John Dickson Carr
|Born||November 30, 1906|
Uniontown, Pennsylvania, United States
|Died||February 28, 1977 (aged 70)|
Greenville, South Carolina, United States
|Resting place||Springwood Cemetery, Greenville|
|Genre||detective novel, murder mystery|
|Literary movement||Golden Age of Detective Fiction|
|Notable works||The Hollow Man, The Burning Court|
Carr is generally regarded as one of the greatest writers of so-called "Golden Age" mysteries; complex, plot-driven stories in which the puzzle is paramount. He was influenced in this regard by the works of Gaston Leroux and by the Father Brown stories of G. K. Chesterton. He was a master of the so-called locked room mystery, in which a detective solves apparently impossible crimes. The Dr. Fell mystery The Hollow Man (1935), usually considered Carr's masterpiece, was selected during 1981 as the best locked-room mystery of all time by a panel of 17 mystery authors and reviewers. He was also an author of historical mystery.
A resident of England for a number of years, Carr is often grouped among "British-style" mystery writers. Most (though not all) of his novels had English settings, especially country villages and estates, and English characters. His two best-known fictional detective characters (Dr. Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale) were both English.
The son of Wooda Nicholas Carr, a U.S. congressman from Pennsylvania, Carr graduated from The Hill School in Pottstown during 1925 and Haverford College during 1929. During the early 1930s, he relocated to England, where he married Clarice Cleaves, an Englishwoman. He began his mystery-writing career there, returning to the United States as an internationally known author during 1948.
During 1950, his biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle earned Carr the first of his two Special Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America; the second was awarded during 1970, in recognition of his 40-year career as a mystery writer. He was also presented the MWA's Grand Master award during 1963. Carr was one of only two Americans ever admitted to the British Detection Club.
During early spring 1963, while living in Mamaroneck, New York, Carr suffered a stroke, which paralyzed his left side. He continued to write using one hand, and for several years contributed a regular column of mystery and detective book reviews, "The Jury Box", to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Carr eventually relocated to Greenville, South Carolina, and he died there of lung cancer on February 28, 1977.
Carr's two major detective characters, Dr. Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale, are superficially quite similar. Both are large, upper-class, eccentric Englishmen somewhere between middle-aged and elderly. Dr. Fell, who is fat and walks only with the aid of two canes, was clearly modeled on the British writer G. K. Chesterton and is at all times civil and genial. He has a great mass of untidy hair that is often covered by a "shovel hat" and he generally wears a cape. He lives in a modest cottage and does not have any official association with public authorities.
Henry Merrivale or "H.M.", on the other hand, although stout and with a majestic "corporation", is active physically and is feared for his ill-temper and noisy rages. In a 1949 novel, A Graveyard To Let, for example, he demonstrates an unexpected talent for hitting baseballs improbable distances. A wealthy descendant of the "oldest baronetcy" in England, he is part of the Establishment (even though he frequently rails against it) and in the earlier novels is the director of the British Secret Service. In The Plague Court Murders he is said to be qualified as both a barrister and a medical doctor. Even in the earliest books the bald, bespectacled, and scowling H.M. is clearly a Churchillian figure and in the later novels this similarity is somewhat more consciously evoked. Many of the Merrivale novels, written using the Carter Dickson byline, rank with Carr's best work, including the much-praised The Judas Window (1938).
Many of the Fell novels feature two or more different impossible crimes, including He Who Whispers (1946) and The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941). The novel The Crooked Hinge (1938) combines a seemingly impossible throat-slashing, witchcraft, a survivor of the ship Titanic, an eerie automaton modeled on Wolfgang von Kempelen's chess player, and a case similar to that of the Tichborne Claimant into what is often cited as one of the greatest classics of detective fiction. But even Carr's biographer, Douglas G. Greene, notes that the explanation, like many of Carr's in other books, seriously stretches plausibility and the reader's credulity.
Dr. Fell's own discourse on locked room mysteries in chapter 17 of The Hollow Man is acclaimed critically and is sometimes printed as a stand-alone essay in its own right.
A few of his novels do not feature a series detective. The most famous of these, The Burning Court (1937), involves witchcraft, poisoning, and a body that disappears from a sealed crypt in suburban Philadelphia; it was the basis for the French movie La chambre ardente (1962).
Carr wrote in the short story format as well. Julian Symons, in Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel: A History (1972), said: "Most of Carr's stories are compressed versions of his locked-room novels, and at times they benefit from the compression. Probably the best of them are in the Carter Dickson book, The Department of Queer Complaints (1940), although this does not include the brilliantly clever H.M. story The House in Goblin Wood or a successful pastiche which introduces Edgar Allan Poe as a detective."
During 1950, Carr wrote the novel, The Bride of Newgate, set during 1815 at the close of the Napoleonic Wars, one of the earliest full-length historical mysteries. The Devil in Velvet and Fire, Burn! are the two historical novels (involving also Time travel) with which he said he himself was most pleased. With Adrian Conan Doyle, the youngest son of Arthur Conan Doyle, Carr wrote Sherlock Holmes stories that were published in the 1954 collection The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes. He was also honored by the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle by being asked to write the biography for the legendary author. The book, The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was published during 1949 and received generally favorable reviews for its vigor and entertaining style.
Dr. Fell has generally been considered to be Carr's major creation. The British novelist Kingsley Amis, for instance, writes in his essay, "My Favorite Sleuths", that Dr. Fell is one of the three great successors to Sherlock Holmes (the other two are Father Brown and Nero Wolfe) and that H.M., "according to me is an old bore." This may be in part because in the Merrivale novels written after World War II, H.M. frequently became a comic caricature of himself, especially in the physical misadventures in which he found himself at least once in every novel. Humorous as these episodes were intended to be, they also tended to have the effect of decreasing the mystique of the character. Earlier, however, H.M. had been regarded more favorably by a number of critics. Howard Haycraft, author of the seminal Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story, wrote during 1941 that H.M. or "The Old Man" was "the present writer's admitted favorite among contemporary fictional sleuths". During 1938 the British mystery writer R. Philmore wrote in an article called "Inquest on Detective Stories" that Sir Henry was "the most amusing of detectives". And further: "Of course, H.M. is so much the best detective that, once having invented him, his creator could get away with any plot."
The definitive biography of Carr is by Douglas G. Greene, John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles (1995) (ISBN 1-883402-47-6). From an obituary published in Greenville, South Carolina, Carr allegedly also published using the name of Fenton Carter, but no works by anyone of this name have yet been identified.
Carr also wrote many radio scripts, particularly for the Suspense radio anthology series in America and for its UK equivalent Appointment With Fear introduced by Valentine Dyall, as well as many other dramas for the BBC, and some screenplays. His 1943 half-hour radio play Cabin B-13 was expanded into a series on CBS during 1948–49 for which Carr wrote all 25 scripts, basing some on earlier works or re-presenting devices that Chesterton had used. The 1943 play Cabin B-13 was also expanded into the script for the 1953 movie Dangerous Crossing, directed by Joseph M. Newman and featuring Michael Rennie and Jeanne Crain. Carr worked extensively for BBC Radio during World War II, writing both mystery stories and propaganda scripts. During the late 1940s he hosted Murder by Experts transmitted by Mutual radio. He introduced works by other mystery writers who were the week's guest writers. The show originated from Mutual's main station WOR in New York City. Many of these shows are available for free listening or downloading at the Internet Archive.
Carr's works were the basis for several movies, including The Man With a Cloak (1951) and Dangerous Crossing (1953). The Emperor's Snuffbox was filmed as That Woman Opposite (1957), and La chambre ardente (1962) was a loose adaptation of The Burning Court.
Various Carr stories formed the basis for episodes of television series, particularly those without recurring characters such as General Motors Presents. During 1956, the television series Colonel March of Scotland Yard, featuring Boris Karloff as Colonel March, was based on Carr's character and his stories and was broadcast for 26 episodes.