I’ll have to give it more thought but something occurred to me while discussing Carr’s work with Curtis over at the FB Golden Age Detection group that I’d like to share with you, if anything to know whether it’s a finding worth pursueing or not.
My theory, of which I’m naturally quite fond, has at least one merit – it fully accounts for the post-war decline in Carr’s writing that has puzzled scholars for decades. Several explanations have been given for that, from his growing period dysphoria to stubborn adherence to a formula to his merely running out of ideas. I don’t dispute any of those reasons as they certainly played their part in Carr’s dismaying later career but I think they boil down to one central event, something that happens to everyone but for Carr was a catastrophe.
He finally grew up.
The average Carr fan is a male and first encounters his work in the teenage years. This is indeed what happened to me: I was fourteen when I read my first book of his and I was instantly hooked. Carr fiction at its best has everything a male teenager can want : it’s fast-paced, mysterious, funny and sexy. It’s fun. What’s more it remains so as the reader grows up because of nostalgia and also because the teenager inside the grown-up man never quite dies. This is why Carr fans are easily the most vocally enthusiast in the vintage crime fiction fandom – the bond between him and his readers is sentimental as much as it is literary.
As I said above, Carr’s fiction, while seemingly aimed at an adult audience, is almost designed to please teenage readers, and the reason why is quite simple : the writer himself was a teenager for the better part of his career. Don’t forget Carr had his start as a writer when as a young boy, and was barely an adult legally speaking when he had his first novel published. We often tend to forget about this but the man who wrote The Three Coffins was under 30 at the time. He was very much a boy wonder – emphasize « boy ».
Carr’s political and moral attitudes, as well as his at times weird ideas on women and courtship, have been frequently discussed by scholars, often in a critical fashion. They yet make – somewhat – sense once you admit them to be the immature feelings of an immature writer. Carr quickly and phenomenally matured on literary grounds, but as a man he remained all the while a fifteen-old writing about the things of interest to a fifteen-old, in a way that would appeal to a fifteen-old. T.S. Eliot’s famous dismissal of Edgar Allan Poe applies perfectly to him. It’s worth noticing that all of his literary models – Poe, Stevenson, Leroux, Dumas – are all or used to be very popular with teen readers. Carr never transitioned to « adult » literature and even hated it, hence his later attacks on the Russian or modernist novelists – Dostoyevsky or Proust are very much not the kind of fiction teenagers – well, most of them – enjoy. Prime Carr is a boy who want to have fun.
It couldn’t last, and it didn’t. Carr’s war years impacted him more than he would admit and the changes in English society and traditions engineered by the Labour in the years after the conflict ended were lethal blows forcing him out of his comfort zone. His « long boyhood » ended but what might have been a new start instead proved a dead end, because of Carr’s resistance. Like Lovecraft, Carr believed that adulthood was Hell, but unlike HPL he didn’t make his peace with it. His post-war years are the long and depressing story of a grown-up man trying to become a child again. Of course it didn’t work and this failure made him bitter and more doctrinaire, with a « Stop the world, I want to get off » mindset. Writing might have helped, as it has helped many a writer feeling out of time or place but Carr, hard as he tried, could no longer write the kind of books that had made him famous, for the same reason why he couldn’t enjoy the works of Carolyn Wells and Isobel Ostrander anymore. Since as a writer he couldn’t adjust to adulthood it would have been better that he stopped writing fiction altogether to focus instead on criticism (something he was still very good at, displaying a broader mind than he is usually credited for) but he persisted with results more and more uneven and frankly dire in the last years.
Growing up is always a tragedy – we’re after all losing something we’ll never get back and it’s not sure what we’re given in exchange is really worth it – but most of us manage to overcome it, probably because we aren’t even aware of what is happening. Carr for one was but could neither come to terms with it or retreat to another world (his historical novels were an attempt to do so but it worked only for a while) Only Peter Pan can remain a child forever.