John Dickson Carr

From Academic Kids

John Dickson Carr (November 30, 1905 - February 27, 1977) was a prolific American-born author of detective stories who also published under the pen names Carter Dickson, Carr Dickson, and Roger Fairbairn. He is generally regarded as one of the greatest writers of so-called "Golden Age" mysteries, complex, plot-driven stories in which the puzzle is paramount. Most of his many novels and short stories feature the elucidation, by an eccentric detective, of apparently impossible, and seemingly supernatural, crimes. He was influenced in this regard by the works of Gaston Leroux and by the Father Brown stories of G. K. Chesterton. Carr modeled his major detective, the fat and genial lexicographer Dr. Gideon Fell, on Chesterton.


Life and Works

Carr was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, the son of a sometime Democratic Congressman. He attended Hill School, where he was a mediocre student preoccupied with fledgling attempts at writing mystery stories. While studying abroad he married an Englishwoman, Clarice Cleaves, in 1931 and settled in England. They raised three children there before moving to the United States in 1948. Most of his books written through the mid-1950s are set in England or in Europe, and at one point there was speculation that "Carr" was a pen name used by the famous English humorist P. G. Wodehouse.

Carr was a master of the locked room mystery, in which a detective solves apparently impossible crimes. Examples of such crimes are murder inside a locked and sealed room, or the discovery of a dead body (strangled or knifed at close quarters) surrounded by snow or wet sand in which no footprints but the victim's are visible. The Dr. Fell mystery The Three Coffins (aka The Hollow Man) (1935), usually considered Carr's masterpiece, features crimes that are variations on both of these scenarios and that has a notable discourse by Dr. Fell on the nature of impossible crimes. It was selected as the best locked-room mystery of all time by a panel of mystery writers and Dr. Fell's discourse is sometimes printed as a stand-alone essay.

Many of the Fell novels feature two or more different impossible crimes, including He Who Whispers (1946) and The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941). The novel The Crooked Hinge (1938) weaves a seemingly impossible throat-slashing, witchcraft, an eerie automaton modelled on Johann Maelzel's chess player, and a case similar to that of the Tichborne claimant into what is often cited as one of the greatest classics of detective fiction. But even Carr's biographer, Douglas G. Greene (John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles), notes that the explanation, like many of Carr's in other books, seriously stetches plausibility and the reader's credulity.

Besides Dr. Fell, Carr mysteries feature three other series detectives: Sir Henry Merrivale (H.M.), Henri Bencolin, and Colonel March. Many of the Merrivale novels, written under the Carter Dickson byline, rank with Carr's best work, including the highly praised The Judas Window (1938). A few of his works do not feature a series detective - the most famous, The Burning Court (1937) concerns witchcraft, poisoning, and a body that disappears from a sealed crypt in suburban Philadelphia; it was the basis for the French film La Chambre ardente (1962). The book is notable for an apparently supernatural ending that contradicts an earlier, rational explanation of the mysterious events.

Carr also wrote many radio scripts, particularly for the BBC, and some screenplays. His 1943 half-hour radio play Cabin B-13 was expanded into a series on CBS in the early 1950s for which Carr wrote all of the scripts, basing some on earlier works or re-presenting devices that Chesterton had used. That radio play was also expanded into the script for the 1953 film Dangerous Crossing, directed by Joseph M. Newman and starring Michael Rennie and Jeanne Crain.

1942's The Emperor's Snuffbox became the 1957 British film production That Woman Opposite.

In 1950 Carr wrote a novel called The Bride of Newgate, set during the Napoleonic Wars, and this may be called the first full-length historical whodunnit. The Devil in Velvet and Fire, Burn! are the two historicals with which he himself was most pleased.

With Adrian Conan Doyle, the youngest son of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Carr wrote a majority of the Sherlock Holmes stories that were published in the 1954 collection The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes {ISBN 0157203383}.

Late in life Carr developed an interest in the Southern United States, and a number of his last books are set there. He died in South Carolina.

Dr. Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale

Carr's two major detectives, Dr. Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale, are, superficially, quite similar. Both are large, blustery, upper-class, eccentric Englishman somewhere between middle-aged and elderly. Dr. Fell, however, who was frankly fat and walked only with the aid of two canes, was clearly modeled on the British writer G. K. Chesterton and was at all times a model of civility and geniality. He had a great mop of untidy hair that was often covered by a "shovel hat" and he generally wore a cape. He lived in a modest cottage and had no official connection to any public authorities. H.M., on the other hand, although stout and with a majestic "corporation", was physically active and was feared for his ill-temper and noisy rages. A well-heeled descendant of the "oldest baronecy" in England, he was an Establishment figure (even though he frequently railed against it) and in the earlier novels was the head of the British Secret Service. Even in the earliest books the bald, bespectacled, and scowling H.M. was clearly a Churchillian figure and in the later novels this similarity was somewhat more consciously evoked.

Recently, the Dr. Fell books have generally been considered to be Carr's major achievement. Earlier, however, H.M. had been regarded more favorably by a number of critics. Howard Haycraft, author of the seminal Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story, wrote in 1941 that H.M. or "The Old Man" was "the present writer's admitted favorite among contemporary fictional sleuths."

Novels as John Dickson Carr

Missing image
1960 paperback edition
  • It Walks By Night (detective Henri Bencolin) - 1930
  • Castle Skull (Bencolin) - 1931
  • The Lost Gallows (Bencolin) - 1931
  • Poison In Jest - 1932
  • The Corpse In The Waxworks (Bencolin) - 1932 (British title: The Waxworks Murder)
  • Hag's Nook (detective Dr. Gideon Fell) - 1933
  • The Mad Hatter Mystery (Fell) - 1933
  • The Blind Barber (Fell) - 1934
  • The Eight Of Swords (Fell) - 1934
  • Death-Watch (Fell) - 1935
  • The Three Coffins (Fell) - 1935 (British title: The Hollow Man)
  • The Arabian Nights Murder (Fell) - 1936
  • The Burning Court - 1937
  • The Four False Weapons, Being the Return of Bencolin (Bencolin) - 1938
  • To Wake The Dead (Fell) - 1938
  • The Crooked Hinge (Fell) - 1938
  • The Problem Of The Green Capsule (Fell) - 1939 (British title: The Black Spectacles)
  • The Problem Of The Wire Cage (Fell) - 1939
  • The Man Who Could Not Shudder (Fell) - 1940
  • The Case of the Constant Suicides (Fell) - 1941
  • Death Turns The Tables (Fell) - 1942 (British title: The Seat Of The Scornful)
  • The Emperor's Snuffbox - 1942
  • Till Death Do Us Part (Fell) - 1944
  • He Who Whispers (Fell) - 1946
  • The Sleeping Sphinx (Fell) - 1947
  • Below Suspicion (Fell) - 1949 (also features Patrick Butler)
  • The Bride Of Newgate - 1950, historical mystery
  • The Devil In Velvet - 1951, historical mystery
  • The Nine Wrong Answers - 1952
  • Captain Cut-Throat - 1955, historical mystery
  • Patrick Butler For The Defence (detective Patrick Butler) - 1956
  • Fire, Burn! - 1957, historical mystery
  • The Dead Man's Knock (Fell) - 1958
  • Scandal At High Chimneys: A Victorian Melodrama - 1959, historical mystery
  • In Spite Of Thunder (Fell) - 1960
  • The Witch Of The Lowtide: An Edwardian Melodrama - 1961, historical mystery
  • The Demoniacs - 1962, historical mystery
  • Most Secret - 1964 (This was a revision of a novel by Carr that was published in 1934 as Devil Kinsmere under the pseudonym "Roger Fairbairn")
  • The House At Satan's Elbow (Fell) - 1965
  • Panic In Box C (Fell) - 1966
  • Dark Of The Moon (Fell) - 1968
  • Papa La-Bas - 1968, historical mystery
  • The Ghosts' High Noon - 1970, historical mystery
  • Deadly Hall - 1971, historical mystery
  • The Hungry Goblin: A Victorian Detective Novel - 1972, (Wilkie Collins is the detective)

Novels as Carter Dickson

Missing image
1987 paperback edition
  • The Bowstring Murders - 1934 (Originally published as by Carr Dickson, but Carr's publishers complained that the name was too similar to Carr's real name, so Carter Dickson was substituted.)
  • The Plague Court Murders (detective: Sir Henry Merrivale) - 1934
  • The White Priory Murders (Merrivale) - 1934
  • The Red Widow Murders (Merrivale) - 1935
  • The Unicorn Murders (Merrivale) - 1935
  • The Magic Lantern Murders (Merrivale) -1936 (British title: The Punch And Judy Murders)
  • The Peacock Feather Murders (Merrivale) - 1937 (British title: The Ten Teacups)
  • Death In Five Boxes (Merrivale) - 1938
  • The Judas Window (Merrivale) - 1938
  • Fatal Descent (in collaboration with John Rhode) - 1939 (British title: Drop To His Death)
  • The Reader Is Warned (Merrivale) - 1939
  • And So To Murder (Merrivale) - 1940
  • Nine - And Death Makes Ten (Merrivale) - 1940 (British title: Murder In The Submarine Zone)
  • Seeing Is Believing (Merrivale) - 1941
  • The Gilded Man (Merrivale) - 1942
  • She Died A Lady (Merrivale) - 1943
  • He Wouldn't Kill Patience (Merrivale) - 1944
  • The Curse Of The Bronze Lamp (Merrivale) - 1945 (British title: Lord Of The Sorcerors)
  • My Late Wives (Merrivale) - 1946
  • The Skeleton In The Clock (Merrivale) - 1948
  • A Graveyard To Let (Merrivale) - 1949
  • Night At The Mocking Widow (Merrivale) - 1950
  • Behind The Crimson Blind (Merrivale) - 1952
  • The Cavalier's Cup (Merrivale) - 1953
  • Fear Is The Same - 1956, historical mystery

Short story collections

  • The Department of Queer Complaints (as Carter Dickson) (detective: Colonel March) - 1940
  • Dr. Fell, Detective, and Other Stories - 1947 (Fell)
  • The Third Bullet and Other Stories - 1954
  • The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes, with Adrian Conan Doyle - 1954 (Sherlock Holmes)
  • The Men Who Explained Miracles (Fell, Merrivale, and others)


  • The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey - 1936, historical recreation of a noted murder in 1678
  • The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - 1949, the authorized biography

See also

External links

sv:John Dickson Carr


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