Curtis Evans’ overall negative but typically insightful and well argued review of The Nine Wrong Answers gives me another excuse for indulging in this blog’s péché mignon: Carrian exegesis. A weird Christmas gift to be sure to those of my readers that don’t share my never-ending enthusiasm for the Master of Mamaroneck – and they can skip it if they want. The rest knows what to expect, so there we go.
Carr is in many ways an unique item among his generation of American crime writers, and not just because he did his best to make everyone forget his true nationality – and succeeded. The way his French publisher Le Masque presented him – « The most British of all American writers » – is fairly accurate, though reversable as he can also be argued to be the most American of all British writers. Another unusual feature and the one which I’ll be discussing here is his trajectory as a writer, especially in the post-war years.
To say that American crime fiction changed a lot during the war and even more still afterwards is a truism – the detective novel which had reigned supreme prior to the hostilities suddenly found itself with two challengers, and two extremely vital ones to boot. As the genre risked becoming irrelevant, old-schoolers had to go on with the times if they were not to go the way of dinosaurs. Some retained the basic conventions of the genre while spicing it up with some psychology and suspense; others went the full way and abandoned detection altogether. What makes Carr special in this context is that he did neither, first keeping business as usual then trying to find a middle way in the guise of historical mysteries that had both suspense and detection elements and yet didn’t fall down on one side or the other.
This evolution is rather puzzling as Carr should have had no problem transitioning to post-war crime fiction; indeed he was one of the better suited to this. For all his talk about fair-play and the grandest game in the world (interestingly, he became more and more vocally conservative about formal detective fiction as he left it behind in practice) Carr had never actually played by the rules and in many ways was a more progressive writer than pre-Wrightsville Ellery Queen. As French scholar Roland Lacourbe noted, the typical pre-war Carr novel had a freedom of subject, tone and conception that made it closer to the soon-to-be suspense school than his fellow Detection Club members. No other contemporary crime writer did something as radical as The Burning Court or went as meta as he did in The Three Coffins or The Reader is Warned. While his readers expected him to write about impossible crimes, he wasn’t as closely and irremediably « married » to his formula and series characters than Queen, Gardner and Stout were. What’s more, the early war years saw him experimenting successfully with more character-driven narratives. He seemed to be poised to follow the same path as Helen McCloy, a writer with whom he had more in common than may seem at first sight. So why didn’t he do?
The reasons why Carr progressively lost his mojo in the years after the war is one of the genre history’s million-dollar questions and I won’t answer it here. One thing is for sure, one of the symptoms was an inability to both engage with the times or doing business as usual. Carr couldn’t move forward and he couldn’t move backwards either, so he went sideways with results that were mitigated to say the least. He retained for a while his will to experiment, however. The Devil in Velvet for instance is in some respects an even more daring experiment in genre-crossing than The Burning Court was and started an informal trilogy that introduced to crime fiction a theme (time travel) so far alien to it. The Nine Wrong Answers is another experimental work, maybe even more ambitious as Carr tried to write « a novel of character » while going full meta in making the book a two-sided dialogue between the writer and the reader. It may also be the only full-fledged suspense novel he ever wrote and whether you see it as a success or a failure like Curtis does there is no denying that Carr tried to renew himself and one wonders what it might have heralded for him had he persisted. I disagree however with Curtis on Cornell Woolrich being a better fit for that story. If anything I think Carr with this book moved on a territory closer to that of Fredric Brown, John Franklin Bardin or Joel Townsley Rogers – authors that like him were not to be bothered with trivial concepts such as verisimilitude and probability.
There is no point crying and speculating over what never was – but are we sure it never was? The brief career of Edmund Crispin gives us an idea of what post-war Carr might have been – both traditional and quite modern, even post-modern at times. Yes, for all their otherwise very different style and outlook, some of the best post-war carrian books were actually written by Robert Bruce Montgomery.