When listing a writer’s literary influences the critics usually limits themselves to authors said writer admired and wanted to emulate. This is a perfectly legitimate approach but also a narrow one in some respects, not only because you don’t need to like a writer to find something in their work worthy of imitation but also because inspiration can also be a subconscious process: you read something somewhere, you forget about it at the moment but it comes back later to haunt your writing. Finally, there are writers whose stature is so high that you just can’t escape it: I doubt for instance that many contemporary horror writers can honestly claim not to have been influenced to some degree by Stephen King, no matter their feelings about him and his work.
What does this all have to do with JDC and HIBK, you will ask? Wait for a moment, I warned you in the title that this post would be a rambling one.
Readers of Douglas G. Greene’s superlative biography know that young John D. Carr was an avid reader, with detective fiction already by far his favorite genre, and grew early ideas about it that he would defend, promote and illustrate his whole life through. Some contemporary mystery writers passed the test (at least at the time) but many more didn’t. One of the latter was Mary Roberts Rinehart. Carr, Greene writes, « criticized [her] for not making the murderer a main character: She simply did not have the ability, he complained, to keep the murderer in the reader’s attention, and therefore her denouement [fell] flat. »
Rinehart-bashing was kind of a rite of passage among crime writers and reviewers (mostly male but also female) for nearly a century and rests in a large part on a misunderstanding: Rinehart did not write detective stories; her originality and talent lay elsewhere. Defending her however is not the point of this article, which is rather to point that Carr, while dissing MRR as a young boy (it’s unknown whether and how his feelings evolved as he grew up) picked up some tricks from her.
To most modern readers Rinehart is best known as the putative and much maligned originator of the so-called HIBK school, that primitive form of psychological suspense that cast hapless young women (or, more rarely, men) against nefarious forces ultimately vainquished by chance more than reasoning, the actual detection being done by a secondary character. These books, much derided by critics but much loved by a predominantely female readership, relied on some fixed components such as a love story, a dark house, family secrets and a global sense of foreboding fueled by frequent oblique or outright allusions to something wicked coming round next page. The typical Rinehart story begins either with a first-person narrator explaining how (s)he is recovering from some unspecified horrendous event that nearly cost them their life and recollecting how it all began, or with a third-person narration showing the lead character in his daily life, unaware of the strongly hinted trouble to come.
You don’t need to be a Carr scholar to find that several elements of this description applies just fine to several of his books, especially the early ones featuring Jeff Marle, culminating with Poison in Jest which Sam T. Karnick rightly described as Carr’s most Rinehart-esque book. The similarities are not to be found only in the material but also in the writing itself: Carr’s in turns light-hearted and ominous prose with the narrator frequently addressing the reader or commenting on the settings or action has more than a HIBK flavour.
I have written in the past about how for all his apparent Britishness Carr was basically an American crime writer and this may be his most defining Yankee feature – far from the purist he and his readers thought him to be, he was an admittedly very peculiar kind of HIBK writer with a stronger commitment to fair-play detection than his colleagues, not to mention an odd obsession with all kinds of impossible crimes. Even the choice, which sets him apart from most of his Golden Age colleagues, of making the detective a deus ex machina rather than the focus of the narrative is in line with HIBK traditions in which the main protagonist and the detective are most often separate characters. Carr, like his avowed models, wanted to puzzle; but he also wanted to thrill.