Saturday, November 30, 2019

John Dickson Carr at the Heights

John Dickson Carr
presumably taken in 1927,
after Carr had left Haverford College
and was about to travel to Europe

There seems to be a tradition that fiction writers be poor students in mathematics and science, and mystery writer John Dickson Carr certainly seems to have lived up to that fine tradition.  At Haverford College, located near Bryn Mawr about three miles west of Philadelphia,where future crime writers Richard Webb and Milton Propper then lived, Carr attended classes for two years, from 1925 to 1927. However, we learn from Doug Greene in his biography of "Jack" Carr (as he was known in his college years) that in Carr's sophomore year at Haverford his combined grade was 52.6, when an average grade of 65 was required to move on to the next level.  His total score in algebra was a 2 (out of a possible 100), which his economics score was 16--admittedly eight times better than his algebra grade!  (How's that for math?)

Doug reports that, all this notwithstanding,  Haverford nevertheless was willing to allow the precocious Carr, who had already already distinguished himself for his writing if not his ciphering, to return to school for the junior term-- but only if he passed the entrance examination for plane geometry. 

"For almost the first time," Doug writes, Carr "studied for a mathematics test."  Carr made an "astonishing grade" by his standard--a 35--but that was nowhere near good enough; so out went he.  At the age of twenty, Carr found he would have to prove himself as a writer or be condemned by his father to pursue a career in law.  Horrors!  (He did get to take a trip to Europe though.)

Brooklyn Heights houses
Carr's house was demolished but these
brownstones suggest the ambience
In 1930, three years after leaving Haverford, College, Carr published his first detective novel, It Walks by Night, with American publisher Harpers, whose mystery writers stable also included Freeman Wills Crofts, then one of the most prominent mystery writers in the world. Carr's debut novel proved successful enough to launch his own career as a mystery writer.  At the age of twenty-three Carr left his parents and moved to Brooklyn Heights, New York, where with Edward Delafield, an employee at Harpers, he rented a third floor apartment with a bedroom, kitchen and an octagonal front room facing New York Harbor. 

Henry Tomlinson, another Harper's employee, sometimes shared the apartment with Carr and Delafield as well.  Both Tomlinson and Delafield recalled Carr furiously crafting crime fiction there, according to an article about Carr's life at this time:

[Carr] was apt to come sprinting out of the shower, crying, "I've got it!"  He would pick up a newspaper and, seeking out the crime notes, as was his habit, seize cheerfully on a brief, routine suicide.  "He would twist it and turn it around," says Delafield, "and before long it would emerge as a full-fledged book plot.  And the next thing we knew, he'd have it written and published."  Tomlinson once asked Carr if he had undue trouble with plots.  Fixing him with a Holmesian glare, Carr replied, "I've had exactly hundred and twenty complete plots outlined, for emergencies, since I was eleven years old." 

Appropriately enough Carr and his friends played the fashionable game of Murder at the Brooklyn Heights apartment, and, less happily, Carr in these days also commenced his many years of heavy drinking.  After he completed the typescript for a book, Doug Greene writes, Carr "would often get drunk on the bathtub gin that he, Delafield and Reynolds produced."

Another of Carr's friends was Jack Reynolds, who met Carr, Doug notes, "at a party given by Harpers to celebrate the release of Carr's second novel, The Lost Gallows."  Reynolds worked for the Munson Steamship Company (his father was the company secretary), and he arranged a trip to Cuba for Carr in May 1931.  As what Carr termed a prank, Reynolds had his friend sent on the Norwegian steamship Gunny as a supercargo: i.e., a representative of the ship's owner, responsible for overseeing the ship's cargo and its sale.  Built in 1920, SS Gunny was later torpedoed in the West Indies by the Germans in 1942.

SS Gunny
Carr, who was listed as being 5'6" with brown hair, fair complexion and gray eyes, surrendered his 1930 passport in exchange for a seaman's certificate.  The photo attached to his certification is pictured above, I think for the first time.  Presumably this photo was taken in 1927, when Carr was but twenty years old.  Of the 1927 photo Doug has written:

Unlike most passport photos, John's shows him at his best.  The unprepossessing boy had matured into a good-looking man, with large, almost dreamy eyes and the hint of a smile.

It was on board another ship in 1930 that Carr would meet and fall for his future wife, Englishwoman Clarice Cleaves.


  1. Why did he have to surrender his passport?

    1. Quoting Doug: "he had to surrender his passport in exchange for a seaman's ticket."

  2. Carr's dislike of mathematics is certainly something which recurs in the books. A bit sad, you would think he could like the puzzle-solving aspect and the focus on rational thinking.

    1. Yeah, his buddy John Street was an electrical engineer who loved applying mechanical science to his mystery fiction.