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J(ohn) D(ickson) Carr
Pseudonyms Carr Dickson, Carter Dickson, Roger Fairbairn
American-born writer of detective fiction,
whose work is considered among the best in the genre. J.D. Carr's
was ”locked-room” puzzle, an impossible crime, which he developed into
its limits. He published
about 80 mystery novels. Fifty of them featured one of his three
- Henri Bencolin, Dr. Gideon Fell, and
Sir Henry Merrivale.
"His face, as ruddy as a furnace, radiated that sort of geniality which as a rule made him tower in heartening comfort like Old King Cole. Gideon Fell, Miles knew, was an utterly kind-hearted, utterly honest, completely absent-minded and scatter-brained man whose best hits occured half through absent-mindedness." (from He Who Whispers, 1941)
John Dickson Carr was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, the son
Julia M. (Kisinger) Carr and Wooda Nicholas Carr, a Pennsylvania lawyer
and an activist in Democratic politics, who served a term in Congress.
Carr was educated at the Hill School and Haverford College. His first
published detective stories appeared in the college magazine. He
claimed that he would not have trouble with plots because he have
had 120 complete plots outlined, for emergencies, since he was eleven
still at school, Carr began to contribute sports stories to a local
newspaper, but he also covered murder trials. "They sent me to a school
and university with the idea of turning me into a barrister like my
father. But I wanted to write detective stories. I don't mean that I
wanted to write great novels, or any nonsense like that! I mean that I
simply damn well wanted to write detective stories."
continued his studies at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he plunged into
bohemian life and wrote his first novel, an historical adventure story,
which he later destroyed. In 1932 he married Clarice Cleaves, whom he
had met on an ocean voyage, and settled in England. With
Clarice he had three children. Carr was not a very faithful
husband, and he had affairs with other women. In his new home country
he became so devoted an Anglophile, that he was often considered a
British writer. During his New York period (1930-1933) Carr made
frequent trips to England and the Continent, and also went to Africa
For a period Carr wrote scripts for the popular BBC mystery
'Appointment with Fear', starring the Man in Black, Mr. Valentine
Dyall. In 'Cabin B-13', a
30 minutes C.B.S. show, the narrator was Dr. Fabian (Arnold Moss), who
lived in Cabin B-13 on the world-cruising luxury liner Maurevania. Many of Carr's radio
plays were adaptations of stories by other writers. Nine of his radio
scripts were collected in The Dead
Sleep Lightly (1983). The title play involved Dr. Fell.
America's entry into World War II, Carr returned to the United States
to volunteer services, but he was sent back to England to write for the
BBC allied propaganda. However, Carr was a reluctant propagandist: the
ongoing war never became a focus of his major works. In And So to Murder (1940), a German
character is suspected of Nazi affiliations. Nine – And Death Makes
Ten (1940), a Sir
Henry Merrivale story, was based on a transatlantic voyage Carr made in
September, 1939. Suspense is created by making the ship to carry
munitions across Atlantic.
After the war, when the Labour Party returned to power, Carr moved to suburban Mamaroneck, New York. A conservative by conviction and temperament, he found himself at odds with the political climate of postwar Great Britain. Carr returned to England for some years, when Churchill became prime minister again. In 1958 Carr's family settled in Greenville, South Carolina. During the last period of his life Carr suffered from ill health and in the 1970s he was treated for lung cancer. Carr died on February 27, 1977.
Carr's first novel, It Walks By Night (1930), was
advertised in the New York Times
and sold 15,000 copies.
Set in Paris, it featured a police chief named Henri Bencolin and
introduced the subgenre for which Carr became famous, the "locked-room"
murder, a seemingly impossible crime eventually solved by ingenious use
of logic. It this case, Bencolin investigated the murder of a young
whose dead body is found half-naked. Bencolin has a small moustache and
a pointed black beard, his nose is thin and aquiline, and he boasts
that "I have nevert taken more than twenty-four hours in understanding
the exact truth of any case". The novel was expanded from Carr's short
story Grand Guignol,
published in The Haverfordian
in 1929. Bencolin chased criminals in five novels, the last of which
was Four False Weapons
Dr. Gideon Fell was introduced in Hag's Nook (1933).
Physically the character was modelled upon G.K.
but his name was inspired by the epigram: "I do not love thee, Doctor
Fell. / The reason why I cannot tell; / But this alone I know full
well, / I do not love thee, Doctor Fell." He is fat (over three hundred
pounds, more than Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe, about 270 pounds), he
radiates geniality and good humour, and he has a booming voice. And he
likes to drink. Dr. Gideon Fell appeared in
26 books. The stories include what are considered Carr's masterpieces
of the locked-room genre: The Hollow Man (1935), which also has
Fell's lecture on the subject, and The Crooked Hinge (1938).
Sir Henry Merrivale, not a professional detective but who worked as Chief of the Military Intelligence Department in the War Department, featured in 24 books. Merrivale, or H.M. as he is often called, first appeared in The Plague Court Murders (1934). Merrivale's nickname Mycroft comes from Sherlock Holmes brother. Moreover, in later novels his character bears some resemblance to Sir Winston Churchill. Colonel March of Scotland Yard appeared in short stories, which were collected in The Department of Queer Complaints (1940) and The Man Who Explained Miracles (1963). Boris Karloff played the eye-patch wearing inspector in a 1950s British television series, in which the sets always seemed about to fall apart. Colonel March Investigates (1953), directed by Cyril Endfield, was constructed from three pilot episodes. The series was made at Southall Studios in Middlesex.
Carr soon attained a pace of four novels a year. Between 1934
1939 he produced ten books under the pseudonym Carter Dickson. He also
published radio plays, and the highly successful The Life of Sir
Arthur Conan Doyle (1949), which won an Edgar Award from the
Mystery Writers of America. The work was commissioned by the Conan Doyle family. Doyle was portrayed as the
embodiment of chivalric virtues and as the secret model for Holmes
himself. The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes (1954) was written in
collaboration with Adrian Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur's youngest son, who
solely authored the last six stories. Carr wrote no short stories for the last twenty years of his career.
In the 1950s Carr began to explore the historical mystery genre. He was especially passionate about seventeenth-century English history. Carr produced such novels as The Bride of Newgate, which was set in 1815, and The Devil in Velvet, his bestseller, which combined historical romance, mystery and fantasy. In the story the protagonist is so obsessed with a murder that took place in the reign of Charles II that he goes back in time to the world of 1675 and arrives at a solution. Carr's last book, The Hungry Goblin (1972), was set in the Victorian era and had the mystery writer Wilkie Collins in the role of a detective.
Most of his life Carr was a serious drinker and smoker. It is
reported hat he often wrote for eighteen hours at a stretch, forgetting
meals. For help with his plotting he relied on the substantial
reference library of works on crime that filled the shelves of his New
York home. He also collected books on witchcraft, poison, and murder.
Carr's thorough research for details and visits to likely sets
resulted in authentic settings, which especially gave his historical
novels air of plausibility. However, his tone was playful, and eerie
atmosphere of the murder scenes was often created in tongue-in-cheek
spirit and at the end all "supernatural" elements are explained by
rational causes. To get around the rules of the mystery genre, Carr
populated his novels with magicians. "The art of murder, my dear
Maurot, is the same as the art of the magician." (from It Walks By Night) The locked-room mysteries were a sort of magic tricks, which gave Carr a possibility to play with the idea of supernatural. In The Burning Court (1937) Dr. Fell even suggest an alternative supernatural solution.
In his essay in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (1963) Carr stated that "The fine detective story, be it repeated, does not consist of 'a' clue. It is a ladder of clues, a pattern of evidence, joined together with such cunning that even the experienced reader may be deceived, until, in he blaze of the surprise ending, he suddenly sees the whole design." Criticizing the chief representatives of the hard-boiled school, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, he labelled them as "clueless" and Chandler called him a "pipsqueak" Edmund Crispin described Carr as "one of the two or three best detective writers since Poe."
Carr was named a Grand Master by Mystery Writers of America in 1962. He received twice the Ellery Queen Prize for short stories and was member of the Baker Street Irregulars and one of the few Americans ever admitted to membership in Britain's Detection Club - nominated by Dorothy L. Sayers in 1936. Carr's works are still reprinted. The critic and awarded mystery writer H.R.F. Keating included The Hollow Man in 1987 among the 100 best crime and mystery books ever published. The book contains two murders committed in "hermetically sealed chambers" and Dr Gideon Fell's famous 'The Locked Room Lecture'.