Carr, John Dickson (1906-1977)

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Carr, John Dickson (1906-1977)

Considered one of the twentieth century's grand masters of the detective story for his innovative use of subtlety, ingenuity, and atmosphere, John Dickson Carr, alias Carter Dickson and Carr Dickson, produced numerous short stories, non-fiction works, and over 70 neo-gothic and historical mystery novels during his lifetime. His best known tales, commonly referred to as locked room mysteries, feature horrific crimes committed seemingly without human agents; subsequently, his sleuths must exercise pure reason to solve them. Amidst an atmosphere of suspense, a small dose of the supernatural, and sometimes high comedy, Carr cleverly presents clues, suspects, and motives such that few readers are able to predict the solutions. His characters Henri Bencolin, Dr. Gideon Fell, Sir Henry Merrivale, and Colonel March rank high among the most memorable detectives within the genre, and Carr's skill in detailing their exploits continues to influence contemporary mystery novelists in the 1990s.

Born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, on November 30, 1906, Carr first gained his lifelong interest in crime and detection from his father, Wooda Nicholas Carr, a politician and lawyer. From an early age, he enjoyed reading authors L. Frank Baum, Alexandre Dumas, and Robert Louis Stevenson, though he later preferred the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and G. K. Chesterton. In his early teens, he began writing for a local newspaper and developed a keen interest in detective stories that featured solutions to impossible crimes. He attended the Hill, a preparatory school, and entered Haverford College in 1925. At Haverford, Carr's writing career blossomed. After becoming editor of The Haverfordian, a monthly literary magazine, he began to write not only short historical romances, but also a series of detective stories about impossible crimes solved by Paris policeman Henri Bercolin.

Circa 1928, Carr's parents sent him to Paris to study at the Sorbonne; however, Carr never attended the school and seriously pursued writing instead. Determined to hone his craft in Paris, he wrote but later destroyed an historical novel, then wrote another Henri Bencolin story entitled "Grand Guignol." Upon his return to America, he submitted this manuscript to The Haverfordian, which published it as a short novel in early 1929. Carr later revised the story, expanded its length, and submitted the manuscript to Harper & Bros. Published in 1930, It Walks by Night marked the beginning of Carr's successful career as a detective novelist. In 1932, he married Clarice Cleaves, an Englishwoman, and the following year, moved to England. During the remainder of the 1930s, he produced three to five novels a year, adding Dr. Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale to his repertoire of impossible crime solvers. He also began to write short stories for popular magazines. In 1935, he published "Terror's Dark Tower," one of his best short stories about murder in a sealed room, and by the end of the decade, his works were regularly featured in major magazines such as The Illustrated London News and The Strand.

During the 1940s, Carr produced fewer mystery novels; his talents were needed elsewhere. Supporting the war effort, he wrote and narrated propaganda broadcasts for the British Broadcasting Corporation. Concurrently, he also wrote mystery dramas for the BBC and CBS network in America and was instrumental in creating the style of the great radio plays. At the end of World War II, he began a definitive biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that was eventually published in 1949.

Dissatisfied with the rise of socialism in England, Carr returned to America with his family in 1948 and was elected President of the Mystery Writers of America in 1949. During this period, he embarked on a new phase in his writing career. A lifelong admirer of the past, he decided to write mysteries situated in specific historical time frames and that sometimes involved time travel. This innovative decision proved fortuitous; his meticulously researched historical novels received both critical and popular acclaim. In 1950, he published The Bride of Newgate, a high adventure set in 1815 England. The following year, he published The Devil in Velvet, in which a modern professor bargains with Satan for a transfer back to eighth-century England. Considered by Carr to be his best work, The Devil in Velvet was the most successful of his novels.

Between 1951 and 1965, Carr moved back and forth between England and America before finally settling in Greenville, South Carolina. Due to increasing ill health, he wrote no more fiction after 1972, but contributed to a review column in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and began a series about seventeenth-and eighteenth-century criminals which was never completed. He died March 1, 1977, at age 70.

During his lifetime, Carr was the recipient of the Mystery Writers of America's highest honor, the Grand Master Award, and was the first American ever admitted into the almost exclusively British Detection Club. Indeed, his stories reflect the qualities that he felt should always be present in the detective novel at its best: fair play, sound plot construction, and ingenuity.

—Marlena E. Bremseth

Further Reading:

Greene, Douglas G. John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles. New York, Otto Penzler Books, 1995.

——, editor. The Door to Doom and Other Detections. New York, Harper & Row, 1980.

Panck, Leroy. Watteau's Shepherds: The Detective Novel in Britain, 1914-1940. Bowling Green, Ohio, Popular Press, 1979.