I remember reading a long time ago a transcription of a chat between Michael Dirda and WaPo readers in which one of the latter waxed lyrical about JDC in general and Hag’s Nook in particular, saying that it was « literature » to him, no matter the genre classification. I had read the book many years before and my experience had been somewhat spoiled by inadvertantly reading the last parapgraph so that while I appreciated the intent I was somewhat puzzled by the enthusiasm.
Flash-forward fifteen years and I’m now re-reading Hag’s Nook after stumbling on it as I was cleaning my shelves (they needed it) and boy, the WaPo reader was right. The puzzle purists among my readers may find it not to be one of Carr’s strongest efforts and I won’t disagree, but it’s such a great read otherwise and one that gives the lie if it was still needed to the claim that JDC couldn’t write or most damningly in our modern eyes, « do character » (Budge in particular is a marvelous creation, treated with an absence of condescension that reminds one again how liberal JDC was for his time)
While Carr himself was aware of his supposed limitations as a writer, I think he was able to overcome them and actually did on more than one occasion. His problem was instead that he had difficulty balancing plot and character, so that one almost always prevailed upon the other. It’s telling that most of his strongest characterization can be found in « minor » works whose comparatively simpler plots gave him more room to flesh out his puppets. Conversely his canonical masterpiece, The Three Coffins, may be his most ambitious plot but the characters in it are so bland that it might as well be a S.S. Van Dine novel – they are functions, not people. Now there are exceptions of course – The Emperor’s Snuff-Box or He Who Whispers come to mind – but the rule still stands: Carr is probably the only crime writer whose work is either plot or character-driven depending on which book or story you read. As a French movie critic said about about Laurence Olivier’s stagebound acting and directing style (translation mine, I’m ready for the tomatoes) « That is his limit, but that also is his greatness » (C’est sa limite, mais aussi sa grandeur)