Wednesday, November 27, 2019

A Mid-Century Mid-Life Crisis: John Dickson Carr's Crime Fiction in the Second Half of the 1900s

For whatever reasons, the Fifties and Sixties saw a decline in the work of many surviving Golden Age detective fiction authors, and John Dickson Carr, one of the most important figures in Golden Age mystery, was no exception.  The overall decline in his works from the Thirties and Forties was steep, although, to be sure, he managed to reinvigorate himself for a time by writing historical mysteries that were set in what the incurably romantic author deemed more colorful eras. 

Anyone who has read Douglas Greene's landmark biography of John Dickson Carr knows that the author's weariness with the postwar world impacted his writing.  With his historical mysteries he successfully took refuge from his soul-draining ennui for a time, but writing about the present became increasingly difficult for him.  In truth there was a decline in all of his writing, whatever the setting, over time, a decline which the debilitating stroke he suffered in 1963 greatly exacerbated.

In an essay by me published in a volume of essays on crime fiction dedicated to Doug Greene, Mysteries Unlocked, I wrote the following of Carr's attitude to the postwar world:

"The period after World War Two," observes Douglas G. Greene in John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles, "was a time of increasing dissatisfaction, disillusionment and restlessness for John Dickson Carr."  The great Golden Age emigre American mystery writer's romantic view of the world seemed to have cindered to ashes amidst the blaze of atrocities committed during the Second World War and the postwar imposition of a drab gray regimen of regulations and restrictions by Britain's Labour government.  "The kind of world [Carr] admired seemed irrelevant," notes Greene.  ""It was difficult for him to pretend that it had anything to do with modern life."  In his postwar mysteries Carr would increasingly seek refuge in an idealized fictional past.  Period novels like The Bride of Newgate (1950) and The Devil in Velvet (1952) took the author and his readers back to what a colleague of his characterized as colorful eras of "sword play and sudden personal dramas, with costumes and carriages, and beaux and belles."

For John Dickson Carr (1906-1977)
recovering the mirth of his lost youth
proved to be rather more
than a three-pipe problem
However, Carr's advancing case of writer's bloc probably cannot be attributed solely to his undeniable disillusionment with the modern world. In his Carr biography, Doug writes that the author's charming English widow, Clarice (who was then alive and corresponded regularly with Doug) certainly thought as much:

She believes that her husband's unhappiness was based on more than his dislike of the postwar world.  She thinks that he was somehow running away from himself, but can make no suggestion about what he found wrong with being John Dickson Carr except, possibly, his physical size. 

Carr was physically separated from Clarice and his daughters over much of this time.  As Doug puts it in his biography:

No matter where he took up residence during the 1950s...he could not be happy and he would soon pull up stakes to try somewhere else.  Sometimes he would simply tell Clarice and the children that it was time to move, and he would go to London or Tangier and expect her to sell the house and pack up the belongings....

Carr...had at least eight different homes between 1951 and 1954.  Clarice was often but not always with him during these peregrinations.  Bonnie and Mary needed regular schooling, so after Clarice's father died in 1952 and she inherited property in Kingswood, she often resided there while John was elsewhere.  As was the case in the middle 1940s, however, they did not consider themselves separated, and when they were on the same continent, stayed with each other over long weekends.

Mid-century college students at play
In the 1950s John Dickson Carr was nostalgic not only
about the Jacobean era but his own lived past
in the Twenties and Thirties--one of
clubs and drinks and tipsy frolics
In was in the middle 1940s, during the war, when Carr, separated from his wife and family and working in radio, cohabited with another woman in London, with whom he was intimately involved.  Previous to this, Doug writes, Carr had had several brief affairs, or what Doug terms "encounters.

Although Doug notes that Carr "doted on Clarice" and the couple remained affectionately married until Carr's death in 1977, is it possible that Carr had additional "encounters" after the war, or that part of him wanted to have them? 

A recurring feature of his books in the Fifties and the Sixties is the attraction of middle-aged men to much younger women.  Did Carr experience a classic "midlife crisis" after the war, when he had reached his forties?  (He was born in 1906.) 

The Daily Telegraph--and what doesn't the Daily Telegraph know?--tells us that the male mid-life crisis on average starts at age forty-three and lasts from three to ten years.  Carr turned forty-three in late 1949, so if he conformed to this supposed average, he could have been in crisis throughout the entire decade of the 1950s and possibly into the 1960s, not long before his stroke.  Today lists these "signs" of a mid-life crisis:

1. He says life is a bore
2. He is thinking about (or already is) having an affair
3. He is suddenly making impetuous decisions about money and/or his career
4. He makes a dramatic change in his personal style or appearance
5. He has little interest in spending time (or having sex) with you
6. He is drinking too much or abusing other substances
7. He is displaying the classic signs of depression--sleeping more, loss of appetite, malaise
8. He is overly nostalgic and constantly reminiscing about his youth

I don't know about you, but it seems to me self-evident that Carr displayed a lot of these symptoms.

While visiting New York in 1945, Carr, accompanied by his bibliophile friend Frederic Dannay (one half of Ellery Queen), toured New York's antiquarian bookshops, in search of works by an author who was one of his adolescent favorites: the recently deceased mystery writer Carolyn Wells, about whom readers may recall I have blogged quite a bit here.  Carr zealously purchased a complete set of Wells' eighty-two detective novels, but when he returned to England later that year, he found that customs officials would not allow him to bring the books--American imports--into the country.  Only after some six months of wrangling did the British government finally relent.  Recalling the incident in a letter to Dannay, Carr thundered: "The regulations in this country grow more and more damnable.  One more war for liberty and we shall all be slaves."

If purchasing eighty-two Carolyn Wells mystery novels is not an "overly nostalgic" and an "impetuous decision about money," I don't know what is.  Not to mention buying them without checking with British customs first.

At some point later in his life, either in the 1950s or mid-sixties, Carr nostalgically (that word again!) reminisced to the much younger Edmund Crispin (born in 1921, he was fifteen years younger than Carr) about the fun of the many bibulous antics they enjoyed together in the late 1940s.  Check off more bullet points on that Today list!

clarinettist at the Mandrake Club, Soho
"London's only Bohemian rendezvous,"
where Carr, Crispin and Anthony Berkeley
divulged "sexual preferences"
(photo by Harold Chapman)
Those were the days, weren't they?

When, e.g., I fell drunkenly asleep on Christianna Brand's ample bosom in a taxi, and she had the greatest difficulty in shifting me; when you and Tony Berkeley and I indulged in maudlin confessions of our sexual preferences one late afternoon in the Mandrake Club; when I tried, after four bottles of champagne and two of brandy apiece, to fight a duel with you in your Hampstead flat with (unbuttoned) foils; when your splendid little Holmes parody was mounted with the utmost grandeur, and a stunning cast, at the Detection Club; when I had to prevent you, at the IMA, from attacking single-handed six RAF men whom you conceived (I don't know whether correctly) to have said something derogatory about you; and many, many other things, in other places, on other occasions.

Lucky Christianna Brand!  I'm sure there's no fun like having a drunk in a taxi fall asleep on your "ample bosom" and not want to dislodge himself.  When you recall that both Carr and Crispin were alcoholics whose lives were blighted by that disease, some of this "fun" pales, I think.  Carr's disgruntlement with his present and nostalgia for his younger, better days reminds me of this recent SNL skit with fifty-one-year-old comedic actor Will Farrell.

Whatever the causes, that Carr's writing began changing, generally to its detriment, around mid-century is clear.  Although he produced several really fine books and at least one genre masterpiece in the Fifties, these were all historical mysteries.  The non-historical mysteries are inferior to their predecessors, sometimes markedly so.  And the historicals from the late Fifties and early Sixties are generally inferior to the ones from the early to mid-Fifties.  After Carr's stroke in 1963, the decline in the quality of his work became steep indeed.  Characters in these books desperately try to recapture their youth with affairs and juvenile hi-jinx (playing baseball and singing college songs and goosing women), but reading about all this is merely tedious, if not sad, to the Carr fan simply in search of a good mystery.

Below I rank the Carrs from this period, which extended from 1950 to 1972, about half of Carr's career as a mystery novelist.  It's definitely the inferior half.  It's hard to recover the vim of lost youth.

John Dickson Carr Novels, 1950-1972

1. The Bride of Newgate (1950) ****
Carr immediately reinvigorated his writing with this grand swashbuckling historical mystery.  (His previous two novels, Below Suspicion and A Graveyard to Let, both published in 1949, had his old series sleuth standbys, respectively Dr. Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale.)  A nice little miracle problem (vanishing room) and considerable narrative elan.

2. The Devil in Velvet (1951) *****
The first of Carr's time slip novels (where a modern-day character somehow enters the past), this is an even stronger historical mystery than the zestful Bride, in my view. It's set in Carr's favorite time and place, Jacobean England, and is a character-driven mystery novel with a sinister edge, courtesy of Lucifer himself. 

Like his characters, Carr himself doubtlessly fantasized about going back to the seventeenth century and swashing away; and he really put his heart into this superb mystery fantasy, something of a companion piece to his non-fictional true crime study, The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey.  It's a tour de force, and, in my estimation, his last true masterpiece in the crime fiction genre.

3. The 9 Wrong Answers (1952) **1/2
Some people really like this one, indeed they rank it as a genre masterpiece, but I don't share that enthusiasm.  It takes us back to the present day, but I find it to be a sort of stunt story, reflective of Carr's (excellent) radio plays.  Indeed, it was as I recollect based on a terrific radio suspense play, "Will You Make a Bet with Death?".  As a novel, it seemed contrived and unconvincing to me, with an uninteresting set of characters with whom we have to spend a lot of time.  The twist packs a punch, however--if you find it fair.  Critic Anthony Boucher didn't!  Doug Greene also questioned the veracity of one of those famous footnotes.

4. Captain Cut-Throat (1955) ****
Another fine historical.  Terrific tension and some memorable action scenes put it up to the level of the previous two.  It's Carr's take on a popular mystery form in the Cold War Fifties, the espionage novel, though characteristically he takes us back to an earlier time: the Napoleonic era.  It would make a wonderful film.

5. Patrick Butler for the Defence (1956) *1/2
Carr returned to the present with regrettable results.  He brings back the odious Patrick Butler, one of those modern-day Carr characters who postures intolerably as if he's stepped out of the seventeenth century, and throws in some of his most exasperating women, all of whom parade around in a miracle problem plot adulterated with extraneous matter. 

Patrick Butler was more bearable in his first book, Below Suspicion (1949), when he shared the stage with Dr. Fell.  Here Carr seems more interested in some sort of "battles of the sexes" social comedy, which would best have been left to the Crime Queens and their followers.

6. Fire, Burn! (1957) ****
A solid historical mystery, time slip again, with probably the best formal detection of any of his historicals.

7. The Dead Man's Knock (1958) ***1/2
Carr takes us to an American college campus and introduces us to the most dysfunctional group of professors this side of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Brings back Dr. Fell after a near decade's absence (!); Sir Henry Merrivale came to America, why not Dr. Fell?  Better than Patrick Butler for the Defence, thankfully, with a modest but neat and tidy locked room problem amid the emotional theatrics.  It's actually more restrained than the books which followed.  I call this one underrated.

8. Scandal at High Chimneys (1958)**1/2
Subtitled a "Victorian melodrama," and whoo-boy is it.  Somehow Carr isn't as convincing with the Victorian period as he is the Jacobean and Georgian.  I suspect he just wasn't in sync with the prevailing spirit of the age (i.e., surface decorum and pious public moralism).  But the period window dressing in this one is still nice.

9. In Spite of Thunder (1960)**1/2
Like in the previous book, the author strives too hard to excite by making everything under the sun mysterious.  Also too many characters behave like they stepped out from earlier centuries.  However, the basic puzzle, to the extent we are allowed to focus on it, is quite intriguing (though in the end I thought it fizzled somewhat).  Somewhat reminiscent, if much weaker than, Carr's Forties masterpiece He Who Whispers.  Dr. Fell appears again, but only sporadically, in this, his last appearance for five years.

"We are all demoniacs."  Indeed!
10. The Witch of the Low-Tide (1961)***1/2
Again, there are too many attempts at creating High Tension! However, the puzzle is a good miracle problem one, probably the last of his major, really well-executed ones.  Murder in a bathing hut, with no footprints left on the beach....Also a decent police detective adversary to out hero. memorably named Twigg.  It almost passes as a "modern" mystery, taking place in 1907, just after Carr was born.

11. The Demoniacs (1962) ***1/2
An underrated historical.  There's yet another bickering male-female couple, but somehow they are easier to take in earlier centuries.  I wrote Doug Greene over twenty years ago that while I loved his biography of Carr I thought that in it he gave this novel short shrift.

12. Most Secret (1964) unread
Published after Carr's stroke, but a substantial revision of a novel published thirty years earlier.

13. The House at Satan's Elbow (1965) *1/2
Read nearly thirty years ago by me, a few years before Doug's Carr bio was published.  So I didn't know why it was so disappointing to me.  Now I know that Carr had had a stroke, and nothing he wrote after that, with the exception of Most Secret, was good at all.  The narrative is plodding, characters pose and orate endlessly and attempted murder is not really very exciting, is it?  Lots of classic elements however: an English country house, a diabolical ghost and a locked room, um, near murder.  And Dr. Fell returns (again), though it's not that much of a return.  Still, it's better than what followed.

14. Panic in Box C (1966) *
Horrendously chauvinistic treatment of women, characters act like immature idiots, and, Archons of Athens!, all those dreadful nicknames.  There's an "impossible" murder, but interest in it fades with all the tedious padding and poor writing.  It's the books that's impossible--to read.

15. Dark of the Moon (1967) 1/2
Everything that marred Panic but more so.  So tedious and discursive I couldn't care what happened to anyone.  As far as I'm concerned this is Carr's Postern of Fate, or, to be more generous, since there is an actual locked room problem, his Elephants Can Remember (unless The Hungry Goblin deserves the distinction).  Dr. Fell's final farewell--Harrumph!  I always liked Sir Henry Merrivale better as a sleuth (at least he's often fun), but the elephantine, scholarly, beer-swilling doctor deserved a better exit.  At least Merrivale's last appearance was in an excellent Fifties novelette, as bad as The Cavalier's Cup may have been. (To be fair, though, not everyone agrees.)

16. Papa La-Bas (1968) *
With this one Carr returned to historicals, maybe realizing he simply couldn't recapture his narrative elan in the present day.  Sadly, this shows he couldn't do it in the past either.  Carr was, in short, played out at the age of 62.  It's New Orleans with the inevitable voodoo (I used to have hardcover copy I bought in Baton Rouge), but somehow Carr, the past master of atmosphere, manages to make it all utterly boring.  Not to mention his ideas about the antebellum American South are pretty dreadful (and the postwar South too for that matter).

17. The Ghosts' High Noon (1969) **
Better than its immediate predecessors but still weak broth.  If you must read one from this period, this would be it, however, unless you have a really high tolerance for claptrap.

18. Deadly Hall (1971) *
Should have been called Deadly Dull Hall.  To be sure it's more restrained that Panic and Moon, but it's just bo-ring!

19. The Hungry Goblin (1972) unread
Nothing I have read about this book makes me want to read it, except the idea of Wilkie Collins as a detective.  Doug Greene thought it was too poor to reprint, but can it really be worse than Dark of the Moon?  Doug says yes!  Here is a contrary view.

Novels as Carter Dickson, 1950-1953

This one gives me a headache too!
1. Night at the Mocking Widow (1950) *
One of Carr's most synthetic attempts at an English village mystery.  People behave like maniacs, led by Sir Henry Merrivale, whose comically eccentric behavior from past novels here tips over from amusingly bizarre to appallingly antisocial.  The villagers are almost as bad.  For a conservative writer, Carr by this time seems remarkably hostile to organized religion.  His over-the-top hatred for Russian novelists is striking as well.  There's a miracle problem, but it didn't impress me.  More invective than entertainment. Certainly not a great mystery!

Merrivale went on to have two more adventures in novel form, but I've never read them because Doug's comments in his bio are not encouraging.  These are:

"You fool!  How could you like this novel?!"
2. Behind the Crimson Blind (1952) unread

3. The Cavalier's Cup (1953) unread

4. Fear Is the Same (1956) ***
Another time slip period mystery. To me this was the least interesting of the bunch but it's not bad.

So to sum up, of the 23 mystery novels Carr published between 1950 and 1972, I would rank my favorites as follows (obviously discounting the unread ones):

1. The Devil in Velvet (1951)

Very Good
2. Captain Cut-Throat (1955)
3. The Bride of Newgate (1950)
4. Fire, Burn! (1957)

5. The Dead Man's Knock (1958)
6. The Witch of the Low-Tide (1961)
7. The Demoniacs (1962)
8. Fear is the Same (1956)

And the worst:
1. Dark of the Moon (1967)
2. Panic in Box C (1966)
3. Papa La-Bas (1968)
4. Night at the Mocking Widow (1950)

Behind the Crimson Blind or The Cavalier's Cup surely are contenders, however!  Not to mention The Hungry Goblin, which still awaits.  Brrrgh!!!


  1. Thank you for this fascinating post, Curt! Glad to see you rate my beloved Captain Cut-Throat so highly. I think it's even better than The Bride of Newgate, The Devil in Velvet and Fire, Burn!. Although the much earlier The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey is his strongest historical novel. You can almost smell the past through Carr's writing in that one!

    Sadly, Carr is never acknowledged as one of the pioneers of the historical mystery novel. The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey predates Victor Luhrs' The Longbow Murder, Lillian de la Torre's Dr. Sam Johnson, Detector and Agatha Christie's Death Comes as the End, but also wrote them regularly during the 1950s alongside Robert van Gulik – who certainly helped popularize the historical mystery novel. Carr and Van Gulik wrote knowledgeably about the historical settings of their stories and seamlessly integrated it with a modern detective plot, which helped legitimize it as a sub-genre. They both included impossible crimes and hints of the supernatural in their historical mysteries.

    Behind the Crimson Blind is not as bad some make it out to be. Sure, it's a typically late title in the series with a weak plot and comedy-bits that can be a little forced at times, but still more readable than the last three Dr. Fell novels. I would rather reread it than, let's say, The House at Satan's Elbow or Dark of the Moon. Dr. Fell showed have retired after The Dead Man's Knock and In Spite of Thunder, which still showed why Carr was the Master of the Locked Room Mystery.

    1. Sadly, Carr is never acknowledged as one of the pioneers of the historical mystery novel.

      Is this so? I've always regarded him as such and have assumed everyone else thinks likewise.

    2. Yes, I definitely share your admiration for Captain Cut-Throat. A rollicking adventure. On the whole I think Carr probably just should have stuck to historicals from the Fifties on, he had a good run at it for a dozen years.

      I think his last books are quite poor, sadly, but he he was laboring under a lot of difficulties and I suppose it's remarkable that he was able to do what he did. It showed a lot of determination.

      I'll have to take on Blind and Cup. That and Hungry Goblin are about all that's left that I haven't read. I'm reading A Graveyard to Let now, which somehow I missed all these years, and I think it's quite good. Maybe not as good as a decade earlier, but impressive withal.

    3. Sorry for the late response, but lost sight of this comment-thread for a while.

      "Is this so? I've always regarded him as such and have assumed everyone else thinks likewise."

      My impression is that Carr is generally considered as a mystery writer who wrote some historical detective novels without appreciating the part he played in popularizing the historical mystery genre. I've always assumed this was due to Golden Age and historical mysteries having largely separate readers that only partially overlap.

      "Yes, I definitely share your admiration for Captain Cut-Throat. A rollicking adventure. On the whole I think Carr probably just should have stuck to historicals from the Fifties on, he had a good run at it for a dozen years."

      Captain Cut-Throat also has Carr's best written action/adventure scene in the Field of Balloons. From all of his work, Captain Cut-Throat is probably the best fitted for a TV or movie adaptation. You're absolutely right Carr should have stuck with historical adventures/mysteries after the 1940s. Carr was able to largely mask the difficulties he was struggling with in his historical novels. I mean, the very late and flawed The Ghosts' High Noon is a masterpiece compared to the last three Dr. Fell titles.

      "I'm reading A Graveyard to Let now, which somehow I missed all these years, and I think it's quite good. Maybe not as good as a decade earlier, but impressive withal."

      I've read an obscure Dutch translation of A Graveyard to Let with a gorgeous cover and liked it very much. Not one of Carr's best, but definitely an enjoyable read. I loved H.M. standing in the subway being as good as gold, not bothering anybody, when a riot broke out around him. :D

    4. "Captain Cut-Throat also has Carr's best written action/adventure scene in the Field of Balloons."

      Oh, yes, the balloon scene is fantastic. Anyone who thinks he "can't write" should read that. Splendid.

  2. A tremendous essay, Curt: many thanks! You've exacerbated my recurrent itch to sit down and read/reread front to back all of the JDC/CD books I own.

    That said:

    (a) I'm the person in the room (there's always one) who likes Patrick Butler for the Defence; and

    (b) and what doesn't the Daily Telegraph know? Just about everything, frankly. I wouldn't trust a word the Telegraph printed. It used to be a quality newspaper even if its politics often stank; it's become a gutter rag that's not much if at all above the Mail or the Express or the Sun.

    1. Don't worry, I had my tongue in cheek on the Telegraph line! ;)

      I've got some more plans for Carr in the next few months, so stay tuned. Glad you liked it. I will always recall the great enjoyment his books gave me when I started reading them thirty years ago.

  3. Oh, dang, I forgot: Google managed to disenfranchise me recently. The impertinently "Unknown" commenter above is, well, moi.

    John Grant/Noirish

    1. Yes, I know you! Thanks for commenting, despite the hassles.

  4. I tell you what, John, I will reread Patrick Butler sometime soon. I actually found on rereading Dead Man's Knock that it was better than I recalled, so who knows?

    1. 'Course, maybe I should reread it too! It's been a while. It's not at all impossible I'd find my views on it had changed.

    2. We'll see! I actually liked The Dead Man's Knock quite a bit better on rereading like two decades later.

    3. I found my copy more quickly than anticipated and was relieved/surprised to find I still enjoyed the book quite a lot: a thoroughly entertaining romp. I see that The Green Capsule is in accord with me on this -- again a relief, this time to know I'm not the only one!

    4. Green Capsule likes several better than I did, I included a couple of links. Actually I have already reread one on my list and liked it better than I did before, so we'll see. After twenty years or more, there's joy in rediscovery!

  5. The Cavalier's Cup is a full-on comic novel. It's pretty good, if very broad. The solution to the mystery is first-rate. One of the best of his later work.