John Dickson Carr Begins

Carr may be unique among major mystery writers in that it took some time for his writing personality to fully emerge, probably because of the many and often contradictory literary influences that haunted him. This is one of the reasons why his early work, most notably what I’ll call The Jeff Marle Quintet (i.e. the first four Bencolin novels plus the one-off Poison in Jest) while undeniably brilliant is also markedly different from the rest of his oeuvre.

The books operate on three different levels:

Homage, with Carr paying tribute – consciously or not – to the genres and writers he loved. Poe, Stevenson, Weird Tales and expressionistic cinema are heavy influences on the Bencolins. Hag’s Nook, while often hailed as the first « real » Carrian novel, is also a thoroughly chestertonian book, whereas The Plague Court Murders harks back to Victorian ghost stories.

Exercise as Carr tries on different themes, styles and voices to find his own. The Bencolin novels may share the same narrator, detective and overall gloomy ambiance but they also greatly differ from each other and it’s significant that only one of them deals with an impossible crime, Carr’s later specialty. First period Carr in general is extremely versatile and thus sometimes difficult to reconcile with what came afterwards. His prose style in particular is richer, less hurried and streamlined than in his later work.

Purge as Carr also tries to get rid of unwanted influences. The Bencolin books can indeed be seen as superior fan fiction but one can also sense young Carr trying to make his own kind of music. His relationship with Bencolin reflects that. The French detective appeared well on his way to become a long-running series character when Carr suddenly dropped him in favour of the short-lived but fruitful and significant departure that was Pat Rossiter. It may be that Carr, at heart a decent and at this stage of his career optimistic fellow, felt he couldn’t go on with such a grim and amoral character but also that Bencolin had outlived his usefulness to the young writer, who now wanted to meet other people so to speak. Interestingly, Carr would later try to revive Bencolin and find himself unable to recapture the character. The Four False Weapons, the final Bencolin novel, feels awkward in part because of a now seasoned writer trying and failing to fit shoes that no longer were his size.

 

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