In his foreword to the fifth volume of the French edition of John Dickson Carr’s complete works, scholar Tony Medawar ventures to write that, maybe, some of the Master’s works might have been better or even better had they dispensed with his trademark impossible crimes. My first reaction when reading this (I was fifteen years younger, and very defensive when it came to my then-favorite crime writer ever) was of bewilderment as it was so counter-intuitive. Wasn’t Carr famous for his « astonishing skill » (Julian Symons) at devising new ways to enter/exit a locked room or leave no footprints on sand or snow? Weren’t those his trademark? Would JDC without impossible crimes be « just another humdrum » as a much missed member of the now-defunct « Fans of John Dickson Carr » Yahoo group put it?
At this point I hadn’t yet (and still haven’t) read the whole Carr catalogue – the historicals in particular remained terra incognita for me. Having now a firmer grasp on the Master’s work I can see Medawar’s point – and I agree with it. Carr was obviously very fond of impossible crimes – hey, he proclaimed Gaston Leroux’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room to be the best mystery novel ever written – and he also knew which side his bread was buttered – readers wanted him to write that kind of story – but he was perfectly able to do without them, as a novel like The Emperor’s Snuff Box demonstrates. And yet he often seemed, especially in later years, to be a prisoner of his own formula, forcing it on stories that could/would have been just as good, or even better, without it. She Died a Lady, which I read recently, is a case in point. By every standards the book is splendid – great plot, great atmosphere, great characters. And yet… the impossible crime, clever as it is, seems strangely out of place; the book would have functioned just as well as a straightforward mystery – the plot is not dependent on it. In some other cases (Dark of the Moon) the impossible crime fits in the picture but is poorly motivated (a rare occurence in Carr’s work, as he unlike, say, Paul Halter took great care to give his murderers sound motives for acting the way they did) while in later works like Papa La Bas or Scandal at High Chimneys it is so poorly conceived and resolved as to look like mere fan service.
This raises a question: Was Carr too formulaic for his own good? And another: Did his adherence to the impossible crime genre hinder his development as a writer? Aforementioned Emperor and Lady seemed to suggest Carr was taking a more « naturalistic », « psychological » direction – the one his friend Ellery Queen had taken some years before. Why did he finally cop out? His post-war work hints that the decision brought no joy and certainly no revival of inspiration. We are forever to wonder what might have become of Carr had he finally opened the windows of his locked rooms.