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Saturday 7 March 2015

John Dickson Carr/Carter Dickson

Detectives of the Golden Age
 John Dickson Carr/Carter Dickson (1906-1977)
By Lesley Cookman

I have long felt that David Renwick, creator of the television series Jonathan Creek, must be a fan of John Dickson Carr. I expressed this thought somewhere on social media recently and discovered that I was not alone. In fact, it has, apparently been a long term theory – although I haven’t yet discovered if David Renwick himself has confirmed it.

Jonathan Creek specialises in solving “impossible” crimes. Not just the “locked room” mysteries, but the truly impossible, such as: how could somebody be seen – and talked to – hours after their proven death? This was John Dickson Carr’s speciality, and several of the Jonathan Creek stories use the same scenarios. Not that Renwick has stolen them, neither do they have the same solutions, but there are striking similarities. However, none of us who write mysteries – as opposed to crime, which may or may not contain a mystery – can ever hope to invent a truly new plot or method of murder, it’s our treatment and our characterisation that makes our books different and individual. And Jonathan Creek is nothing like any of JD Carr’s detectives.

Carr was born on 30th November 1906 in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. His father, Wooda Carr, was active in the Democratic party, and by early 1913 he was in Washington with his wife and son, the elected member of Congress from the Twenty-Third district of Pennsylvania. This background still surprises many readers who assume Carr was British – indeed, almost aggressively English.

His school years, first at Uniontown High School, then at The Hill School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, were characterised by his contributions to, and editorship of, the school magazines. Many of his stories had elements that would appear in his later successful detective stories, including names he would re-use several times. He had a love of adventurous and swashbuckling tales, and a particular liking for the Stuart dynasty of the English Monarchy, especially King Charles II. His great writing hero at this time was G K Chesterton, to whom he referred as “My literary idol”. He also admired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and both these authors are referenced in his later works.

The stories he wrote for “The Hill Record” begin to show the direction in which his later writing woud take him. There were tales of adventure, like “The Blindfold Quest” and stories of detection, including “The Marked Bullet” and “Ashes of Clues”. However, it has been remarked that in all his Hill Record stories, his most unsuccessful are those in which he excelled in later life, detective and supernatural stories.

After The Hill, his parents chose to send him to Haverford College, in Haverford, a suburb of Philadelphia, rather than Havard, which had been their preference. This is probably because John, though an able and intelligent young man, was really only interested in what he loved – storytelling in all its forms – and very little else. In particular, he hated mathematics, something that would also frequently be found in his later books. Professors of mathematics would never be sympathetic characters, and his heroes always shared John’s hatred.

At Haverford, he began writing for “The Haverfordian” and perfecting his vision of himself as a writer. He began smoking cigarettes furiously, carried a pipe for effect and wore his hair long. But his writing here has matured, and, in fact, several of his short stories have been posthumously collected and published in The Door To Doom and other Detections published by Harper Collins in the UK in 1980, and Fell and Foul Play published by International Polygonics Ltd in May 1991. He became editor of The Haverfordian in June 1926, and from then onwards there was, as fellow student Frederic Prokosch remembered: “There was certainly a great deal of playfulness in the atmosphere and an intermingling of prankish pseudonyms.” The regular writers for the magazine sometimes wrote under each others’ names, or invented others. Some even appear as characters in later Dickson Carr books.
It was while he was at Haverford that the first of his regular detectives appeared, Henri Bencolin of the Sûreté. The best of these, arguably, concerned a  murder in the locked compartment of a “Ghost Train.” After Haverford, in 1928, he went to Paris, ostensibly to study, but here it was that he began to turn himself into a writer. 

At this time, he also began a historical romance but destroyed it. A pity, as some of his own favourites in later life were his historical “Romances”  - the word used in its French meaning. He eschewed the American writers’
colony on the famous Left Bank, proclaiming himself later “I have always been a Right Bank man. I liked to dress well, live comfortably and eat in good restaurants.” He never felt that poverty was beneficial to a writer – or to anybody else.

He returned to America and over the next two years, with much revision, produced what eventually became It Walks By Night, his first published full length novel, featuring as its detective Henri Bencolin. This is where his love of the supernatural – almost satanic – mystery is shown first. As Dorothy L Sayers was later to write: “Mr Carr can lead us away from the small, artificial, brightly lit stage of the ordinary detective plot into the menace of outer darkness. He can create atmosphere with an adjective, and make a picture from a wet iron railing, a dusty table, a gas-lamp blurred by the fog. In short, he can write.” I make no apology for quoting Miss Sayers so extensively, she said it better than I can.

It was this atmosphere, I think, that attracted me. My parents, letting me, their only child, loose on their bookshelves at the age of nine, directed me to the books they thought I’d like. (I must have been an abominably precocious child.) Apart from the American author Thorne Smith, author of the “Topper” books, and highly unsuitable for a gently reared English child, they gave me Carter Dickson, Carr’s psuedonym, and Ngaio Marsh. No wonder I grew up to write mysteries.

Carr was living in Brooklyn Heights, the centre of a group of young men whose lives seemed to revolve around alcohol – even in Prohibition. It was during this time that he met Clarice Cleaves and eventually married her, without informing his parents. (He didn’t get on with his mother, poor soul.) He was still writing prolifically, but he abandoned Bencolin, who had become too satanic, and invented the Chestertonian Dr Gideon Fell, large,
bumbling, with a shovel hat, a down turned walrus moustache and a cape. Oh – and, of course, a meerschaum pipe. At this time he was convinced that England was still the home of romance, chivalry and knight errantry, so he invented a English detective, since he now had an English wife.
Hag’s Nook, the first Dr Fell adventure, was published in the US in 1933.

The name Carter Dickson was conceived almost by accident. Clarice and John decided to move to England, to be nearer Clarice’s parents as she had discovered she was pregnant, and to satisfy John’s growing Anglophilia. Until then, John had an arrangement with his publishers to pay him a monthly salary rather than the more standard
advances and royalties. He went through money like water, never understanding his own finances, probably an offshoot of his hatred of mathematics. Faced with the necessity of raising additional funds, he wrote a novel called
The Bowstring Murders at the same time as Hag’s Nook, but when he offered it to his publishers, Harpers, they told him they could only publish two books of his a year, but made no objection to him offering to another publisher under a different name. Carr took the manuscript to William Morrow, and unfortunately explained he needed the money in a hurry. This resulted in a contract wholly in the publisher’s favour.

When it was published, by which time John and Clarice were in England with a baby daughter, he was surprised to find it published, not under the pseudonym he had chosen, but as “Carr Dickson”, about as transparent as it could get. When William Morrow wanted another book, Carr stipulated that he had to have another pen-name, and Morrow acceded, but with the proviso that the name was similar to “Carr Dickson”. Thus “Carter Dickson” was born, and so was the next of Carr’s regular detectives, the indomitable Sir Henry Merrivale, holder of one of the oldest baronetcies in England.

HM was as corpulent as Dr Fell, but was as bald as a billiard ball. He smoked evil cigars, wore a disreputable Top Hat, or an even more disreputable panama, had trained both as a doctor and a lawyer and was a thorough going socialist. He was conceived as a comedy character, and indeed some of his exploits are extremely comic, but his vague position as some kind of advisor to the War Office and MI5 kept those about him in a perpetual state of anxiety. He was always complaining that he was about to be “booted up” to the House of Lords, but somehow, he never made it. I can see now why I took to this character at the age of nine, and felt Dr Fell to be rather staid.
Both of the detectives have Scotland Yard friends, and both have the habit of driving these friends insane. All the books, although told in authorial voice, are from the point of view of a young – or not so young – man, usually considered to represent Carr himself. Several reappear in later books, and they normally carry the “love interest” sub-plot. For there is always a love interest.  

J D Carr liked women. He wasn’t totally faithful to Clarice, in fact at the time of his work for Val Geilgud at the BBC, he was actually living with another woman, while Clarice was in America, safe from the war. The women in his books, whom HM calls “my wench” or “my dolly” and there’s a difference between them! – are very recognisable types. They tend to be sturdy but shapely, and frequently appear to have an air of enjoying disreputable jokes. They are not cool and virginal – although some may seem to be until the hero spots what lies underneath – but have a healthy enjoyment of their own sexuality. Some of the lighter moments in the books centre around surprisingly uninhibited sex, although it is simply implied, not described. In The Cavalier’s Cup, the last HM novel, there is a chase scene which could have come straight out of one of the afore mentioned Thorne Smith’s books.

During the war, Carr began to write propaganda scripts for the BBC, and the Appointment With Fear radio drama series. When eventually the American government demanded his return to the mother country, he carried on writing for radio for the Suspense In America series. He returned to England, followed by Clarice, (after being informed of his new romantic interest,) and the novels continued. By this time, he had been elected the first American to become a member of the exclusive Detection Club, which still exists, something which delighted him, as, at the time, the honorary president was G K Chesterton. Sadly Chesterton died before Carr was inducted.

He had ventured into the historical novel with a book called Devil Kinsmere, under yet another pseudonym, Roger Fairburn, and with The Murder Of Sir Edmund Godfrey, a book inspired by a real event, as well as many of his early short stories, but it was on return to England and after a collaboration with Adrian Conan Doyle on The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, that he began to turn more and more to the historical novels. The first was The Bride of Newgate, set in England in 1851, followed by The Devil in Velvet, set again in England, but in 1675. These novels gave him more scope to indulge his love of the supernatural, the occult and his unerring ability to create atmosphere, and they became his first love.

He did, however, continue to write Dr Fell and HM novels, the twentythird Dr Fell was Dark Of The Moon in 1967 and the previously mentioned The Cavalier’s Cup, the twentysecond Sir Henry Merrivale, in 1953. But Carr hated the post war world. It was dreary, and the privations of life in Britain post 1945, not to mention the newly elected Labour government, depressed him, and soon he persuaded Clarice to move back to the United States. Over the next twenty years, they would move backwards and forwards between New York, London and Tangier. And, during this time, he wrote more and more historical novels. The first of these I read disappointed me because it wasn’t what I was expecting – I was young. Subsequently, I have come to appreciate them almost more than his contemporary novels, my own favourite being Papa Là-bas one of three set at different times in New Orleans. He was not the first novelist to try historical mysteries, but his success paved the way for others.

In January 1965, living in England, he embarked on a lecture tour across the United States, culminating in Green ville, South Carolina. He liked the people, and in conversation with Edna Seaman, the promotions manager of a local television station, he said he was fed up with England because of the socialistic tendencies. She said, facetiously, on her own admission, ‘“Move to Greenhill.” And in June of the same year, that is exactly what he did.

During this time, his health began to fail. He had suffered a stroke, and never regained full use of his left hand, and in 1975 there was a recurrence of a previous pain and stiffness in his back, and as a result of this and the after effects of a previously broken hip, in February 1976, doctors told Clarice there was no more they could do for him. He had cancer which had spread to his bones and metastasised throughout his body. He was moved to a nursing home, but when Clarice also fell ill, he insisted on returning home. Clarice also eventually returned home, but she found it very difficult to nurse John, and later in the year he was taken into the Resthaven Geriatric Centre, where, on February 27th 1977, three months after his seventieth birthday, he died.

His books are a mixture of an almost Wodehousian comedy and a powerful sense of the macabre. A figure will be shot at close range walking down an empty street with watchers at both ends, or will be killed in the middle of a snow covered field with no footsteps going towards or away from it. Disappearing corpses, witchcraft, a hangman’s ghost, all are explained – eventually – in perfectly rational terms. Improbable, maybe, but certainly
feasible. Alcohol is a thread running through them, as it did through his own life, and pretty, spirited, though
ultimately submissive, women, whom he also loved in his own life. In my opinion, he was a giant of the Golden Age, and about whom too few people these days know too little. 

Lesley Cookman  is the author of The Libby Sarjeant series published by Accent Press, who also publish her book, How to Write a Pantomime, with a foreword by Roy Hudd.  She edited the first Sexy Shorts collection of short stories from Accent Press in aid of the Breast Cancer Campaign. Lesley is a member of the the Romantic Novelists' Association, the Society of Authors and the Crime Writers' Association.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting, thanks for showing me the way Lizzie. I can't say I have heard of this writer before, in any of his guises, nor read any of his books. One to watch out for though. Thanks. :)