre we love in nearly every post we write, even if their names remain unspoken.
Whew! I have some nerve speaking for you, JJ. Forgive me. Moving on.
We begin with, essentially, a typical middle class British girl and an ordinary American boy. Both of them have gobbled up fiction, including mystery stories, all their lives, and both are inspired to try their own hand at writing one of their own.
For Christie, it meant taking up the challenge made by her sister to write a mystery novel just like the ones that were currently being published. That initial impulse did not include the desire to push boundaries. From her Autobiography:
“I could, of course, have a very unusual kind of murder for a very unusual motive, but that did not appeal to me artistically. The whole point of a good detective story was that it must be somebody obvious but at the same time, for some reason, you would then find that it was not obvious, that he could not possibly have done it. Though really, of course, he had done it.”
And that is exactly what Christie created in 1920 with The Mysterious Affair at Styles: the epitome of the country home murder, with a striking detective and enough twists to show her to be an author to be reckoned with.
Carr, on the other hand, had no interest in the “comedy of manners” form of mystery that Christie and her ilk had created. In his marvelous biography, The Man Who Explained Miracles, Douglas Greene relates Carr’s childhood reading, which veered toward the fantastical: L. Frank Baum’s Oz novels, stories of espionage and adventure by the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson, Sax Rohmer and John Buchan, and those mystery writers, like Jacques Futrelle and G.K. Chesterton, whose tales focused on miracle crimes. Carr was drawn to the fantastic and the macabre, and his debut novel, It Walks by Night, with its ghastly impossible murders and hints of a werewolf at large, showed readers right off the bat the sort of stories he intended to tell.
Within six years of her debut, Agatha Christie had published exactly – six novels, three of them featuring her primary sleuth, Hercule Poirot. One has to ask what we might have made of her career had Christie not written The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in 1926. There is nothing to suggest as one reads through this novel that it will be anything but a standard village mystery. This is what Christie had set out to write at the start of her career, although half her output thus far could more easily be described as thrillers rather than standard whodunits. She hadn’t really defined herself as anything special, to be honest. Ackroyd would change all that because it broke one of the big rules. Yet this rule had already been broken by others, and even by Christie herself. This time, however, it was done brilliantly, and it elevated a fairly ordinary domestic tale into a classic.
Carr’s first seven years as a writer were markedly different. First, nobody can say the guy wasn’t prolific, with twenty novels written between 1930 and 1937. During that time spent honing his skills as a writer, Carr created three detectives, two of whom would follow him to the end of his long career. He also produced at least a half dozen titles that rank among the best of his career. And this early period culminated with a book that is, in essence, Carr’s Roger Ackroyd, a novel that shattered one of the rules of detective fiction. It was inspired, interestingly, by a complaint from his British publisher, Hamish Hamilton, about the fantastical quality that Carr had embraced from the beginning. Hamilton wrote:
“There is a large section of the public which fights shy of anything which is so grotesque as to seem unreal, or perhaps I should say, unlikely to happen in ordinary life. Why not try the experiment some time of taking a perfectly usual situation and exercising your ingenuity on that?”
As Doug Greene recounts, Carr actually felt he was doing this very thing with the move away from the “satanic” sleuth Bencolin. Yet the author must have seen in these words a challenge, and it served to inspire perhaps the most audacious effort of his career. The Burning Court would take rise from the most ordinary of circumstances, of a dull publisher’s assistant named Ted Stevens, who takes the train home to his ordinary Pennsylvania suburb to have dinner with his loving wife. In his briefcase is the manuscript of a history of female poisoners, and when he peruses the illustrations that accompany the book, he finds one of a long dead killer who exactly resembles his own, very much alive and youthful, wife!
At first, this seems like a fantastical diversion, for the real story is about the man’s neighbor, who recently died of gastro-enteritis. But that “natural death” is quickly revealed to be a murder, and that murder involves mysterious visitors who walk through walls and corpses that disappear from sealed vaults. You know, typical Carr stuff! Yet while the victim’s family comes under immediate suspicion, the fact that a murder by poison has been committed next door to a woman who resembles an ancient poisoner, things start to look bad for Ted Stevens’ wife, Marie.
People picking up Roger Ackroyd or Burning Court for the first time and beginning to read would no doubt have figured that they were embarking on a typical voyage with a favorite author. Christie’s novel employs standard British types: the manufacturer and his clinging relatives, the military man ill at ease in civilian life, the village doctor and his gossipy sister, assorted secretaries and servants. There is a past crime in the background and a series of clues at and around the murder scene that employ Poirot’s grey cells.
Over in Pennsylvania, Carr has eschewed the fantastical setting of an Arabian Museum, or an island of spies, or the craziness that was The Hollow Man, but most readers probably did not blink at the suggestion of the supernatural in The Burning Court. Magic and the unknown permeate Carr’s work; what’s different here is that the rumor of witches has entered the suburbs, and the uneasy co-mixture of the macabre and the banal is especially unsettling. Carr takes his time building up the possibility that, maybe this time, something unearthly is afoot. The problem with this possibility is that it eliminates both the true magic that Carr performs when he finds a rational explanation for all the “impossible” events that have occurred and that his explanation restores the social and moral order of his fictional society, which is what Golden Age detective fiction is supposed to do.
Carr does not disappoint in that way: he provides a rational truth in the very nick of time, and it’s a goodie. The solution is both surprising and inevitable, the way a good solution should be. As Greene tells us, Carr “often pointed out that the human horrors can be infinitely worse than anything produced by ghosts or vampires.” However, I will say that the reveal, where the detective explains all, is upset by an interesting and rare event that does quite a bit to shatter our complacency. And Carr hasn’t even started. That’s when things get crazy . . . and here’s where I let the veil of silence descend upon the rest.
Christie and Carr angered a multitude of fans, who labeled their respective works “subversive” and, even worse, “unfair.” I would argue that, as long an author is true to him/herself, how can one complain. Christie is certainly playing fair as only Christie can: she gives you every clue you need to figure out the truth, and it’s not her fault if we bring pre-conceived notions of how the game ought to be played. The author sets the rules and abides by them. As for Carr . . . well, he told us from the start what sort of writer he wanted to be! Even Hamish Hamilton’s scolding could not deter the author from playing by his own rules. He gave the publisher the “ordinary” setting he wanted, but he insisted on crafting something unusual and extraordinary from it. So go ahead: read the book and then cry, “Cheat! Cheat!” – just as soon as you have picked up your jaw off the floor.