The problem with attempting to widen your reading is that you force yourself to plough through an awful lot of rubbish. Rather like eating your greens, if you consulted your soul the sincerity of your distaste would not be in doubt, yet you struggle on, telling yourself that it is Doing You Good.
There is a cheerful aspect to this abnegation of will however: it is the feeling of freedom and joy you have when you cast aside acid drivel like Bruno Schulz’s Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hour Glass (more of which another day) and decide that you will read another locked room mystery by John Dickson Carr.
In fact, even after reading something completely and unexpectedly wonderful like Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight (more of which another day), you might find yourself rubbing your hands cheerfully and, perhaps with a slightly guilty twinge… reaching for the Dickson Carr.
One the writers from the golden era of detective stories, he has become for me a minor obsession. It got to the stage last year where I became horrified at the rapidity with which I was flying through his books; soon there would be none left, I exclaimed: I needed to ration myself. Yet, like a backsliding drug addict, there I would be the next day, pretending that I was amongst the Cs and Ds in the library because I fancied a stroll, a change of scene, a breath of fre… what’s this? The Case of the Constant Suicides? Interesting. Might as well get it out now, shame to put it back on the shelf – that sort of thing. Then I’d take it home and put it (not very far) aside and tell myself sternly that I was currently reading Locke on perception and the chain of being or Ehrenpreis on Swift, hardly arduous in themslves, in fact perfectly enjoyable, and that I would never finish them if I could so easily be tempted to throw aside their profounder pleasures at the first come hither glimpse of a flighty, gaudily bedecked crime and detection novel…
Of course, all was lost the moment the second I had read one of the irresistable titles: The Hollow Man, The Ten Teacups, Murder in the Submarine Zone, The Blind Barber, The Burning Court, He Who Whispers, The Reader is Warned, Death in Five Boxes, Hags Nook, The Man Who Could Not Shudder…
Poetry, sheer irresistable poetry.
I would then tell myself that I would only read a chapter a night at most, in order to draw out the pleasure – like Charlie with his chocolate bar – before shamelessly devouring it whole at one sitting, cramped up uncomfortably on one elbow in bed, scorching the corners of the pages with hasty fingertips, only turning the last of them, its words barely registering, as the first birds began their petulantly early squawking.
John Dickson Carr was actually published under two names; money was required for a move to his beloved England and he was producing more than the two novels a year his American publishers Harpers were willing to put out. It was decided by Carr and Harpers that British publishers William Morrow could publish the surplus novels under a pseudonym.
Guess what they came up with initially. Go on, guess.
Later changed to the not much better Carter Dickson.
Right, pay attention –
Dickson Carr = Dr Gideon Fell
Carter Dickson = Sir Henry Merrivale
Sir Henry Merrivale is a quite staggeringly irritating detective whose utterances and behaviour defy belief and do a good deal to destroy any atmosphere of dread and puzzlement hitherto established, and who would be first up against the wall when the revolution comes were it not for his unique skill in solving crimes that are apparently insoluble, even supernatural. We’ll probably need some of that after the revolution. He’ll need to keep his mouth shut though or it’s curtains for Sir Henry –
‘I’ve been makin’ a speech, . . . After all, I was only tryin’ to do somebody a good turn, wasn’t I? I’m a member of the Government, ain’t I? It was to help Squiffy out. Y’see, Squiffy was to make the speech…’
and so on and so forth until drowned out by the rattling of an approaching tumbril.
Dr Gideon Fell, based closely on GK Chesterton, has an avuncular manner which is on the whole much more appealing, and which goes a long way towards making the reader want him to succeed. That said I can find all his harrumphing a bit tiresome, and sometimes I want to find Dickson Carr’s grave, disinter him, grab him by whatever remains of his lapels and bawl in his face, ‘DON’T TRY AND SPELL SOMEONE’S LAUGH YOU BASTARD!’ Even if it’s just heh heh heh it’s still fucking annoying.
This is by the bye. Dickson Carr is the undisputed master of the locked room mystery and his novels can on occasion reach a pitch of sinister mystery emulated only by Chesterton himself. It’s not just the locked room that produces the excitement, although that is the engine of the mystery if you like; it’s the freshly fallen, untrodden snow surrounding it, the ten teacups with their painted design of peacock feathers within, the sense of the impossible and the expectation that with the appearance of Dr Fell (or, grudgingly, HM) the impossible will be shown to have happened. It is the mechanics of the mystery, its clothing and its effects, as well as the actual problem itself, that is so appealing. The thrill of expectation I get whenever I pick up a new Dickson Carr is unparalleled by any other writer.
There are problems. He can be rather novelettish when dealing with emotional scenes, of which there are usually one or two in most of his books. I must admit that I don’t really mind this, being a sucker for any sort of romance, but the more world weary reader may find their toes curling a little. The Blind Barber is ruined, as Kingsley Amis has pointed out, by the idea that anything to do with drink or drunkeness is funny; he is on the whole best advised to stay away from comedy, although I don’t particularly mind the brief outbreaks of screwball in The Constant Suicides. In the HM books in particular the humour produces a rather grim set of mouth, or sometimes audible grinding of teeth.
And somewhat reluctantly I have to confess the heresy that I can find his solutions a little, well, what shall we say… a little technical perhaps (The Hollow Man). Hard to imagine, difficult to have worked out, on occasion relying rather heavily on luck (The Ten Teacups), sometimes even on assistance from the author (The Reader is Warned – being an example where Dickson Carr breaks his own rules and gets a character trusted by the reader to lie), even silly on occasion (The Wire Cage). Some readers may not mind this, I do, a little. I feel that although the problem has been logically solved, the elements of the mystery have somehow been lost. This may sound a little abstract – I’ll see if I can rephrase it: I feel that while much of the story appeals (successfully) to the imagination, the end sometimes does not preserve that appeal; it in fact dissolves it.
To be fair, I know of only one story that truly manages to solve a mystery through the same imaginative power that conjured it and that is Chesterton’s The Honour of Israel Gow, where a simple logical change of perspective elegantly solves a perfectly innocent mystery that at one point has had Father Brown exclaiming that ‘the great devil of the universe’ is at work ‘ and ‘roaring like the Apocalypse.’ (Well, he would, you might say, but believe me the circumstances warrant it in this particular case. Very fine opening paragraph too.)
However Dickson Carr is generally more rigorous in his solutions than Chesterton – the clues are there, sometimes even pointed out using page references at the end, and he does not withold any pertinent information; deductive detection takes place and is seen to be taking place. Quite apart from questions of atmosphere this is a remarkable technical achievement, entertainingly conducted for the benefit of the reader, rather than hidden away for the benefit of the author. At their best (The Burning Court, The Hollow Man, The Constant Suicides, The Crooked Hinge) Dickson Carr’s novels are masterpieces of their kind, and beyond their kind as well.
Those who spurn what we must for their benefit dutifully call genre fiction deprive themselves of a very great pleasure; I would consider it a poetic pleasure, the evocation of feelings not entirely rational, quite often primal (rather than cerebral), certainly difficult to explain in everyday terms. That sort of feeling is only produced by works of art.
Feelings of suspense and fear and excitement are, emphatically, not commonplace just because they are enjoyed by many; the riddles of the academic are not superior to the riddles of the criminal, they are just different. I personally tend to find the latter more exciting and interesting than the former.
I’ve gone on far longer than intended. And, in another unfortunate development, it looks like the second volume of The Pickwick Papers is going to be put down for a bit, A Dog at Clambercrown stay unread for another couple of days, a closer look at Auden’s The Orators postponed –
I’ve just gone and got a copy of He Who Whispers from the shelf of the library.
Don’t try ringing – I won’t be in.