S.T. Joshi in his interesting but not very sympathetic overview of Carr’s work takes him to task (one of many instances of this) for « having nothing to say ». He links that alleged deficiency to one of Carr’s literary idols, Robert Louis Stevenson of whom he appears not to be a fan either.
Joshi has a point. Carr didn’t write message-driven fiction. His books are silent about now hot subjects such as class, race or gender and he rarely dabbled into the political, the social, philosophical, the religious or the metaphysical. People like Joshi thinking a good book has to deliver some lesson on human nature and/or society are bound to be sorely disappointed.
There are however three problems with Joshi’s claim. The first is that it mistakes ideology for worldview. The second is that it frames the question in much too narrow a fashion. The third is that it doesn’t matter whether Carr had « something to say » or not. Since this blog has been profanity-free for all its duration and I intend it to stay that way, I’ll sum up my feelings about this in French: On n’en a rien à foutre.
Joshi, whose scholarship I don’t dispute and even respect, suffers nevertheless from a delusion frequently found among genre critics and fans, that is, the idea that there are universal criterias for « good » fiction and that said criterias are those dictated by the Literati. Prose, characterization, realism, theme, « having something to say » become the Golden Standard by which every kind of book is judged, no matter the author’s actual intentions. Whether said author is actually good at writing proper genre fiction – you know, that plot-driven thing that primarily aims at entertaining the masses – isn’t even relevant. The good genre stuff, the one that can be taken seriously, is the one that looks, feels and smells like literary fiction. Josephine Tey doesn’t plot like Christie but unlike her she had literary ambitions, so welcome to the Pantheon; conversely, Ursula K. Le Guin’s stories are for my money much less thrilling reads than Catherine L. Moore‘s but they are « serious », « challenging » and « well-written » so obviously she’s the one deserving plaudits. You can also while we’re at it ponder the difference of treatment in the Anglosphere between Stevenson (lightweight) and Conrad (genius) despite them basically writing the same stuff.
This is completely, absolutely, definitely – pardon my French again – con.
Popular fiction – and remember, that’s what crime fiction once was, before becoming « respectable » and thus uninteresting except for a few isolated cases – is not about saying but doing in that the execution and the effect are what ultimately matters, unlike literary fiction that prioritizes the intention and the ends. A good western is one that gives you a taste of how life was on the frontier. A good mystery is one that puzzles and grips you until the end. A good horror novel is one that gives you the creeps. A good porn book is one that… well, you get the idea. That the author has anything to say or writes elegantly or has a way with characters is secondary, if welcomed when available. Let me dare a potentially controversial opinion. The late P.D. James certainly could write, she had plenty of things to say about lots of subjects and her characterization was second to none. She was undoubtedly a great writer on purely literary grounds – but her pacing often lagged, her plots were thin and frequently left this reader bored, which leads me to say she was also a poor mystery writer. Yes, one is not a guarantee of the other.
So whether Carr had « something to say » is irrelevant even though I think he actually did, especially in his critical work. While there is more to his books than « mere » entertainment and puzzles, there is no doubt these were his main concerns when writing; Carr’s « literary » virtues were mostly incidental and accidental – he’d probably be quite surprised at the way his work is discussed here. He must thus be judged first as a mystery writer and I doubt anyone can deny he was and remains one of the greats in that department. « Something to say » or not.
Besides and as a closing note, sometimes it’s better to have « nothing to say » rather than say horrible and stupid things. JDC at least doesn’t have anything to apologize for, which is not that common for a writer of any era.