The Curious Case of the Detective Story Writer Who Didn’t Actually Write Detective stories

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.

6 commentaires sur “The Curious Case of the Detective Story Writer Who Didn’t Actually Write Detective stories

  1. This is a fascinating idea, Xavier, but I feel you’ve managed to stack the deck in favour of your point! I agree with you definition of the detective novel as far as the story of an investigation, told from the detective’s viewpoint or that of a sidekick, the Watson…but everything else I feel is extraneous. For a start, your claim that The victim and suspects…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 essentially washes out swathes of Christianna Brand’s work, and she definitely wrote detective novels..!

    If there’s detection and clues to follow, and a chain of reasoning explained at the end — not necessarily fair-play, that’s not essential — then it’s a detective story. For me, the main focus has to be the crime and the process by which it is solved (whether we understand that process or not), rather than ancillary matters like the detective’s private life or a wider condemnation of the mores of a society gone to ruin…at which point we’re decidedly in « crime novel » territory. So long as the crime and its solution comprises the majority of the purpose behind what happens, that’s enough.

    Carr stands out not because he eschewed the rules or trappings of the detective novel, but because he worked so brilliantly inside of them — writing gorgeously atmospheric prose, building legitimately surprising plots that still catch us off-guard 80 years later, and bringing an ingenuity to his methods of commission and resolution that we probably hadn’t seen before in such depth and breadth. It’s said that genius is loking at what everyone else looks at and seeing what no-one else sees, and this is why I’d argue Carr is a genius of the genre: because he expanded confines of the detective novel from within, rarely stepping over the line (the odd bit of time travel aside, of course) and giving something at once entirely recognisable and yet very, very new.

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    1. I agree that I defined the detective story in terms that may be too narrow, but it was the definition prevalent at the time when Carr started writing. Also as I said the model underwent incremental changes over the years, most notably with respect to the role of the suspects and other people involved. Still, the core principle remained intact: a story about a detective investigating a crime. That’s what makes books as different in approach and outlook as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, The Long Goodbye or Resurrection Men part of the same genre, whereas And Then There Were None is not, even though it’s clearly a whodunit of sorts.

      Carr’s fiction shares some of the genre’s main components – a detective, a puzzle, a solution – but its focus is different. He loved mystery that’s for sure, and he loved planting clues and red herrings and matching wits with the reader – but he wasn’t much interested in detection, a trait that grew even more pronounced as he matured as a writer. The fact that the story is never told from the detective’s viewpoint allows him to skip all the investigation and reasoning stuff, and go straight to the solution – but it also means we’re not reading a detective story, at least not in the orthodox meaning of the term. He Who Whispers is not about Dr. Fell solving a crime but rather about a crime that happens to be solved by Dr. Fell – and also about Miles Hammond’s doomed love affair with Fay Seton. I think it’s telling that Carr tended to choose non-naturalistic, often comic and largely passive characters as his detectives; Bencolin is frightening, Dr. Fell is endearing and H.M. is amusing, but none elicits the sense of awe and respect any self-respecting Great Detective is supposed to command. Only Dermot Kinross and Colonel March come close to fulfill these requirements but one was – sadly – a one-shot while the other appeared only in a handful of short stories.

      This lack of interest in the detective figure and the detection process means that your broader definition (to which I subscribe by the way) doesn’t quite apply either – intent and focus are as essential to a genre than its formal components. I’m in full agreement with the rest of your comment, most particularly the final paragraph. Carr was a genius indeed, and maybe that’s why it’s so freakin’ difficult to label accurately. Maybe we’re both right after all.

      Aimé par 1 personne

      1. Ah, now this comment I can agree with, and I apologise for misunderstanding your original point: the focus on Carr’s novels is certainly not on the process of detection, and in that regard he’s not a detective fiction writer. It’s interesting, because his best known work — The Hollow Man/The Three Coffins, for anyone unaware — is probably the one with the most detection in it. You’re absolutely right that the focus of his plots is not on the functions and orthodoxy of the detective in the way that, say, Anthony Berkeley satirised, or that John Rhode demonstrated.

        In fact, at heart, the plots of Carr’s books are surprisingly free of such considerations — yes, some build a massively complex web of plot and counter-plot (cf. The Unicorn Murders, Death Watch, etc), but a lot of the time his pre-historical mysteries boil down to one or two simple ideas resolved in a broadly « intuitive » way, and are elevated by superb scene-setting and the bringing together of disparate tones and shades. So I go from slightly disagreeing with you to broadly agreeing 🙂

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  2. Interesting article, I had never quite thought about this. I’ll attempt to offer a counter view, but perhaps I’m not looking at this correctly.

    In my mind, Carr’s point of view character is the Watson. Granted, there are only maybe 10 books (complete blind guess) where the point of view character has any background in investigation (The Punch and Judy Murders, The Ten Teacups, etc). My interpretation of the Watson role (which is perhaps incorrect) is the character who has access to all of the evidence, can’t quite put things together, and then marvels as the expert solves the case.

    We also do tend to have a real detective in Carr’s work – typically played by Masters or Hadley. Of course, this detective always falls short and is shown up by Fell or Merrivale. Although Fell/Merrivale could be considered amateurs, they were also in somewhat of quasi-official role, and typically built their case based on the evidence found by Masters/Hadley or their subordinates.

    I guess I don’t see Carr’s approach as being overly different than that used by other authors at the time – Christie, Bush, Crispin, Quentin, etc. The story is often (but not always) told from the point of view of an amateur who inexplicably has unfettered access to the investigation. The official investigators fail to solve the case, but some outside expert puts it all together.

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  3. I think you get into trouble if you describe the genre as anything other than a work containing a puzzle and a solution such that (ideally):

    – the puzzle sufficiently indicates the solution (the term “sufficiently” here can only be defined subjectively, but unfortunately always has and probably always will be referred to as if objective)

    – the solution accounts for all significant introduced elements of the puzzle (the term “signicant” provides another contentious aspect of subjectivity).

    – the solution surprises.

    The, a story in which the explanation for a puzzle surprises and yet appears retrospectively inevitable.

    Crime, a detective figure, detection, restoration of social order, and other components are commonly present elements, but to consider them essentials is to exclude works that share a primary core identity. Thus, that definition, does exclude works that have no clueing (that would negate the first expectation listed above), but still does include such works as And Then There Were None, despite lacking a detective figure, ratiocination, restoral of social order, etc…

    What to call this genre? I refer to it as the puzzle plot genre, but I don’t think any genre label is entirely adequate.


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