I’ve said it before, I say it again: I don’t choose books, books choose me – and this is why I have so many classics that everybody else has read still waiting untouched on my shelves. It’s true even of books by all-time favourites including this blog’s own lar, The Almighty John Dickson Carr, whose a sizeable part of the catalogue I still have left to read.
I won’t tell you how long it took for The Plague Court Murders to « choose » me but it finally did two days ago and I’ve just finished it. I’m not sure I would rate it as one of my favourite books of his, but it is certainly a most important entry in his repertoire and one that gave me lots of food for thought, so much so in fact that I think several posts will be needed to sum up my reflections. What I’d like to focus on here is a subject I have frequently addressed: Carr’s comparative obscurity in regard to his Golden Age colleagues and its reasons. Plague Court I think provides some clues and even elements of an answer to that vexing question.
The reason why Carr isn’t as popular as, say, Christie despite being her equal and maybe even her better in matters of plotting and storytelling is, well, that he is not Christie. He is even her opposite in some areas that are crucial to popular success.
Genius, according to Albert Einstein, is « taking the complex and making it simple ». This certainly applies to Christie and has been frequently noted and commented upon. Christie’s plots are often extremely complex, but the streamlined, straightforward narrative allows the reader to follow them effortlessly. That’s why so many people think « writing a Christie » is easy, only to find out it’s anything but when trying their hands.
Carr, like Christie, takes the complex – but makes it even more complex, and paradoxically because he is in some ways a better writer than Christie. The latter has often been criticized, condemned even, for her flat prose, something no one could ever blame Carr for. Plague Court for instance is full of superb descriptive and atmospheric touches of the kind you’d look in vain in Christie’s work. The problem is, Christie’s « flat prose » actually is one of the ways she leads the reader through the many twsts and turns of her plots; it’s easier to concentrate on a case when the writing doesn’t get in the way. Carr himself progressively understood that, as his own prose became increasingly simpler and matter-of-fact – which was not necessarily a welcome development. At the stage of his career when Plague was published however, Carr still tried to get the best of both worlds – and as a result the book requires more sustained reading than, say, Roger Ackroyd.
The characterization is another area of stark contrast between both writers, even though they have both received lots of criticism over their alleged handling of it. Christie’s characters are often described as « cardboard » whereas one famous scholar whose name is not worth repeating here said that Carr « couldn’t do character at all ». Both claims need to, and must, be mitigated but it is interesting to note that Christie readers often cite her characters as one of the reasons why they keep coming back to her books whereas Carr fans more rarely do, except for the detectives. Don’t get me wrong: I am not here to say the guy mentioned above is right and that JDC absolutely sucked at characterization – he could perfectly well rise up to the challenge when he wanted to. It remains true, however, that as a rule Christie’s characters are more varied and livelier than Carr’s – you can sense their presence, helped by Christie’s widely celebrated ear for dialogue – probably because the human element is more integral to Christie’s plots than they are to Carr’s.
Finally, there is a simple fact that differentiates Carr from Christie and may alienate him to the latter’s readership: he is definitely not a cosy writer, especially in his early years. Christie of course has a darker side too, and you can question how exactly cosy is an universe in which virtually anyone can be a killer – but she knew how to hide it or at least make it palatable to readers who only expected wholesome entertainment. Carr on the other hand can be very disturbing either by the subject matter, its treatment or his weird sense of justice. Plague Court for instance is a very dark, sometimes frightening book, more reminiscent of the Bencolin Quartet than of the later, lighter Sir Henry outings. The murders are gruesome and give the lie to the frequent claim that Golden Age writers bypassed the nasty physical consequences of violence. Also the book except for Sir Henry’s antics is nearly devoid of any of the humour which Carr in his second period would frequently use to lighten up his stories. Entertainment? Sure if you are into such things. But wholesome? I doubt it.
So Carr’s being a lesser star today is not just the result of changing tastes or a conspiracy to keep male Golden Agers down or whatever else. It also has to do with him not being a mass market product. Both him and Christie were geniuses, but Agatha’s books have a universal quality that Carr’s lack, probably because he didn’t care. Let us never forget that Carr was on literary and every other grounds a rather radical person – and radicals rarely command large audiences.
2 commentaires sur “The Anti-Christie”
Love it. I had the same experience with books. They choose me.
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Another thought provoking piece! I wish my brain worked like yours!
I’ve read Castle Skull this weekend and agree about the darkness and physicality of death in Carr’s work. There are elements in this book which I don’t think Christie would have ever used or at least never described in that manner.
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