John Dickson Carr, the master of the locked room mystery and one of the greatest Golden Age detective novelists, was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania in 1906. His father was a lawyer who served one term in Congress. As a boy he devoured books, especially the adventure novels of Dumas and Stevenson, the fantasy tales of Baum, the detective stories of Doyle, and the horror stories of Poe and Lovecraft. In high school and at Haverford College, he wrote stories in all these genres, including a series of creepy detective stories featuring Inspector Henri Bencolin of the French Surete. In 1928, he went to Paris -- supposedly to study, but really with the intention of becoming a full-time writer. He wrote a historical romance but tore it up. Either in Paris or on his return to the States he expanded one of his Bencolin stories into what became his first published novel, It Walks by Night (1930).
In 1932, Carr married an Englishwoman and the following year they moved to England, where he became a prolific author -- writing four or five books per year. During World War II, Carr worked for the BBC writing propaganda scripts and numerous mystery radioplays, including the classics "Cabin B-13" and "Appointment with Fear." In 1949 he was authorized by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's estate to write the biography of Doyle.
In 1950, he began writing historical detective novels, including three of his most famous novels, The Devil in Velvet, Fire, Burn!, and Fear is the Same. In each of these books, the hero (in what I suspect was wish fulfillment for Carr Himself) travels back in time to an era of adventure and romance -- elements Carr felt had disappeared from the modern world. Carr was by no means the first to write historical mysteries, but his success played a large part in popularizing what has since become a highly popular subgenre.
The first Henri Bencolin novel, It Walks By Night (1930), is typical of the spooky atmosphere and "impossible crime" to be found in most of Carr's novels. A mangled body with a severed head greets Bencolin (promoted from Inspector to Magistrate in the novels) in a closely guarded room at a Paris casino. The doors were closely watched by policemen, the window could not have been entered, and there was no secret door giving access to the room. So how could the Duc de Saligny have been murdered and by who and why? While I enjoyed the sense of the horrific that Carr created, this is not really one of my favorites and I mention it mainly because it was the first.
Bencolin's second full-length adventure, The Lost Gallows (1931), is a tour de force of the bizarre and ominous. It was an exciting read but I found the solutions to the puzzles somewhat of a letdown. Inthe next, Castle Skull (1931), the flaming body of actor Myron Alison performs a danse macabre on the castle battlement before plunging to the earth in a case that seems to suggest that legendary magician Maleger has reached out from beyond the grave to commit murder. This was a real masterpiece of atmosphere. As usual, Bencolin finds the human malefactor hiding behind the pretense of ghostly vengeance.
The Waxworks Murder (1932) was the first novel by Carr that I ever read. I was attracted to it by the lurid cover of a paperback edition which had been retitled The Corpse in the Waxworks. The discovery of the body of a young girl draped across the wax arms of a figure of the Satyr of Seine leads Bencolin to the notorious Silver Key Club, whose masked members indulge in midnight orgies of a bizarre nature. The story was considerably less lurid than the cover (and the description of the orgies was not what a twelve year old boy was hoping for) but it was a very satisfying read nonetheless. Bencolin returns one last time in Four False Weapons (1937), which presents an interesting problem and solution but failed to hold my attention as a story.
The second Carr novel I read was Hag's Nook (1932), in which Dr. Gidon Fell makes his first appearance. Based on G. K. Chesterton, the journalist, novelist, and creator of Father Brown, Dr. Fell was to become Carr's most popular detective character and, in my judgement, the best. Fell is introduced as a lexicographer -- a compiler of dictionaries -- in this novel, but seems to be a historian in the subsequent stories. In the later novels he is working on his magnum opus, to be titled The Drinking Customs of England Since Ancient Times. There is also a Mrs. Fell in Hag's Nook, although she appears only fleetingly, but she is never mentioned again. The novel paints an engaging description of the English countryside seen through the eyes of the story's American narrator and a properly spooky description of the ruined prison that is at the center of the story. The story drags a bit at times but it also has moments of fast action and others of profound suspense. While not among the best of the Fell novels it is defiitely worth reading.
The Mad Hatter Mystery (1933) is widely regarded as being one of Carr's best. It has brilliant atmosphere, a great setting in the Tower of london, and a satisfying puzzle. This is the first of several novels that have been said to present a sort of Arabian Nights view of London as a place where the exotic and the fantastic may lie around any corner. A practical joker, dubbed the Mad Hatter by the press, has been stealing the headgear of various celebrity personages. While the victims may have been outraged, the public has found it hilarious. But when a body is found on the steps of the Traitor's Gate at the Tower of London, with crossbow bolt driven through his heart and a stolen top-hat was on his head, Dr. Fell is called in to catch the Mad Hatter.
With two "impossible" murders and a Transylvanian legend about burial alive, The Three Coffins (1935), has mystery and atmosphere aplenty. The murder of Prof. Grimaud is rendered baffling by a snowstorm, a locked front door, and a vanishing killer. Meanwhile another man is murdered while alone in a snow covered street with no footprints but his own coming anywhere near his corpse. Although some have found fault with the solutions, there is no question that this is a masterpiece of construction and resolution. It is also famous for containing Dr. Fell's lecture on locked room mysteries -- absolute must reading for every mystery fan or mystery writer interested in classic locked room puzzles.
The Judas Window (1938) is one of my two favorites among the novels Carr wrote under the pseudonym Carter Dickson, featuring Sir Henry Merrivale. HM, as he is often referred to in the stories, is a more comic figure than Dr. Fell. In fact, when the books featuring him were first published, a number of critics speculated that they had been written by P. G. Wodehouse. Personally, I have never cared for Carr's attempts at humor and feel that the books would all be much better if both Fell and Merivale had been played straight throughout. I also wish Carr had left out his attempts at providing a romance element in many of the novels -- he had no talent for such writing.
HM is both a physician and a barrister and is connected in some undefined but important way with British Military Intelligence. Similarities some readers perceived between him and Sir Winston Churchill were enhanced by Carr as the series continued.
The Judas WIndow is the only one of Carr/Dicksons novels that is a courtroom drama. HM has taken on the defense of a young man who was found lying unconscious next to the body of a man who had been stabbed to death with an arrow, in a room with bolted steel shutters and a heavy door locked on the inside. HM asserts that the room was not sealed. In fact, he asserts that every room in London has a "Judas window" that only a murderer can see. When the reader finally learns how this impossible crime was committed the solution is stunning in its simplicity and the conviction it carries. Unfortunately, the murderers motive is a good deal less convincing. All in all, however, this book is a great read.
Nine - And Death Makes Ten (1940) is the tale of nine passengers making a wartime transatlantic crossing on a British liner carrying munitions through enemy waters. This is a different sort of fearful atmosphere for one of Carrs novels and it is portrayed nearly as effectively as the wartime background of Christiana Brand's wonderful Green for Danger (1944). In this perfect setting for a "cozy" murder, two violent murders occur. This time, the mystery involves not a locked room but a set of bloody fingerprints--fingerprints that can't be traced to anyone on board. The one flaw of the story is Carr's occasional intrusion of some very unwelcome comic relief.
My favorite HM story is The Curse of the Bronze Lamp (1945) although I would gladly edit out HM's first appearance one of Carr's worst attempts to be funny. The basic story is much better getting its impetus from the fact that an Egyptian seer has warned Lady Helen Loring that a deadly curse will befall anyone who removes from Egypt the ancient bronze lamp recently uncovered by her archaeologist father. Lady Helen intelligently rejects all superstitious talk of curses and takes the lamp back to England, where she promptly disappears, leaving her raincoat and the lamp on the floor, just moments after walking into her own house. Has the lamp "blown her to dust" as predicted or has she suffered a more material fate? Scotland Yard suspects that she has been murdered, but HM insists that she is alive and that he has a good idea of where she is. When her father also disappears under same circumstance, even H.M. has his doubts. In the end, however, HM uncovers the truth. The solution works but only in t5he context of the era of the story and would seem absurd in a contemporary setting today.
He Who Whispers (1946) is my favorite of all Carr's novels. In fact, I would say that it is far and away one of the best mysteries I have ever read. It begins with a gathering from which most of the invited guests are mysteriously absent and at which a foreign visitor tells a strange tale of an apparently supernatural murder, with hints of vampirism. The murder took place atop a ruined Norman tower at the edge of a river. All that remained of the tower was a mere shell with a stone staircase spiralling upwards to a flat stone roof surrounded by a parapet. Howard Brooke was seen to climb the tower's spiral staircase. Two people go up to talk with him, and then he is left alone. The next anyone hears of him is when some children find him run through with a sword. Yet the evidence is absolutely clear that nobody else could have been on the tower during the time within which the murder must have occured.
This crime out of the past is only the beginning. The events that follow include a mysterious femme fatale and another woman literally being nearly frightened to death by a whispering voice. It also contains one of Carr's signature mismatched couples providing "love interest" for the story. This is the only instance I can recall where Carr/Dickson managed to present a romance that was actually fairly believable. In fact, there are two romantic couples in this book and neither relationship was an irritating digression -- both actually forwarded the story instead of interrupting it the way that such couples do in his other works.
I'm not particularly a fan of Carr's historical mysteries. I prefer Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael tales or Peter Lovesey's Sgt. Cribb stories. But the best of the bunch in my opinion is The Devil in Velvet (1951). This one starts off as a supernatural tale, with Cambridge Professor Nicholas Fenton entering into a pact with Satan that allows him to go back in time to Restoration London of 1675. It is his goal to solve the mystery of a murder that took place then. When he falls in love with the intended victim, however, he decides to take an active role in altering the course of history. Satan and the supernatural make no further appearance after serving as the Deux et machina to propel Prof. Fenton into the past.
There is also apparently some supernatural element responsible for transporting a Twentieth Century Scotland Yard inspector back to the year 1829 in Fire Burn (1957). As presented by Carr (who was conservative to the point of being a reactionary), modern ideas and modern methods don't work so well in Nineteenth Century London, but matters get much worse for the protagonist when he and his lady-love are accused of murder. This was the first of Carr's historical novels to deal with the London police.
Carr wrote many stories for radio and various of his stories (or their gimmicks) have found their way onto television or into movies -- very often without crediting him. His short stories about Col. March and Scotland Yard's (fictive) Department of Queer Complaints gave rise to an entertaining TV series starring Boris Karloff. To my great disappointment, the folk at PBS, A&E, and the BBC have not so far decided to televise the adventures of Fell, Merrivale or Bencolin.