I made yesterday what I think to be a good case for a belated transition to adulthood being the main if not the only cause for Carr’s post-war decline as well as the reason for some of his literary and philosophical quirks. I’d like to add a few words as some parts of it may have sounded for an indictment, which it is anything but.
Stephen King once said something to the effect that genius is when you don’t know when you’re going too far; one may add that genius is also about being perfectly aware that you’re pushing the limits and doing it nevertheless. Carr in his prime repeatedly exceeded the contemporary speed limit with regards to imagination and ingenuity but also plausibility and suspension of disbelief. This is one of the things that make him one of the greatest crime writers in history, and it was possible only because of Carr’s youthful enthusiasm. A fully mature writer would never have written The Blind Barber or the Stevenson romp The Arabian Nights Murder, nor would have he envisioned the amazingly complex and thoroughly unrealistic plot of The Three Coffins. Being adult means among other things that you know some things can’t be done; we owe two decades of nearly unmitigated brilliance to the fact that Carr was not an adult – at least in that sense of the word.
No matter what critics may say – and remember that they’re all adults in the strictest meaning of the term – immaturity may be a blessing for an artist as it often means on one hand unbound creativity and not taking oneself seriously on the other. Problems arise when the artist finally comes of age, which may lead them either to renounce their old ways and get « serious » or trying and failing to recapture the magic they’ve lost – which is what happened to Carr and led to his demise as a writer.
Immature people hold immature views, and Carr is no exception. His weird ideas on justice and honour, his fierce anti-authoritarianism make sense once you realize that you’re dealing with an adolescent mind – but become problematic when said mind belongs to an otherwise intelligent and articulate fortysomething. Adulthood when it finally struck Carr didn’t deliver wisdom but only disenchantment and bitterness. In other words what he got was the worst of both ages – the dogmatism of youth and the sadness of maturity.
It may seem to be a truism to say that being a Carr fan requires embracing both his many virtues and his equally many flaws – the same is true of any other writer or artist. What makes Carr different and a harder pill to swallow for some is that his virtues and flaws are so closely intertwined. Carr is not a great crime writer despite being an immature fellow with hard-set problematic views; he is a great crime writer precisely because of that. What does this say about his fans though? Does reading him means we’re just as immature as he was? Can a really grown-up person fully enjoy his work? I do think so, provided one has a strongly imaginative nature and a robust sense of humour – two features Carr often bestowed on his characters. There will always be people after all to think that Steven Spielberg lost his way when he stopped making fun blockbusters and focused instead on serious drama.