Kingsley Amis on John Dickson Carr

The Art of the Impossible: The Door to Doom, by John Dickson Carr

Kingsley Amis, Times Literary Supplement, 6 June 1981

Kingsley Amis photo.jpgThe detective novels and stories of John Dickson Carr (1906-77) have received the highest praise without ever becoming either a popular success or a highbrow fad. He is the acknowledged master of that classic rarity, the tale of detection in which detection is seen to take place, the clues really are shared with the reader, and crimes of majestic and multifarious impossibility are shown at last to have been possible after all, if not always very plausible. His villains sometimes get, and (less excusably) are revealed as having banked on, more than their fair share of luck, but he never assists them by coincidences, obscurity, or any kind of cheating.

So much is evidently not enough for some. There are those like Julian Symons who give Carr full credit for inventiveness and professionalism but find in him an excessive reliance on formula and a lack of human warmth amounting to an absence of characterization. Not a few would go further and charge him with disastrous facetiousness on occasion, instancing The Blind Barber as a fair idea exemplarily ruined by the notion that drink, anything to do with drink, is funny. Again, at every emotional turn he is likely to plunge into the style of the novelette.

Carr’s admirers would not argue with these objections, which for them do not diminish the brilliance of the puzzles or the smouldering menace behind them. What some see as adherence to a prescription appears to others as the following of a ritual or a recurring dream: the approach and escape of the murderer by way of bolted doors and barred shutters, across an expanse of smooth or untrodden snow, most typically through a well-lighted place watched by several alert and truthful witnesses who saw nothing. And of course there are no secret passages, hidden trapdoors or concealed apartments any more than there are twin brothers or poisons unknown to science. Sooner or later the reader protests, “But nobody could have done it!”

Impossible crimes were the stock-in-trade of Chesterton in the Father Brown stories. Bodies vanished and living men were snatched up into the air (to all appearance) by magic. Only Father Brown saw the truth, the overlooked possibility—but so often it could not have been seen, or would not have been overlooked, or was not a possibility. In that marvellous and much-echoed story “The Invisible Man,” for instance, one or more of the four sentinels would have been sure to mention the unmysterious intruder. It was Carr’s great stroke to make good such perceptible gaps, to devise the contraption that created an apparently perfect illusion of miracle and still held one tiny, out-of-sight weak spot which enabled the detective finally to dismantle the whole elaborate concern. That detective was as likely as not to be the scholarly Dr. Gideon Fell, a jovial caricature of G.K.C. in the flesh, unworldly, shrewd and devoted to beer.

If Carr owes something to Chesterton he owes about as much to the kind of stories that began to be written in the 1920s by Agatha Christie among others, those set in the villages and country towns and grand houses of southern England. Coming from the USA to live here in 1933, he made his own characteristic contribution to this sub-genre, laying out his neo-Gothic enigmas among the summerhouses and tennis courts. He soon developed a feeling for the nuances of local life sometimes denied grander visitors, and his ear for the English turns of phrase, though not quite infallible, is unsurpassed by any other foreign-born writer known to me. In their minor way these novels supply some sympathetic insight into the social history of that vanished era.

Carr had already settled on his specialty—the locked room problem—but not much else; his earlier novels (1930-2) are melodramatic in style, have harrowing bits in them and feature a tiresomely flamboyant French detective, Henri Bencolin. As soon as Carr had produced Dr. Fell (Hag’s Nook, 1933) he was in full control. He wrote so fast thereafter that in the following year, presumably to evade charges of over-production, he began publishing under a pseudonym, Carter Dickson, as well as his own name. The Dickson novels naturally display a different detective, the eccentric Sir Henry Merrivale, Bt., who seems to many readers as tiresome as Bencolin in his way, and also out of drawing. H.M. is a member of the English aristocracy, whom even English people find hard to understand, and keeps saying things like “Burn me!” and “Lor’ love a duck!” and referring to the Lord Chief Justice as “Boko.”

In the dozen years of his heyday Carr/Dickson turned out over thirty novels and some twenty shorter tales of an ingenuity altogether his own. One thinks of He Wouldn’t Kill Patience (Dickson), in which a perfectly ordinary room is sealed on the inside from the outside; The Judas Window (Dickson), with its calm announcement that there is such a homicide-facilitating aperture in most rooms (though my experiments indicate that the window, easy enough to open with a screwdriver and a knitting-needle, can only be closed after entering by the door); The Black Spectacles (Carr), the most accomplished fusing of the far-fetched and the commonplace, unless The Crooked Hinge (Carr) is that in a different way. There for once the master’s mind can be glimpsed at the moment of inspiration, the foundation-stone of the whole intricate structure identified in the quotation from the opening of the first Father Brown story, “The Blue Cross”, that Carr uses as the epigraph to his final section: “There was one thing which Flambeau, with all his dexterity of disguise, could not cover, and that was his singular height” Carr’s murderer can lose six inches in a few minutes, and his method is quite simple, indeed obvious once you have thought of it, only you never would have thought of it—the mark of all the author’s best inventions. (The trick of height variation, by the way, is not performable by more than a small minority of persons, and requires a certain apparatus, thought his would be on open sale. It is not any form of stilts.)

The Burning Court (Carr, 1937) is many people’s favourite and also extraordinary. Yes, but the detective, a non-recurring character, is commonplace; true, the structure demands that he should be commonplace, but I still miss Dr. Fell. That apart, the enterprise is of irreproachable quality. As a series of crimes develops, it seems more and more inescapable that they have been done by witchcraft. In due course the investigating detective propounds a solution of the crimes whereby every known fact is naturalistically and convincingly explained. That brings matters to the last couple of pages, of which I will say nothing.

Words like “gripping” and “absorbing” should have been allowed to remain in the womb of language until the advent of Carr/Dickson. His reader feels more than the pressure of ordinary suspense or the desire to follow an exciting and puzzling story. There is an almost painful curiosity besides, a looking for deliverance from the incredible. The hero of The Burning Court comes across, in the most prosaic way possible, a photograph of a Frenchwoman who according to the caption was guillotined for murder in 1861. “He was looking at a photograph of his own wife.” End of Chapter One. There must be those who, on reaching that point for the first time, would be able to lay the book aside and go out to a Mahler concert, say, without turning a hair. Not I; I had a hard enough time just now getting my copy back on to its shelf after checking that reference.

By 1948 Carr, never progressive in his outlook, had ceased to like it here and he and his English wife took off for the States. They were back in 1951 after the Tory victory at the election, but things were never to be the same for him again. There may or may not be a link between the traditional detective story and the pre-war world, but there can be no doubt that, after the final departure of that world, Carr showed a loss of energy and imagination in the Dr. Fell and H M tales and others with contemporary settings. Nor can it have been of matter of whim that between 1950 and 1972, the year of his last novel, he spent half his time writing historical romances. These have crimes and clues and deductions and many clever moves, but not one is any substitute for, say, Murder in the Submarine Zone. To put matters more simply, Carr said about 1955 that he had devised eighty-three solutions to the locked-room problem. Well, the eighty-fourth and eighty-fifth were not going to be as easy to come by as the fourth and fifth. Like his colleagues, like the science-fiction writers of almost the same period, he was coming to the end of his material.

The Door to Doom, though legitimately called that after a—terrible—story included in the volume, should without doubt have been called something else. It consists of uncollected material, most of it from earlier years. There are four Bencolin stories, the first of which demonstrates most expertly and precociously how to get out of a locked room unseen by a dozen close-to witnesses. The last is a barefaced piece of licit misdirection about a murder on a train, rather thrown away in so few pages. Taken together, these four show in their style and presentation the formidable speed with which their twenty-one-year-old author was developing.

There can be few kinds of writing that look colder in print (apart from the text of a rock musical, possibly) than a radio play. A writer like Carr, heavily concerned with situation, setting, physical and other detail, clues and so on is at an added disadvantage, and his characters here do tend to lead off by standing toe to toe gabbling instant information at each other. Nevertheless, these half-dozen scripts from 1942-3 are full of cunning bits and what read very much like passages conceived for radio rather than translated from the page. The best is a brilliant variation on the familiar Paris exposition story, about the old girl who develops bubonic plague there and is spirited away so thoroughly that, when her daughter returns to their hotel, there is no trace of her. An account of this is hauled into Carr’s first scene, but with thirty minutes for everything, what would you do?

This volume also contains a couple of unsuccessful but readable attempts to combine deductive and macabre elements, an entertaining account of English highway men from Isaac Atkinson to Dick Turpin, and essay on detective stories that has dated little over these last thirty-five years, and a splendid remark about Raymond Chandler to the effect that he might have been some good if he had ever bothered with “the fatigue of construction and clues”—middle-aged trendies, take note. There is a useful but too-short biography and bibliography. All in all, as perhaps has already been guessed, general readers will not much concern themselves with the present offering.

What readers will? Those interested in the author and his works, those interested in detective stories and those interested in popular literature in its golden age, 1890-1950; but chiefly, of course, the first-mentioned group. The detective story at its best consists of Sherlock Holmes stories, especially the first three volumes, the Father Brown stories, especially the first two volumes, half a dozen a more novels by Carr/Dickson (The Hollow Man, The Ten Teacups and The Reader is Warned besides those already mentioned), and some individual volumes and scattered scenes by other hands.