Hooked on a Feeling

Julian Symons on Carr:

« There is genuine feeling in some of Chesterton’s short stories, but very little in any of Carr’s writing after his first half-dozen books. Since the whole story is built round the puzzle, there is no room for characterization, and the limitation of these clever stories is clearly expressed in the fact that what one remembers about them is never any of the people, but simply the puzzle. »

I’ve struggled for years to understand Symon’s first point here and I still don’t get it. What is « feeling » in that context? Did Symons expect Carr to channel Morris Albert?

Let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment however and try to make sense of Symons’ remark. It may be that he meant that Carr’s early writing displays higher « literary » ambitions than most of his later, post-Hollow Man work, in which case I think his argument has some merit. I once posted on the Golden Age Detection one a piece by Peter Straub in which he alleged, quoting The Raymond, that Carr concentrated on plotting and saw actual writing as a chore. Douglas Greene while not affirming the veracity of the anecdote said that Carr never refuted it even though he was usually prompt to respond such personal or professional attacks.

Symons and The Raymond may have been onto something though. Carr’s « youthful » work while not as strong on plot as his later masterpieces has a charm, vitality, individuality and enthousiasm that became more subdued as he honed his plotting skills and then completely disappeared as he entered the quasi-depression that plagued most of his later life. The guy who wrote Hag’s Nook for instance obviously took a lot of pleasure in not just devising a puzzling plot but conjuring up a setting and an atmosphere and quirky characters and the writing itself is evocative and inspired. That Carr certainly didn’t regard his job as a chore and fully justifies Sayers’s enthusiastic « He can write » verdict – and yet the prose in many later books became less brilliant and more serviceable, with the characterization following suit. Carr’s hectic productivity as well as his increasing identification with impossible crimes probably accounts for that – there comes a time when you have to make choices and sacrifices when you have to deliver four books a year. Still, there are stark and growing differences between books in which Carr focused primarily on the puzzle and those increasingly rarer that he wrote only for pleasure, the latter often being dismissed as « minor » by critics.

So maybe – I say maybe, because we’ll never know what he actually meant – Symons had a point, though not a disqualifying one. Carr in his prime was never less than a professional and it’s more than you can say about most of his colleagues past and present – but he repeatedly proved he could be, and was, much more. It’s too bad Symons didn’t see that.

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