Forgotten authors No.50: John Dickson Carr

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The Independent Culture

Sometimes authors fall out of favour simply because they relentlessly pursue a single theme. Pennsylvania-born John Dickson Carr (1906-1977) hit on the ultimate mystery, the murder that takes place in a hermetically sealed room, and wrote variations that increased in ornate complexity, with cliffhanger chapter ends and solutions that still have readers slapping their foreheads.

Writing prolifically under a number of pseudonyms, including Carter Dickson, Carr became one of the great American writers of "Golden Age" mysteries. Although his plots stretch credulity in the extreme, therein lies their great pleasure. His sleuth Dr Gideon Fell, fat and rumpled, with a cape, cane and monocle, was modelled on GK Chesterton, and Sir Henry Merrivale, blustery, noisy, Churchillian, is parodied in the play Sleuth.

Sadly, we live in a time of no patience for barmy British sleuths who uncover insanely complex murders, and Carr wasn't remotely interested in offering realism or relevance. Instead, he provided cases that involved witchcraft, eerie disappearances, snowstorms, impossible footprints, a hangman's ghost, corpses that walk through walls, and a victim who dives into a swimming pool and vanishes, combining an infectious joy with a powerful sense of the macabre.

After marrying an Englishwoman named Clarice Cleaves, Carr moved to England and produced a string of classics, including The Judas Window, in which he suggests that every room in London has a window only a murderer can see; and The Hollow Man, involving a Transylvanian legend about being buried alive, and generally regarded as his greatest locked-room mystery: a murderer kills his victim and literally vanishes, reappearing in the middle of an empty street to strike again, with watchers at either end who see nothing and no footprints appearing in freshly fallen snow. The book has a famously jaw-dropping denouement.

Although he is regarded as a pulp writer, most of Carr's output possesses the graceful reliability of crafted clockwork. His writing is exotic, antiquarian, gruesome and steeped in gothic imagery, yet filled with a sense of Wodehousian slapstick. In 1949, Carr had a great success with the authorised biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, then turned to writing historical whodunits. Legions of fans have kept his name alive on the internet – even if his books are hard to find.

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