Yesterday’s Carr twofer turned out to be one of this blog’s most popular items in a while, with a notable and significant increase in traffic as the result. You people obviously like it when I talk about The Master and take potshots at contemporary crime fiction; so I’m gonna follow the O’Jays advice and give the people what they want.
This post will focus on Carr’s literary doctrine which as I said yesterday remains understudied even though it is articulate, coherent, original and provides a key to understanding both the author and his work. Carr like his evil twin The Raymond spent his whole career thinking through the subject of crime fiction and trying to elaborate a theory of it. Both men put a lot of themselves in that endeavour, and their biases strongly colour their arguments. Chandler ultimately prevailed not because his case was sounder but because the zeitgeist agreed with him, whereas Carr’s stubborn refusal of the new ways progressively isolated him and made him appear like a fossil. This is unfortunate as his thought is more modern than most would think.
Carr’s thought is build upon a paradox, which shouldn’t come as a surprise from a Chesterton fan. On the one hand his conception of crime fiction is a narrowly traditional one – a game of wits between author and reader – but on the other hand his conception of fiction as a whole is a pretty radical one by its fierce rejection of any kind of realism. Carr is intractable when it comes to « fair play » and clues, but much more lax when it comes to the rest. Some critics have argued that the traditional mystery model reined in imagination because of its plot-driven nature and structural rigidity; Carr didn’t think so. There was no contradiction to him between following the rules and indulging in the wildest fantasy.
The first four Bencolin novels are a declaration of intent and perhaps the most radical expression of his views. On the surface they follow the traditional model of a puzzle solved by an omniscient detective, with all or almost all the clues given to the reader. The treatment however is anything but traditional. Critics have used the word « nightmarish » to describe the quartet and it may be the best way to describe their violently anti-naturalistic, increasingly dark and gruesome atmosphere. Carr often walked the border between the mystery and fantasy genres over his career, but rarely did he come as close to crossing it altogether as he did in the Bencolins. The message they send to his readers is clear: I do what I want to do, to hell with verisimilitude and probability and don’t let the door hit you on the way out if you don’t like it. The author’s youth probably accounts in a large part for that radicalism but Carr didn’t mellow over the years; he just added a few more drinks to his cocktail.
Realism to Carr has no place in fiction, or at least not in the kind of detective fiction he favours and writes, and it shouldn’t be used as a hammer to bludgeon the genre with. This is his main and strongest bone of contention with Chandler. As often with him, his characters double as spokepersons: Both Bencolin (in The Lost Gallows) and Dr. Fell (in The Hollow Man) make the point that detective fiction is an inherently unrealistic genre and that to object is merely a matter of taste. If you are not into locked rooms and cryptic messages, that’s fine – there are many other books for you to read. Just don’t come trying to impose your standards on a genre that is explicitly predicated upon their opposite. Detective stories, he argues in The Detective in Fiction, are fairy-tales for grown-ups, probably unawarely echoeing his French colleague Pierre Véry.
This approach is inextricably linked to Carr’s personality and literary upbringing. Carr as a youth read and enjoyed Chesterton, Futrelle, Leroux, Dumas, Poe and Stevenson, none of which can be said to be a realistic writer in the « show the world as it really is » sense. He never repudiated them, and remained unconvinced by the more « serious » writers he was supposed to transition to as he grew up. Carr, like the pre-Schindler Steven Spielberg, remained his whole life through a kid at heart who loved mysteries, adventures and wanted to have fun – which sets him apart from the very adult, very serious Raymond Chandler.
Carr’s period dysphoria also has to be taken into account, for it was always there even though it didn’t really become a problem until after WW2. Carr’s stubborn refusal to engage with the real world in his fiction is also a political statement of sorts. Most conservative or reactionary writers at the time chose either to attack the present or celebrate the past; Carr in his golden years opted to ignore the matter completely and create a world of his own through fiction. The England in his books admittedly has some contemporary elements and he didn’t shy away from the changes and trouble brought up by the war, but it remains first and foremost his England, which he admirably describes in the marvelous first chapter of Hag’s Nook.
This approach worked well for a while, but wasn’t enough to overcome the marked loss of creativity that struck him in the years after the war and lasted until his death. Interestingly, he became more active on the critical and theoretical front, serving as a critic for Harper’s then EQMM and writing his magnum opus in the field, The Grandest Game in the World. The problem was, his views were no longer mainstream and contemporary crime fiction had drifted away so much from the kind he championed that mutual understanding was impossible. It doesn’t mean that he was completely blind to new talents, for he definitely wasn’t – just ask Peter Lovesey or Bill Pronzini who may owe him their careers – but that he was mostly uninterested in the new directions the genre was taking. He would probably be aghast at recent Edgar winners, books that don’t care much about fair play or being imaginative.
Contemporary crime fiction is nothing like what it was back in Carr’s days and that’s one more paradox about him that it is precisely the reason why he’s now more relevant than ever. No one has to adhere to his ideas on fair play or obsessive focus on impossible crimes, but his case for what I’d call author privilege – the right to write what you want, the way you want, without people telling you things aren’t that way in real life – is one that should be heard and pondered over by his successors. Crime fiction has gone in half a century from a fantasy land in which anything goes to a place where authors are so obsessed with « getting it right » that they research every line they write and scrupulously avoid any flight of imagination. As a result and to add a final paradox to the list, crime fiction is now even more constricted and formulaic than Van Dine would have dreamed of, all the while pretending it has shaken off the chains which previously bounded it. It’s time for a paradigm change.
J.D., we need you.