We know Carr called the genre « The Grandest Game in the World » and he certainly meant that but did he actually write detective stories? I am increasingly less sure of that, and here’s why.
A detective story as traditionally understood (and since the genre is very conservative, this definition still stands today with a few updates and modifications) is the story of an investigation, told from the detective’s viewpoint or that of a sidekick, the Watson. The victim and suspects may or may not be fully rounded characters but they are basically cogs in the machine; the story is not about them and the reader is not supposed or invited to care for them other than as pawns in the game between him/her and the writer. The structure of the narrative is very linear and predictable – crime, investigation, solution – and the pacing deliberate; not much happens except for interrogations and examinations of the crime scene and the corpse(s). The main suspense, assuming there is one, is about who did it and how they will be caught.
Carr’s « method » is nothing like that.
For starters, his stories rarely focus on an investigation, and they’re not about the detectives. Most of the time these appear late in the story and act as deus ex machina rather than protagonists. Dr. Fell is an armchair detective for most of his career, and Sir Henry Merrivale is too busy saying and doing outrageous things to do actual detection. They are not point-of-view characters either; we readers are never allowed to enter their minds or share their thoughts. Carr instead chooses to focus on a hapless young fellow (more rarely, young gal) who just happens to be there when the crime is committed and is as puzzled and unable to work things out as is the reader. To complicate the matter, he or she promptly falls in love with some seductive person, and an electric courtship ensues that forms a sizeable part of the narrative. Also, lots of things do happen as Carr’s criminals are not Columbo-style cold-blooded masterminds but dangerous and ruthless persons susceptible to strike again and again, and no one in theory is safe no matter how predictable the outcome may seem to be at first sight. At the end of the road the Great Detective explains it all – but it’s often been quite a bumpy road and, with apologies to The Master, not too funny a « game » for the people involved.
I’ve argued elsewhere that such an approach to crime writing was fundamentally and uniquely American, had its roots in HIBK, and accounted in part for psychological suspense having arisen in the United States rather than in Britain. This leaves us however with a question: How do we call this local variety? « Detective story » doesn’t quite fit, for the reasons stated above. Neither does « Suspense » because such stories are not solely aimed at giving readers nightmares or keeping them awake until the sun comes up. This leaves us with « Mystery » which is the generic name for crime fiction in the United States but must be taken literally here. There are many reasons to read and enjoy, even admire, Carr’s fiction but among the chief ones is his astonishing ability to come up with exciting, mind-boggling problems with clever if sometimes improbable solutions, and have the reader avidly turn the pages to know. That may not be detective fiction as the standard definition has it, but it isn’t bad either.