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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

J(ohn) D(ickson) Carr (1906-1977) - 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 specialty 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 detectives - 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 of Julia M. (Kisinger) Carr and Wooda Nicholas Carr, a Pennsylvania lawyer and an activist in Democratic politics, who served a term in Congress. Wooda Nicholas was a heavy drinker, and Carr become one too.

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 years old.

While 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."

Carr 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 1930, on a journey from Europe back to New York on the liner Pennland, he met a young Englishwoman called Clarice Cleaves.  Carr gave her his book, It Walks by Night (1930) and they entered into a shipboard romance. Carr and Clarice married in 1931, 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 and Madagascar.

For a period Carr wrote scripts for the popular BBC mystery series '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.

With 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 detective novel, It Walks By Night, 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 woman, 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 (1937).

Dr. Gideon Fell was introduced in Hag's Nook (1933). Physically the character was modelled upon G.K. Chesterton, 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 and 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'.

For further reading: Notes for the Curious, ed. L.L. French (1978); Watteau's Shepherds: The Detective Novel in Britain, 1914-1940 by LeRoy Panek (1979); 'Carr, John Dickson' by R.E. Briney, in Twentieth-century Crime and Mystery Writers, edited by John M. Reilly (1985); 'John Dickson Carr: The Hollow Man,' in Crime & Mystery: The 100 Best Books by H.R.F. Keating (1987); John Dickson Carr: A Critical Study by S.T. Joshi (1990); John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles by Douglas G. Greene (1995); AZ Murder Goes: Classic by Laurie R King, Susan Malling, Michael Connelly (1998); 'Carr, John Dickson,' in The Encyclopedia of Murder and Mystery by Bruce F. Murphy (1999); Detective Fiction and the Ghost Story: The Haunted Text by Michael Cook (2014); Masters of Detection: Volume One: John Dickson Carr by Don D'Ammassa (2015); The Golden Age of Murder: The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story by Martin Edwards (2015). See also: Edmund Crispin. Suom.: J.D. Carrilta on suomennettu muutamia kymmeniä teoksia. Carrista lisää tietoja mm. Ruumiin kulttuuri -lehdissä 4/1994, 3/1996 ja 4/2006.

Selected bibliography:

  • It Walks By Night, 1930
    - Hän kulkee öisin (suom. 1947) / Se kulkee öisin (suom. Risto Raitio, 1997)
  • The Lost Gallows, 1931
    - Kadonnut hirsipuu (suom. Risto Raitio, 2001)
  • Castle Skull, 1931
  • Poison In Jest, 1932
  • The Corpse In The Waxworks, 1932 (UK title: Waxworks Murder, 1932)
  • Hag's Nook, 1933
    - Noidan loukku (suom. Reijo Kalvas, 1989)
  • The Bowstring Murders, 1933 (as Carr Dickson)
    - Rautahansikasmurhaaja (suom. J.K. Kaasalainen, 1948)
  • The Mad Hatter Mystery, 1933
    - Kuolema pettureiden portilla (suom. Pirkko Haljoki, 1960)
  • The Blind Barber, 1934
  • Devil Kinsmere, 1934 (as Roger Fairbairn; rev. ed. Most Secret, 1964)
  •  The Plague Court Murders, 1934 (as Carter Dickson)
    - Pyövelin tikari (suom. Pasi Junila, 1989)
  • The Eight of Swords, 1934
  • The White Priory Murders, 1934 (as Carter Dickson)
    - Valkoisen luostarin murhat (suom. Eero Ahmavaara, 1954)
  • The Unicorn Murders, 1935 (as Carter Dickson)
  • The Hollow Man, 1935 (UK title: The Three Coffins, 1935)
    - Kolme ruumisarkkua (suom. Paavo Lehtonen, 1981)
  • Death-Watch, 1935
    - Kuolemankello (suom. Reijo Kalvas, 1995)
  • The Red Widow Murders, 1935 (as Carter Dickson)
    - Punainen leski (suom. Eero Ahmavaara, 1954)
  • The Arabian Nights Murder, 1936
    - Tuhannen ja yhden yön salaisuus (suom. 1937)
  • The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey, 1936
  • The Magic Lantern Murders, 1936 (as Carter Dickson; US title: The Punch and Judy Murder, 1937)
  • The Burning Court, 1937
    - Noita palaa aina (suom. Risto Raitio, 1987)
  • The Peacock Feather Murders, 1937 (as Carter Dickson; UK title: The Ten Teacups, 1937)
    - Kymmenen teekuppia (suom. Eero Ahmavaara, 1953)
  • The Third Bullet, 1937
  • To Wake the Dead, 1938
  • The Four False Weapons, Being the Return of Bencolin, 1938
  • Death in Five Boxes, 1938 (as Carter Dickson)
  • The Judas Window, 1938 (as Carter Dickson; US title: The Crossbow Murder, 1964)
    - Juudaksen ikkuna (suom. Eero Ahmavaara, 1954)
  • The Crooked Hinge, 1938
    - Vääntynyt sarana (suom. Pertti Koskela, 1990)
  • The Reader is Warned, 1939 (as Carter Dickson)
  • Drop to His Death, 1939 (as Carter Dickson, with John Rhode)
  • The Problem Of The Green Capsule, 1939 (UK title: The Black Spectacles, 1939)
    - Vihreä kapseli (suom. Reijo Kalvas, 1994)
  • The Problem of the Wire Cage, 1939
  • Nine - And Death Makes Ten, 1940 (as Carter Dickson; UK title: Murder in The Submarine Zone, 1950; also: Murder in the Atlantic, 1959)
  • The Department of Queer Complaints, 1940 (as Carter Dickson)
  • The Man Who Could Not Shudder, 1940
  • And So to Murder, 1940 (as Carter Dickson)
    - Ja sitten murha (suom. Eija Rytkö, 1992)
  • The Case of the Constant Suicides, 1941
    - Itsemurhien salaisuus (suom. Arto Tuovinen, 1957)
  • Seeing is Believing, 1941 (as Carter Dickson;  also: Cross of Murder, 1959)
  • Death Turns the Tables, 1941 (UK title: The Seat of the Scornful, 1942)
  • The Emperor's Snuff-Box, 1942
    - Keisarin nuuskarasia (suom. Kaija Kauppi, 1955)
    - Film adptation in 1957 under the title That Woman Opposite, dir. Compton Bennett, starring Phyllis Kirk, Dan O'Herlihy, Wilfried Hyde White, Petula Clark. US title: City after Dark
  • The Gilded Man, 1942 (as Carter Dickson; US title: Death and the Gilded Man, 1947)
  • She Died A Lady, 1943 (as Carter Dickson)
    - Kaunottaren kuolema (suom. Pirkko Haljoki, 1961)
  • Till Death Do Us Part, 1944
    - Kunnes kuolema erottaa (suom. Reijo Kalvas, 1984)
  • He Wouldn't Kill Patience, 1944 (as Carter Dickson)
  • The Curse of the Bronze Lamp, 1945 (as Carter Dickson; UK title: Lord of the Sorcerers, 1946)
    - Pronssilampun kirous (suom. Eero Ahmavaara, 1958)
  • He Who Whispers, 1946
    - Kuiskaava kuolema (suom. Arto Tuovinen, 1957)
  • My Late Wives, 1946 (as Carter Dickson)
    - Kuolema astuu näyttämölle (suom. Reijo Kalvas, 1990)
  • The Sleeping Sphinx, 1947
  • Dr. Fell, Detective, and Other Stories, 1947
  • The Skeleton in the Clock, 1948 (as Carter Dickson)
    - Luuranko kellokaapissa (suom. 1995)
  • A Graveyard To Let, 1949 (as Carter Dickson)
    - Hautausmaa vuokrattavana (suom. Riku Riihimäki, 1991)
  • Below Suspicion, 1949
    - Epäilysten ulkopuolella (suom. Leif Forsblom, 1984)
  • The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1949
  • The Bride of Newgate, 1950
  • Night at the Mocking Widow, 1950 (as Carter Dickson)
  • The Devil in Velvet, 1951
  • Behind the Crimson Blind, 1952 (as Carter Dickson)
  • The Nine Wrong Answers, 1952
    - Yhdeksän väärää vastausta (suom. Risto Ratio, 1992)
  • The Cavalier's Cup, 1953 (as Carter Dickson)
    - Kavaljeerin malja (suom. Reijo Kalvas, 1993)
  • The Third Bullet and Other Stories of Detection, 1954
  • The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes, 1954 (with Adrian Conan Doyle)
    - Ystäväni Sherlock Holmes (suom. Risto Raitio, 1993)
  • Captain Cut-Throat, 1955
  • Patrick Butler for the Defence, 1956
    - Mahdoton murha (suom. Tauno Peltola, 1985)
  • Fear Is the Same, 1956
  • Fire, Burn!, 1957
  • The Dead Man's Knock, 1958
  • Scandal at High Chimneys: A Victorian Melodrama, 1959
  • In Spite of Thunder, 1960
  • The Witch of the Low Tide: An Edwardian Melodrama, 1961
  • The Demoniacs, 1962
  • The Men Who Explained Miracles, 1963
  • Most Secret, 1964
  • The House at Satan's Elbow, 1965
  • Panic in Box C, 1966
  • Dark of the Moon, 1967
  • Papa La-Bas, 1968
  • The Ghosts' High Noon, 1969
  • Deadly Hall, 1971
  • The Hungry Goblin: A Victorian Detective Novel, 1972
  • The Door to Doom and Other Detections, 1980 (edited & with an introd. by Douglas G. Greene)
  • The Dead Sleep Lightly, 1983 (radio plays, edited by Douglas G. Greene)
  • Fell and Foul Play, 1991 (edited with an introduction by Douglas G. Greene)
  • Merrivale, March and Murder, 1991 (edited with an introduction by Douglas G. Greene)
  • The Crooked Hinge, 2019 (introduction by Charles Todd; published originally in 1938)
  • The Mad Hatter Mystery, 2019 (introduction by Otto Penzler; published originally in 1933)
  • Castle Skull, 2020 (with an introduction by Martin Edwards)
  • The Plague Court Murders, 2020 (introduction by Michael Dirda)
  • It Walks by Night, 2020 (with an introduction by Martin Edwards)
  • The Lost Gallows: Including the Short Story "The Ends of Justice," 2021 (introduction by Martin Edwards)
  • Corpse in the Waxworks: A Paris Mystery, 2021 (with an introduction by Martin Edwards; published originlly in 1932)
  • Till Death Do Us Part, 2022 (with an introduction by Martin Edwards; published originally in 1944)
  • The Seat of the Scornful, 2022 (with an introduction by Martin Edwards; published originally in 1942)

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